CSI psycholinguistics

« previous post | next post »

From the Fox TV forensic psychology police-procedural show Lie To Me (Male Investigator is talking to Female Investigator about a suicide note she has decided is fake):

Male Investigator: Let me ask you something: how can you tell if this thing is fake if it's been typed?

Female Investigator: Word choice, repetition, and the use of passive or active voice can tell you a lot about the person who wrote this.

Of course! Passive versus active voice. Why didn't I think of it. That should tell us what we need to know about who wrote the note.

The suicide note they are talking about reads as follows:

I can't live through the hell awaiting me. I simply won't. A person of my stature should know better.

I helped Michelle because of my feelings for her. She begged me to save her, and I was weak.

When she hit that homeless man, I should have let her go to prison for it, but I had the charges dropped.

They'll crucify me. People love it when someone in my position is brought down. I made one mistake with regards to a subordinate, and I'd never hear the end of it. I refuse to give my enemies the satisfaction of seeing me suffer.

The woman investigator goes on to explain her methods:

Female Investigator: Let me show you. "A person of my stature", "someone in my position", "With regards to my subordinate". This is a person who is preoccupied with power and status.

Male Investigator: Power and status, huh? That sounds like the Trevor Addison you were describing earlier.

Female Investigator: It's all about the pronouns. Women, we use a lot more pronouns when we write. I, she, they. Men will typically name the person or thing they're talking about.

Male Investigator: MI: So a woman preoccupied with power and status wrote this?

Female Investigator: Yep.

Forensic psycholinguistics is so easy! Watch for those sex-revealing pronouns, check for that telltale passive (there actually is one in the note — no, two of them, as pointed out in a comment by Astrid below!), and bingo, you got it nailed. A woman obsessed with status wrote it. And you don't need no stinkin' CSI lab.

Naturally, a man would have written the note very differently, naming things rather than using those girly pronouns. I'll get rid of the pronouns (I, she, they, as Female Investigator helpfully reminds us — and notice that she does include the first person singular pronoun!); I'll put in names instead, and I'll convert any girly passives to manly actives as well. For present purposes, let's assume that the man who committed suicide was called Irving:

Irving can't live through the hell awaiting Irving. Irving simply won't. A person of Irving's stature should know better.

Irving helped Michelle because of Irving's feelings for Michelle. Michelle begged Irving to save Michelle, and Irving was weak.

When Michelle hit that homeless man (Gus Diaz), Irving should have let Michelle go to prison for the act in question, but Irving had the district attorney (Sheldon Kramsky) drop the charges.

The relevant person or persons unknown will crucify Irving. People (Bob, Harvey, C.J., Vince the janitor… lots of people) love the resultant situation when people bring down a person in Irving's position. Irving made one mistake with regards to a subordinate (Michelle), and Irving would never hear the end of that mistake. Irving refuses to give Irving's enemies (Bob, Harvey, and many others) the satisfaction of seeing Irving suffer.

That sounds a lot more plausibly male, doesn't it? Female Investigator would not have spotted any fake-maleness in that. Get your grammar right, and you've basically got it made as a suicide-note forger.

[Acknowledgment: Many thanks to Daniel Hougey, who tipped me off about the program (said to be inspired by the feats of real-life emotion-detecting psychologist Paul Ekman) and transcribed the dialog above.]


  1. Randy Hudson said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 7:55 am

    This reminded me of an article I saw years and years ago about real suicide notes. The one that's haunted me: "Nothing above. Nothing below. So I jump."

  2. Graham Campbell said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 8:15 am

    Part of my enjoyment of these posts is figuring out the error before Geoff has explained it all.

    This time though I have to admit I've failed to find the passive in the original suicide note. As a point of education, can someone provide my much needed clarity?

  3. Nathan said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 8:21 am

    @Graham: The only passive clause is "someone in my position is brought down."

  4. ?! said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 8:29 am

    Welcome to the world of watching your profession portrayed on TV. Imagine what it's like for me (a physician) being made to watch House and Grey's Anatomy by my wife…

  5. Astrid said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 8:29 am

    Doesn't "Irving had the charges dropped" count as a second occurrence of a passive construction?

