Can You Tell an Author’s Identity By Looking at Punctuation Alone? A Study Just Found Out.

iStock.com/RyersonClark
iStock.com/RyersonClark

In 2016, neuroscientist Adam J Calhoun wondered what his favorite books would look like if he removed the words and left nothing but the punctuation. The result was a stunning—and surprisingly beautiful—visual stream of commas, question marks, semicolons, em-dashes, and periods.

Recently, Calhoun’s inquiry piqued the interest of researchers in the United Kingdom, who wondered if it was possible to identify an author from his or her punctuation alone.

For decades, linguists have been able to use the quirks of written texts to pinpoint the author. The process, called stylometric analysis or stylometry, has dozens of legal and academic applications, helping researchers authenticate anonymous works of literature and even nab criminals like the Unabomber. But it usually focuses on an author's word choices and grammar or the length of his or her sentences. Until now, punctuation has been largely ignored.

But according to a recent paper led by Alexandra N. M. Darmon of the Oxford Centre for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, an author’s use of punctuation can be extremely revealing. Darmon’s team assembled nearly 15,000 documents from 651 different authors and “de-worded” each text. “Is it possible to distinguish literary genres based on their punctuation sequences?” the researchers asked. “Do the punctuation styles of authors evolve over time?”

Apparently, yes. The researchers crafted mathematical formulas that could identify individual authors with 72 percent accuracy. Their ability to detect a specific genre—from horror to philosophy to detective fiction—was accurate more than half the time, clocking in at a 65 percent success rate.

The results, published on the preprint server SocArXiv, also revealed how punctuation style has evolved. The researchers found that “the use of quotation marks and periods has increased over time (at least in our [sample]) but that the use of commas has decreased over time. Less noticeably, the use of semicolons has also decreased over time.”

You probably don’t need to develop a powerful algorithm to figure that last bit out—you just have to crack open something by Dickens.

25 Books Every Book Lover Should Read

iStock.com/Vladimir Vladimirov
iStock.com/Vladimir Vladimirov

Books have the power to inspire our imagination, transport us to faraway worlds, and make us think and feel deeply. Luckily, bibliophiles of all ages have a wealth of excellent fiction and nonfiction books to choose from. Here, we've gathered up 25 books every book lover should read—from classic novels to contemporary bestsellers.

1. Siddhartha // Hermann Hesse

Published in 1922, Siddhartha is loosely based on the life of Buddha. Hermann Hesse tells the story of Siddhartha, a young man who leaves his comfortable home and prosperous family to seek meaning. Throughout the novel, Siddhartha joins a group of ascetics, works for a merchant, falls in love, has a son, and becomes a ferryman. As an old man, he becomes wise and finally attains enlightenment.

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2. The Aeneid // Virgil

In this epic Latin poem, Virgil relates the story of Aeneas, a Trojan man who became the legendary ancestor of the Romans. Written between 29 and 19 B.C.E., during the last years of the poet's life, the Aeneid follows Aeneas and his men on their journey from Troy to Carthage, Sicily, the Underworld, and Italy. Like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, it's full of thrilling adventures, frustrating obstacles, and heroic deeds.

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3. Man’s Search For Meaning // Viktor Frankl

Written by Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, this 1946 book has influenced millions of readers around the world. By discussing his experiences in Auschwitz, Frankl examines how anyone can cope with horrific suffering and, eventually, move forward. Frankl also explains his theory of logotherapy, the view that all humans are primarily driven not by the need for power or pleasure, but to determine and seek their own meaning of life.

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4. The Handmaid’s Tale // Margaret Atwood

This dystopian novel, first published in 1985 and still one of Atwood's most acclaimed works, explores the struggles of people living under a theocratic, totalitarian government called the Republic of Gilead, which has replaced the United States. Offred, one of the Handmaids, is kept primarily for reproductive purposes, and has no control over her own body or life—she's not even allowed to read. Atwood’s haunting depiction of this authoritarian society has been turned into a film (1990), opera (2000), and most recently, a TV show from Hulu.

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5. Walden // Henry David Thoreau

In the first chapter of Walden (1854), Henry David Thoreau wrote: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” More than 150 years later, people still quote this line, which is a testament to Walden's influence and enduring legacy. Thoreau describes his two-year stint living alone, off the grid, in a cabin near Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. The book has a little something for everyone, whether you're a minimalist, individualist, botanist, or ecologist.

