Linguists have the scoop on the different ways we communicate false information.
Philosophers as far back as Greek and Roman antiquity debated the meaning of truth. While what constitutes truth has always been controversial, these days it seems like the line between what’s true and what’s not has become increasingly hard to tease out. So let's look at what it means to lie versus mislead and how it plays out linguistically.
Lying versus misleading
Though it might seem subtle, there is a crucial difference in the act of lying versus the act of misleading:
Lying involves stating something that you know to be false, and a lie is still a lie regardless of whether your target buys it.
Misleading someone, on the other hand, can often be accomplished without explicitly saying something false and is more about nudging someone in the direction of what you want them to think.
Unlike lying, if your target doesn't buy your misleading statement, then you haven't misled anyone. In other words, both lying and misleading are forms of deceptive behavior, but how they are accomplished linguistically — and what’s at stake — are quite different.
For instance, think about a situation where Squiggly and Aardvark are talking about how much they each want a chocolate bar, and they generally keep chocolate bars in the pantry. If Squiggly tells Aardvark there are no more chocolate bars in the pantry despite knowing full well there's one left, Squiggly asserts something that is patently false — in other words, Squiggly is lying so he can grab the chocolate bar for himself later.
In contrast, Squiggly is only misleading Aardvark if he says something that is not itself false — for example, instead he might emphasize that there are cookies left to lead Aardvark to the conclusion, indirectly, that there are no chocolate bars left, only cookies.
Why is this difference important? Because lies come with greater costs to your reputation, while everyone from sneaky children to crafty politicians can maintain plausible deniability when "truthfully" misleading others. In short, being just misleading gives someone a weasely out that lying doesn’t.
How can something be deceptively truthful?
The trick is in the linguistics of how something is phrased. Because lies require speakers to explicitly say something they know is false, it is hard to deny if caught in that lie. So, if Squiggly says he did not eat the chocolate bar, but Aardvark saw him eating the chocolate bar, then he is pretty much busted. The consequence being that his standing as a trustworthy and reliable speaker will be knocked down a peg or two, not to mention that Aardvark will start hiding his Kit Kats when Squiggly is around.
However, what if Aardvark knew there was one Kit Kat left, and then later notices it is gone? He mentions this fact to Squiggly, who admits something that is in fact true — he shrugs and admits to having eaten one piece of the Kit Kat but says nothing about the rest of the Kit Kat. This triggers what those studying pragmatics call a "scalar implicature" where a listener infers through experience that a speaker’s use of the smaller term (e.g., one or a part) usually negates the larger term (e.g., all). A typical listener would think that if Squiggly says he ate one piece, that means he didn't also eat the rest.
In other words, we generally believe speakers are being as informative as possible. But this is not actually part of the semantic content of what Squiggly said because the literal meaning of Squiggly’s statement does not include any information about the rest of the Kit Kat.
As a result, since it is true that Squiggly did in fact eat one piece of the Kit Kat, he can deny having lied when later video surveillance shows him scarfing the entire thing. After all, he never said he didn’t eat all the Kit Kat. So, he was perhaps misleading Aardvark but not lying to him. The benefit in this distinction is that he can save face (and still get to eat the Kit Kat). This is the essence of plausible deniability and why it is so appealing to those who want to persuade others by manipulating the representation of facts.
Vague is in vogue
Squiggly can say it wasn't a lie that he claimed to have eaten a piece of the Kit Kat, when in fact the whole bar was consumed, because he was less informative (one chocolate stick) rather than fully informative (all four sticks) in describing what he did. This is a form of vagueness, and deception often relies on intentionally making vague statements that allow for a greater number of possible interpretations, even though the speaker suspects, based on experience and what’s contextually or culturally relevant, that certain incorrect but favorable interpretations are likely.
A great example of this comes from the way politicians running for office will often make statements that are hard to pin down in terms of what exactly they are promising. For example, saying you plan to make tax changes that benefit Americans is technically true if just two Americans benefit. By not being clear about how many benefit or precisely who benefits, politicians can more easily massage the facts later to fit what they said and deny that any campaign promises were broken. In short, by reducing the informativeness of what you say, you create the opportunity to mislead people without actually lying.
It’s all in what I mean, not what I say
The linguistic crux here is that the information we get when talking to others goes far beyond the pure semantic content (the literal meaning) of someone’s sentences. Conversationalists have expectations and cultural knowledge they apply to what the other person is saying, which leads them to interpret what is said in particular (and predictable) ways — something linguists call implicatures.
Speakers who want to be deceptive but want to maintain the appearance of being truthful, can instead be "truthfully" misleading by claiming they didn’t intend to lead to a particular inference by what they said.
Finally, of course, people can also lie and mislead at the same time.
The motto of this story is that it is up to the listener to beware — and to recognize such manipulation by understanding how misleading language can still be deceptive even if it's technically truthful. Pay attention to both what is said, and what isn't said.
Anne Reboul. 2021. “Truthfully Misleading: Truth, Informativity, and Manipulation in Linguistic Communication.” Frontiers in Communication 6.
Grice, H. P. 1975. “Logic and conversation,” in Syntax and Semantics 3: Speech Acts, eds P. Cole and J. J. Morgan. New York, NY: Academic Press. 41–58.