    [Oh, nice observation, Astrid! Well spotted. Ten points of extra credit. And I actually missed it first time through! "Dropped" is a past participle, and it is indeed understood passively (what gets dropped has subject rather than object function, as in The charges were dropped), although there is no copular be (the verb have in its causative sense can take a passive complement, as in I had this made for me by a sculptor). I'm revising the post above to take out this passive as well (we might as well do a thorough job), but I'll leave your perceptive comment here! —GKP]

  6. Henning Makholm said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 8:31 am

    Actually, a screenwriter wrote that note. Is she implicitly admitting that she is preoccupied with power and status?

  7. Ray Girvan said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 8:33 am

    Heh. Reminds of the scene in The Inspector Morse episode Ghost in the Machine where Morse made a deduction about a purported suicide note from the Oxfordist assumption that an educated person would spell words "-ize" and an uneducated one "-ise".

  8. Tom D said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 8:56 am

    They were sort of on about some of the (very) basic methods of forensic linguistics for authorship analysis, but otherwise, way off the mark.

  9. dwmacg said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 9:15 am

    Your re-write in the voice of Irving sounds like the work of an NBA star, so our intrepid investigator may have a point.

  10. Nicholas Waller said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 9:24 am

    I think of myself at least moderately educated, though not to PhD level, and have always uzed '-ise', despite the red marks LL and other places put under words like generalise.

    There's the real-life Eddie Gilfoyle case that may interest Loggers – a man convicted of killing his wife and faking her suicide note is still in prison 16 years later. Many people think he didn't do it, including the dead woman's brother and Professor David Canter (a pioneer of criminal profiling in the UK), who examined the note and at first said that it incriminated Gilfoyle and now, after further analysis of more evidence, thinks it doesn't. (He seems to base this on actual other notes written by the couple, not generalised statements about how men and women deal with pronouns and the passive voice).

  11. Tanja S said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 9:24 am

    There does seem to be a corpus-linguistically verifiable tendency for women to use more pronouns than men (see Rayson et al. 1997, Argamon et al. 2003), but the "men will typically name the person or thing they're talking about" part is hogwash – according to Rayson et al., women also use more proper nouns than men.


    Argamon, Shlomo, Moshe Koppel, Jonathan Fine & Anat Rachel Shimoni. 2003. "Gender, genre, and writing style in formal written texts". Text 23(3). 321–346.

    Rayson, Paul, Geoffrey Leech & Mary Hodges. 1997. "Social differentiation in the use of English vocabulary: Some analyses of the conversational component of the British National Corpus". International Journal of Corpus Linguistics 2(1). 133–152.

  12. Mr Fnortner said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 9:40 am

    Naming people or things is not the opposite of using pronouns, even though Prof. Pullum's rewrite is quite funny. A pronoun non-user would utter different sentences, I would imagine, thereby precluding or side-stepping the pronouns.

  13. Ken Brown said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 11:18 am

    Are there real grammatical examples of the passive voice in English that fail the "by" test?

    (As in "someone in my position is brought down… by nasty people" or "Irving had the charges dropped… by the courts")

  14. ceiswyn said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 11:37 am

    '…the Oxfordist assumption that an educated person would spell words "-ize" and an uneducated one "-ise".'

    It's a good thing I didn't see that episode, or I'd be frothing at the mouth. It's not an educated/uneducated distinction, it's (primarily) an American/English distinction.

    And at Oxford, of course, like every educated Briton, they use '-ise'.

    [You're completely wrong there, at least according to the Wikipedia page on Oxford spelling, which seems to check out. The OED opts for galvanize,
    not galvanise. —GKP]

  15. Adam said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 11:45 am

    And at Oxford, of course, like every /educated/ Briton, they use '-ise'.

    The Oxford University Press uses "-ize" in all the -ize/-ise words. (I don't know whether the university's own publications and teaching materials all follow this.)

  16. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 11:48 am

    "-ize" is apparently more true to etymological history in that it is closer to the Greek, whereas "-ise" comes from later French influence.

    This is why Canadian dictionaries use "-ize", and perhaps at some times and places, similar reasons may have caused some educated Britons to promote "-ize", but we may be heading into somewhat obscure territory there — it's fair to say that "-ise" is British, "-ize" is American, and leave it at that.

  17. Benvenuto said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 11:51 am

    Morse would be disappointed to learn that the Oxford dictionaries have been recommending -ize spellings ahead of -ise for at least 20 years.

  18. Karen said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 12:02 pm

    @Ken Brown: What do you mean by "fail the 'by' test"?

    Part of what makes a sentence passive is that the agent is expressed with "by" (if expressed, of course).