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6. The Unbearable Lightness Of Being // Milan Kundera

The cover of 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being'
Amazon

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) starts in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Milan Kundera, who was born in Czechoslovakia but moved to France to escape communism, sets his novel during the Prague Spring, in which Czech citizens were temporarily given more freedoms. Tomas, a womanizing surgeon, is married to photographer Tereza. Tomas has an affair with Sabina, an artist who also loves Franz, a professor. Kundera weaves love triangles (or squares) in with philosophical ideas about the meaning of life, delivering it all in beautiful prose.

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7. Dracula // Bram Stoker

Long before Twilight, Dracula (1897) introduced many of the conventions we now associate with the blood-sucking world of vampires. The Gothic novel takes place in Transylvania and England in the 1890s, and follows the attempts of the Count to spread his curse. Although not a commercial success during Bram Stoker’s lifetime, Dracula has continued to impact culture more than a century after it was published.

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8. Saving Fish From Drowning // Amy Tan

Written by the author of The Joy Luck Club, this 2005 novel is about Bibi Chen, a San Franciscan art dealer who plans to lead a dozen friends on a cultural tour of China and Myanmar. Although Chen dies mysteriously before the trip starts, her friends take the trip anyway—accidentally desecrating China’s Stone Bell Temple and later (unknowingly) getting kidnapped by a tribe in Myanmar. Chen’s spirit accompanies her friends on their misadventures, which include plenty of slapstick moments and humorous misunderstandings.

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9. The Phantom Tollbooth // Norton Juster

The cover of 'The Phantom Tollbooth'
Amazon

This delightful children’s book about the power of imagination combines adventure, fantasy, and tons of clever puns. Since 1961, kids have loved reading about Milo’s journey to the Kingdom of Wisdom. He literally jumps to Conclusions (an island), meets a watchdog named Tock, and helps restore Rhyme and Reason (two princesses) to power. After his adventures, Milo realizes that regular life can be exciting, not boring.

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10. The Tao Te Ching // Lao-Tzu

In the Tao Te Ching, ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu presents the fundamental ideas behind the philosophy and religion of Taoism. Divided into 81 short sections, the book tells readers how to live virtuously and in accordance with Tao, or the way that everything flows and happens. While supposedly written in the 6th century B.C.E., some scholars argue that multiple authors contributed to the text over hundreds of years.

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11. Blonde // Joyce Carol Oates

In Blonde (2000), Joyce Carol Oates offers a fictional account of Marilyn Monroe’s thoughts and feelings throughout her life. The chronological account begins with Monroe’s childhood as Norma Jeane Baker, details her life as a young woman, and explores her experiences as “Marilyn” in the 1950s. Although Oates obscures the names of some characters, readers can easily determine when she’s referring to famous figures such as Joe DiMaggio, Arthur Miller, and former President John F. Kennedy.

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12. Treasure Island // Robert Louis Stevenson

The cover of 'Treasure Island'
Amazon

This 1882 adventure novel, about treasure hunters and a pirate mutiny, is hard to put down. Robert Louis Stevenson pits the teenaged protagonist, Jim Hawkins, against the greedy, one-legged pirate named Long John Silver. Though geared for kids, Treasure Island has inspired countless films, TV shows, plays, songs, and games—as well as our popular idea of pirates in general.

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13. The Elements of Style // William Strunk, Jr. And E.B. White

Reading and writing are intimately connected, and The Elements of Style is the preeminent modern guide for writing well. In 1918, Cornell English professor William Strunk Jr. wrote a list of rules for grammar and composition, which was published in 1920. Around four decades later, his former student E.B. White—author of Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web—revised and expanded upon his professor’s book. The guidebook, which instructs writers to omit needless words and use the active rather than passive voice, is a joy to read.

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14. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory // Roald Dahl

The cover of 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory'
Amazon

Rivers of chocolate, magical gum, and Oompa-Loompas—it’s all in this beloved Roald Dahl classic from 1964. After poor Charlie Bucket gets one of five golden tickets, he wins the chance to tour chocolatier Willy Wonka’s magical factory. After the other four children on the tour disrespect Wonka’s rules, Wonka reveals that Charlie has won the entire factory.

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15. Love in the Time of Cholera // Gabriel García Márquez

Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) follows Florentino and Fermina, a pair of young lovers who live in an unnamed Caribbean port city. Because Fermina’s father disapproves of their relationship, he moves with his daughter to another city. Although the lovers write letters to each other, Fermina decides to marry another man, Dr. Juvenal Urbino. More than 50 years later, Urbino dies and Florentino proclaims that his love for Fermina had never ended.

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16. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings // Maya Angelou

The cover of 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings'
Amazon

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou’s first autobiography, has become a classic since it was first published in 1969. Angelou brings readers from her childhood in Arkansas and Missouri to her adulthood in California, sharing her traumatic experiences of abandonment, rape, and racism. She also shares her discovery and love of William Shakespeare’s works, revealing the transformative and healing power of books.

