Linguistics of lies

In this lesson, students explore the features of lies, from a linguistic perspective.

Goals

Lesson Plan

Background

Some researchers have suggested that when people tell lies there are recognisable linguistic clues that can be spotted. Psychologists often focus on body language – gesture, facial expressions and stance – but linguists look for markers in the language.

It’s not an exact science, though, and you can see that the ideas in this link, about using a lie detector that picked up clues from spoken language, never got beyond the pilot stage.

Elsewhere, grammatical and lexical clues have been used more successfully. For example, in research carried out by a team at Cornell University, led by Jeff Hancock, and reported on in the Sunday Times, the following observations were made:

So, for example, a person conducting an illicit affair is less likely to say they were unable to get home early last night because they were with someone else. ‘They will just say, “Sorry, I couldn’t meet you” and be deliberately vague,’ said Hancock.

(Source: The Sunday Times)

Activity

Using the data provided on the activity slides (see arrow link at the bottom of the page) taken from emails to a team leader at an office, try working out – from the clues suggested above and your own linguistic observations – which person is most likely to be lying. Try to arrange the four extracts in order, with the most likely to be lying at one end, and the least likely at the other end.

You will need some precise linguistic evidence for the decision you make, so try to find at least four separate points in each email which you think are significant in telling us whether they are lying or telling the truth.

Extension activity

After you have made your choices and picked out the linguistic features which informed your decisions, try to think about the following questions. Does knowing more about some of the context change your mind at all?

  1. Three out of the four messages are from people who have children. How many of them refer to their children in the messages? How do they refer to them?
  2. Three of the four messages are from male staff and only one from a woman. Does this affect the way in which you interpret them?
  3. How sure can you be that your observations about their language are accurate? What other evidence would help you to work out if someone was telling the truth or lying?

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Linguistics of lies: Activity

Extract 1

Hi Paul

I’m not going to be able to make it in today as the boiler’s broken down and I need to wait for the repair man to come round.

I’ll do what work I can here and email you the report for Thursday’s meeting.

Mark

Extract 2

Dear Paul

Sorry about this but I can’t make it in today. I’ve got a stinking cold and I’m feeling really rough. It came on over the weekend and the kids have been feeling pretty bad too.

I’ll email you tomorrow morning if I’m not able to get in.

Sorry!

Liam

Extract 3

Hi Paul

I won’t be in the office today – got a badly twisted ankle. Nathan left a toy car under the stepladder I was decorating on and I went over on it. It looks like I’ve sprained it but I’ll only know when I get to see the Doctor and she’s booked up until late this afternoon. It’s really painful to the touch and I can’t move too well.

Hope to be in tomorrow if I can get mobile again later today.

Yours

Mia

Extract 4

Dear Paul

I can’t get in today as Natasha is sick. She’s come down with a really bad cold and can’t go to the childminder’s so I’ll have to look after her. Lucy’s got an inspector in at work so she can’t stay home. Sorry for the inconvenience. Will email you later when she’s asleep and get some work done then.

Cheers

Carl.

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