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Text betrays its author's gender

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Male and female brains are wired differently, studies confirm, and new diagnostics show those differences surface in the spelling, phraseology, punctuation and other peculiarities of written language.

Distinctive words, syntax, colloquialization, repetition, subordination, capitalization and other features of written text expose the gender of the author. Research confirms the gender of a writer emerges readily from scrutinizing unmistakable clues.

A study by Na Chen and colleagues at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey revealed 157 of 545 "psycholinguistic" factors in written material are gender-specific.

The researchers developed new software that can determine the gender of an author of written material with up to 81 per cent accuracy.

Although the research aimed primarily at discovering methods to uncover "gender deception" in Internet communications, there could be much broader general applications.

At issue was gender identity in short-length multi-purpose emails involving 8,970 authors. The study involved number of words, number of letters per word, richness of vocabulary, number of single and double quotes, number of colons and semicolons, number of question marks, paragraphs, sentences, written lines and other parameters.

"These word-based features and function words play important roles in gender identification," the researchers reported.

Earlier studies by Shalomo Argamon at the Illinois Institute of Technology and colleagues at Bar-Ilan University Ramar Gan in Israel confirmed that in historical documents, male- and female-authored texts differed greatly.

Male authors were found to write more "informationally" whereas females wrote more with personal involvement.

"Females use more personal pronouns that encode the relationship between the writer and the reader (whereas) males use more generic pronouns," they concluded.

"There are indeed different strategies employed by men and women in setting forth information."

Female writers were much more likely to use "I, we or us," very significantly more apt to use "you or your" and almost twice as likely to use "he, him, she or her" in their written material.

"There is greater personalization of text by females," they write.

A study in China concluded error-types in written material are gender-specific. Females are much less likely to err with regard to adverbs, articles, colloquialization, conjunctions, noun phrases, punctuation, spelling and verb forms. Overall, male-written text is more likely to contain errors with respect to many grammatical variables, they reported.

A study by Judith Bose concluded female writers are more likely to produce "longer, more formal (texts) with more ownership terms."

Meanwhile, research by Marcia Lundberg at North Dakota State University indicated while preparing formal grant applications, males are much more likely to write in the passive voice, whereas females tend to use the active voice, using more personal pronouns such as "I, my and our."

"Female writers tend to personalize text," she concludes. "Their tone is more collaborative."

In their analysis of email texts, Ann Colley at the University of Leichester and Zazie Todd at the University of Leeds found female writers emphasize "features associated with the maintenance of rapport and intimacy," whereas male-written texts are more impersonal and passive.

A curious, but related, preliminary study by Amanda Green involving computer desk-top clutter shows males are more likely to have neat computer desktops, people who live in crowded urban areas are more likely to have desktop clutter and individuals with messy desktops are more apt to have disorganized closets, regardless of gender.

Robert Alison is a zoologist and science writer based in Victoria.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 5, 2011 A10

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