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17. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance // Robert Pirsig

Beloved by millions of readers since its publication in 1974, Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is part road trip story and part philosophical text. As a man narrates his motorcycle trip with his 11-year-old son from Minnesota to California, he also discusses philosophical ideas about how we live and how we can balance romanticism and rationalism.

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18. Frankenstein // Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley was only 20 years old in 1818 when Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was first published (anonymously). The Gothic novel describes how scientist Victor Frankenstein brings a monster to life, and the aftermath of his decision to interfere with nature. The book has become a classic thanks to its innovative fusion of horror, science fiction, and Romanticism. Some consider it the first science fiction story ever written.

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19. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe // C.S. Lewis

The cover of 'The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe'
Amazon

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is the first of seven books in C.S. Lewis’s series The Chronicles of Narnia. Published in 1950, the fantasy novel follows the four Pevensie siblings, who, during World War II in England, discover a portal to a magical land called Narnia. There they encounter talking animals, a perpetual winter, and an evil White Witch.

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20. The Old Man and the Sea // Ernest Hemingway

Since 1952, The Old Man and the Sea has captivated readers with its story of Santiago, an aging Cuban fisherman who hasn’t caught a fish in 84 days. After a long tussle with a huge marlin, Santiago finally kills the fish. Unfortunately, sharks devour most of the marlin’s carcass by the time Santiago gets home. The classic tale makes readers think about pain, suffering, empathy, futility, and growing old.

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21. The Westing Game // Ellen Raskin

The cover of 'The Westing Game'
Amazon

Readers of all ages love The Westing Game (1978) for its quirky characters, clever wordplay, and enthralling mystery. After multimillionaire Sam Westing dies, his will stipulates that his fortune will go to the person who figures out who killed him. An eclectic group of 16 characters, who are all residents of an apartment building on Lake Michigan, decipher clues to unravel the mystery.

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22. The Happiness Project // Gretchen Rubin

Published in 2009, The Happiness Project is a self-help book that takes readers through a year in the life of author Gretchen Rubin and her experiment to become a happier person. Each month, she makes tiny tweaks in her daily habits, focusing on everything from how to boost her energy to how to make more time for friends. Besides sharing her own experiences, Rubin also cites plenty of scientific studies on happiness and quotes writers and scholars who have written on the topic.

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23. Little Men // Louisa May Alcott

The cover of 'Little Men'
Amazon

Little Women was so successful that Louisa May Alcott wrote a sequel—Little Men (1871) picks up the March family saga with Jo, who is now married to Professor Friedrich Bhaer. While raising their two sons, Jo and her husband run Plumfield, a boarding school for boys. Fans of Little Women will be happy to know that characters from the novel (including Teddy and Amy) appear in the sequel.

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24. Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying // The Dalai Lama

Bibliophiles will love Sleeping, Dreaming, And Dying: An Exploration of Consciousness (1997). The Dalai Lama engages in a fascinating conversation with Western scientists about neuroscience, psychology, and consciousness. The scientists and His Holiness discuss everything from lucid dreaming and near-death experiences to meditation and Buddhist philosophy.

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25. The Devil Finds Work // James Baldwin

James Baldwin is mostly remembered for his essays and novels, but he also applied his talent for keen social criticism to film. In The Devil Finds Work (1976), Baldwin shares his views on the role of race in popular films such as The Exorcist (1973) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). He eloquently discusses everything from racial subtext and the idea of movies as an escape to the larger impact that films have on society.

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Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

A version of this article first ran in 2017.

7 Surprising Facts About Hans Christian Andersen

 Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) is recognized around the world for his beloved books, including The Ugly Duckling, Thumbelina, The Little Match Girl, The Princess and the Pea, and many others. However, few people know much about the man behind these famous fairy tales—a man who endured many hardships and, by some accounts, transformed his pain into art. Here are seven surprising facts about Andersen’s life and legacy that you won't find in the children's section of a bookstore.

1. Some of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales are autobiographical.

According to scholars, the tale of The Ugly Duckling reflects Andersen’s own feelings of alienation. As a boy, he was teased for his appearance and high-pitched voice, which often made him feel isolated, and he later wrote a story about a boy named Hans who gets made fun of as a child. Much like the ugly duckling, Andersen only later in life became the “swan”—a cultured, world-renowned writer with friends in high places. Andersen even admitted of The Ugly Duckling, “This story is, of course, a reflection of my own life.”

