Signature constructions, old sport

Amazon’s new text stats feature sounded entertaining until I realized the most frequently used words in most books are articles, pronouns, and linking verbs. If characters’ names didn’t show up among the “100 most common words” in books, every list would look like an elementary school “identify the parts of speech” test.

Okay, I’m lying. The program eliminates many of those words. But after trying it out on a handful of books, you’ll see that every search uncovers at most three or four surprises.

Wired News points out a far more interesting Amazon feature:

Name that famous book from just these phrases: “pagan harpooneers,” “stricken whale,” “ivory leg.” Or how about this one: “old sport.”

Yes, it’s Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, respectively, but the words aren’t just a game. They are Statistically Improbable Phrases, the result of a new feature that compares the text of hundreds of thousands of books to reveal an author’s signature constructions.

More improbable phrases, courtesy of Mr. James Hynes: lesbian phallus and reattached finger.


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