The Language of Liars

Does linguistics hold the key to decoding deception?

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(Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier / flickr)
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‘I am not a crook — more of a fraudster, really.’ (Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons)

The trouble is this: the more we learn about the way liars talk, the better we lie.

Do liars do more talking? It’s hard to form a theoretical answer to this question. On one hand, they may prefer to keep their statements brief to avoid incriminating themselves; on the other hand, they might be inclined to ramble out of nervousness or because of the added incentive to be persuasive. Sadly, the data is fairly inconclusive on this point. It seems that the length of a liar’s answer depends on the situation—for instance, if their dishonesty is non-verifiable (e.g. if their lie is about a personal opinion), they’re more likely to yammer on. The mode of communication used may also have a part to play. Further research by Burgoon and others indicates that being given ample time to contemplate, reread, and edit an untruthful statement leads to longer messages. So the next time you’re trying to get an obvious liar to talk themselves into a corner, ask them to submit a detailed report to you via e-mail.

I write about words and run about screaming. Irish, currently doing an MA in English Linguistics and Literature.

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