The Language Fix

A blog for sharing language and learning information


January 2017

What Even is a Lie?

Communication partners don’t always attempt to cooperate.  Often, the whole intention of their communication is to deceive.

The work of an important language philosopher has just gained relevance after recent events – a statement that admittedly can’t often be made.  Although this is an excellent example of how philosophy can actually help us better understand the world, evidently either philosophers are dropping the ball in getting this word out, or no one has been passing along their attempts.  Anyway, it all has to do with this sudden “post fact” world we’ve suddenly found ourselves in.  And how there have been so many distortions of the truth lately it’s blurred everyone’s ability to discern truth.  And what exactly even is a lie?

With his work, generally developed from the 1940s to 1960s, the English philosopher, Paul Grice rocked the world of academics with his theories on meaning and ordinary language.  The previous sentence is actually an example of Grice’s implicature.  I didn’t state it, but by adding the words, “of academics” to the phrase “rocked the world,” I implied something beyond the sentence’s literal meaning.  By flouting the maxim of quantity, which basically says that if a person is adding more to a statement than seems necessary, he is probably doing so for a reason.  This reason is the unsaid implicature of the statement.  (My implicature was that only the academic world noticed).

In addition to quantity, Grice also created the maxims of relevance, quality, and manner.  If, when speaking, someone uses language that seems irrelevant, or of false quality, or strangely ambiguous, there must be an alternative reason why.  Another example is of a previous boss being asked about a job applicant’s previous work flouting the maxim of relevance when claiming the former employee to have “perfect handwriting.”  The inference would be that the job applicant is not qualified, since the previous boss failed to follow the maxim of relevance.

The key part in all of this is Grice’s idea of the cooperative principle – the idea that people cooperate when they converse, and if they don’t appear to be doing so we infer, often unconsciously, that there must be a reason why.  Grice thought that the reason for these noncooperations was that there was something extra-linguistic that we must be attempting to communicate.  But Grice missed something big.  Something that can help us all understand exactly what is going on when people lie.

Communication partners don’t always attempt to cooperate.  Often, the whole intention of their communication is to deceive.

Though he didn’t intend to discuss liars, and how to determine what exactly a lie is, a major part of his work can help us in our attempts to do these things.  It has to do with matching a message’s substance with the critical component of intent.  A lie is not only when somebody says something that’s not true.  And not every time that somebody says something that’s not true is it a lie.  People make mistakes, and when these mistakes aren’t meant to deceive they are not lies.  If Joe tells his girlfriend that he gave her a gift on their first anniversary, and his girlfriend pulls out a diary entry that states otherwise, to which he answers, “Oh, I must have been thinking about my previous girlfriend,” he probably just made a mistake.  A big mistake – but not a lie.

Instead, a lie is when someone passes along something he knows to be false.  (It could be argued that passing along something someone wants to be true without verifying it, such as what happens on Facebook so often, is a form of dishonesty, but it would be an argument with more counterarguments than I want to get into at this time.)  A lie would be when Joe vividly remembers not giving a gift, because he forgot, and now he’s just trying to pass along false information in the hopes that in believing him, his girlfriend will not get mad.

Grice’s implicatures can help us hone our personal lie detector systems.  Maybe the girlfriend remembered some sort of gift, but if Joe nervously adds more information than he’d probably actually remember (violating the maxim of quantity), or changes the subject (relevance), or gets unusually emotional (manner), or adds in something else false, such as the gift of a beautiful card that she knows she didn’t get (quality), her possible lie warning system should start going off, and she should start asking more questions.

There’s one additional and related point that hasn’t seemed to have been addressed at all.  It’s trust.  Any lie erodes trust.  We teach this to our kids and then forget it when it comes to politicians and the media.  A lie proves that a source is capable of further lies.  A lie in the absence of a sincere apology followed by a series of subsequent truths means that not only is a source capable of further dishonesty – that dishonesty is almost assured.

Philosophy Bits – Jean Paul Sartre

You can find tons of information about Sartre and his background all over the internet.  I just want to paraphrase a few highlights from his beliefs that I think stand out.


