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Pull out all the stops: Textual analysis via punctuation sequences

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 September 2020

ALEXANDRA N. M. DARMON
Affiliation:
Oxford Centre for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, Mathematical Institute, University of Oxford, Oxford OX2 6GG, UK emails: alexandra.darmon@hotmail.fr, howison@maths.ox.ac.uk
MARYA BAZZI
Affiliation:
Oxford Centre for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, Mathematical Institute, University of Oxford, Oxford OX2 6GG, UK emails: alexandra.darmon@hotmail.fr, howison@maths.ox.ac.uk The Alan Turing Institute, London NW1 2DB, UK email: mbazzi@turing.ac.uk Warwick Mathematics Institute, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL, UK
SAM D. HOWISON
Affiliation:
Oxford Centre for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, Mathematical Institute, University of Oxford, Oxford OX2 6GG, UK emails: alexandra.darmon@hotmail.fr, howison@maths.ox.ac.uk
MASON A. PORTER
Affiliation:
Oxford Centre for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, Mathematical Institute, University of Oxford, Oxford OX2 6GG, UK emails: alexandra.darmon@hotmail.fr, howison@maths.ox.ac.uk Department of Mathematics, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California 90095, USA email: mason@math.ucla.edu

Abstract

Whether enjoying the lucid prose of a favourite author or slogging through some other writer’s cumbersome, heavy-set prattle (full of parentheses, em dashes, compound adjectives, and Oxford commas), readers will notice stylistic signatures not only in word choice and grammar but also in punctuation itself. Indeed, visual sequences of punctuation from different authors produce marvellously different (and visually striking) sequences. Punctuation is a largely overlooked stylistic feature in stylometry, the quantitative analysis of written text. In this paper, we examine punctuation sequences in a corpus of literary documents and ask the following questions: Are the properties of such sequences a distinctive feature of different authors? Is it possible to distinguish literary genres based on their punctuation sequences? Do the punctuation styles of authors evolve over time? Are we on to something interesting in trying to do stylometry without words, or are we full of sound and fury (signifying nothing)?

In our investigation, we examine a large corpus of documents from Project Gutenberg (a digital library with many possible editorial influences). We extract punctuation sequences from each document in our corpus and record the number of words that separate punctuation marks. Using such information about punctuation-usage patterns, we attempt both author and genre recognition, and we also examine the evolution of punctuation usage over time. Our efforts at author recognition are particularly successful. Among the features that we consider, the one that seems to carry the most explanatory power is an empirical approximation of the joint probability of the successive occurrence of two punctuation marks. In our conclusions, we suggest several directions for future work, including the application of similar analyses for investigating translations and other types of categorical time series.

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Papers
Copyright
© The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press

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