"Did I forget to send you that check? Gosh, I'm sorry. I'll get it off today."
Suppose the second and third of the preceding sentences are absolutely true but that the implication of the first is not (because you know darned well that you didn't "forget" to send the money). Have you lied? Misled? Done anything at all reproachable?
It depends. If you are an Air Force Academy cadet, and your intent is to make your creditor think the bill has slipped your mind, you may be guilty of that heinous offense known as "quibbling."
I certainly don't want to encourage dishonesty, but it occurs to me that the Air Force might get more common- sense advice from Miss Manners than it did from its own rule book in the case of John Hillyer. Hillyer, the Academy's highest-ranking junior class cadet, faces a possible year-long suspension. According to a copyright story in the Colorado Springs Sun, the Cadet Wing Honor Board recommended the suspension of John Hillyer, Cadet Wing sergeant major, for his failure to tell the whole truth about a window-breaking incident.
As the Sun reports it, Hillyer broke an academy window and cut his hand. After getting treatment for the cut, he returned to the area and was asked what he was doing there. "Waiting for a friend," he reportedly answered, mentioning nothing about the window.
That was enough to get the 21-year- old cadet charged with "quibbling," which my desk-top Webster's defines as "evasion of the main point by emphasizing some petty detail" but which an Air Force Academy spokesman defined as an attempt to "deceive or mislead" and, therefore, "a form of lying that is a violation of the Cadet Honor Code."
Hilyer hasn't been suspended yet and he may not be, having elected to have his case brought before the Academy Board, a panel composed of senior staff members. But the fact that he should even be threatened with a possibly career-wrecking year-long suspension seems wildly disproportionate to his alleged offense.
I've got no problem with the Cadet Honor Code, which says cadets "will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does." My quibble is with the rule against "quibbling," which, in some easily imagined circumstances, comes close to a prohibition against good manners and common sense. Even the courts, though they insist that you swear to tell "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth," will not fault you for failing to volunteer more truth than a non-lying answer demands.
In nonjudicial applications, failure to quibble can be a good deal more offensive than quibbling -- as, for instance, when your wife asks if you think she's looking older these days.
I'm attracted to the approach Miss Manners once recommended to a reader who was trying to draw the line between honesty and needless blabbing. Honesty, she said, "means getting to the truth of the situation, rather than the crude liberal surface truth. To answer the question, 'Would you like to see some pictures of my grandchildren?' with the direct literal truth, 'No! Anything but that!' would be cruel. But is that the real question? The real question, if one has any sensitivity to humanity, is 'Would you be kind enough to let me share some of my sentiments and reassure me that they are important and worthwhile?,' to which a decent person can only answer, 'I'd love to.'
Fortunately, Miss Manners is not an Air Force cadet. A quibble like that could get her 20 years at hard labor.