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Exact Words

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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. Undercover heroes often tell the Big Bad that "Your operation is very impressive, and you deserve everything that's coming to you" — both of which are true, without specifying what exactly is coming their way. Often, a user of Exact Words will parrot the specific wording of the agreement, smugly or matter-of-factly, when confronted about their duplicity, in order to taunt the other person or point out that they technically didn't lie.

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.

In the case of prophecies and prophecy twists, Fridge Logic kicks in, leading one to wonder what the heck the prophet actually saw, and why would the prophet word it as such?

A Sub-Trope of Double Meaning. Compare Heroic Vow, I Would Say If I Could Say, Technical Euphemism, 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, Literal Money Metaphor and to Literalist Snarking, as well as Loophole Abuse. Also see No Man of Woman Born. Contrast with I Lied, for when the opposing party makes no effort to hide the fact that they were not holding to their end. Not to be confused with Literal-Minded. Often a very important part of the Comically Wordy Contract, but easy to overlook because the contract is so damned wordy.

In Real Life doing this with instructions (for example, in your workplace), is called "malicious compliance" or "working to rule." It's a form of striking often used by health care workers and others in industries where refusing to work would put lives at risk. Instructions have to be painstakingly worded such that someone who has no idea what they are doing can complete the task reasonably well. If an experienced worker decides to follow every detail of every instruction, work grinds to almost a halt. But of course, since you've technically complied with all instructions the company can't fire you for incompetence or insubordination. 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; it's "help fight". 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.
  • The Simpsons:
    • A 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)
    • An ad for Ritz Bits Sandwiches Smores had the Comic Book Guy offer to trade Bart a rare comic for the rest of his box of Ritz Bits, but quickly realizes he's been had.
      Comic Book Guy: Hello? This box is empty!
      Bart: You said "the box".
      Comic Book Guy: Worst. Trade. Ever!
    • In another Butterfinger commercial, Bart is at bat in a baseball game. Otto shouts for Bart to "Hit a homer". Take a wild guess as to whom Bart sends the ball flying towards.
    • In a Burger King commercial, Homer sees Bart walking around a fountain. Homer tells Bart "Watch it, boy, don't get your clothes wet!" Cue Bart taking off his clothes.
  • The old Philadelphia-based electronics chain Silo found themselves in this situation due to an advertising campaign that backfired. In 1986, Silo ran a commercial featuring a sale on stereo systems in which the $299 stereos were described as "299 bananas"note . While most customers figured out what Silo meant, several customers in El Paso, TX and Seattle, WA decided to test the "299 bananas" gambit, bringing in a total of 11,000 bananas to the local Silo stores. The chain, to their credit, accepted the bananas (the Seattle location donated the bananas they received to a local zoo, with the zoo keeping around 1,000 and donating the rest to area food banks) but quickly scrapped the ad after announcing a loss of just over $10,000.

  • BoBoiBoy: Ochobot's reasoning to giving powers to BoBoiBoy is his programming to give powers to whoever activates him. Adu Du says he was the one who activated him, but BoBoiBoy contests that since Adu Du stole his cocoa, he was technically the one who activated him. Following that, the cocoa was truly Tok Aba's, so Tok Aba gets a free robotic helper at his cocoa store.
  • An early episode of Happy Heroes has Doctor H. entering a competition because its prize, as advertised by Mr. Lightbulb, is that the winner gets to have dinner with a certain local news celebrity. The way the in-universe ad is shown makes it look like the celebrity in question is Miss Peach, Doctor H.'s crush. However, at the end of the episode, he learns that the dinner is actually with Mr. Lightbulb himself, who has to point out that he never explicitly said the celebrity involved in the prize was Miss Peach.
  • Mechamato:
    • Amazeey's "Swiftest Mind Challenge" is to find a specific library book. When asked what book it is, Amazeey says "Shh, it's a secret." Later, Mara remembers a book with Amazeey's exact phrase as its title and finds it in time, winning the challenge.
    • Because his mother won't let him read comics in the house, Deep reads them in the playground instead.
  • Motu Patlu:
    • At the beginning of the episode "Water Problem", Motu is about to eat some samosas as per usual when Patlu reminds him that the doctor has warned him not to eat outside foods due to a stomach problem. Motu eats the samosas given to him anyway... but he takes the shells off of them and only eats the insides. He explains to Chaiwala that he can't have outside foods, so he's eating inside foods instead.
    • In "Robot of Furfuri Nagar", the contestants of the robot competition are asked to read the robots' manuals, as "whoever drinks up the information in this manual tonight and digests it really well, only he will be able to win the competition". Motu complies by turning his manual into a soup and literally drinking it.
  • In Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf: Mighty Little Defenders episode 13, the wolves capture Mr. Slowy and Grany Dao Yang and are told that they may try to escape their prison by pretending to have a stomachache and asking to go to the bathroom. When Grany Dao Yang asks to go to the bathroom because he has a stomachache, the wolves refuse to let him go since they think he might be trying to escape their prison. When Grany Dao Yang changes his request so that he has to go to the bathroom because his foot hurts, the wolves open the gate for him since they were never told that they couldn't let them go to the bathroom because their feet hurt.
  • Simple Samosa: In "Chutney Dam", Samosa, Jalebi, and Dhokla, fearing for the safety of Vada when he tries to make a dive into the lake from the Chutney Dam, warn him to come down from the dam. Vada takes this as "come down from the dam by making the dive".

