Exact Words

And he let you?

General Chang: You'll never take this city while I'm alive, monster!
The Death Knight: Terms accepted. (stab)

When the exact wording of a rule, promise, prophecy etc. matters more than the spirit of the wording, it's an Exact Words situation.

The Knight Templar, the Anti-Hero, and those with even looser standards (but some standards) will often stick to Exact Words even as they declare I Gave My Word. A common trait of Lawful Evil characters. Also a common (and not always evil) way to play with Just Following Orders or the Leonine Contract.

The Obstructive Bureaucrat will insist on them as if the Vast Bureaucracy would fall apart if exceptions were made. The Beleaguered Bureaucrat will often insist on them, when the exceptions really would be a problem.

For magical enforcement, see Literal Genie. Often the cause of Prophecy Twist. Literal-Minded characters just do it because that's how they think. Can be defended against with Legalese, though might be used (and horribly abused) by a Rules Lawyer. If someone follows established rules to annoy someone else, it becomes Bothering by the Book. If this trope is related to or defines a superpower, it's called a Semantic Superpower.

Subtrope of Double Meaning. Compare Heroic Vow, I Would Say If I Could Say and Ironic Echo. Unhand Them, Villain! is a specific variant. Threat Backfire is a common result. It's very commonly used in False Reassurance. The actual interpretation of the words is often Not Hyperbole. When used in response to a question can often result in a Mathematician's Answer. Can also lead to a Literal Metaphor and to Literalist Snarking. Also see No Man of Woman Born.

The Exact Words are also the difference between a riddle and a mere common question.

Spoilers ahead.


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  • Cape Cod Potato Chips proudly advertises their low fat (6 g) chips as "40% reduced fat," and in tiny letters underneath, "compared to regular potato chips." This is entirely true — except that it's not their (kettle-cooked) "classic" chips (8 g) they're being compared with; it's Lay's and most (conveyor-cooked) store brands, which typically have 10 g fat and are, indeed, more "regular" to the average person's idea than kettle-cooked chips. By the same logic, they could sell their classic chips as "20% reduced fat."
  • A Swedish commercial has a young man ask his date if she wants to "taste the sausage". She's disappointed that he meant it literally.
  • As Charlie Brooker has pointed out; wording in advertising is key. For example you can't say a toothpaste will "eliminate" plaque build up but will instead, "help fight". As you can fight a wall but you probably won't get far.
  • Volkswagen ads spoof the exact wording of "sign and drive" car sales by having someone drive a car while simultaneously trying to sign a contract. This then segues into their "Sign, Then Drive'' Event promotion.
  • A Simpsons Butterfinger commercial had this:
    Homer: I'm gonna open my mouth and close my eyes and you're gonna give me a big surprise. (Bart sticks Maggie's pacifier in Homer's mouth)
  • In Sweden, it was once illegal for domestically-run commercial broadcasters to air commercial breaks during programs; they could only do it between programs. So what did TV4 (an OTA network which, unlike its cable-based competitors who broadcast from outside the country, was subject to said rules) do? They split a program with an interstitial, thus allowing them to air ads "between" programs.

  • In the Child Ballad "The Lord of Lorn and the False Steward", the hero had promise not to tell the truth to anyone. When the heroine overheard him lamenting his fate to a horse, she asked him to tell her; he refused, she sat down on the hay and told him to ignore her and go on telling the horse, and he did so.
  • In one folk song, the two characters are in love with each other, but the woman's father has made her promise to say "No" to any request a would-be suitor makes of her. Once the man realises this, he asks her to refuse to date him, and she gladly denies this request, thus agreeing to date.
  • The sea song Paddy West is about a "sailing school" in which neophyte sailors do such things as walk around a bullock's head (thus going "around the Horn") and step over a rope on the ground ("crossing the Line") in order to claim experience to potential employers with a straight face.

