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Twisting the Words
Peter Parker: Spider-Man was clearly protecting that armored car, not stealing from it. You can't say that, it's slander!
J. Jonah Jameson: It is not! I resent that! Slander is spoken. In print, it's libel.

Any fictional character worth their plotline knows that they have to be very, very careful about what they say within earshot of their enemies. Unfortunately, some of them don't know who their enemies are, or don't realize the danger that the bitchy-but-seemingly-harmless Alpha Bitch might pose. Yes, she's snarky, but even with her high-heeled posse backing her up, she's not really a threat, is she?

Well, yes, she probably is. She probably won't beat you up personally, and while she might be queen bee of her clique, she doesn't have any official authority... but she can let a few comments slip to the principal, Sadist Teacher, or your Overprotective Dad. And what's more, she won't make up "proper" lies to do so. She'd get caught fairly quickly that way, and she's smarter than that.

Instead, she'll "innocently" report something you said. Perhaps you were joking, or telling a story. Perhaps it was the sort of remark that would make sense to your friends, but no-one else. Perhaps the phrase itself is totally harmless — but it won't be by the time your poisonous rival's through with it. Somehow, they'll make an innocuous comment seem like high treason or proof that you really shouldn't be allowed out of the house without a responsible adult in attendance.

There's a couple of ways they can do this. They can take the words out of context (a man who remarks that he's Bugs Bunny sounds like a case for the nice men in white coats, until you realize he was going to a fancy dress party that night), change their tone of voice ("He's an idiot" sounds very different when it's said with a warm, half-amused tone from when it's said with real venom) or they might add in a little story of their own to colour your words with a level of malice that wasn't intended ("Mr. Smith, Milly was storming down the street and beating up puppies the other day, and she said something about wanting to throttle you for giving us so much homework. I'd call the police, 'cause she looked really dangerous..."). It can be done unintentionally, when someone misreads a situation or jumps to conclusions, in which case it's nearly always being used for laughs. The Ditz is particularly prone to this sort of misinterpretation. The thing is, you did say what they claim you said, technically speaking. And unless you're prepared to lie outright, you'll find it difficult to defend yourself when the angry authority figure comes storming up to you, demanding answers. Chances are that you'll get as far as "Yes, I said something like that, but..." before You Are Grounded...or fired, or in serious trouble with the local thugs, depending on your age.

The causes and consequences of this type of ploy vary with age. Among young children, this might be as simple as "Miss, Bobby said a bad word!" when Bobby happened to comment that he's had a nosebleed and his face is all "bloody." On the adult stage, however, it can be more severe, as when the nastiest employee of a company reports a colleague to the boss, using their own words against them in the hope of getting them fired. Gets extremely messy when the police turn up and the local gossip has "proof" that Joe Average did it in revenge for John Doe almost backing the car on top of him that morning (tip: Before grumbling that you're going to "kill him/her," check the local newspapers for stories about serial killers).

Speaking of newspapers, they're not above this sort of thing either, especially if it makes a story more sensational. Take this hypothetical example:

  • Chief Of Police: We don't think this is a serial killer. If he was an experienced murderer, he would have worked much faster.
  • Newspaper: CHIEF OF POLICE CALLS ON KILLER TO WORK FASTER!

The person who has been misquoted (and probably suffered one heck of a character assassination in the eyes of the public as a result) will find it difficult to get rid of this smear on their name. Somehow, it always seems a bit false when they appear on the television the next day, trying to explain what they actually meant. It's not helped when there are so many cases of celebrities genuinely saying bigoted, or just plain dumb, things. We may never know the true extent of this trope in the press since...well, the people reporting on it are likely to be the same ones who sensationalised it in the first place.