  19. Pyrrho said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 12:07 pm

    Irving sounds like Jimmy from that Seinfeld episode.

  20. Mr Punch said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 12:14 pm

    @dwmacg – The classic example is however a baseball player, Rickey Henderson. As an example, here's a phone message: “This is Rickey calling on behalf of Rickey. Rickey wants to play baseball.”

    But he defends himself: “Listen, people are always saying, ‘Rickey says Rickey.’ But it’s been blown way out of proportion. People might catch me, when they know I’m ticked off, saying, ‘Rickey, what the heck are you doing, Rickey?’ They say, ‘Darn, Rickey, what are you saying Rickey for? Why don’t you just say, ‘I?’ But I never did. I always said, ‘Rickey,’ and it became something for people to joke about.”

  21. Nicholas Lawrence said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 12:15 pm

    On the contrary, Morse knew that Fowler in 1926 approved the OED's then long-standing judgement that 'there is no reason why in English the special French spelling [-ise] should be followed, in opposition to that [-ize] which is at once etymological & phonetic'. On the other hand, a suicide note containing surprize could denote either poor education, or defiance, or that Jane Austen wrote it.

  22. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 12:32 pm

    '-ize' has always been an acceptable form in British English, supported both by Oxford and by The Times. It is now dying out because, as it becomes more widely known that this is the normal American form, British people who use it are constantly accused of perpetrating a nasty Americanism.

  23. dwmacg said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 1:11 pm

    @Ken Brown:

    How about "We were rained on" (or "The game was rained out")?

    @Mr. Punch:

    Thanks for the Ricky quote. Of course it'd be even funnier if his name was Irving.

  24. Eric said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 1:37 pm

    I was visiting my parents and INSTANTLY piped up as soon as I heard that dialogue… They shushed me and "it's just a show" and that I'm no fun.

  25. Daniel Hougey said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 1:39 pm


    "We were rained on [by rain]."

    "The game was rained out [by rain]."

    Those sentences sure sound ludicrous, but I think they are grammatical.

  26. Daniel Hougey said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 1:42 pm


    I, too, did not watch the show by choice, but had it foisted upon me by family members.

  27. HP said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 1:44 pm

    @dwmacg: "We were rained on, by God."

  28. Ben said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 1:54 pm

    Did the Female Investigator actually say that women use the passive more than men do? Or was that merely implied?

    [It was merely implied. But what would be the alternative theory? That guys use more passives? C'mon, get real. You know how this stuff is supposed to go down. —GKP]

    And I'm not sure what "with regards to" says about the author. Perhaps that they were fond of their subordinate.

  29. Peter Taylor said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 2:23 pm

    The construction in the TV note which I find most interesting is the conditional in

    I made one mistake with regards to a subordinate, and I'd never hear the end of it.

    I'd expect "I'll never hear the end of it".

    On -ize vs -ise in en-gb, this came up yesterday on a Spanish-English forum I frequent and I looked up a few words in BNC. All the words I picked (just thinking of common words with the right ending) which had more than a few dozen hits favoured -ise by roughly 3 to 2. (Organise: 60.5%; realise: 64.0%; civilised: 57.3%; recognise: 63.3%). I'm not sufficiently interested to try scripting a more detailed comparison, but -ize probably isn't actually all that useful as a marker of en-us.

  30. dwmacg said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 3:08 pm

    @Daniel Hougey,

    So I did a google search on the phrase "rained on by rain" and "rained out by rain", and in both cases the first hit was your post. Googlebot is scarily fast. I got a few more hits on the first, but only one on the second. But when I took out the noun and googled "rained out by", I got a lot of results along the lines of "rained out by a thunderstorm".

    So I stand (well, sit) corrected. Back to the thinking board….

  31. Boris said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 3:17 pm

    @Peter Taylor,
    Surely "I'd never hear the end of it" if I weren't planning to commit suicide

  32. Daniel Hougey said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 3:47 pm


    It wasn't even quite implied that women use the passive more than men. I think the writers were basically just using it as a buzzword. But even if they didn't expound, they were still saying that you could determine at least something about an author by their use of passive voice, which is silly.

    If they had gone into detail, it probably would've been about femininity. Maybe they avoided that direction because she was obsessed with status and power, which is usually thought of as a masculine trait, so they realized it would have been silly to call her passive in addition to that?