    Card Games 
  • Magic: The Gathering runs on this trope.
    • Many rules depend on exactly how things are worded, and slight changes will completely ruin the effect of the card. One notorious example is "Substance", an ability whose only reason for existing was to cheat around the fact that there is a significant length of time between "at end of turn" and "until end of turn," and certain cards really needed the second onenote .
    • Many, many of the creative combos (most of which are tournament-winning level ones) and lockdowns are result of this and lack of creator's foresight. Myr Superion is a card that was meant to be cast with mana generated from normal myrs, as that's what they're best known for. However its only restriction is that the mana used to pay its cost has to come from creatures. If you reduce its cost to zero, you don't need any creatures to play it.
    • In early playtesting, one card had the effect "Opponent loses next turn". While the intention was that the opponent's next turn is skipped, many players instead interpreted it as "Opponent loses the game next turn". As a result, the actual printed card instead reads "Take an extra turn after this one."
  • There are several examples from Yu-Gi-Oh!:
    • An interesting side-effect of Equip Spell Cards that give Piercing, is that you can inflict damage to your opponent by equipping them to your opponent's monster(s). Then, when your opponent attacks one of your Defense Position monsters with an ATK greater than your monsters DEF, he/she will take the difference. After all, even though it's your opponent's monster, it's your Spell Card, and thus it's your opponent — not you — who takes the extra damage, due to the wording on the cards.
    • Some continuous card effects have linkage to another monster cards such as Future Fusion and Call of the Haunted. However, when the monster is removed from field other than being destroyed, the continuous effect card remains on the field meaninglessly. When this card is destroyed, destroy the equipped monsternote . "That card" is the primary offender. This loophole abuse actually led to its ban in tournament play.
    • Another card that deserves special mention is Question. The card states that the opposing player must remember the name of the first monster card on the bottom of his/her opponent's graveyard or it gets special summoned to the field. This was fairly jarring if your opponent enforced including prefixes such as if the monster's card name began with "The" (Like many a Six Samurai deck.) or enforces his/her own specific pronunciation of the card's name.
      • A deck strategy that doubles as a Take That to the TCG is a Karakuri Deck that runs Question. Because of the TCG's (read: the Western world) penchant to changing the names of cards, OCG (read: Japan and Asia) players that hated the new TCG names of the cards, when faced from someone of the TCG, will require them to name the card in full, with its model, number, and name, and they will take an incomplete declaration as a validation for them to summon it. If they want it taken Up to Eleven, they will require the Japanese name of the card. Of course, trying to memorize something like "Karakuri Steel Shogun Model 00x "Bureido" can be quite a mouthful.
    • A common mistake most beginners make is the difference between "destroying" a card and "negating" a card. The former simply means the card no longer exists on the field, the latter means it's effects are stopped until the negating effect ends. This means that playing something like Mystical Space Typhoon on an activated spell/trap card with the same or lower spell speed is meaningless, as it's effect is already in motion and it would go to the graveyard regardless anyways. Likewise, simply negating the effect of a continuous card without destroying it is moot, as the effect would resume as soon as the negation card is gone.
    • There's a card called "Yu-Jo Friendship". When activated, you offer a handshake to your opponent. The effects of the card are dependent on whether or not the opponent accepts the handshake, but you can reveal a "Unity" card in your hand to your opponent, and then they must "accept the handshake". It doesn't say to apply the one specific effect, just that they must accept the handshake. So one player, after using this card, stuck his hand down his pants, and then showed Unity to force a handshake. His opponent wisely chose to forfeit rather than to shake that hand.
      • Of course, the opponent could have instead called over a judge and gotten the player penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct.
    • One of the main reasons Blackship of Corn is popular: its effect doesn't say to "destroy" the target monster, but to "send it to the Graveyard". Cards that are destroyed go to the Graveyard, so what's the difference? Many monsters have effects saying either that they "cannot be destroyed by card effects", or that "when this card is destroyed by a card effect, do X", and many such similar cases. Due to the wording on Blackship's effect, it bypasses all of that since the card isn't technically being "destroyed".
  • Pokémon: Certain moves like Selfdestruct don't tell you to remove the card as if it had fainted, but to put as many damage counters on it as it has HP. As seen in the Game Boy version, this means that you can use a Defender card to remove two of those damage counters, allowing the card to remain in play at least one more turn.
  • Munchkin has had to do this a few times, since it's a game with a sizable player base of rules lawyers.
    • Errata for the Plutonium Dragon had to say that "You are roasted and eaten" meant that you were dead.
    • A famous instance came from people using "Go Up a Level" cards to make their opponents gain a level, since there was no rule saying you had to use the level-up card on yourself, thereby forcing the other player to fight a monster they could have otherwise escaped from. The developers said that it was "a very Munchkin-y thing to do," and decided to leave it in the game, unpatched.

    Comic Strips 
  • Dilbert
    • In a comic, the company is at thirty dollars a share when Dogbert offers to buy them, but their value promptly falls. Dogbert then offers to pay "the full thirty dollars" for their stock. They ended up selling him the entire stock for thirty dollars and not thirty dollars per share.
    • Dogbert does this a lot. At one point he ran an investment firm, and promised clients that if they let him manage their investments, they could one day own "this", said while holding up a photo of a mansion.
    Client: I could own a mansion!
    Dogbert: You could own a photograph.
    • And then there is the department who has the rule "don't shoot the messenger". So they tarred and feathered them instead.
    • This strip too.
  • A frequent source of humor in FoxTrot.
    • For example:
    (Peter is doing the dishes)
    Peter: It's unbelievable how much homework I have to do tonight! I can't remember the last time I had this many things due! I don't know what all my teachers were thinking!
    Andy: In that case, Sweetie, why don't I do the dishes?
    (later on)
    Jason: I thought you had no homework...
    Peter: It's all in how you say it.
    • Jason asks his mom if he can keep playing a driving game for a sec. He later clarifies that he meant a parsec. Obviously this doesn't work.
    • Andy discovers that a plate of fresh cookies was missing, and she asks Paige if she's seen what happened to them. Paige calls back that no, she hasn't. Cut to her and Jason, eating cookies while wearing blindfolds and Jason saying that he had been wondering why they had to wear them.
    • Those instances where Andy tells the kids they can have one piece of candy, or one scoop of ice-cream... Jason has melted all his candy to form one giant piece, Paige manages to take the entire tub of ice-cream out in one scoop. Really, the kids are amazing at this.
    • Peter gets this probably even more since he's the Stomach of the family. For example, he eats a box of doughnuts to find out "which one" Andy said he could eat. Another time, he tries to eat a pan of brownies which is, at that point, technically one brownie. Andy catches him that time.
    • Some other examples: Peter and Jason saying they ate one slice of pizza apiece: a large pizza cut in half. Another is Paige asking if she can have a banana as a pre-dinner snack. She eats half a loaf of banana-chocolate chip bread to get to the banana.
    • Jason allows Peter to go see the film Thor with them for the weekend (even though he's only going to see it for Natalie Portman), although under the condition that he dress up as Thor for the movie like themselves. Peter then asks what qualifies as wearing a Thor costume. It then cuts to them on the sidewalk with Jason and Marcus wearing Thor helmets, a long blond wig, and Thor's hammer with Peter wearing an outrageous costume that is composed of a Philadelphia Eagles helmet, a utility hammer, and a curly blond clown's wig, with Peter saying "What?! You said a hammer, a blond wig, and a helmet with wings!" to an embarrassed Jason and a shocked Marcus when about to enter the car.
    • Still another strip has this:
    Andy: Jason, I thought I told you to turn that off at 8:00!
    Jason: Okay, mom.
    (Jason turns the TV off with his remote, then turns it back on a second later)
    Andy: What did I tell you?
    Jason: It's 8:01 now.
    • And another has Andy ask Paige how she did on her test, and Paige responding, "Infinitely better than I expected." In the final panel, she reveals that the trick is to expect a zero, since any positive number would be an infinite percentage greater than 0. Peter says he should try that some time.
  • Calvin and Hobbes
    • Calvin tries this after being ordered "upstairs, in the tub now!" Calvin lies down in the empty bathtub, proclaiming:
    Calvin: I obey the letter of the law, if not the spirit.
    Calvin's Mother: Let's hear some water running!
    Calvin: Nuts.
    • Another:
    Calvin's Mother: Did you pick up your room?
    Calvin: I tried, but I couldn't lift it! Get it? AHAHAHAHA!!
    (she throws him back in his room)
    • When asked to explain Newton's First Law in his own words, he writes in his own words: "Yakka foob mog. Grug pubbawup zink wattoom gazork. Chumble spuzz."
  • Garfield is a master of this.
    • For example...
    • Arguably his finest moment was at the beach, when Jon chastised him about burying Odie in the sand. Garfield defends himself by claiming that "I only buried him up to his knees." Upside-down.
    • U.S. Acres also has its moments: In one strip, Orson (as the "Book Fairy") approached Roy, Booker, and Sheldon with a book he claimed would make them "stop watching television". After Booker voiced his skepticism, Orson broke the television screen with the book.
    • Again as the "Book Fairy", Orson told Roy he had a book he [Roy] could really get into. After Roy said he's not into books, Orson "TWAKed" the book at Roy's face.
    • U.S. Acres: Orson once took up knitting and Lanolin dared him to make her a sweater. Orson then worked on her wool and she became a sweater.
    Lanolin: I have a biiiiiig mouth.
  • A running gag in The Phantom is characters telling "Mr. Walker" that he can't bring a dog into places, and him blithely responding that that's okay, because Devil's a wolf.
  • In Pearls Before Swine, a maitre d' gives Pig and Rat a dish, also telling him to be careful as the plate is hot. He really does mean it. Unfortunately for Pig, Pig thought the maitre d' meant it was "hot" as in having a high temperature, instead of "hot" as in stolen, which resulted in the Police arresting Pig for stealing the plate.
  • A couple of examples in For Better or for Worse cartoons:
    • Elizabeth was watching John as he did taxes. John moaned that even with deductions, he ended up paying through the nose. Elizabeth looked industriously at his face to see it happen until he said it was a figure of speech.
    • Michael was saving up his allowance for a pair of roller skates. He ended up spending the money he had saved up to that point, and when he told Elly, she just said, "Money seems to burn a hole in your pockets." Cue Michael and Elizabeth fearfully checking his pockets to make sure they were all right.
  • One story by Don Martin has some kids selling snow tires for an unbelievably low price. Said tires are made of real snow. (They also sell snow shoes, snowmen, snowballs...)