The Naïve Everygirl is especially prone to being the victim of this sort of attack (usually perpetrated by the aforementioned Alpha Bitch). In fact, most characters who are too sweet natured for their own good, or conspicuously chaste — in which case the "twisting" of their own words is likely to make them out to be a sex maniac — make soft targets for this trope; possibly because, being so good-hearted and having such a pristine reputation, this is the only way their enemies can get any real ammo against them. A Manipulative Bastard loves to do this, while a Hair-Trigger Temper or someone with a highly sensitive Berserk Button will do it internally instead of involving an authority figure, cutting out the middle man and beating you up personally for some perceived slight.

For victims of bullying, this trope is very Truth in Television.

See also Quote Mine.

Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime and Manga 
  • Himeno of Prétear can barely open her mouth without someone claiming that she said or did something inappropriate. Especially in the manga adaptation, whenever she tries to explain the cavalcade of men who have taken to following her about.
  • In Naruto, the Fifth Mizukage takes great offense to being called too old to get marriedwhich includes statements that only have a few words even vaguely related to such a topic which weren't even directed to her or speaking of her in the first place.
  • In MÄR there's a version where the character doesn't even have to say anything. Early on in the War Games, Jack fights Pano and she ends up tied up in his Earth Beans, which he starts to climb. When his hand reaches her breast (and is clearly no where near touching and all signs point to him continuing to climb) she calls out that he's a hentai and the crowd catches on. He quickly climbs down and tries to convince them he's not.
    • Later, he shows that he actually is a pervert, and Pano ends up being his girlfriend and living with him and his mother.
  • In Fullmetal Alchemist, Edward Elric is very good at mistaking anything anyone says for a "short" joke.
  • In Fairy Tail, Juvia will twist any word that has ANYTHING to do with Gray.
  • Chief Mansam always thinks someone's calling him handsome.
  • Neko-Sensei from Princess Tutu always seems to twist words or actions to a belief that someone wants to marry him.

    Comic Books 

    Film 
  • In Mean Girls, this is one of the first things Cady does that marks her slide into the habit of being a two-faced liar. Her teacher talks to her privately about her performance in school, and Cady twists her words to make it sound as if she were confessing to being a drug dealer.
    • There's also this early scene:
      Regina: Homeschooled. That's really interesting.
      Cady: Thanks.
      Regina: But you're, like, really pretty.
      Cady: Thank you.
      Regina: So you agree.
      Cady: What?
      Regina: You think you're really pretty.
  • The newspaper editor teases Sergeant Angel like this in Hot Fuzz, asking him how he liked a production of Romeo and Juliet, and when Angel says he enjoyed it, coming up with headlines like "Cop Enjoys Watching Young Lovers" and "Local Bobby Gives Thumbs Up to Teen Suicide." Angel describes the latter as 'just grossly inappropriate."

    Literature 
  • In Louise Rennison's Georgia Nicolson series, prefect Lindsey uses this trope as an excuse to harass Georgia. It's not that the heroine is an angel herself, but Lindsey has a way of making a joke or off-hand remark seem like a lynching offence.
  • The obnoxious journalist Rita Skeeter in Harry Potter, who has a magical quill that appears to have been enchanted to do exactly that.
    • It also twists reality. In other words, it lies. At one points, while she is interviewing Harry, it mentions a "tearful Harry Potter" or something along those lines and Harry is, if anything, a bit annoyed at being shoved into a broom closet and being interviewed by a rude, nosy woman.
  • Pretty much the entire plot of the novel Big Mouth And Ugly Girl.
  • Raymond Smullyan invokes this showing how to prove anything in What Is The Name Of This Book:
    1st Person: Santa Claus exists, if I'm not mistaken.
    2nd Person: Yes, Santa Claus exists, if you are not mistaken.
    1st Person: So you admit that I am correct.
    2st Person: Yes.
    1st Person: Since I am not mistaken, and Santa Claus exists if I am not mistaken, Santa Claus must exist.
  • Early in the follow-on to The Lost Fleet series, Admiral Geary is outraged to see a news headline reading that he expressed only "qualified support" for the government. His wife explains that he told a reporter that he'd follow any lawful orders — that's limiting his support, because he wouldn't follow any and all orders.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In the The Prisoner episode "It's Your Funeral," one of the prisoners is being used by the powers behind the scenes to assassinate the current Number Two. Number Six attempts to warn him (to avert reprisals against the inhabitants of The Village); his warning is ignored because the current Number Two has seen a misleading recording that makes Number Six sound like a paranoid crank who has delivered several such warnings to his predecessors.
  • Toby in The West Wing misreads his relationship with a Republican woman, who takes an inflammatory statement said in a "casual" conversation and uses it to attack the Democratic White House regarding the minimum wage in a televised press conference.