    Audio Drama 
  • In the Big Finish Doctor Who War Doctor story The Heart of the Battle, the Doctor and a Time Lord strike team have been sent to rescue a supposed prisoner of the Daleks, only to learn he's negotiating peace. The Doctor insists the Daleks don't negotiate unless they're planning betrayal, and convinces Seratrix to let them take him to Dalek Central Command to prove this. Once there, the Doctor (using his Go-to Alias of John Smith) claims to the Prime Dalek that they are Seratrix's negotiation team, and that he's there to fix the communications array, and prompts Seratrix to confirm this. Still reluctant to outright lie to his supposed negotiation partners, Seratrix settles for "It is true that John Smith is extremely resourceful, and very probably can fix your systems", which doesn't directly identify the Doctor as part of a negotiation team, or even say that he has any intention of fixing the systems.

  • 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.
    "Oh, hark! I hear the church bells ringing; will you come and be my wife:
    or, dear Madam, have you settled to be single all your life?"
    "Oh, no, John, no, John, no, John, no!"
  • 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.

    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.
  • In The Goose Girl, the princess tells the truth not to anyone — which she had promised not to — but to an iron stove. While a sympathetic king happens to be eavesdropping.
  • In some versions of The Fisherman and His Wife, the Magic Fish grants the Wife's wish to "be like God" by returning the couple to their original humble shack, not out of outrage but because God has no need for wealth, titles, or Earthly power.
  • A lad unwittingly helps Death - Death says he makes no exceptions ever, but his thanks 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. Prostate Cancer and..." note 
  • In The Tale of Norna-Gest, Gest was cursed by an ill-tempered norn to live no longer than the candle that burned beside his cradle. Fortunately, one of the other norns put the candle out before it burned away, which mean that Gest was immortal so long as the candle was kept safe.
  • In one Italian tale, the King isn't happy about having promised his daughter's hand in marriage to a peasant, so he technically fulfills the request, but stations guards in the room, makes them keep all the lights on, and makes the peasant and his daughter sleep in separate beds, or with a sword between them, or some such. Then he tells his daughter to "answer only no" to whatever the peasant asks her. The peasant proceeds to ask the princess questions like "Do you think it is right to have these guards here when we are lawfully married?" and "Do you think we should have so much space between us?" The princess, naturally, answers no, allowing the peasant to send the guards away, turn the lights off and sleep in the same bed as the princess.

  • 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).

