All the experts I’ve talked to since the tweet was published agree that there is no way to rule definitively whether it was written by Trump or Dowd—or by Trump and Dowd together, or by someone else entirely. But it’s still possible to analyze the tweet according to its linguistic features.
Two scholars at the University of Birmingham, Jack Grieve and Isobelle Clarke, have been conducting some linguistically informed data analysis of Trump’s Twitter style. Using methods previously applied to a study of trolling on Twitter, Grieve and Clarke have mined the complete corpus of tweets from @realDonaldTrump, helpfully collected in Brendan Brown’s Trump Twitter Archive, in order to discern stylistic and syntactic patterns. While their research is still in the preliminary stages, the latest controversy over the Flynn tweet was too good an opportunity to pass up.
Grieve and Clarke refrained from speculating about authorship, noting that this would require first determining which @realDonaldTrump tweets are actually written by the president, and then comparing those confirmed Trump tweets to a similar collection of texts known to be written by Dowd. That’s the type of approach that allows forensic linguists to determine, for instance, whether a famous letter purported to be written by Abraham Lincoln might actually have been written by his secretary, John Hay.
In the absence of such clear-cut authorship data, Grieve and Clarke looked at 65 linguistic features to see how typical or atypical the Flynn tweet (or as they call it, the “pled tweet”) is compared to the overall oeuvre of @realDonaldTrump. They found a number of features that are highly atypical for that Twitter account.
While many observers have focused on the word pled, Grieve and Clarke find it more noteworthy that it is preceded by the auxiliary verb has. This type of “perfect” aspect in the verb construction is actually rather rare in the @realDonaldTrump archive, occurring only 7 percent of the time.
The tweet displays even rarer linguistic features, all appearing in less than 5 percent of the overall corpus 21,320 tweets. (Retweets have been filtered out.) “Specifically, ‘had to’ occurs in only 30 tweets, ‘those’ as a determiner occurs in only 43 tweets, existential ‘there’ occurs in only 262 tweets, and ‘because,’ which is used twice in the questioned tweet, occurs in only 280 tweets.” That @realDonaldTrump uses because so infrequently may reflect how seldom Trump—and those who speak on his behalf—explain their reasoning.
Grieve and Clarke build up from these basic linguistic features to look at “dimensions of stylistic variation” in the @realDonaldTrump collection. This kind of analysis allows for a deep dive into what the tweets might be achieving pragmatically, not just how they are structured. So, for instance, the absence or presence of certain features are associated with dimensions they call opinion (“overt claims related to judgment and beliefs of the poster”), prediction (“claims about plans, upcoming events, and the future state of the world”), and critique (“criticism of various people and policies”). The Flynn tweet has an unusually high score in the opinion and critique dimensions and a low one in the prediction dimension.