  33. George said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 4:18 pm

    Regarding pronoun aversion, I am sometimes amused at the awkward gymnastics done by some preachers to avoid ascribing sex to God by using 'he' or 'she,' or neutering the divinity with 'it.'

    As a result, the homily or sermon ends up much like GKP's depronounized script.

  34. Xmun said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 4:20 pm

    Never mind the so-called passives. Get rid of that final s in "with regards to".

    About the choice of -ise or -ize. I used to work for Oxford University Press (Auckland Branch, when it had one) and we had a list of words which must always invariably be spelt with -ise: e.g. advise, compromise, surmise, surprise, and about half a dozen more.

  35. Annso said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 4:49 pm

    Tanja, thank you for the literature! I am just writing a term paper about topic-comment structures and these references on the use of pronouns (a topic-marking device after all) come in extremely handy!

  36. Russell Cross said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 5:04 pm

    The only "forensic" pronoun usage I'm familiar with is how they get used in management meetings to either avoid tasks or delegate them. The "Avoider" uses "we" a lot whereas the "Delegator" throws around a lot of "you's." The "Avoider" can start on an even vaguer note by using the indefinite pronouns ("Someone needs to do X" or "It's critical that somebody fix Y,") while avoiding actually using "I" or "me" in an effort to pass the buck. In general, the "Pronominal Hierarchy of Avoidance" seems to go in the order Indefinite-Pron > 3rd-Pers-Pron > 2nd-Pers-Pron > 1st-Pers-Pron > Bob. Bob tries to run for the door before the meeting starts once he hears someone say "someone"…

  37. Sid Smith said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 7:55 pm

    " '-ize' has always been an acceptable form in British English, supported … by The Times."

    Not so. There are a few words where -ize is required, but generally it's -ise. (I'm a sub-editor at The Times.)

  38. Julie said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 10:27 pm

    @Xmun: All those words are spelled with an s in AmE, too, because none of them have the ize/ise suffix. In each case, "ise" is part of the root.

  39. Neal Whitman said,

    August 7, 2010 @ 1:19 am

    Persons unknown? Pretty girly. Try: Persons that nobody knows. Much better!

    [You are right! In fact I'm going to change the post above (making this accurate observation of yours unintelligible, of course). It is so hard to avoid these passives. I keep unintentionally revealing that I'm basically… just a gurl. —GKP]

  40. MJ said,

    August 7, 2010 @ 4:27 am


    For your amusement(?):


    There is valuable new information towards the end of that page. I didn't know that Microsoft Word had a feature that displays the percentage of passive sentences in a document. Surely you'll want to review this.

  41. Peter Taylor said,

    August 7, 2010 @ 4:34 am

    @Sid Smith: The Times used -ize until 1992. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/article993612.ece

  42. Sid Smith said,

    August 7, 2010 @ 5:06 am

    @Peter Taylor

    Oh. How interesting! Thank you.

  43. Sid Smith said,

    August 7, 2010 @ 7:16 am

    @Peter Taylor

    I see in the piece you routed to, Richard Dixon says "in preference in -ise as a verbal ending where both spellings are in use”.

    Nice to see a fulfillment of the rule that when you lay down the law about language you will always make a mistake yourself.

    I might tell him. ;-)

  44. Levi Montgomery said,

    August 7, 2010 @ 10:55 am

    "Female Investigator: It's all about the pronouns."

    So now passive voice is all about the pronouns. Levi finds passive voice very confusing.

    And just for the record, I do, in fact, know some people whose suicide notes would NEVER stoop to passive voice. :)

  45. ceiswyn said,

    August 7, 2010 @ 12:24 pm

    Looks like the evolution of -ise/-ize is more complex than I thought. This shouldn't surprise me :)

    Though as a further data point, Microsoft Word (obviously a bastion of all that is right and proper, and not in any way something that makes me want to throttle the creator every time it tries to correct my grammar and spelling) accepts both endings as correct if it's using UK English, but marks -ise as incorrect in US English.

    And of course, Noah Webster strongly favoured -ize over -ise. So, OUP/OED aside (and believe me, what goes on within those institutions has surprisingly little to do with what's going on in Oxford proper), even if the spelling wasn't originally a transatlantic distinction, it's becoming so now.

  46. Helen DeWitt said,

    August 7, 2010 @ 3:26 pm

    I thought British usage (-ise v. -ize) was governed by etymology: when a word came into English via French, it was spelt -ise, when it was a new coinage, -ize was used. In other words, this was a hideously complicated system to apply, and OUP slashed through all this common-law orthography and plumped for -ize – while many Brits saw -ise as the native form and rallied loyally round.

