February 10, 2008

Watch your pronouns and verbs!

The January 2008 issue of the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin contains an article by Special Agent Vincent Sandoval about the methods his agency uses and advocates to local law enforcement officers as they struggle to determine whether suspects are lying or telling the truth. What he wrote came as no shock to me because I've heard agents and consultants lecture about this in the past and I've read most of the sources from which they get their ideas. But on the remote possibility that Language Log readers are not regular subscribers to this journal, and in an effort to give you helpful  guidance if, for some reason, you should ever be interrogated by the police, I thought it might be a public service to pass along some of S.A. Sandoval's tidbits about how that agency can tell that you're lying by the way you use pronouns and verbs.

Your pronouns can indicate deception

Sandoval points out that in sexual assault cases, especially when the suspect alleges that the sexual contact was consensual, investigators should listen carefully for the absence of the pronoun, we. To illustrate, he offers one suspect's description of what happened after the sex act:

I put her clothes on her and, um, and she and I walked outside and said our  good-byes. I gave her a hug and told her I had a good time and she talked for a minute and then I left. I walked home.

  The author points out that the suspect never used the pronoun, we, in his description and goes on to advise cops who read this article:

...this would suggest that a healthy relationship did not exist between the two individuals and, thus, increases the likelihood that the sexual contact was less than consensual.

Okay, folks, repeat after me, "we got dressed," "we walked outside," "we said our good-byes," "we hugged," "we talked," and "we  walked home." Learn to say we when the law talks with you. Otherwise, you're being deceptive.

Not content with his helpful explanation of the absence of we, Sandoval goes further:

Investigators should pay attention when writers or speakers change a word or phrase used to describe any verbal interaction with  the same person, for example, when an interviewee says we discussed but later switches to he and I talked. 

Sandoval claims that such pronoun shifting reflects the nature of the couple's relationship. Just how this reflects their relationship is not totally clear but, just in case you are ever interviewed by the feds, you probably ought to avoid varying your pronouns.

Your verbs also will give you away

Sandoval also tells us that verb choices are important clues that signal deception, advising:

Such variations could include changing the tense of action verbs, using the passive voice instead of the active voice, and employing 'uncompleted' action verbs.

He describes the principle of past action = past tense and announces:

...individuals may be reliving the events cognitively and thus, resort to using the present tense.

To him, this signals deception. Never mind that we find the use of the historical present tense all around us every day. Just remember not to use it yourself. It tells the police that you're lying.

Turning to the passive voice, Sandoval advises that suspects attempting to conceal or minimize the extent of their involvement say things like:

The pistol was fired by someone.

It was determined that I would drop her off.

Language Log has had a few things to say about the good old passive voice. See  this post by Arnold Zwicky, for example. I've examined hundreds of police reports and FBI 302s over the years. And guess what? I find that the police use passives themselves all the time. Hmm.

I regret to inform you that these ideas are not new. Google locates over 100,000 sources about lying and deception, including programs and books by Mark McClish and Don Rabon that say pretty much these same things about pronouns and verbs. They and others (such as Avinoam Sapir) instruct law enforcement officers about these and other aspects of language and deception in the seminars they promote and sell around the country. Your tax money at work.

Posted by Roger Shuy at February 10, 2008 04:11 PM