In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Deceptive Speech

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Lying
  • Misleading
  • Bullshitting
  • Beyond Lying, Misleading, and Bullshitting

Linguistics Deceptive Speech
Brady Clark
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0304


Work on natural language meaning in linguistics and philosophy often assumes a highly idealized model of communication, one grounded in cooperation, honesty, and trust. Real-world communication is, of course, quite different. We use language both to assert what we believe to be the case and to directly deceive by lying. Lying, however, is just one tool among many we use to deceive with language. We use language to deceive indirectly as well. We bullshit, mislead, and insinuate (among other deceptive acts of speech). Further, the distinction between lying and other forms of deceptive speech is significant in a variety of domains, both formal and informal. For example, the lying-misleading distinction is one that has enormous import in our intimate relationships, politics, and the courtroom (among other venues). A range of fields beyond linguistics have contributed to our understanding of deceptive speech, including philosophy, psychology, sociology, political, and legal studies. But, despite the significance that deceptive speech plays in our lives and several millennia of inquiry, we have a poor understanding of the taxonomy of verbal deception and only preliminary answers to foundational questions (including: How should we characterize the different kinds of deceptive speech?; How do we acquire the ability to deceive through language?; How can we reliably detect verbal deception, if at all?; etc.). Quite a bit of work on deceptive speech has been devoted to articulating its taxonomy. A simple, albeit controversial, taxonomy has emerged in recent years: lying, misleading, and bullshitting. Following a section which presents General Overviews of deceptive speech, there are sections below devoted to each of Lying, Misleading, and Bullshitting, respectively, as well as a final section highlighting work that has sought to expand this taxonomy. In each section, key references and guiding questions are described.

General Overviews

Meibauer 2019 is an indispensable recent collection of introductory articles to a range of topics in the study of deceptive speech, particularly lying and its siblings, surveying work both classical and contemporary; see also Levine 2014 and Michaelson and Stokke 2018. Levine 2020 presents a comprehensive historical and critical survey of deception detection research. Philosophers have had much to say about deceptive speech. The papers in Grice 1989 on meaning and conversation are crucial to understanding recent philosophical work on deceptive speech, much of which is (neo‑)Gricean in spirit (see Stokke 2018 for an important recent philosophical work that is informed by, but also departs in substantive ways from, neo-Gricean approaches to deceptive speech). Cappelen and Dever 2019 is a clearly written textbook on non-idealized language from the perspective of two philosophers of language. Carson 2010 is an influential philosophical work on lying and other forms of deceptive speech. Few linguists have taken a broad view on deceptive uses of language, but Bolinger 1980 and Meibauer 2014 are two important exceptions that include much of interest to the study of deceptive speech and do not overlap significantly in content or focus. There is a wide range of work on the deceptive use of language in specific contexts; e.g., Green 2006 on verbal deception and the law. Heffer 2020 is an interdisciplinary study of untruthfulness in discourse that applies a novel analytical framework to several case studies, including deceptive political speech.

  • Bolinger, Dwight. 1980. Language—The loaded weapon: The use and abuse of language today. London: Longman.

    A classic study of biases in language and how those biases are exploited (by, for example, politicians and advertisers) to deceive the public while evading responsibility for that deceit. Chapter 10 (“Power and deception”) is of particular interest to students of verbal deception and propaganda.

  • Cappelen, Herman, and Josh Dever. 2019. Bad language. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Philosophy of language textbook focused on non-idealized language. Discusses several types of deceptive speech in detail (e.g., lying, misleading, and bullshitting) in a range of contexts (everyday, political, legal, etc.).

  • Carson, Thomas L. 2010. Lying and deception: Theory and practice. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199577415.001.0001

    A thorough philosophical investigation of the moral and conceptual issues associated with lying and other forms of verbal deception (including bald-faced lies, bullshit, and “keeping someone in the dark”). Proposes definitions for several different forms of verbal deception and applies these definitions to a wide range of issues (e.g., the many deceptive claims made by members of the George W. Bush administration to gain support for and justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq).

