Certain minor peculiarities of language are used unconsciously by poets. If such peculiarities appear in the works of more than one poet, they are likely to reflect the language in common use during the poets’ time. However, if they appear in the work of only one poet, they are likely to be personal idiosyncrasies. As such, they can provide a kind of “fingerprint” that allows scholars, by comparing a poem of previously unknown authorship to the work of a particular known poet, to identify the poem as the work of that poet.

For which one of the following reasons can the test described above never provide conclusive proof of the authorship of any poem?

[A]. The labor of analyzing peculiarities of language both in the work of a known poet and in a poem of unknown authorship would not be undertaken unless other evidence already suggested that the poem of unknown authorship was written by the known poet.
[B]. A peculiarity of language that might be used as an identifying mark is likely to be widely scattered in the work of a poet, so that a single poem not known to have been written by that poet might not include that peculiarity.
[C]. A peculiarity of language in a poem of unknown authorship could be evidence either that the poem was written by the one author known to use that peculiarity or that the peculiarity was not unique to that author.
[D]. Minor peculiarities of language contribute far less to the literary effect of any poem than such factors as poetic form, subject matter, and deliberately chosen wording.
[E]. A poet’s use of some peculiarities of language might have been unconscious in some poems and conscious in other poems, and the two uses would be indistinguishable to scholars at a later date.
Answer: C

According to the passage, personal linguistic idiosyncrasies can be used to identify a poet’s work. So if a poem of unknown authorship shares personal quirks with other poems whose author is known, then all the poems must have the same author; thus, we can identify the author of the previously anonymous poem. Why isn’t this test conclusive? Consider (C): It’s always possible that the peculiarity isn’t unique to one author. Perhaps it was an error to identify the peculiarity as a personal idiosyncrasy; perhaps the previously unknown author had the same peculiarity. We wouldn’t have known this, because the author was unknown. Thus it’s possible that any supposedly unique peculiarity is shared by other, unknown authors, and no linguistic peculiarities by themselves can conclusively prove the authorship of a poem.

(A) says that the approach would only be used in certain circumstances, but doesn’t point to any reason why the approach, when used, is inconclusive.

(B) may be true, but the passage never claimed the technique can be used to identify the author of every poem discovered, only that it works in cases where the peculiarity actually appears in a poem of unknown authorship.

(D) The “literary effect” that a poem has is beyond the scope; we’re only interested in identification.

(E) It doesn’t matter whether or not the usages were conscious; the issue is whether the usages are unique to certain authors.

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