The Language of Confession, Interrogation, and Deception


Roger W. Shuy

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  • Empirical Linguistics Series

    William A.Kretzschmar, Jr., Series Editor

    Books in this series will bring serious attention to the study of empirical data (e.g., linguistic corpora, discourse analysis, dialectology, and sociolinguistics). Every volume will accept the actual utterances of real people as the basis for study. Empirical Linguistics fully embraces the “linguistics of speech,” showcases applications of empirical methods, and includes textbooks that present the methods of empirical linguistics.

    Also published in this series:

    Introduction to Quantitative Analysis of Linguistic Survey Data: An Atlas By the Numbers

    by William A. Kretzschmar, Jr. and Edgar W. Schneider


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    Series Editor's Introduction

    The first book in the Sage Empirical Linguistics Series featured quantitative analysis, one of the possible avenues by which empirical analysis of language can be pursued. This book takes another path, qualitative analysis through case studies. While Roger Shuy does not count occurrences of linguistic features, he is no less interested in “the actual utterances of real people as the basis for study,” the announced focus for the series.

    And what case studies Shuy presents. They make for gripping reading. The facts of the legal cases are there, and the details of interrogation and confession. We learn that interrogations and confessions do not occur in two-minute segments—the impression that some readers may have gotten from popular television offerings—but instead as part of a process bound up with detective work and subject to every kind of social and legal pressure. Most of all, we learn that the interplay of language in interrogation and confession has its own drama that is every bit as intriguing as the drama of detection and trial. Shuy's detailed analysis of the discourse of interrogation and confession demonstrates that neither suspects nor law officers can afford to think that words mean just what they say. The condition of the speakers, whether they are asking or answering the questions, has much to do with the meanings of statements as those meanings are intended and inferred. The conditions under which statements are made also have much to do with their meaning.

    We as readers can act the part of the proverbial fly on the wall, not for the events of hard-boiled detective fiction but now for the high stakes of real cases being decided on the basis of what people have actually said. And the verdicts are not always what disinterested analysis of the discourse suggests.

    Forensic linguistics, here practiced by one of the founders of the field, is no less linguistic because it is also forensic, just as there is no less medicine in forensic medicine than in other medical specialties. Because the stakes are so high, there is all the more reason that linguists (and others) should apply every available method in the field to try to find the equity in confessions and interrogations. This Shuy does, whether by remarking on cultural differences in communication in the Panini case, or the sequence of question topics in the Jerue case, to name just two. From the welter of approaches in the different cases, general trends do emerge, both for linguists and for interrogators: linguistic analysis suggests practical consequences in law enforcement. Here is empirical linguistics at its best, not only in study of actual speech but in service to just treatment of actual speakers.

    William A.KretzschmarJr.University of Georgia


    To all those who have endured my fascination with this subject during the past few years, especially my wife, Jana Staton; my children, Tim, Joel, and Katie; and my graduate students at Georgetown University. All helped me hone and refine these thoughts. To them all I am deeply grateful.

  • References

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    Cody, M. J., Marston, P. J., & Foster, M. (1984). Deception: Paralinguistic and verbal leakage. In R. N.Bostrom (Ed.), Communication yearbook (Vol. 8, pp. 464–490). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
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    About the Author

    Roger W. Shuy is Distinguished Research Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., where he has taught graduate students for the past 30 years. He has specialized in issues relating language to the field of law for over two decades. He has testified as an expert witness in 45 criminal and civil cases throughout the United States and has served as linguistics consultant to defense attorneys, the U.S. Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Congress, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on hundreds of occasions. His book Language Crimes was published in 1993. He has also published many books and articles on the application of linguistics to the fields of education, medical communication, sociolinguistics, and language attitudes. He is Past President of the American Association of Applied Linguistics and currently serves on the editorial boards of the journals Discourse Processes, Discourse and Society, International Journal of the Sociology of Language, Forensic Linguistics, and Hispanic Linguistics. He is writing a book on bureaucratic language.

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