    Video Games 
  • Performing quests for the Harpers in Baldurs Gate 2 eventually has the leader of that particular division reveal that he knows about the player's Bhaalspawn lineage, and decides to ask them some questions about their past and personality to judge whether or not they're a danger to the world. The problem is, he twists every answer they give (including their favorite color) to make them sound more dangerous, because his real goal is to capture them and earn himself a promotion.

    Western Animation 
  • The Simpsons played with the newspaper version of this trope a few times.
    • In "Call of the Simpsons", after Homer is mistaken for Bigfoot, Marge protests "That's not Bigfoot, that's my husband!" We are then treated to a tabloid headline reading "SHE MARRIED BIGFOOT!"
    • And this gem:
    Reporter: What does it eat?
    Marge: I don't understand! What's this all abou-?
    (beat)
    Marge: Well, I suppose pork chops are his favorite.
    Bart: "What's the problem, Seymour? Stuck?"
    Skinner: "That's precisely the problem, and you know it. Now get me out of here!"
    Bart: "What's that? You want the pee bucket on your head?"
    Skinner: "No! You're twisting my words."
  • Ginger, in As Told by Ginger was occasionally a victim of this kind of thing. Her histrionic friend, Dodie, did it unintentionally while vicious Miranda used it deliberately, especially in attempts to break up Ginger's friendships.
    • Another unintentional variation turns up in the episode "And Then, She Was Gone." Ginger's teacher decides that her student's rather bleak poem is obviously evidence of suicidal tendencies despite the girl's protests that it's just fiction. Everyone else who quotes the poem back to Ginger assumes that the poem is about the poet herself, and applies suitably morbid connotations to it. Ginger ends up at the school psychologist's office as a result.


A specific variant is the TV journalist who shows a video clip out of context, or splices together quotes to make it look as though the person said something that reflects badly on them.