    Fairy Tales 
  • In The Peasant's Clever Daughter, the king sends the daughter back to her father but permits her to take one thing from the castle — whatever she likes most. She drugs the king and takes him, since he was what she liked the most.
  • Common in many fairy tales where it concerns deals with the devil/leprechauns. The good, God-fearing farmer will get the better of the bad character using this trope.
  • In The Goose Girl, the princess tells the truth not to anyone — which she had promised not to — but to an iron stove.
  • A lad unwittingly helps Death - Death says he makes no exceptions ever, but his thank will be that he sends him a messenger first so he can sort his earthly businesses before he dies. As the man dies decades later, he complains: "Where was the messenger you promised?" "But I sent you even more than one - didn't you recognize Mr. Hair-Loss and Mr. Toothache and Mrs. Prostrate Cancer and..." note 

  • In the final Blood Sword gamebook, one of the ways in to the Big Bad's castle requires you choose and release a demon. They all make promises to help you, all but one will involve your death and that one offers you an alternative once he is free. Examples include one who offers to send you to meet the Big Bad right away (at midnight the Big Bad is due to return to Earth, having spent a thousand years as a star in the sky to obtain magical power, being flung into space is bad for you) or the one who offers you a change since you practically have his gift anyway (the magic that restrained him is lying on the floor) offers things like a dagger that always kills when thrown (the thrower) or an artifact which turns back harmful spells (your caster will love that).

  • Common in meta-jokes, including why the chicken crossed the road.
  • A riddle you may have heard in elementary school: "Can you stick out your tongue and touch your nose/forehead/ear?" The answer is yes. The trick is that the wording doesn't specify whether you're meant to touch your nose/forehead/ear with your tongue.
  • Somewhat related: can you make 35 cents with only two coins, one of which isn't a quarter? (Yes: the other one is.)
  • Another; can you jump higher than a house? Yes; a house can't jump.
  • An old Russian joke/urban legend: Rabinovich the cynical old Jew applies to the Soviet government for permission to emigrate to Israel.
    MVD Official: You say you have no relatives abroad, but that you also have a brother in Israel?
    Rabinovich: Yes, but I am abroad, he is at home!
  • A very rich man dies, and demands that he be buried with his entire fortune (9,450,356 dollars and 39 cents). On the day of the funeral, people are surprised to see the normal-sized coffin, and demand an explanation from the widow. She replies that his last wishes were obeyed: His coffin contains a check for 9,450,356 dollars and 39 cents.
    • There's a variation where the man gives his doctor, his minister and his lawyer each the same amount and asks them to toss it in his grave. At the funeral all three toss envelopes in his grave. The minister admits to the other two he used part to pay for a new roof for the church, the doctor admits he used some to buy an X-Ray for the hospital, while the lawyer says he is ashamed of both of them, as he followed the instructions and put a check for the full amount in the envelope.

  • In the song "Monochrome Dream-Eating Baku" by Vocaloid Kagamine Len, the Dream Eater promises to take away all the bad dreams of a girl and fills her with pleasant and lustful ones... to the point that she can no longer make her dreams become real and is trapped in a world of endless longing and fantasy.
  • There's one Dutch song by the group Kadril, "Het Heerke van Maldegem" (the lordling of Maldegem). The song tells the story of the main character, who goes out hunting and instead of game finds a group of robbers, who organise a party and make him pay for the booze. He asks them to let him go, and in exchange promises not to speak to anyone about them. When they agree, he goes on to Bruges and writes down what happened to him and where the robbers are, making his original hunt successful.
  • In The Pirates of Penzance, young Frederic is apprenticed to serve the pirates until he's twenty-one. However, the contract specifically states 'twenty-first birthday', and since Frederic was born on Leap Day, this makes things rather awkward for him, when the Pirate King decides to hold to the exact letter of the contract.
  • "Changeling Child" by Heather Dale tells the story of a woman who bargains with the faeries for a baby. They give her exactly what she asked for:
    "But soon they saw the years that passed
    would never make him grow
    The fairies would not answer her
    The stones were dark and slept
    A babe was all she asked for,
    and their promises they'd kept."
  • Pete Best just can't resist making puns on his name and famous former occupation. In 1965, for example, he released an original album called Best of the Beatles. As in, Pete Best, formerly of The Beatles.
    • This is a Call Back to the Beatles' early days, when the compere of the Cavern Club always described it as "the best of cellars". This was a pun, not just on a well-known phrase but on one particular use of it, the Peter Sellers album The Best of Sellers.

