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Forensic Linguistics - LAN00065H

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  • Department: Language and Linguistic Science
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. James Tompkinson
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: H
  • Academic year of delivery: 2023-24

Module summary

The module introduces a broad range of topics across the fields of forensic and legal linguistics, taking as its core focus the analysis of written texts that are of significance in criminal investigations. We devote particular attention to author profiling, where the author of a text is unknown, and to authorship comparison, where we compare two or more texts to look for evidence of common authorship versus different authorship.

Related modules

Co-requisite modules

  • None

Prohibited combinations

  • None

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 2 2023-24

Module aims

The module aims to provide students with an understanding of current topics in forensic linguistics, in particular the analysis of written texts 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.

Students will develop their argumentation skills and their ability to present complex and detailed research findings via the formative and summative assessments, which include a group oral presentation.

Module learning outcomes

At the end of the module, students will have:

  • acquired knowledge of key theoretical frameworks and methodological approaches used in the forensic analysis of written documents, with the goal of forming objectively-grounded opinions concerning the content and provenance of texts;

  • developed an appreciation of the nature and breadth of the set of offences classified as language crimes, and will become familiar with those areas of the legal code under which these offences are prosecuted in England & Wales as well as in other jurisdictions;

  • understood the importance of linguistics as applied to the investigation and prosecution of crimes as well as in the contexts of civil law, immigration law, human rights, and legislation drafting;

  • mastered skills in the analysis of written documents for forensic casework, and the evaluation of other linguistic artefacts such as trademarks with respect to the provisions of relevant legislation.

Module content

The three main areas of focus of the module are (i) author profiling, (ii) authorship comparison, and (iii) authorship attribution. In the first of these, the forensic expert is tasked with trying to identify features of a text of unknown authorship which might be useful indicators of the characteristics of the author (e.g. are there grounds for believing that s/he is a native speaker of English? How old might the author be? Are there are any indications of the influence of another language? What kind of educational background might the author have?). Authorship comparison involves comparing two or more texts with a view to assessing the likelihood of common authorship versus authorship by two different individuals, for instance where the police wish to obtain a linguistically-informed judgement of the probability that a person arrested on suspicion of writing a threatening communication such as an anonymous email was indeed the offender. Besides making qualitative observations about resemblances and differences in general authorial style, we make use in this section of quantitative measures of style (‘stylometry’), which relate to the distribution of lexical features (e.g. word frequency, the prevalence of common function words), the incidence of grammatical constructions (e.g. cleft sentences or use of the passive voice), and formatting issues such as punctuation, capitalisation, misspellings, and so on. Authorship attribution is the name given to a form of authorship comparison where the set of possible candidate authors is known, and where a combination of qualitative content/stylistic analysis and quantitative stylometric techniques can be used to assign a text of uncertain authorship to one of the known authors.

Other areas that are covered in the module include the nature of legal language, courtroom discourse, methods for plagiarism detection, language crimes (e.g. blackmail, fraud, blasphemy, obscenity, and incitement to racial or religious hatred), forensic corpus linguistics, language analysis in the asylum process, language rights, and the resolution of trademark disputes.

Assessment

Task Length % of module mark
Online Exam -less than 24hrs (Centrally scheduled)
Forensic Linguistics
3 hours 80
Oral presentation/seminar/exam
Group Presentation
N/A 20

Special assessment rules

None

Reassessment

Task Length % of module mark
Online Exam -less than 24hrs (Centrally scheduled)
Forensic Linguistics
3 hours 100

Module feedback

Formative assignment: within 2 weeks of submission, students receive written individual feedback on their 1,000-word essays, as well as generalised verbal feedback to the group as a whole during class time. A written summary is also provided via the module VLE site.

Group presentation: students present in pairs or a group of three on one of a set of provided topics, or on one of their own devising (subject to the module convener’s approval). Two examiners are present. Written feedback and an agreed mark on the University mark scale are provided within 2 weeks of the last presentation. Students are invited to peer-assess their classmates’ presentations. Their comments are included in the written feedback form but their suggested marks are not taken into account when agreeing the final agreed examiners’ mark.

Online examination: students are provided with written feedback on their open examination scripts which they will be able to download from e:vision. They are invited to contact the module convener if they would like further verbal feedback on their performance in this part of the assessment.

Indicative reading

  • 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.
  • 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.



The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.