Five Ways to Tell Whether Someone is Lying to You in an Email

Several studies point to the same conclusion: people are more likely to lie when using email than when using traditional pen and paper, or engaging in face-to-face communications.

However, while we tend to overestimate our ability to detect lies in face-to-face communications, or even over the phone, most of us would tend to agree that it is much more difficult to uncover lies sent by email. However, while people have much more time to fabricate stories to send through email, recipients also have more time to look for inconsistencies and clues that suggest someone might not be telling the truth; and many of the same tools used by professionals to detect lies can also be put to work to analyze fib-telling a la email.

Linguistic analysis (or “statement analysis”) is used by experienced investigators to catch people lying in person as well as by email. The art of linguistic analysis involves studying the language, grammar and syntax someone uses in their communications. Here are the top 5 signs that the email you just received is not entirely truthful.

1. Lack of Self-Reference

As referenced in Fraud Magazine, truthful people tend to make frequent use of the pronoun “I” to describe their actions, and those who are lying will instead use a passive voice. So while people who are telling the truth might say “I had a lot of fun last night,” someone who is lying will often say something like: “the party was a lot of fun.”


2. Inconsistent Verb Tense Use

Another aspect of one’s statement that can help identify whether or not someone is telling the truth is verb tense. People who are recounting the past most often speak in the past tense, so when investigators detect variations in verb tense usage it is often scrutinized. offers an example of an oral statement that would raise a red flag:

“…so we kept on going up 67. She told me to take a left. We go a little ways and the guy up front pulls out a gun, so I jumped out of the car and ran.”

This statement was written using the past tense, except when the victim talks about the actual crime. At this point he states “We go a little ways and the guy up front pulls out a gun”. This change from past tense to present tense comes to reduce the commitment of what is being said, and suggests that it could be deceptive.


3. Equivocation

In a paper written by Susan Adams and John Jarvis of the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, the two explain how equivocation can be linked to deception, referring to a study that tied the behavior to a higher incidence of false statements. While saving you from the gruesome details of their example case, they state that the use of equivocation terms (such as: believe, think, almost, about, mainly, etc.) often suggests that the person is in fact lying.

This behaviour can also be linked to lying within emails when people are describing an event that happened in the past.


4. Alluding to Actions

When people lie, they also tend to allude to actions that they did or did not do, while avoiding saying so explicitly. offers the example of Roger Clemens (sorry Red Sox fans). As Mark McClish recounts, Clemens avoided stating directly that he had not in fact taken steroids, instead stating: “It never happened.”

“Never,” explains McClish, “is a word very frequently used in denials. By using this word, we do not know exactly what Roger Clemens is referring to. Clemens repeated this phrase continually throughout his testimony. In addition to alluding to actions Clemens also answered an obvious question (How about a polygraph?), with another question: “Yeah, I don’t know if they are good or bad.”  The habit of answering questions with questions is also frequently ascribed to by liars.  


5. The Use of Euphemisms

A euphemism is a mild or indirect word or expression substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing. So it should not be a surprise that investigators have also found that people tend to rely on euphemisms in order to cover up the truth.

Whether you just “brushed against” another car in the parking lot, or you are the type that gets “tired and overemotional” when drinking; people are naturally inclined to downplay poor behaviour.