Top Ten Ways to Tell if Someone is Lying to You

Have you ever been listening to someone and felt like things just seemed “off”?  Perhaps nothing they’re saying is outrageous, but for some reason you don’t quite believe it.  You should probably trust that instinct—at least enough that you pay attention to it. 

One way to test your feeling is to look very closely and carefully at the words the speaker is using.  This process is called Statement Validity Analysis (SVA), which is an investigative linguistics technique.  It was originally used for child abuse cases but is now used in all kinds of criminal investigations.  Like many applications of linguistics, it’s somewhat controversial; it is not admissible as court evidence in the U.S., but it is in some European countries.

In any case, it’s a good technique to use as a starting point—a way to help you determine if your gut-feeling of suspicion is warranted. 

Here are the things to look for:

Shifting verb tenses.  When people are reporting the events of something that actually happened, they tend to speak in straight past tense.  For example: “I woke up at 6:00 this morning.  I drank two cups of coffee and had a bowl of cereal.  I drove to work.”  The use of present tense, especially if it is mixed with past tense or occurs at a certain point in the story, may indicate lying.  For example: “I woke up at 6:00 in the morning.  I drank two cups of coffee.  Next thing I know, my mom calls me and says I have to come home right away.”  Did you see the shift?

When people are telling the truth,
they tend to use “I” fairly regularly

Dropping personal pronouns.  When people are telling the truth, they tend to use “I” fairly regularly, as in the first example above.  When people are lying, they sometimes drop personal pronouns.  So, if I asked someone what he did yesterday and he were lying, it might sound like this: “Um, well . . . got up around 8:00, went for a run, paid some bills . . . .”

Using “distancing techniques.”  This also usually involves pronouns.  Perhaps the most famous example is from Bill Clinton, when he initially denied his involvement with Monica Lewinsky.  He said, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”  The word “that” is a distancing pronoun, which we tend to use when we subconsciously want to separate ourselves from something or someone. 

Lack of “speaker commitment.”  When people are saying things that are true, they tend to speak in a straightforward manner.  When they are lying, they tend to hedge or “beat around the bush.”  They seem foggy on things that should be clear to them, or they insert qualifying words such as “really.”  For example, “I haven’t really seen him in a long time” probably means she has seen him recently; otherwise there’s no need for that “really.”

Lack of consistency.  The speaker uses vocabulary that is not typical for him or speaks with a different level of formality than normal for him.  This is especially true if he is using speech patterns that are more formal than usual.

Answering your question with a question.  This is a stalling technique that people use to buy time when they are not being truthful.

Non-denial denials.  When someone says, “I would never do something like that” or “I deny these accusations,” that is not the same as clearly saying “I didn’t do that.”  Some experts speculate that when someone says “I deny these accusations,” what they’re really revealing is that they wish the accusations weren’t true—not that they’re not true.

Unnecessary or extraneous details or answering a different question than what was asked.  When people are answering questions truthfully, they tend to provide the exact amount of words that answers the question.  For example, if you asked me if I saw my friend yesterday and I did, I would just say “Yes,” or perhaps, “Yes, I saw her yesterday afternoon.”  If you asked me if I saw my friend yesterday and I did but for some reason didn’t want you to know, I might say something like, “She is so busy these days, it’s really hard to get together with her,” and then I might immediately launch into some unrelated topic to redirect the conversation.

If I seem crystal clear on some points
and noticeably foggy on others-
all of which occurred on the same day-
I might be lying

Inconsistency of memory within the same time frame.  If I’m telling you about something that happened last week, I should remember most elements of the story with about the same level of accuracy.  If I seem crystal clear on some points and noticeably foggy on others—all of which occurred the same day—I might be lying.

Sequencing.  When people are telling a story that is true, they usually use chronological order—they tell you things in the order in which they happened.  This is how memory works: if I’m telling you something that actually happened, I will be replaying it in my memory and presenting it in chronological order.  When chronological order is violated, especially if someone tells you a story in which they tend to loop backward and then insert new elements of the story out of chronological order, that is a sign of deception.

In general, when what someone is telling you just doesn’t make sense, and there’s no way you can get it to make sense, you probably want to look a little deeper or at least proceed with caution.  No one is completely honest all the time, but this technique can help you root out nefarious forms of deceit. 

By Dr. Jennie Young

Jennie Young is an Assistant Professor of English and the Director of the first-year writing program at UWGB.  Her interests include rhetorical analysis, creative nonfiction, and professional writing.  She loves teaching and writing and is a giant Word Nerd.  

One comment

  1. I enjoyed learning about the different signs that indicate that someone may be lying. Specifically, I found the shifting verb tenses section interesting. It seems as though the person would shift verb tenses as they are beginning to lie almost in a way of them beginning a story since what is about to be said may not be truthful, but that is just a guess.

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