Entropy and Divergence in a Modern Fiction Corpus

  1. 1. Hugh Craig

    School of Humanities and Social Science - University of Newcastle

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The application of statistical methods to
style is now well accepted in author
attribution. It has found less favour in broader
stylistic description. Louis Milic’s pioneering
quantitative work from the 1960s on the style
of Jonathan Swift was vigorously contested by
Stanley Fish, an attack which may well have had
the effect of curbing enthusiasm for this kind
of work. The other important exemplar is John
Burrows’ book on Jane Austen from 1987. I am
not aware of any subsequent books of this kind.
In the proposed paper I aim to demonstrate the
usefulness of two measures from Information
Theory in the broad comparative analysis of text.
One is entropy, which calculates the greatest
possible compression of the information
provided by a set of items considered as
members of distinct classes (Rosso, Craig and
Moscato). A large entropy value indicates that
the items fall into a large number of classes,
and thus must be represented by listing the
counts of a large number of these classes. In
an ecosystem, this would correspond to the
presence of a large number of species each
with relatively few members. The maximum
entropy value occurs where each item represents
a distinct class. Minimum entropy occurs where
all items belong to a single class. In terms of
language, word tokens are the items and word
types the classes. A high-entropy text contains a
large number of word types, many with a single
token. A good example would be a technical
manual for a complex machine which specifies
numerous distinct small parts. A low-entropy
text contains few word types, each with many
occurrences, such as a legal document where
terms are repeated in each clause to avoid
ambiguity. Entropy is a measure of a sparse
and diverse distribution versus a dense and
concentrated one.
A second information-theory quantity which can
serve for generalising about a set of texts is
Jensen-Shannon Divergence (JSD). This gives a
value to each set of items for the distance from
a reference point, generally the mean for the
whole grouping. This distance is calculated as
the sum of divergences between the specimen
and the mean for each of the classes represented
in the set (Rosso, Craig and Moscato). In
language terms the divergence value of a given
text is the sum of the differences between the
counts for the text for each word type used in
a corpus and the corpus mean count for that
word type. Some texts use language in a way that
closely corresponds to the norm of a larger set,
others use some words more heavily, and others
more lightly, than the run of a comparable
corpus. JSD is a measure of normality in this
specialised sense.
There are important caveats for interpreting
these two measures of the properties of a text.
Both are sensitive to text length, if for different
reasons. Given a finite number of word types
available to a given user of a given language,
as a text sample grows, more of the pool is
exhausted, and there is a greater tendency to
recur to already-used word types. Thus in a
novel the word tokens of a single sentence
may well be all different word types, and have
maximum entropy, but this is unlikely to be true
of a paragraph, and still less so of a chapter.
In the case of divergence from a mean, the law
of averages means that for longer texts local
idiosyncrasies tend to be balanced out by a
larger body of less unusual writing and indeed
by contrasting idiosyncrasies.
It is also important to rule out the idea that
entropy and divergence values relate directly to
quality. Entropy is related to a simpler measure,
type-token ratio, sometimes called ‘vocabulary
richness’. Yet ‘richness’ could scarcely be applied
to a fighter plane manual, to revert to the
example used above. One might associate
divergence from the mean with originality or
creativity, but it could just as well be the result
of incompetence.
It is interesting that researchers have found
genre to be a problem both with entropy
work and with studies of intertextual distance
when they are directed at authorship problems
(Hoover, Labbé and Labbé). From a different
point of view, this sensitivity to genre is part of

what makes the methods valuable for a more
general assessment of the style of texts.
The corpus for the study in the paper consists
of 377 fiction texts, being the first 25,000 words
of all the texts with 25,000 words or more
in the British National Corpus ‘Imaginative
Fiction’ section. This amounts to 15,421,915
words in all. The texts are predominantly prose
fiction published in the United Kingdom in the
1990s, taken from a wide variety of sources,
short stories as well as novels, intended for
young and young adult audiences as well as
for a general readership. The usefulness of JSD
results depend on the validity of the point
of reference chosen. In the present study the
mean of this large collection of texts of very
varied authorship and genre, within the larger
text type ‘imaginative fiction’, should be a good
approximation of the mean for contemporary
fiction in general.
At the time of writing this proposal work on this
corpus with these methods is at an early stage,
but there are some preliminary findings. The
first is that entropy and divergence are positively
correlated in this corpus. As density decreases
and a wider range of word types are used for
the same extent of text, samples diverge more
from the mean. The individual exceptions to
these broad tendencies are instructive and some
individual examples will be discussed.
It is also possible to see at this early stage
that within the universe of prose fiction these
two quantities align with more impressionist
views of style. High entropy fiction texts follow
a traditional ‘high style’. Their progression
is linear, continuing to move on to new
vocabulary, while low entropy texts retrace their
steps and return to already used words. High
entropy texts are demanding of the reader and
dense in information. They constantly move
to new mental territories; they are taxing and
impressive. Low entropy texts are reassuring
and familiar. They are implicit in their
signification, assuming common knowledge,
while high-entropy texts specify and create
contexts for themselves. High-entropy texts
contain more description and narrative, while
low-entropy texts contain more dialogue.
The challenge for computational approaches to
style is to use the power of statistics working
on the abundant data available from texts
to reveal tendencies which are important, yet
would otherwise be invisible, or remain in the
realm of the impressionistic. The argument of
the proposed paper is that the entropy and
divergence of words provide two useful ways of
understanding fundamental properties of texts.
Entropy and divergence are soundly based in
statistical theory and informative on two fronts.
They open the way to density and normality as
fundamental ways of thinking about style; and
they serve to place particular texts in relation
to sets of comparison texts and thus to map
them in a conceptual space. Short stories and
novels may be virtual worlds, intensely personal
meditations, and human dramas of love and
conflict, but they are also sets of vocabulary
items used with a given frequency, and it is
surprising how much an analysis of that base
level of their existence can reveal about them.
British National Corpus, version 2
BNC World.
Distributed by Oxford University
Computing Services on behalf of the BNC
Burrows, J. F.
Computation into
Criticism: A Study of Jane Austen and an
Experiment in Method.
Oxford: Clarendon.
Fish, Stanley
(1980). 'What Is Stylistics and
Why Are They Saying Such Terrible Things
About It?'.
Is There a Text in This Class?.
Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, pp.
Hoover, David
(2003). 'Another Perspective
on Vocabulary Richness'.
Computers and the
: 151-78.
Labbé, Cyril, Labbé, Dominique
'A Tool for Literary Studies: Intertextual
Distance And Tree Classification'.
Literary and
Linguistic Computing.
: 311-26.
Milic, Louis T.
A Quantitative
Approach to the Style of Jonathan Swift.
Mouton: The Hague.
Rosso, Osvaldo, Craig, Hugh, Moscato,
(2009). 'Shakespeare and Other English
Renaissance Authors as Characterized by

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2010
"Cultural expression, old and new"

Hosted at King's College London

London, England, United Kingdom

July 7, 2010 - July 10, 2010

142 works by 295 authors indexed

XML available from https://github.com/elliewix/DHAnalysis (still needs to be added)

Conference website: http://dh2010.cch.kcl.ac.uk/

Series: ADHO (5)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None