    Film 
  • Done by the TV reporter in the second Scooby Doo movie. "Whatever I say, you're just going to edit it to make it sound like I think Coolsville sucks! *beat* No! Don't record that last part!"
  • Often inverted in Real Life movie ads, which take quotes from negative reviews and use ellipses to make them sound flattering, or take the one positive word ("Spectacular!") in an otherwise disparaging sentence ("This film is a spectacular failure")note 
  • A Malaysian bootleg version of Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2 avoided this, opting instead to provide some unintentionally funny Truth In Advertising using this blurb from a FilmCritic.com review: "Superbabies has no redeeming qualities", using the same large-type font usually reserved for a glowing review from Rolling Stone.
  • The pro-evolutionary interviewees in Ben Stein's Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed have claimed that they were misled into believing that the film being made was a balanced documentary about the conflict between science and religion, rather than a straight anti-evolution, pro-intelligent-design opinion piece, and that the final edit cherry-picked from their responses to support the premise. There was also the issue of Stein "quoting" a heavily edited passage by Darwin to make it sound like he was advocating eugenics and tie the theory of evolution to Nazism.
  • In the Adam Sandler version of Mr. Deeds, Deeds rescues a woman and all her cats from a burning building, but corrupt reporters edit the footage to make it look like Deeds murdered the cats, then dragged the woman out to rape her.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Arrested Development lampshades it: GOB tells a reporter, "Don't edit this so it sounds like I killed Earl Milford!", which is reduced to "I killed Earl Milford!"
  • In the Babylon 5 episode "The Illusion Of Truth," a reporter's interview footage is taken out of context and combined with slanted commentary to produce a propaganda hit piece.
  • Inverted in the fourth season of House, after a documentary film crew has been recording Dr. House's attempts at diagnosing a patient for most of the episode. At the end, we see a glimpse of an early cut of the documentary, and several of House's Jerk Ass comments had been edited out of context (for instance, making sarcasm sound sincere) to create the illusion that he's a decent, sympathetic man. House, being House, is pissed that he's been misrepresented.
  • Interestingly, one of the "old Florida Jews" lampshaded the whole concept of The Daily Show's segment on them (showing their incessant and Yiddish-accented argument about Barack Obama), saying "This is just to show how silly these Florida Jews are!" - at the end of the segment, Wyatt says, "It's time to head over to Georgia to take some more voters out of context. Found here.
  • Averted and lampshaded in an episode of Frasier where he tells Niles not to give an interview to the press concerning his possible involvement with his ex-wife's murder of her boyfriend, and says that he will give one in his place which they will be unable to twist. He then has a Freudian slip where he says that Niles and his ex should be "executed" when he meant to say "exonerated".
  • Bill does this to Jerry Seinfeld in one episode of NewsRadio.
  • The Seattle sketch-comedy show Almost Live! did this to humorous effect in its "Street Talk" sequences.
  • Similar to the Homer Simpson example, an episode of Brass Eye featured Nicholas Parsons, thinking he was reading a poem dedicated to a (fictitious) elephant who had jammed his trunk up its arse, being (incredibly obviously) edited to say
    'Aren't we a bunch...of f/uck/wits. An elephant could / no more / get / its trunk / up / its / arse / than we / could / lick / our / balls.'
  • Italian satirical TV Show Le Iene (Hyenas) broadcast several interviews with VIPs where they cheerfully admit tax evasion, fraud, and so on. The trick was editing the questions from harmless ("What's your shoe size?") to... less harmless ("How many millions have you embezzled this year?"). The same answer ("40") takes on a different meaning.
  • "Weird Al" Yankovic's AL TV features various celebrities getting grilled by Al on various topics. The answers are taken from interview footage taken for the program without the interviewees' knowledge of the parodic nature of the final product.
  • Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In sometimes did a skit like this: they'd show an interview with a celebrity. Then they'd say, "Now here's what could be done by unscrupulous editing of this interview footage," and the "edited" version would have the celebrity making a number of inflammatory or self-incriminating remarks, such as John Wayne saying critics of his films "can kiss my Levi's!"
  • Done in universe in Burn Notice: a drug dealer's phone conversation is cut to make it sound like he's entering a plea bargain with the FBI. The other members of the cartel are not happy.
  • Stephen Colbert has been accused of editing political speeches this way. In response, he did an interview filled with easily editable statements, like "there are people who think THE TROOPS ARE STUPID! I am not one of those people."

    Newspaper Comics 
  • One FoxTrot comic had Paige saying "Mr. Vivona says we have to cut three newspaper articles out for social studies every day this week, and the only pair of scissors I have is like totally dull" over the phone. Jason records the conversation and splices it into "I cut social studies every day this week. Mr. Vivona is like totally dull" in order to get her in trouble.
  • A Running Gag in the early years of Bloom County saw Milo call up the local senator in order to get stories for the newspaper, trying to get him to admit to outrageous crimes and misdealings by twisting everything he said.
    Milo Bloom: (on phone) Senator? This is Milo Bloom at the Beacon. Will you confirm that you sank Jimmy Hoffa in your backyard pond?
    Sen. Bedfellow: (over phone) WHAT? OF COURSE NOT!
    Milo: Fine. I'll go with "Sen. Bedfellow denies that pond is where he sank Hoffa."
    Bedfellow: THAT'S NOT TRUE!
    Milo: Okay. "Bedfellow did sink Hoffa in pond."
    Bedfellow: I DON'T KNOW WHERE HOFFA IS!!
    Milo: "'I lost the body,' says Bedfellow."