  • In Nem's song "Monochrome Dream-Eating Baku" (sung by 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 2008, Biffy Clyro performed an acoustic cover of Rage Against the Machine's "Killing In The Name" at the Reading Festival. Since the performance was being broadcast live over BBC Radio, the band agreed that they would censor the infamous Cluster F-Bomb at the song's climax. The audience, however, were bound by no such agreement, and happily filled in the blanks.
    • Robbie Williams pulled the exact same trick when he performed at the BBC's annual New Years' concert to ring in 2017. He told the audience that, before the concert, the Beeb had pulled him to one side and told him not to swear during any of his songs: he then noted that there was nothing stopping the audience from swearing, before launching into a rendition of "Come Undone" during which the audience happily swore in his stead. He later told the audience a story about his young daughter innocently dropping an F-bomb, which also counts as this: he'd only been told not to swear during his songs.
  • "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.
  • The Southern version of the American Civil War song "The Battle Cry of Freedom" includes the lyric "Our Dixie forever, she's never had a loss...". Technically true, but since they'd never had a win either it isn't much of a boast.
  • The Sex Pistols:
  • Eminem pulls this off over multiple tracks on The Marshall Mathers LP. On his verse on "Remember Me?", he says:
    "I'm trying to clean up my fuckin' image
    So I promised the fuckin' critics
    That I wouldn't say 'fuckin'' for six minutes"
    • Just after he says this, he goes on to say "fuck" multiple times, but not "fuckin'" until two tracks later, on "Marshall Mathers" (the track before it, "I'm Back", is a little over five minutes long, allowing him to keep his promise):
      "These fuckin' brats can't sing, and Britney's garbage
      What, is this bitch retarded? Give me back my sixteen dollars!"
  • H8_Seed's "Neverending Strife", a Villain Song from the perspective of Discord, begins with the lines "Oh, please excuse me, I don't mean to alarm / And certainly I mean you no physical harm." True to his word, he won't harm a hair on your head, aside from magically and painlessly removing your horn, wings, and/or anything else you could use to escape or fight him. Mental and emotional harm, on the other hand...
  • Meco's first album was titled Star Wars And Other Galactic Funk, implying it includes funky arrangements of music from Star Wars and other science fiction media: Sure enough, Side A is a disco medley of themes from John Williams' A New Hope score... and Side B is an original piece titled "Other Galactic Funk".
  • By 2000, Eels had decided to retire their early hit single "Novocaine for the Soul" from live performances - audiences still kept calling out requests for it, and according to vocalist E, someone even spotted him after one show and began to complain at length about how disappointed they were not to hear it. This led to the band trolling the audience during an encore at one concert - As stage banter, E announced that they were finally going to play "a hit song"... They then brought out a surprise guest, Afroman, to sing an extended jam version of his current hit song, "Because I Got High".

  • The Magnus Archives: In "Cheating Death" the narrator starts off by telling a story of a soldier who challenged Death to a game in an attempt to save his life. He fails to notice that Death said "if you win you shall not die" - it didn't say "you will live"..
  • When the party from The Fallen Gods encounters The mother Black Dragon, she swears that she shall slaughter the party if they "laid one hand" on her child. The party states that technically, nobody touched Boss Baby Dragon with their hands.
  • Episode six of Mystery Show included a long story from Welcome Back, Kotter co-creator Alan Sacks about music producer Phil Spector. When Sacks was invited to Spector's home, he said he was "coming [him]self," then invited a colleague at the last minute. When Spector saw two people there, he freaked out and ended up pulling a gun on them. When Starlee sets up a meeting with Sacks, he's careful to ask what exactly she means when she saws "we."
  • Not Another D&D Podcast: During the Hellfire Chronicles, Moonshine makes a deal with Josh not to take any of the soul coins in the upcoming battle. They responded by saying "Then you have my army", meaning that, once Moonshine held up her end of the bargain, Josh then had to give over all the soul coins to moonshine anyway.

