President Donald Trumpâs behavior on Twitter routinely drives entire news cycles. This weekend, he showed that a single word within a single presidential tweet can be explosive.
Trump raised alarm bells in his published response to the news that his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.
The tweet published to Trumpâs account clearly implied that he already knew that Flynn had deceived the Feds when he fired him back in February: âI had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI. He has pled guilty to those lies. It is a shame because his actions during the transition were lawful. There was nothing to hide!â
That unleashed a frenzy of speculation about whether Trump had just admitted to obstructing justice, since it seems he must have known that Flynn had committed a felony when he was pressuring then-FBI director James Comey to ease up on the Flynn case.
But then came word that maybe Trump didnât write the tweet after all. The Washington Post reported that âTrumpâs lawyer John Dowd drafted the presidentâs tweet, according to two people familiar with the twitter message.â The Associated Press also identified Dowd as the one who âcraftedâ the tweet, citing âone person familiar with the situation,â though Dowd himself declined to make a comment to the AP.
Attributing the tweet to Dowd set off a new round of incredulous chatter. Would the presidentâs lawyer really compose a tweet like that on his clientâs behalf, especially one that seemed so incriminating? One widely shared response from a person who tweets from the account @nycsouthpaw, and it focused on a single word in the tweet as grounds for skepticism: âWeâre supposed to believe John Dowd wrote âpledâ instead of âpleadedâ?â
Others argued that Dowd could very well have used âpledâ as the past-tense of âplead.â Harvard Law School professor Jonathan Zittrain noted, âIâve seen lawyers write each. Itâs not like, you know, âhungâ and âhanged.ââ Indeed, both âpleadedâ and âpledâ are both considered acceptable by American usage guidesâthough, in many newsrooms, âpledâ is considered a rookie mistake, which helps explain why some journalists seized on it.
âPledâ actually dates back to the 16th century, and though it never gained much traction in British English, it has been gaining in popularity in American English over the past few decades. Some prefer âpledâ because they think âpleadedâ sounds wrong, based on analogous past-tense forms like âbleedâ/âbledâ and âfeedâ/âfed.â Plenty of legal types donât seem mind âpled,â at least not in the United States. In fact, when the blog Above the Law polled its readers in 2011, 57 percent of the 1,311 respondents preferred âpledâ to âpleaded.â
But what of Dowd himself?
I searched through the LexisNexis news database to try to find his preference for forming the past tense of âplead,â and I discovered an example from January 2010, when Dowd was representing the billionaire hedge-fund manager Raj Rajaratnam, who was standing trial for insider trading. As quoted in The Wall Street Journal, Dowd said of Rajaratnam, âHeâs pled not guilty and we intend to try his case and demonstrate that heâs innocent.â (Rajaratnam was later found guilty and is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence.)
So Dowd, too, is on record as a âpledâ user. That single word does not betray some non-lawyerly voiceâTrumpâs or anyone elseâsâso we canât point to it as evidence for who really wrote that tweet. It would be a tidy solution to isolate the use of âpledâ as a kind of âtellâ disproving the attribution of the tweet to Dowd, but it is in fact exceedingly difficult to be able to identify such a linguistic smoking gun.
One skeptic on Twitter wrote, âA forensic linguist could rule out Dowd in 5 minutes. Once that happens, Trump has no backpedal.â Actual forensic linguists would be hard-pressed to rule Dowd in or out on the basis of a single tweet, however. The field of authorship analysis requires significant amounts of textual data in order to be reliable. First, one would need to compile past texts firmly attributed to the potential authorsâin this case, Trump and Dowd. That could at least establish idiosyncratic patterns of style and usage, but for a low-frequency word like âpled,â even that approach may prove fruitless. (For what itâs worth, Trump had never previously used âpledâ in a tweet, according to the Trump Twitter Archive. Trumpâs only use of âpleadedâ is from a news article he quoted.)
Authorship analysis has had some notable success stories, but not involving something as slender as a tweet. In 2013, I wrote in The Wall Street Journal about how forensic analysts helped determine that âHarry Potterâ author J.K. Rowling had written a crime novel, âThe Cuckooâs Calling,â under the pen name Robert Galbraith. I asked one of the experts, Patrick Juola of Duquesne University, to detail his approach in a guest post for Language Log, a blog about linguistics that I contribute to. When a commenter remarked that it would be interesting to analyze the anonymous Twitter tip that had set off the investigation, Juola replied, âit would indeed be interesting, but authorial analysis of tweets is HARD. Not enough data, you see.â
That sort of challenge has been taken up by some forensic linguists, such as Tim Grant of Aston University, who has been working on techniques to analyze tweets and other short-form messages. But such an analysis would be even trickier in this case, since Dowdâif he is indeed the true author of the controversial tweetâmay have been attempting to mimic the Twitter voice of Trump. That could explain the exclamation point at the end, for instanceâa classic Trumpian touch. Or Dowd could have âdraftedâ the tweet with Trump subsequently making revisions or at least adding some finishing touches. Then weâd be dealing with an even murkier co-authorship situation. It looks like weâll simply have to wait for further illumination of the story behind the tweetâs composition: no single word or punctuation mark is going to give the game away.