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Scenario:

Someone steals a pen and is asked: 'Did you steal the pen?'

They reply: 'No'

It is said to them: 'You are a liar.' Does this nominative sentence not suggest that they are a liar as a habit or that lying is more of a permanent characteristic of their personality more than a verbal sentence such as: 'You have lied.'

Thus, based on that, would it be wrong to describe a person using a nominative sentence when a person does not possess a certain attribute as a permanent feature?

So if somebody did something foolish, which was not their habit, and it was said to them: 'You are a fool.' it would not be as reflective of the situation as using a verbal sentence such as: 'You have been foolish.' or are the two interchangeable?

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You do realize you can click the check mark next to a response to accept that answer, don't you? –  Robusto Mar 26 '11 at 12:20
    
Yeah, really. As of now, 27 questions each with multiple answers, none accepted. –  Mitch Mar 26 '11 at 13:39

3 Answers 3

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Yes. Saying "You are a liar" can have the implication that the lying is habitual - that it's one of their enduring characteristics - though it would not necessarily always be understood that way.

In the exchange in the question, to make the accusation that the person is lying in this instance (without implying that they make a habit of lying), it would be better to say "You are lying!".

Saying "You have lied", though correct, would be wrong in this situation, because it implies "There was at least one (unspecified) time in the past when you lied" - but here the time is known, and it's close enough to the present to use the present.

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Would whoever downvoted care to leave a comment giving reasons? –  psmears Mar 26 '11 at 14:53

In the context of that one exchange, the declaration "You are a liar!" simply refers to the act of stealing the pen and lying about it. If one wanted to make an unambiguous statement that the person habitually lies, that would have to be made explicit.

It isn't necessary to limit the scope of the declaration by saying "You have lied" — and even though that is arguably a gentler way of making the accusation, it doesn't necessarily limit the scope of it either. "You have lied" probably refers to a single instance, but may also be used to cover multiple instances of lying.

If you really want to limit the scope, refer to the lie, not the liar.

That is a lie.

Now we are dealing with one lie and, by implication, one liar.

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This bodes the question of whether one lies because he is a liar or one is a liar because he lies. "You are a liar," used to refer to his character whereas, "you are lying" (or "you have lied," if referring to an instant in the past), would refer only his actions.

These days, however, in our culture of ever-growing exaggeration, the meaning of, "you are a liar" (or simply, "Liar!"), has been diminished to, "you are lying" (or as we have seen, "that is a lie").

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