Paltering in Literature

On speaking the truth with devious intent, or, veering the dialogue in your favour.

When I talk about light pollution stopping us from seeing the stars, and you start talking about a Christmas tree ornament.

“You didn’t like working for Wilde?”
“I was fired. For insubordination. I test very high on insubordination, General.”
“I always did myself, sir. I’m glad to hear it.”

—Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

The General asks a question; the detective responds with a truthful statement which may or may not answer the General’s question. It’s a shifting of focus with intent to mislead.

If you’ve ever listened to a political debate, you’ve heard it in action.

If you’ve ever listened to a sale’s pitch, you’ve heard it.

There’s little doubt you do it too, at least once a day.

It’s called paltering.

A recent BBC article titled The devious art of lying while telling the truth claims a new term has recently been coined for this misleading tactic of truth-speakNamely, paltering.

As it happens, the verb palter—meaning to shift, equivocate, or prevaricate in action or speech; to act or deal evasively, esp. for treacherous ends; to use trickery (OED)—dates from at least 1580. Also, except for the verb, the OED contains all the usual associated words: palterer (n.), paltering (n. & adj.), palterly (adv.). Hardly a new term, but that’s not the point.

The BBC article got me thinking about the role of paltering in fiction.

The rise and fall and rise of paltering (Google Ngram Viewer)


This article on paltering by Schauer and Zeckhauser starts by breaking down the components of a lie. (I quote from the abstract of an earlier version of their paper.)

A lie involves three elements: deceptive intent, an inaccurate message, and a harmful effect. When only one or two of these elements is present we do not call the activity lying, even when the practice is no less morally questionable or socially detrimental. This essay explores this area of “less-than-lying,” in particular intentionally deceptive practices such as fudging, twisting, shading, bending, stretching, slanting, exaggerating, distorting, whitewashing, and selective reporting. Such deceptive practices are occasionally called “paltering,” which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as acting insincerely or misleadingly.

The authors consider what happens when one of the three elements of a lie remains unfulfilled. They refer to sender and receiver as the person making a statement and the person targeted by it. (The examples, labels, and descriptions are mine.)

  1. (Fool’s message) If there is no deceptive intent, then the sender believes their own message due to misinformation and can capably convince others.

    Neighbour: How are you?

    Person: I’m fine.

    Neighbour believes person. The next day Person collapses due to an insidious infection that’s been present for months.

  2. (Dud) If the receiver does not buy into the message, then the sender’s deceptive intent and the untruthfulness of the message have no effect.

    Neighbour: How are you?

    Person: I’m ill.

    Person is not actually ill. Neighbour rolls eyes and doesn’t believe Person because Neighbour knows Person is a hypochondriac.

  3. (Palter) If the message is truthful, but the sender intends to deceive and the receiver is deceived.

    Neighbour: How are you?

    Person: I’m sweating, I’m flushed, my heart rate is 180 beats per minute.

    Neighbour panics and calls ambulance. Person thought they’d pull elderly Neighbour’s leg and neglected to say they’d just been sprinting.

In summary:

  1. has no intended deception,
  2. has no effect,
  3. has both intent and effect, while staying factually accurate, and this is what Schauer and Zeckhauser are most interested in.

The best way to think of a palter is as a lie without the obvious falsehood.

(My example in 3. may sound like a harmless prank, but it generalised well to anything from everyday persuasion and manipulation to advertisement and politics.)

As society strongly disapproves of factual inaccuracies that can be proved and held against us (this is what we’re taught in school it means to “lie”), people seek creative ways to appear honest while pursuing their own interests. This leads to paltering, which can be truly detrimental (more so than outright lying), precisely because it is harder to pinpoint, and therefore harder to discourage by law. In particular, when a receiver suspects paltering, they’re reluctant to do anything about it because the penalties for slander are too high—and anyway, what are they to say, “I was told a truth, but not the truth I asked for”?

Enough social psychology research, let me turn to fiction.

Lies, both the ones we tell others and the ones we tell ourselves, are the whirlpools at the centres of most stories. They’re usually signposted and distinct. However, the padding in between, the frills and fun and fudging, comes from the three types of half-lies: fool’s message, dud, and palter.

  1. Fool’s message: any time a character defends a mistaken belief with gusto and convinces others (memory is faulty, misinformation is rife: so most people, most of the time).
  2. Dud: any time a character is attempting to swindle another but is failing (children, the naive, those that misjudge how much information the other party has, most people who’ve told their tale to Sherlock Holmes).
  3. Palter: any time a character fails to correct a misimpression or manipulates a conversation without actually lying (prototype: Hamlet, who feigns insanity while hitching his responses on true statements based on wordplay).