    Myths & Religion 
  • Even the gods fall for this one occasionally. In Norse Mythology, Loki, the God of Mischief, made a bet with a dwarf; the bet was for his head, which at the time meant "the weight of your head in gold". When he lost, it turned out that the dwarf wanted his head — literally — due to his cheating over the wager, but still losing. Loki, being who he is, still managed to turn the tables, however, by pulling some Exact Words right back at the dwarf: "My head may be yours, but my neck is not." Hence, the dwarf couldn't decapitate him to "claim his prize". The dwarf still got the last word, however, and sewed Loki's mouth shut to keep him from performing any more trickery, hence one of his nicknames, Loki Scar-lip.
  • In Greek Mythology, Apollo offered Sibyl her fondest wish if she agreed to sleep with him. She held up a handful of sand and asked to live for as many years as there were grains of sand in her hand. Apollo agreed but Sibyl still refused him. In response, Apollo cursed her by giving her the years she desired... but she would not be eternally youthful. After a few hundred years, she became a shriveled gnome.
  • According to the Quran, Iblis, the Islamic equivalent of the Devil, fell from grace after falling foul of this trope. When Allah made a prophecy that one of his most devoted servants would rebel against him, the Angels were greatly troubled and begged Iblis, one of the Djinn, to speak to Allah on their behalf; Iblis, who was loyal to Allah at the time, made Allah swear a promise that none of the Angels would be forced out of Allah's service. When the Angels and Djinn were commanded to bow before Allah's third creation, Adam, Iblis arrogantly objected, and was cursed for his disobedience; Allah had made no mention of Iblis or any of the Djinn in his promise.
  • In The Bible, God tells Abraham to bring his son Isaac up to the mountain and offer him as a Human Sacrifice. That, it turns out, is all God wants—Isaac offered as a sacrifice. Once it's clear that the two have enough faith to go through with the killing God sends an angel to stop it from actually taking place. (Abraham then spots a ram stuck in a nearby bush and sacrifices that to prove his seriousness—and possibly to get some mutton for his trouble. We don't know what happened to the ram, exactly.)
  • In some versions of the Biblical story of Jacob, this is pulled by Laban. Jacob was in love with Laban's daughter Rachel, and asked her father for her hand in marriage. Jacob couldn't produce the normal bride-price for Rachel, though, so Laban told him that he could work for him for seven years instead and afterwards, Jacob could marry his daughter. However, Laban had two daughters, and he never specified which one Jacob would marry, leaving Jacob with Rachel's sister Leah as his wife.
    • As the story continues, Jacob then worked another seven-years so that he could finally marry Rachel.
  • Elisha served this up with a side of Prophecy Twist in II Kings 8:7-15. A lot of translators have trouble with 8:10 because the Hebrew seems ambiguous, instructing Hazael either to lie or tell the truth to his master King Ben-Hadad about whether he'd recover from his illness. However, as the story goes on to reveal, what the prophecy really meant was "Tell him his illness won't kill him, although I'm telling you he's going to die anyway." Taking his cue from a further prophecy that he would soon be the new King, Hazael returned to Ben-Hadad and told him Elisha had promised he would recover; but the next day, he cured Ben-Hadad of his illness once and for all by suffocating him with a washcloth. Then he seized the throne for himself.