    Pro Wrestling 
  • In the Royal Rumble, the only way to be eliminated is to be thrown over the top rope and have both feet 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 behind the ref's back 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. Once the decision was reversed, Triple H told Hebner he was fired and beat him up.
  • 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 2005, before their WrestleMania match, John Cena and John "Bradshaw" Layfield were feuding, which got to the point that it was stipulated that Cena wouldn't go to WrestleMania if he touched JBL. Cena decided to have some fun with him by grabbing his hat, pouring some water in it and putting it back on his head, cutting off a part of his tie, and spray-painting his shirt... and despite JBL's protests, Teddy Long pointed out that Cena didn't touch him.
  • 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 won 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.
    • Rayne also did this at a TNA show in New Jersey where Angelina Love was promised a Knockouts "title shot" if she could defeat Rayne's old rival, JAPW's Women's Champion Sara Del Rey. When Love won, Rayne ran out and hit her with the belt.
  • The Undertaker uses this as an entrance at times. Many a wrestler has loudly proclaimed that there isn't a man alive who can defeat him, only to freeze in terror when the lights dim and the gong sounds and everyone knows The Dead Man is in the house.
  • 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 that 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.
  • Extreme Rules 2015 featured the first ever Kiss Me Arse Match between Dolph Ziggler and Sheamus. One might recall that two similar encounters have taken place before in WWE: SummerSlam 1999 between The Rock and Mr. Ass, and Rebellion 2002 between Rikishi and Albert. However, those respectively were a Kiss My Ass match, and a Kiss My Arse match. There is a difference.
  • The comedic Japanese promotion Dramatic Dream Team has their own twist on the Ladder Match: a wrestler competing against an actual ladder. And because their Ironman Heavymetalweight Championship can be held by anyone or anything that can pin the current champion, it has been held by three different ladders!
  • Post-WrestleMania 31, frustrated after losing his WWE Championship to Seth Rollins, Brock Lesnar goes on a rampage after being denied a rematch, delivering F5 after F5 to every cameraman, until Stephanie McMahon orders Brock to "put the second cameraman down". Cue another F5 to the poor cameraman, because she merely told him to "put that man down", not "let him go".
  • Dusty Rhodes and his son Dustin once faced Ric Flair and Jeff Jarrett with the stipulation that if Dusty and Dustin won, Flair had to kiss Dusty's white ass. Because Dusty won the match, Flair was forced to kiss Dusty's white ass, a white mule with the words "Dusty's Ass" written on its backside.
  • One time, Vickie Guerrero ordered Montel Vontavious Porter to face Big Show in a Last Man Standing Match. If Porter lost, Triple H would not be allowed in the Royal Rumble match. To stop Triple H from helping Porter, Vickie banned him from ringside. Eventually, when the combatants fought their way to the stage, Triple H came out and hit Big Show with a sledgehammer to knock him out. Vickie reprimanded Triple H for violating her orders, but he pointed out the stage is nowhere near ringside and she grudgingly accepted it.
  • At the 2002 Survivor Series, where champion Brock Lesnar was set to face the Big Show in a title match, Lesnar's manager Paul Heyman assured him that he would do whatever it takes to make sure that his client wins. In the match itself, Heyman proceeded to turn on Lesnar, allowing Big Show—Heyman's new client—to pick up the win.
  • On the WWE Raw after Wrestlemania 29, Cena decides that he wants to do a heel in, he moves his ankle back and forth.

  • During an episode of That Gosh Darn Hippie Show, DJ Hippie got a (fake) phone call from a grumpy old woman who was upset at the number of strange, obscure records played on the show, and demanded that DJ Hippie "play something normal, sonny". DJ Hippie sarcastically agreed to play something normal before cuing up "Normal" by Martin Mull.
  • In episode 2 of The Train at Platform 4, Dev, who mans the train's buffet car, claims to have been totally honest in his online dating profile. It turns out to say that he "runs a fast-moving catering business across four counties".

  • In Projection Quest Taylor agrees to keep the PRT up to date on her abilities. But the agreement never said her explanations had to be sensible or easy to understand. So Taylor uses complicated language and magispeak as a form of petty revenge.
  • In Warhammer Fantasy Divided Loyalties quest, as in Warhammer Fantasy canon, the Dwarven language Khazalid is an entire language of Exact Words, and its extreme precision proved both helpful and harmful to Mathilde Weber during and after the expedition to Karag Dum.
    • On the helpful side, Mathilde is able to precisely relay to Belegar Ironhammer the exact words Borek said regarding the leylines connecting Karak Eight Peaks to Karaz-A-Karak and avert a growing schism between Belegar and High King Thorgrimm Grudgebearer.
    • On the harmful side, when Mathilde asks her trade partner from the Yusak Tribe regarding the state of "The Dum", the precision of Khazalid leaves Mathilde unaware that "the Dum" the Yusak shaman refers to is not Karag Dum, the expedition's objective, but Cor-Dum, the Khazalid name for Morghur the Shadowgave.