    Professional Wrestling 
  • According to his autobiography, Mick Foley fell afoul of this in an interview about backyard wrestling. He was shown various amateur footage ranging from guys jumping around on a crash mat to stupid hardcore stunts, and then the interviewers showed his reactions out of order so that he appeared to be endorsing kids breaking light tubes over their heads as 'harmless fun'.
  • Years later, interviewers tried to pull the same stunt with John Cena and steroid use. By this point, however, Vince McMahon was wise to the trick and had his own unedited footage of the interview.

    Theatre 
  • The third segment of Steve Reich's "video opera" Three Tales centers around Dolly the cloned sheep, featuring interviews from biologists (Richard Dawkins, Stephen J. Gould), experts in computer research, and religious figures. Dawkins is only shown in single-sentence soundbites, and the audience is tempted to take what he says out of context (especially with the audio and video hijinks by Reich and his video collaborator: Dawkins is made to talk like an automaton, his hair is zoomed close to make it look like a devil's horn, and his "clones" appear all over the screen). In contrast, a Rabbi is given a whole uninterrupted minute to expound on his position.

    Video Games 
  • In the video game of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, disabling Umbridge's loudspeakers has the effect of twisting every rule she announces over them. For example: "Walking is <interference> not permitted. Children must <interference> run everywhere!"
  • Another similar example: In the Thomas Edison level of the Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego game, one of the puzzles is solved by recording the store owner's message onto a series of wax cylinders and then rearranging them to have the completely opposite meaning.
  • In a level of the Vietnam video game Men of Valor, an American officer orders the huts of a VC village set on fire because a large enemy force had just attacked them from those very huts. The news reporter with them makes a fuss and when seen later in film footage, the officer's words are edited out and the news reporter makes it seem as if the Americans had just destroyed an innocent village. (Which did happen sometimes in Vietnam, unfortunately.)
  • In the Video Game of Revenge of the Sith, one can damage the sound system in the Jedi temple, twisting the Jedi oath into a more sinister form ("There is only the Force" becomes "There is only...the Dark Side").
    • There is an even darker version where "There is no death, there is the Force" becomes "...death...is the Force".
  • In Torin's Passage near the end, there's a puzzle where you use crystals in a recording device to warp the words of Lycentia (The woman who kidnapped your parents) "You're not welcome here, you decrepit old creep!" to "Dreep, come here!" which makes a guard named Dreep, who works for her, leave after you let the device float away (Via the lack of gravity).
  • Nancy Drew: Alibi in Ashes features Brenda Carlton, who does this for basically everything she reports on.
    • When Nancy stumbles out of a burning building at the beginning of the game, Brenda immediately demands to know what made Nancy "decide to burn down the old Town Hall". Nancy denies it, which results in Brenda throwing out all the video footage and saying Nancy was "rendered speechless" instead.
    Brenda: And speechless is the word of the day as onlookers struggle to come to terms with the brazen destruction of the beloved Town Hall - by none other than the girl detective they had once trusted their lives and livelihoods to.

    Web Comics 
  • He's not a journalist, but Neilen from Dominic Deegan: Oracle for Hire uses a wind spell to rearrange the words of Dominic and Luna to try and break them up.
  • This was used during the first Credomar story arc in Schlock Mercenary, to make the amorph look like a sociopathic villain instead of the Sociopathic Hero that he is. Mass rioting occurred later, though for different (but related) reasons.

