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Forensic linguistics


The module will provide students with an understanding of the topics across the field of forensic linguistics, with a principal focus on the analysis of written texts that are of evidential significance (most particularly in the form of author profiling – where the author of a text is unknown – or author comparison, where a questioned sample of writing is compared against a sample written by a known author).

Areas to be covered include authorship analysis and attribution, plagiarism detection, forgery, and impersonation; there will also be sections on language crimes, forensic corpus linguistics, language analysis in the asylum process, trademark law, language rights, and language in the courtroom (courtroom discourse, translation/interpreting, etc.). The characteristics of legal language will also be touched upon, as will forensic phonetics and discrimination based upon linguistic behaviour.

At the end of the module, students will:

  • acquire knowledge of key theoretical frameworks and methodological approaches used in the forensic analysis of written documents, for example with the goal of acquiring an objectively-grounded opinion concerning a document’s authorship;
  • develop an appreciation of the nature and breadth of the set of offences classified as language crimes - extortion, perjury, defamation, incitement to racial/religious hatred, etc. - and will become familiar with those areas of the law under which these offences are prosecuted in England & Wales as well as in a variety of other jurisdictions;
  • understand the importance of linguistic science as applied to the investigation and prosecution of crimes as well as in the contexts of civil law, immigration law, human rights law, and legislation drafting. In particular, they will learn that the study of language variation and change, dialectology, and sociolinguistics, all of which build upon more fundamental aspects of linguistic inquiry (syntax, semantics, phonetics, phonology, etc.), are of especial relevance to how scientifically valid language analysis is practised in the forensic sphere;
  • be able to analyse written documents using methods developed by forensic linguists for application in casework (e.g. quantification of lexical and syntactic properties of written texts), and will be able to evaluate other linguistic artefacts, such as trademarks, with respect to the provisions and prohibitions encoded in relevant legislation.

This module will be capped at 35.


Students must have successfully completed:

  • L10I Intermediate language variation and change


Contact hours

4 contact hours per week (2 hr lecture, 2 hr practical).

Teaching programme

Classes are a mix of lectures and practical sessions based on the analysis of forensic language data. Towards the end of the Spring term, students will give group presentations during class time.

We will explore topics at the interface between the linguistic and the legal domains, with a focus on language crimes and the forensic analysis of written texts. The module is intended as a complement to E/L05H Forensic Phonetics, and will only touch briefly upon issues that are the concern of forensic speech scientists. An interest in law and/or forensic psychology may be an advantage, but is not a requirement.

Teaching materials

  • Coulthard, M. & Johnson, A. (2013, eds.). The Routledge Handbook of Forensic Linguistics. London: Routledge.
  • Coulthard, M., Johnson, A. & Wright, D. (2016). An Introduction to Forensic Linguistics: Language in Evidence, 2nd edn. London: Routledge.
  • Eades, D. (2010). Sociolinguistics and the Legal Process. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  • Gibbons, J. (2003). Forensic Linguistics: An Introduction to Language in the Justice System. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Hutton, C. (2009). Language, Meaning and the Law. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • McMenamin, G. (2002). Forensic Linguistics: Advances in Forensic Stylistics. Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press.
  • Shuy, R. (1996). Language Crimes: The Use and Abuse of Language Evidence in the Courtroom. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Tiersma, P. (1999). Legal Language. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
  • Tiersma, P. & Solan, L. (2012, eds.). The Oxford Handbook of Language and Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Assessment and feedback

Formative assessment

1000-word short report.

Summative assessment

  • Group presentation
    • Duration: 20 minutes
    • Weight: 20%
    • Feedback: written feedback within one week.
  • 2-hour closed exam
    • Date: weeks 5-7 Summer term
    • Weight: 80%
    • Feedback: students will be able to view their exam script, under supervision, at an appointed date at the end of the Summer term.

Transferable skills developed in this module

All modules provide an opportunity to work on general oral/written communication skills (in class and in assessments) and general self management (organising your studies), alongside the specific skills in language or linguistics that the module teaches.

In addition, the forensic analysis of written texts requires excellent observational, critical and problem-solving skills, and necessitates the application of knowledge from across a diversity of linguistic subdisciplines (syntax, phonology, lexis, sociolinguistics, etc.). The practical sessions will involve mastery of key functions of software tools used by practitioners and researchers in forensic linguistics, and will encourage students to develop their abilities in working with potentially very large qualitative and quantitative datasets. Via the preparation and delivery of the group presentation, students will be given the opportunity to enhance their teamwork and presentation skills, both of which are critically important in the majority of professional occupations.

Follow this link to hear how past students use transferable skills from their degree in their current jobs.

About this module

  • Module name
    Forensic linguistics
  • Course code
    E/L65H (LAN00065H)
  • Teacher
    Dominic Watt
  • Term(s) taught
  • Credits