I'm wondering if there's a word that describes this type of language sneakiness:

I asked my boyfriend to stop talking to his ex-girlfriend, or I would break up with him. He agreed to stop talking to her. A week later, I find out he's been texting her all along, and when I confronted him, he said, "I said I'd stop talking to her, I didn't say I wouldn't text her."

This is just a made-up story, but I am wondering if there is a word in English that describes precisely this kind of deception.

Kind of like using semantics to get over on someone. Like a bad (or good?) lawyer, I guess.

Anyone have any ideas?


8 Answers 8


You're asking for a term to describe the situation where someone does exactly what you asked, but still managed to avoid doing what you wanted.

It sounds like he's obeying the letter of the law but not its spirit.

The letter of the law versus the spirit of the law is an idiomatic antithesis. When one obeys the letter of the law but not the spirit, one is obeying the literal interpretation of the words (the "letter") of the law, but not necessarily the intent of those who wrote the law. Conversely, when one obeys the spirit of the law but not the letter, one is doing what the authors of the law intended, though not necessarily adhering to the literal wording. - wikipedia

  • 2
    Exactly what I was thinking - spirit of the law vs letter of the law. Thanks for the help! Commented Jul 31, 2017 at 3:35
  • 2
    Note this only applies to laws and rules and other such rather formal commitments you can lawyer over. If a girlfriend asks her boyfriend not to text an ex and later accuses him of abusing the law she's mandated, then I wouldn't be surprised at the lack of respect.
    – talrnu
    Commented Jul 31, 2017 at 16:36
  • @talrnu In the context of the OP's example, he agreed to her demands. Although it's perhaps not something to which he might be legally bound, the girlfriend's initial demands can be described as laying down the law.
    – Lawrence
    Commented Jul 31, 2017 at 22:31
  • Laying down the law is an idiom, it doesn't imply actual law on its own. Spirit/letter of the law is an idiom that applies to actual law. You can make a nice joke by combining them in one sentence to form a sort of play on the words, perhaps, but it's comedy and sarcasm at the girlfriend's expense (it portrays her as overbearing and emphasizes her lack of actual authority, as my previous comment observed). That doesn't appear to be the asker's intent.
    – talrnu
    Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 13:42


1 A point of law or a small detail of a set of rules, as contrasted with the intent or purpose of the rules. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/technicality

Much like @Lawrence's answer, the term technicality refers to the legal process, and in particular to where the letter of the law is followed but not the spirit. Typically this is due to a loophole being exploited.

This is typically used in reporting legal cases where the defendant, while widely believed to be guilty is let off due to the wording of a minor point of law or procedure. It would be said that they "got off on a technicality" It's also used in tax procedures, where an otherwise illegal tax avoidance/evasion technique is used that is actually permitted due to the wording of the tax code.

  • 1
    Obligatory xkcd: xkcd.com/1475
    – corsiKa
    Commented Jul 31, 2017 at 15:01
  • You used it in your explanation, but just "loophole" by itself would also work.
    – BradC
    Commented Jul 31, 2017 at 16:48


Oxford Dictionaries Online defines equivocate as 'Use ambiguous language so as to conceal the truth or avoid committing oneself.'

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    This only works when the person designing the wording is the one abusing its loopholes. The asker's specific example shows someone else is being accused.
    – talrnu
    Commented Jul 31, 2017 at 16:39
  • @talrnu right, if the boyfriend had quipped "well, I said I wouldn't speak to her...", then his girlfriend could retort, "don't equivocate!"
    – Andy
    Commented Dec 28, 2018 at 20:26


  1. Excessively concerned with minor details or rules; overscrupulous.

Source: Oxford English Dictionary online

The response from the boyfriend in the OP example can be described as a pedantic argument. It attempts to focus on the smallest of semantic arguments, while ignoring the clear implication that the original commitment - to stop talking to someone - would include texting and other forms of communication.

