Is it proper to use lying to refer to something one says one will do (or not do) and then later fail to follow through on, either due to neglect or forgetfulness?

I have heard twice in the same week, in completely different circles, people use lying to refer to something other than the intent to deceive.

I corrected it, the first time. When it came up the second time in a different context I wondered if I was missing something!

So sorry to even have bothered you all with this. Apparently these were folks making use of one particular definition of lie and ignoring or not aware of the obvious primary definition. You're right! It is right there in the dictionary!

closed as general reference by waiwai933 Mar 8 '13 at 20:42

This question is too basic; it can be definitively and permanently answered by a single link to a standard internet reference source designed specifically to find that type of information. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    Any reputable dictionary will say that lying is making an intentionally false statement: ODO for example. – Andrew Leach Mar 8 '13 at 18:04
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    Someone who breaks their promise is not a liar, but an oathbreaker. – tchrist Mar 8 '13 at 18:05
  • Sarah, even though the question was closed, and even though the information was available in dictionaries, please feel free to vote up any answers that you found useful, and choose one of them as your accepted answer. (Click on Accept icon; it appears during mouseover of vote-numbers.) You get 2 points of reputation when you accept an answer. – James Waldby - jwpat7 Mar 8 '13 at 22:21
  • @jwpat7 Thank you. You folks have been very gracious! They all were helpful! – Sarah Mar 10 '13 at 2:34
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    It's a colloquialism to use "lying" when referring to your own misstatement which was not made to consciously deceive. My father would say, "Sorry, it looks like I was lying to you." meaning he was mistaken. You'd never use it when speaking of someone else's mistake, but only when referring to your own mistake and used in correcting your previous statement. Like I said, colloquial and somewhat uneducated. – Wayne Mar 3 '14 at 5:03

Wikipedia's article Lie says

To lie is to deliver a false statement to another person which the speaking person knows is not the whole truth, intentionally.

On this tack, an unintentional mistruth as asked about in the question is not a lie.

The Wikipedia article then lists 28 categories of lies, among which I didn't notice anything about forgetfulness. The category names are Bad faith, Barefaced lie, Big Lie, Bluffing, Bullshit, Butler lie, Contextual lie, Economy with the truth, Emergency lie, Exaggeration, Fabrication, Fib, Half-truth, Haystack answer, Honest lie, Jocose lie, Lie-to-children, Lying by omission, Lying in trade, Lying through your teeth, Minimisation, Misleading and dissembling, Noble lie, Perjury, Polite lie, Puffery, View from Nowhere, and White lie.

An untruth due to forgetfulness perhaps most resembles Bad faith:

As defined by Sartre, "bad faith" is lying to oneself. Specifically, it is failing to acknowledge one's own ability to act and determine one's possibilities...


The OED definition is "To tell a lie or lies; to utter falsehood; to speak falsely". Most people draw a distinction between a lie and a mistake; if you believed what you said to be true, you are not lying. Therefore, if you said "I will do it" you were probably not lying, though you may turn out to have been mistaken.

Unfortunately, that is as far as the consensus goes. Some people, particularly children, tell falsehoods for the joy of it, without caring whether they are believed; whether this is lying is unclear (except to members of the Parents' Union). Some people make bold assertions without checking their truth, and claim this is not actually lying; they tend to be disbelieved. And some people (including senior politicians, I hear) choose their words with extreme care so that they will in fact deceive, but could be construed as saying something true, or at least vacuous. This is not generally punishable as perjury, but most people still consider it lying.

  • To contrast the assertion in your first paragraph, while most listeners would draw such distinction, in the case of the speaker, if their statement which they believe is true is in fact false due to unknown action of a third person, the speaker can say the third person "made a liar of me" and may take considerable offense. It's usually considered misplaced even then, unless the third party took the action with the intent to prove the speaker's statement false. – KeithS Mar 8 '13 at 20:43

The very first definition of lie at dictionary.reference.com says:

a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth; a falsehood. Synonyms: prevarication, falsification. Antonyms: truth.

Merriam-Webster agrees:

to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive

I'm sure there are plenty more dictionaries you could find to cite.


So sorry to even have bothered you all with this. Apparently he was making use of one particular definition of lie and ignoring the obvious primary definition. It is right there in the dictionary! The other instance I'm sure was just lack of knowledge and coincidental that they occurred so closely together.

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