  • Green, Stuart P. 2006. Lying, cheating, and stealing: A moral theory of white-collar crime. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A legal approach to the moral concepts that underlie various aspects of criminal law, focusing on “white-collar crime,” particularly perjury, misleading testimony, false statements, and other kinds of verbal behavior that can involve deception (such as promises and promise-breaking). Discusses a range of cases relevant to our understanding of the relationship between verbal deception and the law, including, among other cases, the question of whether Bill Clinton committed perjury, Bronston v. United States, United States v. Stephenson, and United States v. Vesaas.

  • Grice, Paul. 1989. Studies in the way of words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Essential collection of papers by the philosopher Paul Grice foundational to the study of meaning and communication. Grice’s work (particularly his paper “Logic and Conversation”) plays a critical role in many contemporary linguistic and philosophical analyses of deceptive speech (e.g., the lying-misleading distinction).

  • Heffer, Chris. 2020. All bullshit and lies? Insincerity, irresponsibility, and the judgment of untruthfulness. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190923280.001.0001

    An interdisciplinary study of untruthfulness in discourse. Drawing upon work in communication studies, law, linguistics, philosophy, psychology, and other disciplines, Heffer develops a domain-independent analytical framework, Trust-Related Untruthfulness in Situated Text (TRUST), for analyzing untruthfulness in discourse and explores several types of insincere discourse strategies in situated text, such as withholding, lying, misleading, and bullshitting. The TRUST framework is applied to several cases, including (among others) Tony Blair’s statements regarding weapons of mass destruction leading up to the Iraq War and claims concerning the poisoning of the Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in early 2018.

  • Levine, Timothy R. 2020. Duped: Truth-default theory and the social science of lying and deception. Tuscaloosa: Univ. of Alabama Press.

    Summarizes the research that culminated in his listener-centered theory of deception and deception-detection, truth-default theory (TDT), which proposes that listeners typically presume incoming communication to be true. Presents a history and survey of deception detection research, arguing that this research shows that there are few behavioral differences that distinguish lies from truths, that those differences that appear to distinguish lies from truths are neither large nor consistent, and that people are slightly better than chance at detecting deception.

  • Levine, Timothy R., ed. 2014. Encyclopedia of deception. Los Angeles: SAGE.

    Two-volume non-technical multidisciplinary reference guide to deception and self-deception in a variety of domains. A good starting point for investigating work on deception in a wide range of disciplines, including biology, psychology, philosophy, sociology, business, law, and anthropology.

  • Meibauer, Jörg. 2014. Lying at the semantics-pragmatics interface. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781614510840

    Argues that, contrary to much philosophical (e.g., Saul 2012, under Lying) and linguistic (e.g., Horn 2017, under Lying) work, speakers can lie with believed-false implicatures and presuppositions, as well as assertions. Consequently, for Meibauer, lying and (intentionally) misleading through conversational implicature are not distinct kinds of verbal deception. The book covers a number of topics important to the study of deceptive speech more generally, including bald-faced lies, the role of Gricean maxims in accounts of lying (misleading, etc.), bullshit and bullshitting, quotation, and the impact of standards of assessment on the evaluation of deceptive speech.

  • Meibauer, Jörg, ed. 2019. The Oxford handbook of lying. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This indispensable handbook provides a comprehensive overview of past and present research on lying (including bald-faced lies, group lies, etc.) and other varieties of verbal deception (such as bullshitting). The articles are written by many of the top verbal deception scholars from a variety of fields, including psychology, philosophy, and linguistics.

  • Michaelson, Eliot, and Andreas Stokke, eds. 2018. Lying: Language, knowledge, ethics, and politics. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    An accessible collection of philosophical articles on lying and other forms of deception involving language (bullshit, group lies, negligent falsehoods, etc.). Like Meibauer 2019, a good starting point for understanding how close study of verbal deception can inform work in linguistics, philosophy, political science, and other disciplines.

  • Stokke, Andreas. 2018. Lying and insincerity. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198825968.001.0001

    A philosophical study of lying and other forms of verbal deception, drawing heavily upon work on discourse structure in semantics and pragmatics. Provides a linguistic analysis of lying, embedded in a novel framework for understanding discourse, and examines the relationship between lying and other forms of verbal deception (especially bullshitting and misleading). This book can serve as a good starting point for exploring contemporary work on verbal deception in philosophy and linguistics.

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