    Pro Wrestling 
  • In the Royal Rumble, the only way to be eliminated, is to be thrown over the top rope and both feet must touch the floor. (Originally the rules just said "feet", but it was eventually pointed out that "feet" wasn't the same as "foot.") This has been taken advantage of, as some guys roll under the bottom rope and wait until later to come back in. Some guys have utilized other techniques.
  • In order to keep his undefeated streak intact, Kurt Angle would have Steve Blackman hit his opponent with a Kendo Stick so that he could win the match. One night Triple H, who was in charge at the time along with Stephanie McMahon and disliked Kurt, ordered Blackman not to do this in Angle's match that night. During the match, Blackman came to the ring and hit Kurt with the Kendo Stick; Angle won the match by disqualification.
  • Triple H lost the WWF Title to Chris Jericho when referee Earl Hebner made a fast count. When confronted about this decision, he agreed to reverse it if nobody would touch him as long as he was a WWF official. Triple H agreed, noting he is a man of his word.
  • Jeff Jarrett came out on one episode of TNA iMPACT to the usual cries of "DROP THE TITLE!" (clap clap clapclapclap). In the middle of a promo he decided to make fun of them by taking his NWA World Heavyweight Championship and dropping it on the mat.
  • In one confrontation between Vince McMahon and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin in 2007, Stone Cold promises not to use The Stunner on Vince, then proceeds to kick Vince in the nuts and Stunner Jonathan Coachman.
  • Hornswoggle used the same trick to win the very last Cruiserweight Championship Open in 2007, coming up from under the ring and running across the mat just as the starting bell rang, only to exit the ring and disappear back under it...until he suddenly reappeared several minutes later and performed a jumping splash on Jamie Noble, pinning him for the title.
  • During a TNA iMPACT Knockout Battle Royal for the #1 contender for the Knockouts title, Madison Rayne gets in the ring and announces that "any of the Knockouts in the ring right now" were eligible to be the #1 contender. True to form, she rushes in at the end of the match and throws Velvet Sky from the ring.
  • When The Nexus were destroying everyone, they were told on the July 28, 2010 episode of WWE Raw they couldn't attack any superstars or they would be fired. Later that night Arn Anderson, Michael Hayes, Dean Malenko, Mike Rotunda and Ricky Steamboat celebrated the release of Steamboat's DVD, and became the targets of a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown. Since they were "Legends" and not "superstars", this was perfectly acceptable.
  • During Edge's feud with Dolph Ziggler, Vickie Guerrero banned Edge's finisher, The Spear, telling him that if he ever used it in a match, he would be stripped of his title. Immediately after this, Edge hit Ziggler with The Spear four times in a row, since they weren't in a match.
  • Since the introduction of SHINE's Championship, Ivelisse Vélez's stance had been everything's fine as long as the title's in Valkyrie, which caused friction after Radiant Rain won the belt, even more after Rain faked retirement and vowed to stay as long as she was champion. When Vélez persisted in pursuing a title match and eventually beat Rain, Rain decided Vélez was correct and retired for real. She then added Ivelisse was no longer a member of Valkyrie.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer Fantasy Battle:
    • The Ministorum was to have no "men under arms" in the aftermath of the Age of Apostasy. Knowing that a complete lack of a military force would make them unable to police themselves and subservient to the Administratum, Ecclesiarch Sebastian Thor installed his predecessor Goge Vandire's redeemed private army as the Sisters of Battle. In some versions of the story this was arranged before they decided on the wording.
    • When a planetary governor was being beset by the Dark Angels (specifically the Deathwing and Ravenwing) he begged the chaos gods for help. The Changeling came and asked for his two daughters in exchange for something to "end the battle". Seeing no way out, the governor agreed. The Changeling took the man's two girls and handed him a device. The moment the Changeling left, the device activated; it was the teleport homer from the Ravenwing Squadron and on the other side the entire contingent of Deathwing Terminators had been waiting for the signal. The battle was indeed ended.
    • Prince Apophas, upon death, tried to bargain his way out of the Tomb Kings' equivalent of Hell with Usirian, the god of the underworld. Usirian promised that should Apophas bring him a soul "of equal value" then Apophas would be freed and can return to life. What Usirian didn't say was that no soul is ever created equal; they can be extremely similar but each would be microscopically different on some level. Thus, Apophas is forever enslaved to Usirian as he can never fulfill his end of the bargain.
    • In the first edition Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Realms of Sorcery had Erik' Sword of Confusion:
    This was made for Erik the drunkard, a notorious Norscan mercenary. While in the cups he foolishly commissioned a wizard to make him a sword that could "cut through things like butter." The wizard was as good as his word. Against normal targets, the sword has Damage -3, but it cuts through dairy products with the efficiency of a fine cheesewire. The wizard who made the sword was later found drowned in a vat of yoghurt.
  • Dungeons & Dragons
    • This is often considered the real reason players avoid casting wish, as many DMs invoke this trope with its use. This is partially averted by kinder DMs and in the computer adaptation, Baldur's Gate 2, by allowing characters with high wisdom and intelligence scores to close the more obvious loopholes if the wish is otherwise reasonable. Some sources indicate this as one of the advantages the clerical counterpart Miracle has over Wish — because it is not so much a wish as a requested miracle, it can be vetoed by your deity... but it also means that it will tend to be interpreted in your favour, whereas Wish includes a little comment about, if one goes beyond the list it has and requests a greater effect, the danger of a literal but undesired fulfillment (that is, this trope) or a partial fulfillment.
    • One sourcebook suggests this as a way The Paladin can be Lawful Good without being Lawful Stupid. In the specific example given, The Paladin is honor-bound to follow the requests of the Big Bad; when the villain says "Bring me the head of the king", the Paladin brings him the head... along with the rest of the king, and his entire army.
    • This can be a way to beat truth-telling magic, depending on the edition and the spell — one book has a fallen paladin observe that very few truth-telling spells can tell a lie fashioned by putting two truthful sentences next to one another (in the case that prompted this observation, he had managed to give the impression that his dead niece had been responsible for summoning a fiend by saying there'd been a summoning gone awry by a foolish mage, and then adding that fortunately his (dead in the incident) niece had taken precautions in case something went awry like that. Not his fault if the one he was speaking to thought the foolish mage was the niece rather than the paladin himself).
  • In the Role-Playing Game Truce at Bakura, Chewbacca suggested to Han Solo that he have the Tydirium return to the fleet while doing repairs. Han Solo agreed, but then it occurred to him that Chewbacca forgot to specify which fleet he was supposed to return to, thus giving him and the Endor Strike Team an easy opening to take over the Star Destroyer Accusor without having to fire a single shot.
  • Nobilis: This is how Imperial miracles work. They can be very nasty (with things like automatic Divine wound levels for people who just ignore them), but you can freely work toward any interpretation of the letter of the law you can sell your HG on.
    • And in Chuubo's Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine, a key plot point is that Chuubo, a fairly ordinary boy, has gained the ability to create Imperial Miracles but can't really do anything useful with them due to wording problems (unless they come from his heart, in which case they work as intended). There is a running joke that he has yet to discover the correct wording to obtain an ice cream: "I wish I had an ice cream" makes "Chuubo has an ice cream" a law of reality, meaning that he can't eat the ice cream, because he would then no longer have it.
  • The Seraphim of In Nomine, angels who must speak the truth at all times, often take refuge in this Trope.
    • On the other hand, this used to trip up Laurence, Archangel of The Sword, in his early days as Commander of The Host. Angels of The Sword must obey both the spirit and the letter of Laurence's orders, and when his commands were too detailed, the servitors were left with no way to adjust for conditions without earning dissonance.
      "Thus, Laurence will not tell a Servitor 'Take Highway 41 to Tifton, Georgia, find the Tether of Death just south of there, and bring me the Seneschal’s head.' Such specific orders could result in all kinds of dissonance – what if the angel knows a more efficient way of traveling to Tifton (or Highway 41 is washed out)? What if Laurence’s intelligence is flawed, and the Tether is north of Tifton, or it’s actually a Tether to Dark Humor? What if the Seneschal has been destroyed already – should the Tether be left intact? What if the Seneschal wants to redeem? What if the angel can only kill the Seneschal by some means which won’t leave an intact head to bring to Laurence? Scenarios like this came back to bite the young Archangel of the Sword, until he learned to loosen his control – a little." — Superiors 1: War and Honor
  • Hanse Davion pulls this in the course of the Clan Invasion in BattleTech. Promising his ancient enemies of House Kurita that "No Federated Commonwealth units would cross their borders" until the Clan invasion was dealt with, he found out soon after that House Kurita was on the verge of a catastrophic defeat. For a moment it looks like Hanse, a man known as "The Fox", is up to something, and he is. He sends mercenary units across the border straight to the Combine homeworld. At first, several Combine high officers are furious, thinking they have been betrayed. This is quickly inverted when the mercenaries reveal that Davion has hired them to defend Luthien, not attack it as the Combine officers expected from Davion's Exact Words. By employing mercenaries rather than his own Federated Commonwealth forces, he stays true to his promise while also keeping the Combine from falling...so that he can use the Combine as a buffer zone between his realm and the invading Clans. There's a reason Hanse Davion is considered a Magnificent Bastard.
    • This is done against the Federated Commonwealth as well, when their long-time enemy, the Capellan Confederation, sends an agent to deal with the Northwind Highlanders, a mercenary unit that had been long loyal to the Confederation until an offer was made during the Fourth Succession War to grant them their ancestral home world of Northwind in exchange for defecting to the then-Federated Suns. Thirty years later, the Confederation's current ruler, Sun-Tzu Liao, sends a member of his elite special forces with Highlander ancestry on a mission to 'neutralize the Northwind Highlanders'. The agent, at first, believes that his orders mean for him to cause the destruction of the mercenaries. However, the Highlanders are struggling to fend off the Federated Commonwealth's liasons, who are trying to ensnare the Highlanders using company store tactics. The agent ends up defecting to the Highlanders, but the mistreatment from the Commonwealth's liasons cause the Highlanders to declare independance, thus 'neutralizing' them, as Sun-Tzu ordered.