There’s also evidence that Andersen placed his characters in desperate and hopeless situations to reflect his own personal traumas, which included being raised in poverty, losing his father, and having to briefly work in a factory at age 11 to support his mother. Paul Binding, a literary critic who penned a book about Andersen, said the long-lasting appeal of his stories go beyond their authenticity, though. "True, some of Andersen’s most famous stories—The Ugly Duckling, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, even The Little Mermaid—are dramatizations or sublimations of his own dilemmas, but they would not work on us as they do if they did not transcend the personal—in language, in observation and detail, and in intricate but unobtrusive structure—to stand on their own as perfectly wrought artifacts of universal appeal," Binding wrote for The Guardian.

2. Andersen's original version of The Little Mermaid was a lot more depressing than Disney’s take.

Andersen’s Little Mermaid story from 1837 was far darker than the kid-friendly Disney movie it would later inspire. In the original (which you can read online for free here), an unnamed mermaid who falls in love with a prince is offered the chance to take a human form, even though she'll live in perpetual agony and has to have her tongue cut out. The mermaid's goal—besides love—is to gain an immortal soul, which is only possible if the prince falls in love with her and marries her. After the prince marries someone else, however, the mermaid contemplates murdering him, but instead accepts her fate and throws herself into the sea, where she dissolves into sea foam. The mermaid is greeted by spiritual beings who say they'll help her get into heaven if she does good deeds for 300 years. So there’s that, at least.

3. Poor translations may have altered Andersen's image abroad.

According to UNESCO, Andersen is the eighth most-translated writer in the world, trailing right behind Vladimir Lenin. Though his works have been reproduced in more than 125 languages, not all of them have been faithful retellings. From the beginning, there have been many examples of “shoddy translations” that “obliterated” his original stories, according to the writers Diana Crone Frank and Jeffrey Frank in their modern translation of The Stories of Hans Christian Andersen. As a result, Andersen’s reputation beyond Scandinavia was “not as a literary genius but as a quaint 19th-century writer of charming children’s stories,” the pair write.

4. Andersen wore out his welcome while staying with Charles Dickens.

Andersen met his literary hero, Charles Dickens, at an aristocratic party in 1847. They kept in touch, and a decade later Andersen came to stay with Dickens at the British author's home in Kent, England. The visit was meant to last two weeks at most, but Andersen ended up staying five weeks, to the dismay of the Dickens family. On his first morning there, Andersen proclaimed that it was a Danish custom for one of the sons of the household to shave their male guest. Instead of complying, the family set him up with a local barber. Andersen was also prone to tantrums, at one point throwing himself face down on the lawn and sobbing after reading a particularly bad review of one of his books. Once Andersen finally left, Dickens wrote and displayed a note that read, “Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks—which seemed to the family AGES!” Dickens stopped responding to Andersen's letters, which effectively ended their friendship.

5. Andersen was terrified of being buried alive.

Andersen had a lot of phobias. He was afraid of dogs. He didn’t eat pork because he worried he would contract trichinae, a parasite that can be found in pigs. He kept a long rope in his luggage while traveling, in case he needed to escape a fire. He even feared he would accidentally be declared dead and buried alive, so before bed each night, he propped up a note that read, “I only appear to be dead.”

6. Andersen may have been celibate his whole life.

Although Andersen lived a long and full life, he struggled with personal relationships and never got his own fairy tale ending. At different points in his life, he fell for a number of women—and possibly a few men as well, according to some interpretations of the amorous letters he wrote to young men—but his feelings were unrequited each time. "I believe he never had a sexual relationship," biographer Bente Kjoel-bye told the Deseret News. Although Andersen is often regarded as a pure and chaste figure, he was no stranger to lustful thoughts. When he was 61 years old, he went to a brothel in Paris for the first time and paid a prostitute, but didn't do anything except watch her undress. After a second visit to a "shop which traded in human beings," he wrote in his diary, "I spoke with [a woman], paid 12 francs, and left without having sinned in action, but probably in thought."

7. Andersen is considered a “national treasure” in Denmark.

The Danish government declared Andersen a “national treasure” when he was in his late sixties, around the same time that he started showing symptoms of the liver cancer that would ultimately claim his life. The government subsequently paid him a stipend and started constructing a statue of the author in the King's Garden in Copenhagen to commemorate his 70th birthday. Andersen lived to see his birthday, but died four months later. Over a century later, you can still see tributes to the writer’s legacy in Copenhagen, including a second statue of Andersen along the street named after him (H.C. Andersens Boulevard) and a sculpture of the Little Mermaid at Langelinje Pier. Visitors are also welcome at his childhood home in Odense, Denmark, and at a museum dedicated to his work in the same city.

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