    Western Animation 
  • The Simpsons, in the episode "Homer Bad Man":
    Homer: "Eh, somebody had to take the babysitter home, and I noticed she was sitting on / her / sweet can— / So I grabbed / her / sweet can— / *drooling* / Just thinking about / her / can— / I just wish I had / her / sweet-s-s-sweet can—"
    • To make it that more obvious that this is a hack job to score Ratings for a Hard Copy-style TV tabloid, the hands on the clock in the background jump around more than Homer does.
    • At the end, when Homer is cleared and the truth is revealed, the show was forced to admit that many of their reports were lies and reveal many truths. However, it's apparent that the reporter never learned his lesson, especially since the corrections flash across the screen too fast to actually read.
    • In one Treehouse of Horror, Homer is thinking of detonating the nuclear plant, Ned Flanders comes in to stop him by yelling through a mic "Don't do it! Don't do it! You'll kill everyone!" but by interruptions Homer only hears: "<interruption>DO it! <interruption>DO it! <interruption> Kill everyone!"
  • The entire premise behind Space Ghost Coast to Coast. Celebrities on the show are interviewed in a fairly normal manner. The answers are then taken wildly out of context, with the questions Space Ghost asks often having no relation at all to what was originally asked. One extreme example of this is when they made it look like Björk was Space Ghost's wife. This is balanced by the fact that Space Ghost and the other cartoon characters often look more insane than the interviewee.
  • There's an episode of Clone High where Lincoln and JFK are both running for student president, and JFK makes an attack ad full of Manipulative Editing.
    Narrator: [Abe would] also like you believe he's not a baby-eater, but he's never gone on record saying he isn't.
    Abe: (in the video, holding a fork) I can't wait to eat this / baby?\\ (Cut to a baby on a plate. Cut back to Abe, who has a mouth full of what is clearly spaghetti)
    Abe: (watching ad) How did JFK get my spaghetti video?

     Real Life  
  • Michael Moore has been accused of doing this now and then.
  • Andrew Breitbart got someone fired, participated in a similar incident to discredit a nonprofit group, and as of the summer of 2011 is being sued for Twisting the Words. For that matter, the list of politicians and political pundits who do this in real life would go on for pages.
    • Now that Breitbart kicked the bucket, he's beyond apologies or corrections.
  • There's also several YouTube videos of what appears to be Barack Obama calling himself a Muslim. He was actually saying that John McCain hadn't tried to claim that Obama followed the Muslim faith.
    • Similarly, many people on YouTube have taken one of JFK's speeches out of context to try and make it look like he's warning us about the New World Order. Even without the context, it's still blindingly obvious to anyone with a brain that he's talking about the Soviet Union. For that matter, the whole theory comes from taking out of context one time George H.W. Bush said "new world order" (he too was talking about the Soviet Union, specifically its fall).
  • Sadly, British newspapers twisted an engineer's words about the Titanic. When describing the compartmentalized hull, the original words were "Near unsinkable".
    • A large amount of publicity for the Titanic also claimed it to be "practically" unsinkable, as well as "made as close to unsinkable as modern technology will allow". The newspapers were hardly making a huge leap.
  • To impress upon the Cabinet the likely outcome of widening the war and implementing the Naval Command's 'Southern Strategy' - which, because it seemed likely the US would take the opportunity to declare war on them anyway, called for a surprise attack upon the US Fleet which they had ordered him to direct - Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku told them that the ONLY way Japan could negotiate a peace with the USA was for them to fight all the way to Washington, DC and dictate peace terms in the White House itself; the USA would never agree to a treaty in Japan's favour, he knew, after such an insult to their national pride. When this quote made it to America, it was recast (possibly intentionally, possibly just a poor translation) as an aggressive, jingoistic promise to do just that (negotiate from an occupied US Capital).
  • A humorous example from the film The Trollhunter features a genuine clip from the former Norwegian prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg: "We've got trolls in Norway" He's actually referring to the Troll oil field.
  • The famous alleged psychic prophet Nostradamus made predictions that were, on the whole, extremely vague. This leads a lot of conspiracy theorists to start pointing to his "prophecies" to whatever great event or disaster recently occurred to fit the view of the theorist. Some even go so far as to make them up completely, such as the "Nostradamus 9/11 Prophecy" that was supposedly written several decades after he died.


Documentary Of LiesThe Shades of FactManipulative Editing
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