Linguistic Features of Humor in Academic Writing

Stephen Skalicky, Cynthia M. Berger, Scott A. Crossley, Danielle S. McNamara


A corpus of 313 freshman college essays was analyzed in order to better understand the forms and functions of humor in academic writing. Human ratings of humor and wordplay were statistically aggregated using Factor Analysis to provide an overall Humor component score for each essay in the corpus. In addition, the essays were also scored for overall writing quality by human raters, which correlated (r = .195) with the humor component score. Correlations between the humor component scores and linguistic features were examined. To investigate the potential for linguistic features to predict the Humor component scores, regression analysis identified four linguistic indices that accounted for approximately 17.5% of the variance in humor scores. These indices were related to text descriptiveness (i.e., more adjective and adverb use), lower cohesion (i.e., less paragraph-to-paragraph similarity), and lexical sophistication (lower word frequency). The findings suggest that humor can be partially predicted by linguistic features in the text. Furthermore, there was a small but significant correlation between the humor and essay quality scores, suggesting a positive relation between humor and writing quality.

Keywords: humor, academic writing, text analysis, essay score, human rating

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