  • 4
    While pedantry is almost a required personality trait to engage in this kind of behavior, I do think that this is not a direct answer to the question. A pedantic argument is an argument about a futile detail (i.e. not worth discussing); but the given example topic worth discussing (to both parties, as he is arguing his point and she is arguing hers). It would be more correct to call it "an argument about his pedantry" rather than "a pedantic argument". It's the boyfriend that's pedantic, not the argument itself. (I am aware that my comment is a bit pedantic.)
    – Flater
    Commented Jul 31, 2017 at 10:09
  • @Flater This answer suggests the detail being abused (the nature of communication, in the asker's example) is trivial compared to the purpose of the request it serves. A pedant makes trivial things nontrivial by focusing on them. Just because they've become nontrivial over the course of conversation does not change the fact that they became so due to acts of pedantry.
    – talrnu
    Commented Jul 31, 2017 at 16:49
  • @talrnu: "a pedantic argument" refers to an argument that is futile. This is not a futile argument, the point she raises (since she's the driving force for the argument) is valid: he pedantically distinguished between talking and texting. He has been pedantic, but the argument about his pedantry is not pedantic in and of itself. The fact that he still texts his ex is not a futile detail that's not worth discussing, and therefore the argument is not pedantic. But the topic of discussion is his pedantry.
    – Flater
    Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 7:50
  • @Flater I would point out that my reference to the term, "argument" is specific to the boyfriend's response - His rationale as to why it's okay that he's texting - not the entire discussion between the two people. His defense relies on a pedantic distinction between texting and talking. The futility of the argument is in trying to establish that there is a legitimate difference between texting and talking (in this circumstance) and that it is defensible that he committed to stopping one and is not restricted from the other. Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 12:14
  • @PV22: Fair enough, I do see the ambiguity between argument (discussion) and argument (one person's claim in the discussion). But that's a very ambiguous reference to make in this contextWithout specifying a possessive ("his predantic argument"), it seems a bit too ambiguous to be usable in this context.
    – Flater
    Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 12:20

"Malicious Compliance" comes to mind:

Malicious compliance is the behaviour of intentionally inflicting harm by strictly following the orders of a superior, knowing that compliance with the orders will not have the intended result. The term usually implies the following of an order in such a way that ignores the order's intent but follows its letter. It is usually done to injure or harm a superior while maintaining a sense of legitimacy.

Source: Wikipedia.

Though this definition has the workplace in mind, I think the term itself is broad enough to apply to your example as well.

  • 2
    This is not malicious compliance.
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Jul 31, 2017 at 20:32
  • Though not quite what I was looking for, I found your answer fascinating. I hope it will come in handy some time in the near future, thanks! Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 15:17

One possibility is duplicity, from the Latin for "twofold." It captures the hypocritical nature of the offense, i.e. the person made an agreement but used a loophole to bypass the spirit while obeying the letter. Spirit vs. letter is also a good description but not a single word.

Another is subterfuge. It comes from the Latin subterfugere, for "escape secretly." The person is trying to escape consequences by secretly disregarding his promise.

  • Subterfuge is great! Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 15:15
  • It's tricky for me to justify concretely, but I feel like subterfuge isn't quite appropriate in this case.
    – Andy
    Commented Dec 28, 2018 at 20:17
  • Also, I think duplicity is the best word for the boyfriend's behavior.
    – Andy
    Commented Dec 28, 2018 at 20:20


1. The use of clever but false arguments, especially with the intention of deceiving.

Any argument that relies on subtle semantic contortion could be described as Sophistry.


Jesuitical, Oxford English Dictionary

  1. Having the character ascribed to the Jesuits; deceitful, dissembling; practising equivocation, prevarication, or mental reservation of truth. Often used in sense ‘hair-splitting’, keenly analytical.

Here are the three examples from the eleven in the OED which I think are most appropriate to the OP's question:

1817 S. T. Coleridge Biographia Literaria II. xxiii. 288 The low cunning and Jesuitical trick with which she deludes her husband.

1971 M. Hastings Jesuit Child i. i. 14 People only call a man jesuitical when they are beaten in an argument.

1974 Daily Tel. 17 Dec. 12 An argument of such Jesuitical subtlety that one would have thought it could impress no one of moderate common sense or sanity.

  • Ooh, that's something I've not heard before. I both like it and don't like it. Its fascinating that it exists, but it feels a little.. I'm not even sure.. near the knuckle? I don't know a lot about Jesuits and was unaware of any supposed characteristics of deceitfulness etc. It isn't very PC but it gets a +1 for being fascinating.
    – Spagirl
    Commented Aug 2, 2017 at 15:26
  • @Spagirl I hesitated to post it for that very reason. However, the Jesuits are more capable thqn most of defending themselves, not only because of their power, but because of their intelligence. White males, WASPS, the top 1% are all fair game, although not necessarily as intelligent as Jesuits.
    – ab2
    Commented Aug 2, 2017 at 15:54

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