  • 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. When appeals for mercy fail, Shylock prepares to take his pound of flesh, until Antonio's lawyer (actually Portia, a young woman passing herself off as a man) points out that the contract "doth not give one jot of blood; / The words expressly are 'a pound of flesh'"—in other words, Shylock has to cut the flesh without spilling any blood. Since doing this is physically impossible, the contract is declared null and void.
      • Portia shows off her talent in this trope earlier in the play as well, making it a pre-Chekhov Chekhov's Skill. According to her late father's will, Portia cannot choose her own husband. Any man who wants to win her hand must undergo a trial by choosing between three chests—one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead—to discover which contains a portrait of Portia. It's a Secret Test of Character, as Portia's picture is in the lead chest, and only a man who is not tempted by riches or appearances can find it. When Bassanio, who Portia genuinely loves, arrives and has to take the challenge, Portia realizes that the terms of the will state that she can't tell him the answer...but there's nothing that prohibits her from hinting at it, so long as she doesn't say it outright. She quickly arranges for some musicians to play a song about ignoring "fancy" ("Tell me, where is fancy bred? / Or in the heart, or in the head?"). Bassanio correctly recognizes the song as a clue and chooses the leaden chest, thus allowing Portia to marry a man of her choice after all.
    • 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 describing them as "honorable men".
    • Macbeth runs afoul of this trope in a big way. The Weird Sisters foretell that "No Man of Woman Born" can harm him, and that he will not be defeated "until great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane hill [his castle] march against him." When Prince Malcolm leads a charge against him, he has his followers use branches from the trees of Birnam Wood as cover, fulfilling the second prophecy; Macbeth is actually slain in battle by Macduff, who was delivered by Cesarean section and is thus not technically "born of woman" if you take "born" to mean "emerged through the birth canal."
    • 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.
    • Lighthearted example in Twelfth Night with Viola speaking to Feste who, being a clown, uses this trope as comedy:
      Viola: Save thee, friend, and thy music. Dost thou live by thy tabour?note 
      Feste: No, sir, I live by the church.
      Viola: Art thou a churchman?
      Feste: No such matter, sir. I do live by the church; for I do live at my house, and my house doth stand by the church. note 
  • 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 Commedia dell'Arte 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.
    • A servant enters a scene bragging about delivering a blistering, insulting speech about her employer, going into detail about all the ways she told him off. Another servant is inspired by her words and rushes off to try verbally attacking his own master...only to get brutally smacked for his insolence. The first servant then admits to the audience that while she indeed gave her insulting speech, she made sure to do it when her boss was out of earshot—in other words, it was about him, not to him.
  • 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).
  • The Music Man combines this with On One Condition. "Old Miser" Madison, a wealthy man, donates extensive property to River City after his death, including the Madison Public Library. But his will expressly states that he's left the city the library building—the books inside belong to Marian Paroo, the old man's only friend. It's implied that Madison did this because he realized that most of the people in town hate Marian; by making the library books her legal property, he guaranteed her a job for as long as she lives.
  • In The Pirates of Penzance, young Frederic is apprenticed to serve the pirates until he's twenty-one. He is eager to leave the eponymous pirate band, and does so upon turning twenty-one. In the second act, the Pirate King and Ruth inform him that he was born on February 29th, and that the apprenticeship was to end on his twenty-first birthday. Consequently, he isn't free to leave the pirate band until he's eighty-four years old. This makes things awkward for him when the Pirate King decides to hold to the exact letter of the contract. In a bit of Lampshade Hanging, Frederick points out that this is unfair, but as his whole character is defined by the concept of Honor Before Reason, he begrudgingly rejoins them.
  • In Why Marry?, Jean says "Words cannot describe my happiness" when her engagement to Rex is announced—because she doesn't want to marry him at all.
  • In The Merry Widow, Hanna still loves her Old Flame Danilo, and vice versa, but he refuses to court her because he doesn't want it to seem that he's only interested in the money she inherited from her late husband (whom she married after Danilo's family judged her unsuitable because of her then-poverty). She eventually gets him to propose by telling him that, according to the terms of the inheritance, she will lose her fortune if she remarries — not mentioning, until after the engagement is settled that she will lose the fortune in the sense that it will become her new husband's property.
  • Discussed in the stage version of Hairspray when Edna talks about her failed dream of being a fashion designer: "I said I was going to be the biggest thing in brassiers. Be careful what you wish for."
  • In Les Misérables, Thenardier wasn't lying when he said he served "food beyond belief" or when he said he treated Cosette like "one of [his] own".


Watching the TV - Bluey

In the Series 3 episode, "Turtleboy", when Bingo asks Bandit to watch TV, they sit down together and literally watch the blank screen.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (4 votes)

Example of:

Main / LiteralMinded

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