A pretext (adj: pretextual) is an excuse to do something or say something that is not accurate. Pretexts may be based on a half-truth or developed in the context of a misleading fabrication. Pretexts have been used to conceal the true purpose or rationale behind actions and words.
In US law, a pretext usually describes false reasons that hide the true intentions or motivations for a legal action. If a party can establish a prima facie case for the proffered evidence, the opposing party must prove that these reasons were "pretextual" or false. This can be accomplished by directly demonstrating that the motivations behind the presentation of evidence is false, or indirectly by evidence that the motivations are not "credible". In Griffith v. Schnitzer, an employment discrimination case, a jury award was reversed by a Court of Appeals because the evidence was not sufficient that the defendant's reasons were "pretextual". That is, the defendant's evidence was either undisputed, or the plaintiff's was "irrelevant subjective assessments and opinions".
As one example of pretext, in the 1880s, the Chinese government raised money on the pretext of modernizing the Chinese navy. Instead, these funds were diverted to repair a ship-shaped, two-story pavilion which had been originally constructed for the mother of the Qianlong Emperor. This pretext and the Marble Barge are famously linked with Empress Dowager Cixi. This architectural folly, known today as the Marble Boat (Shifang), is "moored" on Lake Kunming in what the empress renamed the "Garden for Cultivating Harmony" (Yiheyuan).
Another example of pretext was demonstrated in the speeches of the Roman orator Cato the Elder (234–149 BC). For Cato, every public speech became a pretext for a comment about Carthage. The Roman statesman had come to believe that the prosperity of ancient Carthage represented an eventual and inevitable danger to Rome. In the Senate, Cato famously ended every speech by proclaiming his opinion that Carthage had to be destroyed (Carthago delenda est). This oft-repeated phrase was the ultimate conclusion of all logical argument in every oration, regardless of the subject of the speech. This pattern persisted until his death in 149, which was the year in which the Third Punic War began. In other words, any subject became a pretext for reminding his fellow senators of the dangers Carthage represented.
The early years of Japan's Tokugawa shogunate were unsettled, with warring factions battling for power. The causes for the fighting were in part pretextural, but the outcome brought diminished armed conflicts after the Siege of Osaka in 1614–1615.
The next two-and-a-half centuries of Japanese history were comparatively peaceful under the successors of Tokugawa Ieyasu and the bakufu government he established.
A type of social engineering called pretexting uses a pretext to elicit information fraudulently from a target. The pretext in this case includes research into the identity of a certain authorized person or personality type in order to establish legitimacy in the mind of the target.