  • William Shakespeare
    • A very early example is The Merchant of Venice: Antonio suddenly finds himself unable to repay his debt to Shylock, the loan shark, and his contract said Shylock would cut a pound of flesh from his body if Antonio doesn't pay him back; in the court, however, Antonio's lawyer pulls an objection, and the judge finally declares that Shylock had to cut a pound of flesh from Antonio without spilling any blood; since doing this is physically impossible, the contract was declared null and void.
    • In Henry IV Part 1, Hotspur uses this while playing Agent Scully to his Welsh ally Glyndwr:
    Glyndwr: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
    Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man.
    But will they come when you do call for them?
    • In Julius Caesar, Marc Antony agrees to give the assassins credit for allowing him to speak at Caesar's funeral and to refrain from denouncing them. Antony proceeds to turn the crowd against the assassins even while repeatedly referring to them as "honorable men".
    • Macbeth runs afoul of this trope in a big way, as he is warned by the weird sisters "No Man of Woman Born will harm him" (Macduff was the result of a Cesarean section) and that he would not be harmed "Until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane" (Macduff's allies cut down branches of Birnam Wood trees to disguise themselves, using the branches as cover as they storm Dunsinane)
    • Othello: Much of what Iago says can be considered true, if you interpret what he says as literally as possible. Indeed, it's what he doesn't say that really causes tragedy.
  • In Show Boat, the couple Steve and Julie are about to be arrested for miscegenation—Steve is white, and Julie is secretly mixed-race. Steve cuts Julie's hand and swallows a drop of blood; when the sheriff arrives, Steve asks, "You wouldn't call a man a white man that's got Negro blood in him, would you?" He's willing to swear under oath that he's got "more than a drop" of black blood; the two are able to leave the boat (and the south) in safety.
  • In Dorothy L Sayers's The Emperor Constantine,
    • Constantine likes his prophetic dream, because it clearly predicts that he will win, and prophecies are normally filled with weasel words that allow this trope.
    • in Rome, the prophecy that the enemy of Rome will be defeated is more ambiguous. Livia, the wife of the emperor who lost and died, proclaims that it is certainly true.
  • Some of the lazzi, or classic bits, from CommediaDellArte fall into this category. Notable examples include:
    • Harlequin, a Big Eater, rushes into a dining room during a feast and announces that the kitchen is on fire. When all of the guests run off to check, Harlequin sits down and begins to devour as much food as possible. When the diners return and complain that the kitchen is perfectly fine, Harlequin defends himself: he said the kitchen was on fire, not your kitchen was on fire.
    • A servant character is tasked with guarding a rich man's house while he is away. When the rich man returns and asks if anyone has entered the house, the servant replies, "Not a fly!" The pleased master goes inside, only to discover dozens of people in the rooms. When he takes the servant to task for this, he responds that the master didn't find a fly in the house—he said nothing about people.
  • This appears in a heartbreaking way in Sweeney Todd: When Sweeney first returns to Fleet Street and asks what happened to his wife Lucy, Mrs. Lovett replies, "She poisoned herself...arsenic from the apothecary on the corner." At the end of the musical, Sweeney discovers that the old Beggar Woman who has been harassing him throughout the show—and who he just murdered—is Lucy, driven insane by her rape, abandonment, and attempted suicide, which leads to this exchange:
    Sweeney: ...You lied to me.
    Mrs. Lovett: No, no, not lied at all! No, I never lied! Said she took the poison, she did, never said that she died!
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory adds a twist to Willy Wonka's promise of "a lifetime supply of sweets" to the Golden Ticket finders. A single Everlasting Gobstopper — which is an Indestructible Edible — counts as this. Grandpa Joe feels this is a cruel trick and he and Mr. Wonka almost come to blows over it, stopped only by Charlie Bucket, who understands that Wonka wasn't deliberately trying to trick them and regards it as a great present all the same (especially since he's never received presents from anyone outside of his family before).

