When someone is lying according to Wiktionary's definition they must be making an intentionally false statement

1. lie (intransitive)
To give false information intentionally with intent to deceive.

However, standing by English Oxford Dictionaries' definition, truth is also:

1.2 count noun
A fact or belief that is accepted as true.

does the semantic range of telling the truth include unintentional lying in America? If the speaker is unaware that the statement is false, are they telling the truth?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Mar 31, 2018 at 20:13

4 Answers 4


To lie (in English), you have to do three things:

  1. Say something false,
  2. Which you believe to be false,
  3. With the intention of deceiving.

In press accounts you'll often see phrasing like ("made a false statement") or ("misleading statement") for things which might be lies, but you're not sure because you don't know whether the person knew they were saying something false, or if they were actually trying to deceive someone.

See Coleman & Kay (1981) for a classic study on how the word lie is understood by American English speakers.

To add something about the phrase tell the truth, My guess is that tell the truth, from a lexical standpoint, is vague or unspecified as to whether the embedded proposition is objectively true (but the speaker has to say something they believe, with no intention to deceive). At the level of pragmatics, there is a strong implicature that it is true, though.

For example, tell the truth by itself comes with the default interpretation that the speaker's belief is correct; but it can be overridden by adding an adjunct phrase starting with as. Some examples from the NOW Corpus. I also add in some examples that suggest that whether tell the truth is felicitous also depends on whether the speaker has told "the whole truth" (e.g., they are not being deceptive through misplaced emphasis):

We want people to start telling the truth as it relates to my client and what she's been put through
I believe they are each telling the truth as experienced and/or researched. And yet...
Have I just become anti-Semitic for telling the truth as I see it?
Instead? he has been telling the truth as determined by the SACP and has the full backing of the party.
What if that goal conflicts with telling the truth as you see it, no matter whether...

  • just to clarify the truth should generally mean true but over time truth has become relative to ones experiences?
    – johnny 5
    Apr 1, 2018 at 1:29
  • @johnny5 now you are straying towards philosphy, as some of the commenters were suggesting earlier on. See about possible world semantics for more on that topic.
    – user31341
    Apr 2, 2018 at 1:42
  • Yes, overall I think this is the most digestible concise answer so I’m giving you the check
    – johnny 5
    Apr 2, 2018 at 1:52

Semantics is often used as a synonym for lying.

Prototype Semantics: the English Word Lie

2.2 Prototype theory

In contrast to the theory of semantic features, the prototype theory is based on the assumption that semantic categories are fuzzy and allow degrees of membership, what means that the applicability of a word to a thing is not a matter of yes or no, but of more or less (Coleman, Kay 1981:27).

The closer something is to its prototype (the ideal representative of a category), the easier it is to classify the referent and to distinguish it from members of other categories (Meyer 2003:116).

The prototype theory assumes different degrees of membership of members of a category, with the prototype at its center and it recognizes the fact that the boundaries of a category are often not clear-cut but fuzzy, so that the referent may be put into different categories, according to context and personal judgment (Meyer 2003:116-117). Furthermore it allows to see connections between the literal meaning and the metaphorical use of a word, which is important because it is often difficult to draw a line between literal and metaphorical meanings (Meyer 2003:117).

Lie is not an object with unique features and it can be interpreted in different ways, according to personal judgment. The applicability of the word lie is not a thing of yes or no, but of more or less. That's why a prototype analysis is more suitable for lie than an analysis with the theory of semantic features.


Words of natural language along with idioms and phrases are used in speech and writing to communicate conscious experiences, such as thoughts, feelings, and intentions. Each meaningful word, considered without any context, is characterized by a set of semantic connotations 1. These connotations are a product of, and correlate with experiences communicated with the use of the word. Stated differently, communicated word semantics are behavioral correlates of experienced semantics. Therefore, the scientific characterization of word semantics can shed light on semantics of human experiences.


The above is from Logic, Semantics, Metamathematics: Papers from 1923 to 1938, by Alfred Tarski, John Corcoran

So it's all very subjective, depending on which theory you subscribe. As has been pointed out before, the question calls for opinion.

  • 1
    Yes, Tarski. I have been told that without him, my answer would not be possible. That is, it would not be possible to make a meta-statement about the truth.
    – Lambie
    Apr 1, 2018 at 14:59

There's an immediate answer and then there is a deeper nuanced answer which mostly end up in the same place.

No, you cannot tell the truth with a false statement. A false statement is always taken to be not true, it is exactly what is not a true statement. Truth is what is the case, and false is what is not the case. They are the essential opposites. To think otherwise is absurd. 2+2=4 is true and 2+2=5 is false. That is what true and false mean.

There is no such thing as unintentional lying, because lying is entirely about intentionally telling a falsehood, which has a pronounced stigma of bad intent about it. If you tell a falsehood but believe it, that's not lying. You're still wrong, but you're not untrustworthy because of that. If you say that someone is lying, it is an accusation of a bad thing, not just a statement of how accurate someone is.

