Friday, March 30, 2007
Murder trial studies the defendant's grammar
When Melanie McGuire wrote notes to friends, she made grammatical mistakes similar to errors found in anonymously written letters aimed at making police believe someone else killed and dismembered her husband, an FBI specialist testified yesterday.
Forensic linguist James Fitzgerald told a Superior Court jury in Middlesex County he compared McGuire's notes with the anonymous writings and determined both overused commas, misused dashes and quotation marks, substituted "w/" for the word "with" and used a plus sign instead of the word "and."
In addition, one of the anonymous letters refers to a prosecuting attorney as "Madame Asst Att General," while in a telephone conversation McGuire referred to the same woman as "madame deputy attorney general," the FBI witness said.
The prosecution contends the anonymous letters, which taunted authorities on their investigative abilities, contained information only the killer would know.
McGuire is accused of drugging, shooting and dismembering her husband, William McGuire, 39, in their Woodbridge townhouse on April 28, 2004. The victim's remains were wrapped in plastic trash bags and placed in three matching suitcases that were dumped in the Chesapeake Bay, according to testimony.
Assistant Attorney General Patricia Prezioso says McGuire killed her husband because she was having an affair with a doctor at a Morristown fertility clinic where they both worked.
McGuire, who denies any role in the slaying, sat attentively throughout the testimony yesterday, taking notes and conferring with her defense team. They say police wrongly focused on the nurse and ignored clues that would have led them to the killer.
Key testimony yesterday came from Fitzgerald, who specializes in criminal forensic linguistics, which analyzes documents by comparing idiosyncrasies in language and grammar.
It's a sometimes-controversial field that has been used in several high-profile cases with varying results. Forensic linguists, led by Fitzgerald, helped determine a 300-page manuscript found in Ted Kaczynski's Montana cabin was similar to a 35,000-word manifesto written by the Unabomber, who sent bombs in the mail that killed three people and maimed 29. But forensic linguists have also failed, perhaps most famously in their efforts to determine the author of the ransom note left in murder victim JonBenet Ramsey's Colorado house.
"It's one part art, one part science," said Alan Perlman, a forensic linguist who has been practicing since 1979. "It's no less a science than fingerprinting or any other forensic skill."
Perlman said certain traits, like the use of an unusual word or obscure dialect, can make a positive identification relatively easy.
Yet others question how reliable the field is, particularly in the area of "author identification," in which a text by a known writer is compared with an anonymous one.
"I wouldn't take on an authorship-identification case," said Roger Shuy, who has written 30 books on linguistics, including six on forensic linguistics. "I will look at a document, and I'll tell you what I see. But I could never get on a witness stand."
One problem, Shuy said, is the lack of certainty it allows: If one text has 65 percent of a feature while another text has 50 percent of it, are they really similar?
Other problems can arise when the texts being compared are brief. Whereas the Unabomber left thousands of pages for analysis, most cases offer significantly less.
"The smaller amount of known writing you have, the harder it is to detect authorship," said Janet Ainsworth, a professor at Seattle University Law School who specializes in forensic linguistics. "Even 50 pages is pretty slim."
One of the anonymous letters being analyzed in the McGuire case is four pages long. In a pretrial hearing, Superior Court Judge Frederick DeVesa ruled Fitzgerald, the FBI specialist, could not offer the jury a definitive conclusion about who wrote the letter.
He was only allowed to testify as to similarities between McGuire's writings to friends and a collection of anonymous notes and letters sent to authorities.
On cross-examination by the defense, Fitzgerald said McGuire's notes made other grammatical errors, such as using the word "to" in place of "too," that did not appear in any of the anonymous writings. He said those mistakes were not significant because authors will not consistently use the same words when they write.
But Fitzgerald agreed during questioning by Stephen Turano, a Newark defense attorney, the use of "madame" -- used in both anonymous writings and one of McGuire's telephone conversations recorded by State Police -- was proper usage.