  • Everything we do affects not only ourselves, but by our choices and actions we are constantly setting examples for the rest of mankind.  This is similar to the old, “actions speak louder than words” adage.
  • When people would rather adhere to existing rules and norms rather than face the “terrifying” freedom of creating ourselves, we willingly possess what Sartre called, “bad faith.”
  • We should not just remain open to change, we should be vigilantly seeking change to improve ourselves and our world.
  • “Hell” is other people.  This could be interpreted to mean  that it is important to sometimes seek time to ourselves.
  • In people, existence precedes essence.  Sartre uses the example of a butter knife as the opposite, because the knife exists only after it’s purpose is known.  People exist and then make their own purposes.

Some good places to find more on Sartre’s unique philosophy:  The Philosopher’s Mail; The Existential Primer; Sartre’s “Blog”

Language Therapy Ideas – Categories

Role play:  you are helping to plan the menu for a new restaurant.  You’re in charge of the dessert (or something else). Or, you are describing where you live.  Use categories to describe the city, state, province, country, the form of government, etc.

Example statements:  “Let’s serve apple pie, cookies, chocolate cake, and ice cream.” or “I live in St. Louis. It’s a city, like New York. We live in a state called Missouri, like California is a state.”

Use categories to decide who goes first in an activity. Think of a category member. Each person takes turns guessing the category member. Whoever  guesses  (or gets closest) the correct member  goes first.

Example statements:  “I’m thinking of a month. You guys keep guessing months until somebody guesses the one I’m thinking of. Whoever gets closest or guesses it first goes first.

Team up:  With category pictures or word cards, have students divide into teams, e.g. the liquids and the insects team (or the “Wet Bugs”) versus the mammals and planets team (or the “Hairy Planets”). Play a memory game. Alternately, simply see what team can be the first to get to 5, or 10 after the instructor picks cards from a pile.

Blurting game:  Give players or teams various age appropriate categories.  Blurt out category members one at a time. If a team members states “that’s mine” before the other team states that’s theirs, they get a point.  Play to ten or twenty or whatever.

Tic Tac Toe:  Require students to label categories before placing their X’s and O’s. The winner in this example is the first to get four in a row. For variety and target specificity, create your own, or create with students.


Magazines.  Search for curriculum relevant categories that you’d expect to find in magazines, like liquids, capital letters, etc. Use these pictures for category card activities. Search for category names or names of members to find pictures. Cut and paste on a document, and print out when document is full. Glue onto index cards and/or laminate if desired.

Language Therapy Ideas – Attributes and Functions

In addition to some changes in this blog’s format, I’ve added a new page which can be accessed at the top menu, called “Language Therapy Ideas.”  The plan is to have a fairly comprehensive list of language therapy ideas listed by skill area, starting with attributes and functions.  It can, and hopefully will, be added to periodically.


Homework maker:  Create a list of from five to ten words at student’s level.  Write directions such as the following:  “Provide a function for each vocabulary word.”  Write helper next to a blank line for any helper to sign.  Provide individualized incentives for completed return.  For example:attribute-homework-example

Catalog.  Get out a catalog. Talk about why people buy the items for sale in that catalog.

Example statements:  “Why would somebody want a coat?” “It keeps you warm”. “Why do people buy wallets?”

Textbook.  Get out a textbook. Instruct student to describe vocabulary words at or below student’s level by using functions.

Example statements:  “What was a covered wagon?”“It was used to shelter pioneers during long trips.” “What is the Constitution?”

Look around you. Describe functions of objects in your environment or of things commonly seen in offices. Take a walk, and describe functions of things seen in the hall out the window, etc.

Example statements:  “What is a stapler?” “It attaches papers together.” “What is a trash dumpster?” “It holds the building’s trash until the garbage men get it.”

Specific interests.  For example, for younger kids, talk about video games, television, or sports, or for older students talk about cooking, construction, or health care.  Discuss
specific interests.  Use the internet if needed.

Example statements:  “What does a cutting board do?” “What does a remote do?” “What do anesthesiologists do?”

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