Txt crimes, sex crimes and murder: The science of forensic linguistics at the BA Festival of Science

8 September 2008 – for immediate release

Text and instant messaging may soon cease to be an anonymous method of communication as advances in forensic linguistic research make it possible to identify the sender and also predict the gender and age of the author with some degree of success.

At the BA Festival of Science in Liverpool on Monday, Dr Tim Grant, who is the Deputy Director of the Centre for Forensic Linguistics at Aston University, will describe how language analysis is increasingly playing a key part during police investigations and court cases to help identify the author of incriminating material, whether it be a threatening note, documents planning a terrorist attack or a sexually explicit chat room conversation involving an adult and a child.

He believes that, despite public concerns about the growth of a surveillance society, the ability to identify authorship of electronic communications is beneficial.

Linguistic evidence demonstrating who sent a particular text message has been significant in a growing number of cases where criminals have attempted to use them as alibis. These include difficult murder cases where victims’ bodies were never found, such as the recent prosecution of David Hodgson, who was convicted in February of the murder of his ex-lover Jenny Nicholl.

Dr Grant explains: ‘Jenny Nicholl disappeared on 30th June 2005. A linguistic analysis showed that text messages sent from her phone were unlikely to have been written by her but, rather, were more likely to have been written by her ex-lover, David Hodgson. A number of stylistic points identified within texts known to have been written by Jenny Nicholl were not present in the suspect messages. Instead, these were stylistically close to the undisputed messages of David Hodgson.

‘The kind of features we were interested in were the shortening of “im” in the texts from Nicholl contrasting with “I am” in the suspect messages and the lack of space after the digit substitution in items such as “go2shop” contrasting with “ave 2 go”’.

Dr Grant has put together a database of more than 7000 texts as part of his research into text messaging style and variation between individuals and groups of individuals. The public can contribute to his ongoing research by submitting text samples to www.forensiclinguistics.net/texting. His study seeks to establish base rate information for certain features in texting language, and will also highlight how groups of people who text one another frequently grow more similar in their texting style.

Based on techniques that were first used to measure similarity between marine ecosystems, and then applied to the analysis of sexual crime, Dr Grant has now developed a method to quantify people’s style of text writing. His technique, which assigns a numeric measure of stylistic difference between any two texts, encourages the move from expert opinion based evidence to more methodologically rigorous and empirically tested techniques.

‘Forensic linguistics is a relatively new forensic science but the Council for the Registration of Forensic Practitioners opens a linguistic subregister this month and this will give easy access to reputable practitioners and help cement its position as a key forensic science,’ said Dr Grant.

‘In addition to this formal recognition we are seeing an expansion in casework, particularly in the area of electronic communication – SMS, IRC (internet relay chat) and email. In these kinds of communication it is relatively easy to be, or at least feel, anonymous – new technologies have created an anti-social phenomenon of mass anonymity, and the ability to identify the writer can only be beneficial for society.’

Dr Grant will be analysing members of the audience’s text messages at his talk at the BA Festival of Science, ‘The BA Joseph Lister Award Lecture – Txt crimes, sex crimes and murder: the science of forensic linguistics’.

The opportunity to present a popular and prestigious BA award lecture at the Festival of Science is offered to five outstanding communicators each year. The award lectures aim to promote open and informed discussion on issues involving science and actively encourage young scientists to explore the social aspects of their research, providing them with reward and recognition for doing so.

The BA Festival of Science will take place in Liverpool from 6-11 September bringing over 350 of the UK’s top scientists and engineers to discuss the latest developments in science with the public.

This year’s BA Festival of Science is organised by the BA (British Association for the Advancement of Science) in partnership with the University of Liverpool. It is supported by the Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills and the Liverpool Culture Company.

For further information about the BA Festival of Science, visit www.the-ba.net/festivalofscience.


For further information please contact:

Lisa Hendry, Press Officer, the BA

Tel: 020 7019 4946


Jessica Griggs, Press Assistant, the BA

Tel: 020 7019 4950


Notes for editors

1. To arrange an interview with Tim Grant, please contact the BA Press Office.

2. Speakers have been asked to submit press papers for their talks, which include a summary of the talk and what is newsworthy about their research. Press papers are available at www.the-ba.net/presspapers.

3. To register for access to the press papers or to the Press Centre at the BA Festival of Science, visit www.the-ba.net/pressregister.

4. The BA (British Association for the Advancement of Science) is the UK's nationwide, open membership organisation that exists to advance the public understanding, accessibility and accountability of the sciences and engineering. Established in 1831, the BA organises major initiatives across the UK, including National Science and Engineering Week, the annual BA Festival of Science, programmes of regional and local events, and an extensive programme for young people in schools and colleges. The BA also organises specific activities for the science communication community in the UK through its Science in Society programme. For more information, please visit www.the-ba.net.