By analysing how writers use such "content-free" words, mathematician Daniel Rockmore and colleagues at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, were able to conduct the first, large-scale "stylometric" analysis of literature.
Content-free words are indicative of writing style, Rockmore says. While two authors might use the same words to describe a similar event, they will use content-free "syntactic glue" to link their words in a different way.
Using the Project Gutenberg digital library, Rockmore's team analysed 7733 English language works written since 1550, tracking how often and in what context content-free words appeared. As you might expect, they found that writers were strongly influenced by their predecessors.
They also found that as the canon of literature grew, the reach of older works shrank. Authors in the earliest periods wrote in a very similar way to one another, the researchers found, probably because they all read the same small body of literature. But approaching the modern era, when more people were writing and more works were available from many eras and numerous styles, authors' styles were still very similar to those of their immediate contemporaries. "It's as if they find dialects in time," says Alex Bentley of the University of Bristol, UK, who was not involved in the study. "Content is what makes us distinctive, but content-free words put us in different groups."
That writers should be most influenced by their contemporaries rather than the great works of the past is interesting, Rockmore says, because it challenges the reach of "classic" literature. When it comes to style at least, perhaps we aren't so strongly influenced by the classics after all.
Reardon, Sara. 2012. "Formula follows the evolution of writing styles". New Scientist. Posted: May 1, 2012. Available online: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn21767-formula-follows-the-evolution-of-writing-styles.html