In other testimony yesterday, Thomas Lesniak, a forensic scientist, linked the plastic trash bags that contained William McGuire's remains to plastic trash bags that came from the couple's Woodbridge townhouse, and to a bag recovered from the Barnegat home of Melanie McGuire's mother and stepfather, Linda and Michael Cappararo.
Lesniak said he held the black bags up to the light, studied the patterns created during the manufacture of the bags and concluded they all were made by the same machinery.
Lesniak also told the jury he examined more than 200 pieces of evidence, including tiny bits of human tissue, which were swept from the floor of William McGuire's car after he was killed.
Prosecutors say the flesh was tracked into the car after the victim's wife dismembered him and drove the vehicle to Atlantic City. The defense contends the particles represent skin cells that normally would have been shed by William McGuire when he drove.
The trial resumes this morning in New Brunswick.
Thursday, March 29, 2007
I found it necessary to write a short letter on behalf of SPOGG on the evening of Monday, March 25.
The offense: "Hero's: Ronald Reagan, Ninja Turtles, & Tony Bennett" (as in "who are your hero's?"
The offender: Spokane Community Colleges, Whitman County Branch.
The delivered message went something like this:
You may wish to keep in mind that the plural of “hero” is “heroes,” as in, “We all have our own heroes.” It should never be confused with the singular possessive, “hero’s,” as in “The hero’s cape got caught in the engine.”
The plural possessive, finally, is spelled “heroes’.”
Please keep these spelling differences in mind when interviewing future students of the month.
Our congratulations to the 2007 winners so far this year.
On behalf of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar, Sarah M--.
By the way, exceptional students this year have been:
Jan: Chris Woo, Shawn Druffel
Feb: Trudie Weis, Marcus Cola
Wednesday, March 28, 2007
Sunday, March 25, 2007
We must say, though, that public works projects here seem less efficient than they might be. We passed several official-looking highway signs today that carried the following warning:
BRIDGE MAY BE ICE IN COLD WEATHER.
Oh, wait ... what's that you're telling me, that they meant BRIDGE MIGHT BE ICY IN COLD WEATHER?
Well, why didn't they say so?
In the years since, we have learned that signage can also refer to the design and display of signs. We never thought we'd talk about signage, but we have just learned that "never" is an awfully long time.
It's not quite as long as we had to wait last night for a shuttle at the Baton Rouge airport, but still.
(Seriously. After our 10-hour journey complete with an unexpectedly long layover in Dallas, those chowderheads kept us waiting more than 40 minutes because of a "situation" they would not describe. When we inquired about the nature of the delay, we were told it was "none of your business," even though it was after midnight, and SPOGG was alone and tired and therefore did have some legitimate business wondering where the jiminy-hey the shuttle was and what was so important the driver couldn't pick her up.
Well, we weren't totally alone at the airport. There was a woman in a white van who kept getting out, walking around in a wobbly circle, then getting back in. If you've ever wondered what might be less comforting than the sight of a van with tinted windows after midnight when you are alone on the street, it is a van driver who appears to be running out of batteries and is trying to wind herself up manually.)
Now that we have vented about our misadventure at the airport, we can lob a bomb in the general direction of the shuttle signage. It said, and we quote:
WELCOME ENJOY YOUR STAY
It almost hurts to type such an unfelicitous run-on sentence. Would it have killed them to put some punctuation in that sign? Who's in charge of the signage around here? Can we have their heads on sticks? Should we write them a letter full of umbrage?
That, after all, is our business: protecting innocent punctuation marks and grammatical rules. No matter what that shuttle driver said.
Thursday, March 22, 2007
From the wires:
The FBI has dubbed a California robber the "English Major Bandit" because his demand notes are so full of grammatical and spelling errors. DailyBreeze.com reported Feb. 28 that although police released photos of the burglar, they have yet to catch the thief, who also apologizes for the robberies.
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
LITTLE ROCK, Ark., March 14 — Bowing to a native son’s passion for proper
punctuation and etymological exactitude, the General Assembly has put the English speaking world on notice: the possessive case of “Arkansas” requires an “ ’s.”
