Language in Police Interrogations of Criminal Suspects

Learn How Your Words May Hurt You

Popular crime show dramas often portray police interrogations as heated and adversarial. Suspects are shown to break down and confess to crimes after long hours of brow-beating and intimidation. In the media, suspects are routinely subjected to yelling, lies and trickery. In fact, though, police interrogations are generally far subtler, and less threatening, because trained officers know that suspects generally reveal a great deal about an event simply by the way that they speak and the words that they choose to use. Seasoned interrogators will use these subtle language cues to direct their questioning and determine “guilt” based on what they learn. Suspects may be fooled into thinking that they are simply recounting events and are not under suspicious, when in fact; officers may be gleaning information that convinces them of the suspect’s guilt.

Trap of police questioning witness

When an officer questions you, the goal is to get admissions that fit into what police believe to be “the complete picture” of a crime. Police want to nail down your role and how it fits into what they believe. In order to do that they will ask you to describe the “who, what, where and when” of what happened, and they will continue to ask you to recount these facts until they are satisfied. During that conversation they will be listening carefully to the way that you tell the story and the information you choose to include to try and determine whether you have omitted relevant facts or outright lied. Here are some of the language clues that they will be looking for.

Verb Usage

Since verbs denote action, interrogators pay particular attention to the verbs you use to describe the events in question. When most people are asked about their prior actions, they automatically use past-tense verbs. However, experience has shown that suspects will switch to the present tense when they are trying to camouflage their behavior. Additionally, investigators look for verbs that denote incomplete actions; verbs like started, began, proceeded, etc. can indicate that a victim’s actions were interrupted, presumably by the crime. For example, when you state that your missing wife started her walk, you are indicating that she didn’t finish it. Officers may assume that you did something that prevented her from completing it. Seasoned interrogators won’t remark on these usage choices. They will, however, take note and ask you to elaborate on the actions that occurred around that time later in the questioning.


Pronouns are short-cuts that replace the need to use a proper noun each time you refer to a person. The use of he, she, they, we or us can clue police officers to the suspect’s state of mind. Using the pronouns she and I instead of we may indicate to an officer that you wish to separate yourself from the person or the events that occurred when you were last with that person. They may interpret this distancing as an indicator of a guilty action. Additionally, using pronouns instead of a person’s proper name may suggest to an interrogator that you don’t want to talk about that person or don’t have regard for them.

Use of Passive Voice

The use of passive voice in everyday language is unusual, because it sounds and feels awkward in casual conversation. As with pronouns though, the use of passive rather than active voice can indicate a desire to disconnect youself from an event or person. In active voice, a suspect recounting a shooting would say, someone shot the gun, but using the passive voice, a suspect would say the gun was shot by someone. These clues will alert investigators to probe that event more carefully.

Changing Word Choices

During an interrogation, officers are alert to any changes you make in the phrases you use to describe what happened. If you say one time that you chatted with your missing wife, before she started on her walk, but the next time you say you discussed something with her, then the interrogators will pick up on the subtle differences in the language. The word ‘chatted’ implies a much more casual conversation than the word discussed does. Discuss can imply an argument that got out of hand to an officer, which they then suppose led to the commission of a crime.

Omitting Information

Often suspects will omit information rather than fabricate false information in order to conceal their actions, and police officers are well aware of this fact. Suspects provide clues to information that they may be attempting to omit by using qualifiers. Qualifying words are make language less direct. For example, stating that you don’t remember an event is a direct statement. Saying that you don’t remember a specific event adds a qualifying word that is intended to cloud the meaning. Officers will also examine the pauses that you make while telling your story. Suspects who are being truthful generally don’t have to pause to think about what occurred next in the narrative. When there are a lot of pauses, officers are inclined to think that their suspect is taking time to mentally put a plausible story together before they say it aloud.

Another indication that someone is trying to omit facts is the use of words that can be described as text bridges. These are words that convey time passing, like then, later, afterward or saying ‘ah’ or ‘um’. These words suggest that suspects may be leaving out important and/or incriminating parts of the story. Skilled interrogators will return to these points in a narrative again and again to try and elicit more information. This will generally make a guilty suspect feel very uncomfortable and thus more likely to make an error if they are omitting facts.

If you are being questioned by the police, you may be inclined to discount the importance of how your use of language can affect the direction of an investigation; but these subtle techniques may be heavily factored into making a determination of your guilt or innocence. Though officer’s don’t ultimately determine your status, they do rely on the information that you provide to determine whether to pursue you as a suspect. Even when you are innocent of any wrong-doing, a police investigation can have a tremendous negative impact on your life. Therefore, it is always preferable to have an attorney present to speak on your behalf when you are being questioned about a crime. Not only are attorneys familiar with these tactics and how the information might be misinterpreted, they can protect you from having your own words used unfairly against you.

Should you talk to police?

No, not without your lawyer. There is a reason the Constitution protects people from custodial interrogations without a lawyer. Regardless of how innocent you may be, the police can always use part of what you say to make their case stronger. If you are innocent, you don’t know what you might say that fits into the police theory of their case. If you are guilty, do not trust that you can somehow outsmart police. Get a professional on your side.

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