The first is inevitable; the second is easily discouraged; the third requires wits and makes for oblique dialogue.

I borrow the label oblique dialogue from Sol Stein’s book, where he works through an example to show how an ordinary back and forth how-are-you I’m-fine-thank-you exchange can be spiced up. Here one variant he ends up with:

SHE: How are you? I said how are you?
HE: I heard you the first time.
SHE: I only wanted to know how you are.
HE: How the hell do you think I am?

It’s not stunningly interesting, but it conveys tension throughout, and has the signature evasion tactic of paltering: HE deflects the question. We can debate whether HE intends to deceive SHE about his state of mind by not answer directly, or whether SHE walks away deceived (HE could be pretending to be angry, for example, but is actually mourning), but it is this fuzziness and ambivalence that make paltering such an interesting writer’s tool. The key motive for paltering—like with lying—is to manipulate others in your favour. In everyday conversation, on a microscale, the goal of paltering (or oblique dialogue) is simply to veer the conversation in what is perceived to be a better direction.

As in Stein’s example above, note that in all the following examples, the micro-palterer succeeds in veering.

Recall the Chandler quote from the beginning of this post:

“You didn’t like working for Wilde?”
“I was fired. For insubordination. I test very high on insubordination, General.”
“I always did myself, sir. I’m glad to hear it.”

A straightforward response from the detective (Marlowe), would have been dull. The focus on insubordination emphasises an aspect of his personality: Marlowe is being interviewed for a job and he is consciously manipulating the impression he gives off. The General is pleased and takes up the insubordination theme.

In Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, when Nick Carraway attempts to leave Gatsby alone with Daisy, we have this exchange:

“Where are you going?” demanded Gatsby in immediate alarm.
“I’ll be back.”
“I’ve got to speak to you about something before you go.”

Had Nick responded with “I’ll be outside” (literal answer) or “I want to leave you two alone” (non-literal answer), the conversation would have turned awkward, which is not what Nick wants. So instead, he cuts straight to reassuring Gatsby, who immediately accepts that Nick’s leaving is inevitable and proceeds with a more gracious response.

In Charles Bukowki’s short story You Kissed Lilly (from the collection Hot Water Music), a woman is attacking her husband about a past indiscretion (I’ve added the labels, he, she, for clarity).

She: Does time change what happens?
He: I told you I was sorry.
She: Sorry! Do you know what you did to me?

He avoids answering her question in favour of emphasising his apology, and she accepts (for better or worse) the theme of his contriteness.

That covers a fair sample of situations: the everyday conversation, the interview, the third wheel exit, and the philanderer’s defence. For wordplay variations, just open Hamlet.

Conclusion I: To improve a chunk of dialogue, make at least one character the palterer.

Conclusion II: Paltering may be a dangerous social behaviour in real life, but fiction would be crippled without it.

How does paltering make you feel?

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

9 thoughts on “Paltering in Literature”

  1. Sadly, I think that political debate has moved beyond paltering over the last year or so.

    “We will spend £350M/week on the National Health Service”.
    “The Mexicans will pay for the wall.”
    “It was consensual.”

    It’s an interesting observation that nowadays it’s only fictional characters who feel the need to appear truthful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha, I suppose when all else fails we can always hold onto (appearances of) truthfulness in fiction. That way future generations might learn from what we thought ought to have been done and how, rather than what we did.

      Here we is “we”.


  2. I ask a question – why do I get the answer to a question I didn’t ask? Now I know this is a kind of paltering I can say “don’t palter!”. I shall be saying this a lot from now on.

    Paltering confuses me and makes me feel uneasy. Have I missed something? Was I ambiguous? Di I speak unclearly? Is there some link I have missed?

    What is the name for someone who cannot stand being paltered? I am one of them, but sadly I think this makes other people think I am unable to flex, to fill in the gaps, to accept random changes in direction – even that it means I am always so straightforward I must be unimaginative and unable to be creative.

    No, I just don’t like paltering.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good luck with saying “don’t palter!” I feel like it’ll be a tough line to live down on the receiving end. I’ll be curious to hear what happens when you use it (one someone who isn’t related to you). 😛


      1. Yes. It’s meant as a paltering answer to your question. And thank you.

        I commented this way out of habit because I often play a game with friends where we have online conversations using palters and other forms of word play. I forgot how confusing it can be to the uninitiated.

        Liked by 1 person

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