As in, Arkansas’s many wonders.
Please, not Arkansas’.
“It’s esoteric, I agree,” said one of those wonders, Parker L. Westbrook, 81, a stickler for language and an authority on all things Arkansan, including its politics, “but that doesn’t mean it isn’t important.”
Indeed, a resolution passed Tuesday by the Senate requires that spelling in all official documents. The measure, written by Mr. Westbrook, was approved by the House last week. Gov. Mike Beebe is expected to sign it.
Although not every manual of style agrees with the resolution, which does not specify criminal sanctions for failure to comply, the silent second “s” in Arkansas demands an apostrophe and a third “s” to form the possessive, Mr. Westbrook insisted, lest precision count for nothing. (For the record, the style manual at The New York Times agrees with Mr. Westbrook.)
Had the State Legislature not decreed in 1881 that the name “Arkansas” would end with a silent ‘s,’ there would be no cause for concern, he said.
“This is not an apostrophe battle,” he added. “It’s a war to recognize the definition of the word ‘silent.’ ”There was some silent rolling of eyes amid the ayes, but no legislator dared seriously challenge the research or the resolve of Mr. Westbrook. Since 1949, he has been an aide to a governor, two United States senators and two congressmen. They included Representative Boyd A. Tackett, whose grandson, State Representative Steven P. Harrelson, Democrat of Texarkana, sponsored the resolution.
“As much as anything it’s a tribute to Parker,” Mr. Harrelson said with a chuckle, citing Mr. Westbrook’s dedication to historic preservation.
Monday, March 19, 2007
Visit the SPOGG shop.
Also, stay tuned for an exciting announcement, which we hope to make later this week. It's good news for SPOGGers.
Monday, March 12, 2007
Spelling and grammar errors go against applicantsWe've actually written about "ain't" and its status as a word, but we could never recommend using it in a job application, unless, perhaps, you're fixin' to git a job squashin' cars (not that there's anything wrong with that). Read all about ain't and other words from the red-light district here.
Nearly half of employers will penalise a job applicant who makes spelling or grammatical mistakes on their CV, a survey reveals today.
More than one-in-five bosses complains that half the applications they receive contain poor spelling or grammar, according to the Department for Education and Skills' study.
Job seekers are most likely to confuse "their", "they're" and "there", and 18 per cent of employers say they frequently see words like "ain't" and "gonna" in applications.
Click here to read the rest of the story.
S or no S? Grammar debate is no joke in Arkansas
By JILL ZEMAN
Monday, March 12, 2007 5:45 PM CDT
LITTLE ROCK - The question over how to write the possessive form of "Arkansas" has spilled out of the state Capitol, igniting debates statewide on whether an apostrophe-s, or just an apostrophe, is required to be grammatically correct.
College and high school English instructors have reached no consensus as a state legislator seeks support for apostrophe-s.The Associated Press Stylebook says singular proper nouns ending in "s" use just an apostrophe when possessive. But other guides, like Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style" opt for "'s."
The dean of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, which hosted an apostrophe-s debate Monday, likes the extra character, and the governor, attorney general and secretary of state vote for apostrophe-s.
A self-described "militant grammarian" at the University of Arkansas says the extra letter looks silly.
Arkansas' possessive _ or, if you prefer, Arkansas's possessive _ hinges on the state name's final, silent "s," historian Parker Westbrook argued Monday at a forum at the Clinton School campus in downtown Little Rock.
For the record, SPOGG is with the "militant grammarian." In fact, we're going to send him a recruitment
Friday, March 09, 2007
If you support National Grammar Day, please drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are able to organize a rally, or even just wear a T-shirt and jump up and down on a prominent street corner, please let us know. We will use your support as justification for this important day of observation.
Wednesday, March 07, 2007
We are working on a piece for Encarta about correcting the grammar of others. I'd love your opinions on when this is OK to do, and when it's not.
If you'd care to contribute, please send e-mail to email@example.com.