    Visual Novels 
  • At one point in the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney series, Matt Engarde gets away with lying to Phoenix despite his lie-detecting Magatama using this method. Specifically, the client answers "No, I didn't kill anybody" when questioned. While he didn't kill the victim, as he claimed, he did pay an assassin to do it. It's implied that this only worked because the client was warped enough to consider there to be an honest, meaningful difference between the two.
  • In Umineko: When They Cry, anything said in red is true. This means its exact wording (including what is not told) is really important in figuring out what actually happened. For example, for the first twilight of the first game, it is said that "The identity of all unidentified corpses is guaranteed" and that "no body double was used". But no red truth says that there were six corpses in the garden shed. It turns out Shannon's corpse wasn't actually there from the beginning. It's made all the more crucial by the fact that third-person narration is not neutral, and lies to the player in a number of scenes.
  • Zig-Zagging Trope in Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward. Some characters are very particular about promises, so a shrewd player pays close attention to exactly what is being promised before making a difficult choice. Of course, some characters—even the nice ones!—also have no problem lying to the player character's face. It's amazing how a little freedom-or-death struggle brings out the manipulative sides of people.
    • Possibly the straightest example of this trope is in a possible bad ending, where just before a certain Ally or Betray choice, Clover asks Sigma to choose "Betray", so she and Sigma can get more points and Clover in particular will reach 9 points. Clover promises Sigma that if Sigma chooses Betray, Clover will listen to anything Sigma says! But picking "Betray" at this point will get you the bad ending, because upon reaching 9 points Clover promptly goes for the exit. Sigma angrily shouts to Clover that she promised she would listen to anything Sigma said, and Clover replies that she is listening, she can hear Sigma very clearly even from all the way over there! The problem is that Clover only promised to listen to whatever Sigma says, not to actually do whatever Sigma says.
  • In Steins;Gate Okabe needs information from Faris. Faris is a grandmaster at a game Okabe has never even heard of, but he agrees to play her for the information anyway. His friends try to get him to back down, since he can't possibly win, but Okabe insists he'll finish the game in ONE MOVE!!! The game starts...and he loses immediately. Hey, the deal was he just had to play her, not win.
  • Pulled accidentally by Amane in Grisaia No Rakuen. After stopping by a maid cafe and having to eat admittedly good soba noodles from an obnoxious waitress, Yumiko gets home and asks something to eat so long as it's not soba. Amane makes udon instead, causing Yumiko to grumble about more noodles.

    Web Animation 
  • On Homestar Runner, in the Strong Bad E-mail "virus", Strong Bad's computer gets infested with hundreds of thousands of computer viruses that apparently infect the Flash cartoon itself. That leads to this exchange, in which Strong Sad catches Strong Bad doing this:
    Strong Sad: Did you get a virus?
    Strong Bad: No...
    Strong Sad: Did you get 400,000 viruses?
    Strong Bad: Yes... very yes!
  • In Red vs. Blue:
    • Lopez builds some very slow moving robots, with the reasoning
    Senior Lopez "You said you wanted a DAY of victory. At this speed, they will win in exactly 24 hours."
    • In seasons 11 and 12, beyond claiming that they were the greatest soldiers in the galaxy, Felix never actually lies to the Blood Gulch Crew, instead using half-truths.
  • At the start of the RWBY episode "Search and Destroy," Dr. Oobleck instructs Team RWBY to not bring any bags along, as he's packed all essentials. Later, when they've landed at their mission location:
    Oobleck: From this point forward, you have to do exactly as I say. Do you understand?
    Team RWBY: [nod]
    Oobleck: Ruby, I thought I told you to leave all your bags back at school.
    Ruby: But, uh, you hadn't told us to listen to you yet. So I didn't.
    Oobleck: ...she's not wrong.

