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For quite some time, I've been hearing the phrase "to be honest" almost every day. I've heard friends say it, characters on TV shows, and even an NPR reporter said it in an interview.

Example:

"To be honest, I don't like spaghetti."

Why do people have to specify when they are being honest? Or I've thought maybe the phrase is actually supposed to mean "to be blunt" or "let me tell it to you straight."

How did the word "honest" get in the mix?

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To be frank, I don't think it's a strange or new phenomenon. Honestly, it's used in basically every language I can think of, no lie. Truth be told, it seems an almost universal need for humans to emphasise that, actually, they are speaking the literal truth. The truth of the matter is that no one even gives it a second's thought. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 7 at 16:41
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I generally counter this pet peeve of mine with "Finally, some honesty!". Always throws people. –  Thomas Jul 7 at 16:50
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Has anyone else noticed that often, those who are known to lie or bend the truth the most are the ones who say "to be honest" the most? At least that has been true in my personal experience. –  JohnDubya Jul 7 at 18:15
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"To totally lie to your face, I absolutely love your new hair style" - I'm not sure what kind of message that would give. –  Mitch Jul 7 at 20:27
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@JohnDubya I agree. And my impression is that I hear it more from people I don't know who insistently try to convince me of something I am not interested in -- most commonly salespeople (or people with a salesperson mentality). To me, it's a turnoff, if not a big red flag: I tend to stop listening (or at least trusting) when I hear it... But yes, it is also a tic with some other people, in which case I try to ignore it. –  Drew Jul 8 at 3:13

5 Answers 5

up vote 86 down vote accepted

"To be honest" is an example of an adverbial disjunct, which indicates the speaker's attitude toward the sentence without affecting the meaning of the sentence. It is often used, consciously or otherwise, to preface a statement that the speaker believes is particularly candid in the present context, possibly to an extent that might cause mild offense.

It's a bit of a set phrase these days, and as is usually the case with set phrases, it's best not to parse it too closely in casual use.

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+1 for candid. It's a softener for the blow that's just about to dealt. It used to be Frankly ... or I've got to be frank with you ... but that doesn't work well for some of us. :) –  Frank Jul 7 at 17:19
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Note that some people may consider saying "to be honest" frequently to be a marker that the person speaking is not always honest. You may find this related Wall Street Journal article of interest: online.wsj.com/news/articles/… –  LCountee Jul 7 at 18:19
    
@Frank I got a chuckle out of that. :-) –  TecBrat Jul 9 at 14:44
    
Well said @Frank ;) –  AnotherUser Jul 9 at 18:36
    
It can indicate a scenario where it may be socially acceptable to tell a white lie to avoid some kind of awkwardness ("How are you? Fine!" when the responder is actually feeling ill, for example) but the responder is indicating that they chose not to tell the socially acceptable lie, but instead speak the truth. –  Bill Michell Jul 10 at 9:00

In addition to phenry's answer, these meaningless "to be honest" additions might also be considered a discourse marker: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discourse_marker

In linguistics, a discourse marker is a word or phrase that is relatively syntax-independent and does not change the truth conditional meaning of the sentence, and has a somewhat empty meaning. Examples of discourse markers include the particles "oh", "well", "now", "then", "you know", and "I mean", and the connectives "so", "because", "and", "but", and "or".

Common discourse markers used in the English language include "you know", "actually", "basically", "like", "I mean", "okay" and "so".

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Pragmatic markers include various subsets. 'To be honest' falls neatly in the veridical (commenting on the truthfulness of the statement to which it is appended) subclass. However, as Janus is the first to say, it often paraphrases 'actually' as a mere focus marker. –  Edwin Ashworth Jul 7 at 23:27
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To be hyperbolic, I find it appalling that connectives are considered to have "somewhat empty meaning." There is a vast chasm between "but" and "because." –  Charles Staats Jul 8 at 15:42
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@Charles Staats Watch the average member of the public put on the spot for a TV interview and you'll realise just how meaningless these terms can be in typical usage. But, at the end of the day, that's basically what happens when, you know, you aren't prepared. I mean, not everyone is, like, a skilled orator. –  imsotiredicantsleep Jul 9 at 1:03

In many cases, claims of veracity are used by liars to discourage the listener from considering the possibility that what follows may be untrue. In the spaghetti example, though, I believe the intended meaning of the disclaimer is probably closer to "I am aware that proper decorum would imply that a guest should always be appreciative of the food offered by the host, but would nonetheless like you to know that I cannot receive from your spaghetti a level of enjoyment commensurate with the effort you spend preparing it." Basically, the purpose of the statement would be to avoid a situation where a host might mistake a guest's gracious acceptance of something as an indication that the guest would like the host to serve it in future.

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I think this is the best answer for the specific question being asked. In his specific example it's meant to take the edge off of what would otherwise be a rude answer. –  JamieB Jul 9 at 16:23
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@JamieB: Given the subject [food, presumably prepared by one's host] I thought the manners aspect seemed like the most important aspect of the usage here, though none of the other answers mentioned it. In general, even if it were clear that something had to be done to prevent the host from offering spaghetti on all future visits, one should attempt to phrase things in a positive rather than negative way, e.g. "I was just remembering that wonderful chicken you used to prepare" or "I understand you have many delicious recipes, and would like to try some more of them". Sometimes, though... –  supercat Jul 9 at 16:37
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...no suitable form of expression may present itself, and the longer one prolongs the truth, the harder it will be to soften the sting. If the host prepares spaghetti for many visits in a row, each time will increase the inevitability of the host's discovering that the guest was feigning enjoyment, and increase the hurt that such discovery will inflict. Since such a situation really benefits nobody, even a ham-fisted effort at defusing it may be better than allowing it to persist. –  supercat Jul 9 at 16:44

The subfield of linguistics called pragmatics deals with this kind of topic. It might be a sort of "hedging" to make what follows more polite—a semi-apology without changing its contents.

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I personally use "to be honest" casually as in @Kevin's example, but I also personally use it to indicate "Alright, I usually will beat around the bush and try to be indirect, but not this time. This time, I'm going straight to the point".

Which, to be honest, is how I have always seen "to be honest" as. I mean, sure it implies that the speaker considered lying, but I see "honesty" between friends and/or acquaintances to be about being direct or indirect, with "direct" being "honest".

Because usually, when you try to be indirect, instead of saying you don't like spaghetti, you'll try to deflect it by saying "I'm full", which is lying/dishonest (unless you are indeed full)

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I typically use it this way as well, when standalone. But when as a response to a question, I find that when I say it, it more often carries the meaning of "I had not considered that particular thing before (perhaps in prior answers, recently or otherwise), but now that I think about it..." –  Miral Jul 9 at 6:36
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@Miral, I think I recognize this usage as well. It is simiar to "Actually, ..." –  TecBrat Jul 9 at 14:50

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