Who is ‘we’? Investigating pronouns for deception.

If you are ever arrested and asked to make a statement by the police on US soil, be careful with your pronouns. Law enforcement officers in the US are likely to have received training in analysing statements for deception from Mark McClish or Don Rabon, which means the pronouns you use will be inspected very closely. McClish and Rabon come in for a lot of stick from forensic linguists working in academia, due to the lack of citations and over-generalisations in their blogs and best-selling books. 

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But to be fair, many of the leading academics working on lie detection have said similar things about the use of first person pronouns being an indicator of veracity. Newman, Pennebaker and colleagues, in their seminal work ‘Lying Words: Predicting Deception From Linguistic Styles’ provided some empirical support for the correlation between low self-reference and deception; subsequently it has been found to broadly hold in online dating profiles, business communication and criminal narratives (but, interestingly, not the case in consumer reviews which use ‘reader engagement’ as a deception strategy).

It should be noted, however, that Newman and Pennebaker’s prediction rate was 67% – that is wrong 1 in 3 times. Consequently, simply counting the use of any first person pronouns is not by itself the magic cue for deception detection. There are a number of different first person pronouns – I, me, my, mine, myself, we, us, our, ours, ourselves. Not only do these have different strengths in terms of socio-psychological ideas of distance and commitment (compare ‘I was hit’ with ‘The car hit me’) but they work differently linguistically. For example,  ‘I’ and ‘me’ will correlate with verbs, ‘my’ with nouns; also ‘I’ correlates with stance and modal verbs (‘I thought’, ‘I tried’, ‘I would’) so is a more ‘active’ first person pronoun than the passive ‘me’.

The above also applies to ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘our’. In addition first person plural pronouns have the additional pragmatic parameter of clusivity to distinguish who exactly is included in the ‘we’ (see Figure 1 below). And there is the linguistic phenomenon of nosism which includes royal and editorial ‘we’ (see Ben Zimmer’s excellent 2010 article to fully appreciate the complexities of ‘We’).

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Figure 1: Referential parameters of ‘we’: inclusive (left), exclusive (right). By LucaLuca. Reproduced under Creative Commons licence

A case in point is ex-UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s response to questions about his alleged use of off-shore tax havens to avoid paying tax, as revealed in the Panama Papers leak. In April 2016, 10 weeks before the EU Referendum and his subsequent resignation, Cameron was taking questions about the upcoming referendum and speaking in support of remaining in the EU at a town-hall style Q&A event held at PriceWaterhouseCoopers’ Birmingham offices.

Figure 2 is a transcript of David Cameron’s response to an unexpected question from Sky News journalist Faisal Islam regarding the controversy over his connection to an offshore investment company (Blairmore Holdings) owned by Cameron’s late father. Cameron denied owning any shares or offshore investments but was roundly criticised for his evasive answer (Cameron restricts his answer to the present tense, despite Faisal Islam’s specific temporal reference to the past and the future – lines 4-5). Five days later, under public pressure to resign, Cameron was forced to admit that he had owned shares in his father’s business (which he sold at a profit shortly before taking office as Prime Minister).

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Figure 2: Transcript of David Cameron’s first public response on the Panama Papers allegations. Given during a Q&A with workers at accountancy firm PWC in Birmingham, 5 April 2016.

David Cameron’s use of pronouns is an excellent example of linguistic duplicity, shifting between inclusive ‘we’ (yellow), exclusive ‘we’ (red) as well as ‘I’, all in reference to himself; the identities referred to by ‘I’ are split between David Cameron as a UK citizen and his role as Prime Minister.

Furthermore, the scope of ‘we’ varies within the text and is sometimes unclear. In answer to a question about “you and your family” with regard to the financial business of one’s late father, one might expect ‘we’ to refer to some aspect of family. However, Cameron initially moves to include the whole audience (and viewers) in his personal financial affairs by referring to  ‘we’ as a nation with the contextual reference “our tax authority” and later “our own country” (line 8). In the middle of his response, a different (exclusive) ‘we’ appears mid-sentence – “I have a house, which we used to live in, which we now let out while we are living in Downing Street” (lines 16-17). There is no explicit reference to the scope of this ‘we’ but the reference to personal property ownership means one can assume that is not the national ‘we’.

If one assumes that it is the ‘we’ originally asked for in the reporter’s question – i.e. “you and your family” – then Cameron has violated the right frontier constraint (Webber, 1988), which stipulates that anaphoric elements such as pronouns are interpreted in ambiguous cases by reference to information at the end of the previous discourse unit i.e. the right frontier (for languages with left-to-right scripts). That Cameron returns to ‘we as a nation’ for the remaining text further highlights his dynamic use of pronominal reference.

The linguistic duplicity displayed by David Cameron above is in stark contrast to the language he used when owning up to his involvement with Blairmore Holdings in a hastily-arranged national TV interview. As the transcript shows, Cameron doesn’t use ‘we’ at all in response to similar questions. This case study shows that assessing veracity and potential deception by tracking pronoun use is valid but more complex than simply counting; the inherent capacity for linguistic duplicity is contained within a complex system of deceptive pragmatics.