  47. JFM said,

    August 7, 2010 @ 4:12 pm

    Xmun said:
    > I used to work for Oxford University Press (Auckland Branch, when
    > it had one) and we had a list of words which must always invariably
    > be spelt with -ise: e.g. advise, compromise, surmise, surprise, and
    > about half a dozen more.

    The Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors (1981) says to use -ize where there's a choice, and -ise in the following words only: advertise, advise, apprise, arise, chastise, circumcise, comprise, compromise, demise, despise, devise, disfranchise, disguise, emprise, enfranchise, enterprise, excise, exercise, franchise, improvise, incise, merchandise, premise (verb), prise (open), promise, reprise, supervise, surmise, surprise, televise.

    Personally I find -ise easier to use, as I then don't have to memorise any exceptions. (I think.)

  48. Xmun said,

    August 7, 2010 @ 4:25 pm

    There are some exceptions. The only one I can think of right now is "baptize" (which I'm sure is by far the commoner spelling of that word, though "baptise" is given as an alternative).

  49. Xmun said,

    August 7, 2010 @ 4:26 pm

    And thanks for the quotation from the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors (1981), which I used to possess but foolishly got rid of when I retired.

  50. PaulB said,

    August 7, 2010 @ 4:40 pm

    No one would accuse the Morse plots of being overconcerned with plausibility, but his deduction about the suicide note being forged was reasonable. He had an authentic specimen of the dead man's prose which included 'jeopardize', 'minimize', and 'uncivilized'. The purported suicide note had 'apologise' and 'civilised'.

  51. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    August 8, 2010 @ 1:29 pm

    I think the general idea behind the Oxford distinction is that -ize is used when it's a suffix meaning 'make' or 'subject to' or the like, while 'ise' is used when it's part of the root (as in -cise, 'cut', -prise, 'take', -vise, 'see', etc.) To pressurize something is to subject it to pressure, but to supervise something is not to subject it to superv. I'm not sure this works in every case (I wonder about 'advertise', for instance), but it seems to fit most. (There's no particular logical reason why this must be so, of course – after all, while we write 'surprise', 'enterprise' etc., we do write 'prize.')

    How do Americans deal with the words on this list? I know that they do write 'analyze', which is part of neither the regular UK system nor the Oxford one.

  52. PaulB said,

    August 8, 2010 @ 2:08 pm

    The Oxford spelling rule is that a word is spelt with "-ize" if it's been formed using the Greek or Latin suffix, even if it's come to English from French, which uses the "-ise" spelling.

    English spelling is often inconsistent, but "prize" (in the sense of "reward") is related to French "prix" not "prise".

    "Advertise" is related to French "avertir".

    Personally I would hate to lose the etymological distinction between the second syllables of "separate" and "desperate" (which also features in the suicide note). But I'd feel no great sense of loss in using the same spelling for the final syllable of "exorcize" and "exercise".

  53. Rodger C said,

    August 8, 2010 @ 2:10 pm

    @Andrew (not): "Advertise" is from a French -ir verb. To answer your question, Americans in general follow the Oxford rules as you stated them, but "analyze" is an exception. (The spelling "analyse" is etymologically "better," since the verb doesn't come from a Greek verb with zeta, as the authors of the American spelling seem to have thought.)

  54. Terry Collmann said,

    August 22, 2010 @ 11:28 am

    Peter Taylor/Sid Smith: when I worked on the Times in the late 1980s, and also occasionally freelanced on the Sunday Times, then based some 300 feet away from its six-day sister paper in the old rum warehouse at Wapping, it was a constant struggle to remember that one insisted on -ize and the other on -ise, and if this was Saturday I had to -ise, not -ize. It was a great relief to me when the Thunderer finally came into line with general British practise and I no longer had to worry about which day of the week it was..

  55. Rosanne Dingli said,

    August 24, 2010 @ 1:05 am

    @Xmun: I like surprize, especially if it refers to some literary award of which I was not aware. Were you aware that Xmun means Simon in Maltese? (Pronounced shmoon.)

    I so enjoy lurking here, and reading some of Geoffrey's old posts, that the temptation of asking him to rip my books apart, like he did Dan Brown's, is really strong. I can never read a novel's first sentence again without thinking of Geoffrey.

RSS feed for comments on this post