Interrogation Through Pragmatic Implication: Sticking to the Letter of the Law While Violating its Intent

Deborah Davis and Richard A. Leo

in The Oxford Handbook of Language and Law

Published in print March 2012 | ISBN: 9780199572120
Published online November 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics

 Interrogation Through Pragmatic Implication: Sticking to the Letter of the Law While Violating its Intent

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  • Linguistics
  • Forensic Linguistics
  • Pragmatics


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Throughout American history, police-induced false confessions have been among the leading causes of wrongful conviction. The law in the United States has evolved over time to protect suspects from police coercion and to discourage the use of physical violence, explicit threats, or promises of leniency contingent upon confession. However, police have adapted and developed pre-interrogation and interrogation procedures that are specifically designed to convey the forbidden messages indirectly, through the process of pragmatic implication. They deliberately use indirect implication both to negate Miranda warnings and to convey the forbidden explicit promises or threats contingent on the suspect's choice of confession or continued denial. These indirect strategies of implication violate the intent of the law while adhering to its literal content. This article reviews common police interrogation tactics, with particular emphasis on those conveying implicit messages beyond their literal content. It shows that most such implied messages are conveyed indirectly by the interrogator and understood by the suspect through conversational implicatures based on the presumption of relevance.

Keywords: police interrogation; Miranda warnings; pragmatic implication; suspects; confession; police coercion; intent; implicit messages; relevance; literal content

Article.  6429 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Forensic Linguistics ; Pragmatics

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