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Difference between “lying” and “misleading”

If you lie to someone, have you necessarily misled them?

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Being that I came across this forum while trying to do a quick search on the definition of lying, not intending to commit a great deal of time (I obviously failed at this goal), I will try to keep this take on the question short, if possible. For an even shorter version, look at the last paragraph/conclusion.

The way I take the meaning of the question, it could also be re-phrased as "is it possible to lie without misleading?" or "is misleading an intrinsic characteristic of lying?" My answer to this is: no, for at least two reasons.

1. To mislead someone means that you have to convince them of something that is not true. Thus, if you were to lie to someone, even if with the intention to mislead, and they did not believe your lie, then you would not have misled them. We could compare this (in a literal sense) to heading down a well-known road to a major city, and, at a fork in the road, finding someone who tells you that the city is down the left path, when you know through experience that it is down the right one--the person is certainly lying to you, but they have failed to mislead you i.e. lead you down the wrong path.

2. In some cases, what might be a lie to one person is a truth to another (this can happen with opinions). To go off of the example Vince used, if someone asked "does my hair look good?" and you replied that it does, when you actually believed that it did not, you would certainly be lying to the other person; however, if the other person believed that their hair actually did look good before asking, then your statement would not have affected their stance on it, and you would not have 'led' them anywhere. Moreover, being that aesthetic opinions are very hard, if not impossible, to universalize, even if you did convince the other person that their hair looked good, if they genuinely believed that it did, then they would not be misled.

This example can also be expanded to more than two people. To make this clearer, let's give the other person (whose hair-style is the topic of debate) a name: how about Bróg (those who know a bit of Irish may be giggling). Now, for instance, if you were to go to a party with Bróg whereupon someone asked you what you thought of their hair-style, and you again lied, saying something like "it looks good," and this other person also genuinely believed that Bróg's hair-style was aesthetically pleasing (as established above, it does not matter if they had this opinion prior, or if you convinced them of it, only the authenticity of the belief being important), then you would be lying, but, again, not misleading.

In conclusion, one can lie without misleading for at least two reasons: (a) people do not always believes one another's lies and (b) sometimes (as with opinions) what counts as untruthful to one may be truthful to another. Hopefully that was not too long--I really was trying to refrain from writing an essay.

brenden208 December 24, 2015, 7:43pm

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*or withholding of the truth

Hugo STJ December 19, 2014, 4:42am

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I recently received this question in an oxford interview. At first I considered there might be moral implications for one more so than the other; however after a brief discussion with the interviewer we came to the conclusion that lying is a direct contradiction of the truth, while misleading is a manipulation of withholding of the truth.

Hugo STJ December 19, 2014, 4:41am

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Interesting topic. I think misleading is worse than lying. Let me explain my perspective...
Misleading someone is lying with intent to trick that person into believing in a falsely candid truth. Most misleading statements are framed in part-truth, and that is what makes this practice particularly egregious. Anyone who hears a statement where enough truth is present, will consequently trust that statement as being a whole truth. Misleading is the number one political tool. Part truth, hidden truth (the one needing to be lied about). Lying on the other hand can be less consequential. Good manners for example, are often rooted in what we call "white lies". Example; How does my hair look? - Wonderful! (all the while thinking it looks pretty disastrous). To not hurt feelings, we all use lying as tool for kindness and politeness. Someone who would tell the truth 100% of the time would quickly be judged as a heel -- and justly so. As for more important lies (like adultery ones), they are all with the intent of misleading another. So misleading seems to take the cake here. Well, that's my take on this. Obviously, it's more complicated than that.

Vince May 18, 2011, 11:26am

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Sarah - misleading someone is not necessarily unintentional. Someone can tell a person something with the intention of misleading them or deceiving them.

frank January 10, 2011, 2:59pm

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Misleading is an unintentional untruth. Lying is intentional untruth. It doesn't matter what the hearer believes. The intent of the statement is the key.

saran January 10, 2011, 1:55pm

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Lying is knowingly telling something that's not true with the intent to deceive. Thus, being mistaken or telling fictional stories for entertainment are not forms of lying.

criskity January 5, 2011, 2:41pm

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scyllacat is right. If the person being lied to doesn't believe what is said, then that person is not misled.

You could also have told someone what you believed was the truth when in fact you were in error, i.e. had your facts wrong. If you were believed then you would have misled them, albeit unintentionally.

frank January 2, 2011, 7:06am

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---"To lie only requires that the speaker not tell the truth."

I dunno; seems to me if a person thinks something is true, even though they are mistaken, saying what one thinks is not lying. The concept of the lie seems to me to carry within it the intent to mislead.

fmerton December 28, 2010, 1:28am

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To lie only requires that the speaker not tell the truth. If the liar misleads, that involves what the person they are lying TO believes. They are only misled if they believe the lie. So, no, to lie does not NECESSARILY indicate misleading, but it indicates an intention to do so.

Was that pedantic enough for the forum? :)

scyllacat December 27, 2010, 4:19pm

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I think the answer is yes. They are different. Next question, please.

robertcforest December 27, 2010, 7:38am

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Neither of has have really addressed the question---is it possible to lie without misleading. All we have said is that it is possible to mislead without lying.

The initial question is, I think, philosophical, not grammatical. As with a lot of philosophy, definitions are needed that go beyond the dictionary meanings.

fmerton December 26, 2010, 10:55am

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It's also possible to mislead by telling the truth.

criskity December 25, 2010, 4:40am

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The two words are synonyms, but "to mislead" is broader and includes "to lie" in its range. One can however mislead without telling an outright lie, such as by omitting pertinent details.

fmerton December 25, 2010, 4:24am

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Yes     No