It is impossible to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth

Adrian Arnold
4 min readFeb 16, 2020

This familiar phrase, repeated every day in courts, enquiries and legal investigations, is so much part of the English language that it is almost spoken as one word. And yet, if you think about the three sections of the phrase in greater depth you will appreciate the truth of the statement made in the title of this article. To tell the truth you have to know what the truth is.

What is the truth? The Oxford English Dictionary in one of its definitions of the word describes the word as “a fact that is believed by most people to be true.” Even then we have to ask what is meant by “most people”.

To begin with a simple example, ask three siblings about a fact common to each of their family lives and you will get three answers. When did Dad start working in Derby? The question may refer to his first newspaper round, his early apprenticeship to a printer which only lasted for a week before he joined the engineering firm that employed him for the rest of his life. These could be provable facts but each family member will be convinced of the truth of their differing answers which contradict the others.

Was Winston Churchill a great wartime leader? Whether you answer “Yes” or “No”, you are not telling the truth — you are expressing an opinion. Are potatoes safe? Yes and no, so what is the truth? There are two poisons in the green parts of the potato plant — and that includes the potato tubers that have gone green. A few years ago scientists found an increased risk of cancer in those people who ate large amounts of potato then, ten years later, they found that they were more likely to suffer high blood pressure. Who knows whether either study found the truth about the hazards of eating too many potatoes?

Three and three add up to six but they also denote thirty three and three cubed which is twenty seven. They are true statements but are they “the truth”?

Now consider “the whole truth”. At the time of writing there is an ongoing news story about the security of the Huawei telecoms system but it is impossible to get ‘the whole truth’. Fifteen years ago the British telecoms giant, BT, decided to upgrade the UK’s telecoms infrastructure. They took the decision to use Huawei largely on the basis that it was considerably cheaper than the alternatives. Thus Huawei became embedded in the whole of the UK’s telecoms network system and to strip it out would take years invalidating the politicians’ promises to roll out the 5G network across the country within a couple of years.

I am led to believe — because I don’t know whether it is the truth or not — that GCHQ headquarters in Cheltenham has one room devoted to the CCTV coverage of multiple computer screens to identify any malevolent alterations to the UK network coding. We can be very proud of our security system but other countries whose security systems may not be so robust will have access to our network which would offer an opportunity for foreign powers to gain access through a third party.

All this ignores the political implications of decisions taken about the use of Huawei technology. We certainly cannot begin to comprehend ‘the whole truth’ about this situation.

Finally we come to ‘nothing but the truth’. This is the “yes, but …” answer. Imagine yourself in the witness box when prosecuting counsel asks “Was the defendant travelling in a Northerly direction?” The correct answer would be “yes” because he had forgotten his wallet that he had left in the bar and had to re-trace his steps. But his intended, and longest, distance travelled was in a Southerly direction which would have destroyed the prosecution’s case. “Did the defendant have an argument in the bar?” Yes — but it was with the barman and an hour after the victim had left the premises.
“No further questions, m’lud!”
You had told nothing but the truth on both occasions but it was not the whole truth and therefore you had broken your oath made at the beginning of your testimony. Hopefully a decent defence barrister will be able to fill in the accurate picture of the events to deliver justice.

Oh! No! I had forgotten that justice and the law are two different animals — but that is a subject for a future article.



Adrian Arnold

Retired veterinary surgeon now a collector of trivia. Married to a wonderful wife, four children and four grandchildren. Author of A Veterinary Life on Amazon.