But maybe you're wondering if you say a belief for something that happens not to be the case but that you fully hold to be true, is that then true? No, that is not true. That is not what true means. A belief that is not true is a thing that is not true. A thing that is not true is not the case. Just because you believe it does not make it true, however strong your belief. (That's part of a good reason why we have distinct terms for such sentences, a belief is something you think is the case whether it is true or not, but a truth, whatever you may think, is still true.

That's just what words mean. To use them otherwise is perverse. If you understand words the way you want them to mean, then that may be easier for your own thinking, but you'll have difficulty in having other people understand you.

'True' is for things that are the case, and 'belief' is something you think is true (and may actually be true or not), and a 'lie' is an intentional non-truth, and these are three distinct things.

Of course, one can always read things metaphorically, and then maybe say that even false statements may have a grain of truth to them, like the quote from Picasso:

We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.

This is of course poetry, intentional mind bending, where we're supposed to see in an artificial, hand-made, inaccurate recreation of truth that lies behind the superficialities. A story that is made up but reveals truths.

And then there're are the universal truths which turn out to be myths that are malleable from one culture to another, form one point of view to another. Lots of historical truths are like this.

Also, using words to describe other words is circular. At some point thought has to come into it. And that is problematic because two people can point to the same thing and use the same words for the same thing but think slightly different concepts. It's even more tenuous for things you can't point at like abstract things like 'hope', 'identity', or even something which we all agree on like 'truth'.

This leads to change. Words certainly change how they sound over time, but the same sounds can change meaning over time. For example the word 'awful' used to mean more literally 'full of (or inspiring) awe', but now it just means 'terribly bad'. Meanings change for many reasons such as misuse, new contexts, weakening by overuse.

For example, 'literally' means 'by the letter' or 'verbatim' or 'based on the primary meaning'. But it is often used in a non-standard way for 'very much so' or 'virtually', mostly because the standard way of using it comes in contexts where 'virtually' would fit also.

I think what you are really asking is if there has been any change over the years in the use of the word 'truth', if there has been any change or split in the usage where there is still a standard but also a new non-standard use. I think you are suggesting that people (Americans) are starting to use 'truth' for things that are strongly held beliefs (I am editing what you said because it is a true oxymoron to use 'unintentional lying' because lies are by definition intentional).

There has been lots of talk in the news lately by people who seem to say things that are just not the case but they claim truth. For the record, it is not just lately, and it's not just Americans; politicians and used car salesman have been saying forever 'Believe me, I'm telling you the truth when I say ... ' (something that eventually turns out to be false). Saying 'X is true' can be judged for truth just as much as 'X'.

Let's just say that it is plausible that there has been some semantic drift, but because the meaning of 'truth' is so clear, this drift is not really happening. It is more likely that these handful of people are not sincerely using the words differently, but are intentionally labeling things wrong. That is, they are making a mistake in using 'truth' or just lying.

Side Note 1: Definitions from dictionaries are interesting. There was no god-like person who created definitions for words (except maybe in science and math and that's out of convenience). A dictionary attempts to describe in as few words as possible (that's important) what a word means using other words. Some dictionaries employ scores of linguists who are experts in capturing this meaning well. But the point is that what they try to capture is how other people, on the whole, tend to use a word. The dictionary writing linguists are not trying to tell you that you are supposed to use a word in one way and not another. A good dictionary will say that one meaning is the socially approved or formal or educated use (what we usually call 'correct'). But the dictionary is not an enforcer or It is an authority in the sense that the writers tend to know a lot about how to explain the many nuances of the word accurately. But it's not an authority like police who use punishments to enforce laws (still a cultural source), and it is certainly not an authority on what must be the case, like physical or chemical laws.

Side note 2: There are all sorts of competing philosophical definitions of 'truth' which mostly overlap but have some nuanced differences. None of these philosophical definitions include 'falsehood'.

  • In the beginning you imply that ‘speaking the truth’ is equivalent to the logical operate true, but I’m a bit confused you made cases for both sides what is your final verdict.
    – johnny 5
    Mar 31, 2018 at 23:37
  • I made two paths to the same conclusion. The first easiest path, from the usual meaning of all the words you use, no, if the speaker is unaware that a statement is false, then that are still saying something false, it is still not telling the truth. The more complicated path is about change in meaning over time, but still no, there is no evidence that people are using the word 'true' to state falsehoods. If they use that label, then it's not a semantic change, they are just lying.
    – Mitch
    Apr 1, 2018 at 0:01

The sky is blue can be true or false, as in: The sky is blue is true. The sky is blue is false.

Therefore, it can also be true or false that the entire utterance is true or false: It is true that (the sky is blue is true). It is false that (the sky is blue is true).

So, if a person is lying, the question then becomes: what truth does their lying cover up? Why are they lying?

So, you can't "tell the truth" when making a false statement, but a false statement can be covering up some truth. In other words, lying "contains" some truth.

Advice: see a good headshrinker to figure out why you go round telling lies as in saying that the "sky is blue is true" is a false statement. This call all be written with correct logical notation, but I am not a logician so that is not up to me. Perhaps someone else will oblige.....


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