    Web Original 
  • TV Tropes: On the page for Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing, the description of the game says that it "features never-before-seen freedom", which it does indeed — there is no collision detection (in other words, you can go through any object except the ground), no angle detection (allowing you to drive vertically), and drive straight off the map.
  • When The Nostalgia Critic gathers his fellow reviewers for an invasion in Kickassia, Phelous questions where everyone was going to stay. Critic says that he "booked everyone a hotel room". Gilligan Cut to everyone crammed into a hotel room.
  • Film Brain wanting Linkara to review The Spirit (2008 film) told him that he has a movie with Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson. Both did appear in the movie, but Linkara believed that FB was referring to Iron Man 2.
  • This is common when it comes to requests on Songs To Wear Pants To. Andrew will often take poorly thought-out or silly requests and do this to them. For example, one person offered some lyrics and asked for them to be recorded, "not necessarily in this order." This was the result.
  • Tonin
    • In Tonin - O Ninja Que Veio da Roça, a Brazilian web series featured in Chargesdotcomdotbr, Vilano-san, the main villain, asked a spirit to make his body resistant to harm. The spirit said he'd only do it if Vilano defeated him in a card game. Vilano only agreed on the condition that each one would draw one's own cards. Instead of drawing cards from the spirit's deck, he drew cards from his pocket, getting himself a better hand. When the spirit protested, Vilano reminded him about the agreement about drawing one's own cards.
    • In sequel series Tonin - A Vorta dos Que Num Foi, Tonin and his friends were stuck in the future and the spirit was their only chance to return. Being an oracle, the spirit said his only duty was of answering questions. The spirit also told that he's bound to this duty until Tonin dismisses him. Tonin then challenged the spirit to send them back to the past, promising he'd never ask any questions from that day onwards if the spirit succeeds. Once they went back in time, Tonin pointed out that, since they've gone back several years from the day he promised to stop making questions, he still has all that time back to make questions without going back on his word.
    • Years later (from Tonin's perspective), he went back to the day he made that deal and asked the oracle how could there have two of him in two different places at the same time but, since they were in a period of time the oracle no longer had to answer questions as per the agreement, the oracle refused to answer. Tonin argued it was the other Tonin who made the deal but the oracle explained they were the same Tonin. Tonin then asked how this could be possible. By doing so, he unwittingly answered the question he initially refused to.
    • In trequel series Tonin - O Ninja dos Inferno, Tonin sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for the power to defeat Vilano-san and Pai-Meio. The terms of the agreement stated that the Devil would be able to collect the soul once Vilano and Pai-Meio would no longer be able to pose a threat. The two villains were eventually killed. When the Devil tried to collect the soul, it was argued that Vilano and Pai-Meio being dead doesn't mean they'd never be able to pose a threat again. Considering the world where the story took place, the argument makes sense.
    • In order to reach the Devil to strike the deal in the first place, Tonin had to, once again, outsmart the spirit. The spirit was unwilling to help Tonin in any way other than doing his job (answering questions). Tonin then asked if he'd make a good deal with the Devil. Since the only way to know was having Tonin meet the Devil, the spirit had no choice but to take Tonin to hell. Also, when Tonin proposed the deal to the Devil, Tonin offered his "arma". ("Arma" could be either the Brazilian word for "weapon" or the way Brazilian unsophisticated country people say "alma", the Brazilian word for "soul".) The spirit, who served as witness for the deal, said that either Tonin and the Devil reached for an agreement on which meaning the word "arma" would be employed for the deal, or the deal would be null and void. Unable to convince the Devil to taking anything from him as a "weapon", Tonin agreed to offer his soul.
    • In Tonin - A Saga Final, a witch tried to avoid a witch hunter by magically disguising her appearance but he saw through her disguise and offered her a deal: if she taught him how to disguise himself, he'd leave her alive somewhere nobody would lay their hands at her. After she fulfilled her end of the bargain, he left her alive, but tied at a stake where nobody would lay anything other than fire.
    • Also, hoping to have the same near-invulnerability his father won in the deal from the first season, Vilano Segundo (Vilano the Second) sought the same oracle, who had him play a cheese eating contest against The Chosen One. If Overlord Jr. wins, he'll gain said near invulnerability; if he loses, he loses his life. Being somewhat of a Chaotic Neutral and considering the villain was alone while The Hero had lots of friends in the place where the contest was held, the oracle granted the villain temporary protection from harm until the contest was over. The oracle also ruled that the first contestant whose pile of cheese was eaten would be the winner; no cheese could be wasted; no cheese could be vomited; there was no time limit; and the villain would win by default if he had no opponents. The Hero shared his cheese with his friends because shared food isn't wasted food and there was no rule saying who had to eat his cheese. The villain then stabbed The Hero to death to invoke the win by lack of opponent rule because there was no rule saying he couldn't kill the opponent. Beause of the oracle's protection, nobody could kill the villain until the contest was over. Once the villain was declared the winner and the oracle declared the contest over, one of the good guys killed the villain before the oracle granted the powers. (The protection being over once the contest was over) Nobody mentioned it in the series but, since the powers came with vulnerability to cheese, the hero's friends could have hit the villain with the remaining cheese if the villain had been granted the powers.
  • In Thalia's Musings, Aphrodite's Genre Savvy blessing on the Pythian Games: "To whichever two among the gods and goddesses here whom the Fates will choose, may you each meet your true love at the Pythian Games." [1] Thalia, being equally genre savvy, knows that if she or Apollo is chosen, they won't end up together since they've already met.
    • The first to be chosen is Aphrodite's own son Eros, who finds love at first sight with Psyche.
    • The second is Hephaestus, Aphrodite's husband, who meets Aglaea. Aphrodite is more than happy to let him go.
  • In Shamus plays World of Warcraft, Norman is a warlock who tries to be Lawful Good. When called upon to 'slaughter a virgin' as part of his induction into the Warlock Union, he buys a virgin sheep and pays a butcher to slaughter it for him.
  • In The Questport Chronicles, the Fellowship forces a demon to swear that he will lead them to a specific place. They neglect to make him promise to bring them back...
  • Skippys List has examples:
    33. Not allowed to chew gum at formation, unless I brought enough for everybody.
    34. (Next day) Not allowed to chew gum at formation even if I did bring enough for everybody.
    48. I may not use public masturbation as a tool to demonstrate a flaw in a command decision.
    55. An order to "Put Kiwi on my boots" does *not* involve fruit.
    56. An order to "Make my Boots black and shiny" does not involve electrical tape.
  • Bastard Operator from Hell. If you ask the BOFH for more disk space, he'll give it to you — by deleting all your files. And that's nothing compared to what he does with his contract. It got "numerous strange clauses", including one about UFO sighting in the vicinity of the building... which he successfully used... more than once.
    • And don't tell the PFY to "fire her up" when you want him to start a computer; you'll be calling the emergency line soon after.
  • In Episode 61 of Rooster Teeth's "Let's Play Minecraft", Ryan had captured a cow in the bottom of his dirt house and named him Edgar after an incident lead him to losing a game. Flash forward six episodes and Michael covertly frees Edgar and Geoff unwittingly kills the cow. Ryan finds the damage, hunts down another cow and puts him in the hole, leading to Michael freaking out over his victory being rendered null. As he tries to point out that the cow he lured in probably isn't the real Edgar, Ryan responds "No, no, you don't understand. Edgar is the one in the hole.", meaning that it doesn't matter how many cows anyone frees, the one in that hole will always be Edgar.
  • SCP-810 of the SCP Foundation is a lamp with the inscription "Ask what you will, and you shall never want for it". If (for example) you ask for "food", rather than ensuring you never run out of food, you'll never again desire food, and will thus starve to death without realizing it.
  • In Dangan Ronpa Abridged Thing, Monobear promises the class that if a murder occurs, the class will get to see pictures of what Sayaka Maizono looks like under "those clothes", meaning her "idol outfit." A murder does occur, but the murderer is caught before the photos can be released to the class. We do get to see a blink-and-you'll-miss-it shot of what the pictures look like, though: they're just Sayaka in her school outfit under those clothes...because the idol outfit is on her head, meaning she is literally under those clothes.
  • One episode of Dragon Ball Z Abridged has Vegeta tell Krillin to almost kill him (since Saiyans get stronger on the brink of death) so that he can fight more evenly with Freiza. Krillin then asks if there will be any repercussions.
    Vegeta: ...I won't punch you.
    Krillin: Oddly specific.
  • A writer posted a list of musicians who were in great bands but had terrible solo careers. He invoked this trope to justify including Paul McCartney on the list, pointing out that technically Wings counted as a band.
  • An April Fools' Day article about Magic: The Gathering detailed a supposed ultimate deck that "never allows your opponent to deal lethal damage" and "ends games quickly". It actually consisted entirely of ways to trigger a "you automatically lose" condition.
  • In an episode of the Yogscast series YogNews, Turpster is busy boasting that with Strippin no longer working at Yogtowers, he is the strongest man in the office. He then struggles to open a simple water bottle, which Kim Richards opens with ease. His response?
    Turps: Goddammit, Kim, I said strongest man. Not strongest wo-man. Can't compete with women. Their boob strength.
  • During the first Yogscast playthrough of Trouble In Terrorist Town, the common "spell the word innocent backwards" test is put to use note . Simon Lane gets challenged to do it by Hat Films, and says "I-N-N-O-C-E-N-T B-A-C-K-W-A-R-D-S". This gets him killed. He was a traitor, and the round ends.