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I'm getting bored of repeating the same "I can't answer that" phrase over and over.

I'm trying other phrases, like "I'll leave that to your imagination," but that one sounds too weird.

Specifically, I'm not trying to avoid answering a question (so deflecting it is not in the question). I'm trying to reply to a question by asserting it's one I cannot answer, and that the asker should understand this.

I'm looking for both formal and informal phrases.

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closed as too broad by KitFox Mar 17 at 15:57

There are either too many possible answers, or good answers would be too long for this format. Please add details to narrow the answer set or to isolate an issue that can be answered in a few paragraphs.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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Why do you have to repeat it? Is it to the same asker? What are you saying at the moment, that they are failing to understand? –  AakashM Mar 13 at 11:12
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Why can't you answer? Forbidden, don't know, answer is poorly formed, ... Without knowing that, it's hard to suggest appropriate phrases. –  keshlam Mar 13 at 13:30
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Yes, I think this depends a lot on context. For instance, in a job interview, "I'll leave that to your imagination" is probably not something you should ever say, for obvious reasons. :D –  Kyle Strand Mar 13 at 16:51
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"Sorry, I'm under NDA." If you tell people that you aren't allowed to talk about it, they may stop pestering you. Or they may not, in which case the next step is "what part of 'legally liable if I blab' didn't you understand?" –  keshlam Mar 13 at 19:31
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You could print "Sorry, I'm under NDA." on a t-shirt and point to it as necessary. –  Jason C Mar 14 at 1:08

32 Answers 32

"That's beyond the scope of [this course/my expertise/what I'm allowed to discuss/ etc]."

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For the NDA option: “talk to my lawyer.”

(Or in some domains, “You do understand that I am required to report that you asked to our compliance office?”)

For the original misinterpretation: “I don’t know and I don’t have time to do a web search.”

Sometimes I give them the URI for the web search they should have done.

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It sounds like what you're looking for is what's come to be known as The GLOMAR response.

The 'official' original GLOMAR response read:

"We can neither confirm nor deny the existence of the information requested but, hypothetically, if such data were to exist, the subject matter would be classified, and could not be disclosed."

It was designed as, essentially, a means for the CIA to cope with Freedom of Information requests in which merely revealing the existence of documents which comply with a request, whether or not the documents themselves were disclosed, would itself be material and damning information. It is the utter and complete lack of an answer. "I will not tell you whether I know the answer to your question, but if I did know it, I wouldn't tell you."

Since it's original use, the 'GLOMAR response' has taken on something of a life of it's own, as documented by Radiolab recently. It has become rather standard government boilerplate for all sorts of non-responses, to say nothing of it's use by corporations, celebrities, and even just in personal conversations.

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Some very formal and polite ways of expressing your reluctance or inability to answer a question.

  • Unfortunately, at present, I am unable to answer
  • It grieves me to say, but I am unable to respond
  • I regret to say, I cannot answer your query
  • Regrettably, I am not in a position to reply
  • I choose not to answer that question (for obvious reasons)
  • I'm afraid that is confidential information

Alternatively, a more informal expression is

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1  
+1 for the clue family of phrases. –  bib Mar 13 at 12:35

Another common answer is:

Your guess is as good as mine.
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No comment might come across as a bit too evasive for the asker's tastes, but if the question was an obviously or comically unreasonable one (e.g. asking for intimate details of one's private life in a public conversation) then it's a reasonable reply.

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"Couldn't say!"

This one seems to have been forgotten... couldn't say why!

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Here in the UK, several really informal phrases that I use when I don't know an answer to a question:

Dunno

God Knows

Wow! Really? (Or just Really?)

Slightly more formal is something like:

Sorry, I'm not sure

or

Sorry, but I'm not sure at the moment. (However, I would find the answer by...)

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We would need to establish your need to know before that information can be shared. -or- You don't have the need to know.

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"I can't discuss it for legal reasons"

Or, slightly less formal:

"I can't say for legal reasons"

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That is a great question, I wonder who will be able to answer that for you.

Then followed up with either: 1. Who do you think you could ask? or 2. I would ask that question on stackexchange and see what they say.

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This one from House of Cards, a bit verbose: You might think that but I could not possibly comment.

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According to many tech forums, there are the following ways to rephrase it:

1) "Why would you want to do that in the first place?" 2) "You dont want to do that!" 3) "That's a bad idea" 4) "Read the manual" 5) Something totally unrelated to the question.

And after you finally found a solution without anybody's help, you should should come back and answer your own question like so:

"I finally got it solved" - without any explanation as to how you did it, in case somebody else has the same problem as you did, let him eat dirt!

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Best answers:

  • I am not at liberty to say.
  • I am unable to disclose that information.
  • I am currently under an NDA and can not discuss.

Steve

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From your comment, the scenario seems to be that you have some knowledge under NDA, and are facing queries about it (e.g. new project feature for a hot product etc.)

Informal:

  • My lips are sealed
  • Its hush-hush, sorry
  • Can't say, under NDA

Formal:

  • Due to contractual reasons I cannot answer your questions
  • Unfortunately, due to agreements with I can't help you at the moment
  • We're not allowed to talk about unreleased features (for IT types)

Of course, if you are part of a super secretive company, then couple of ways to avoid such questions altogether is :

  • Apple: Don't even mention your department, just talk about the campus & food and smile vaguely when anyone asks about your work domain
  • CIA: Pretend you have a different job altogether, preferably a super boring one that no one will ask about
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Hmm. The last person I met who who worked for Apple was perfectly happy to talk about what he did. According to your policies that means he must not have really worked for Apple, but in fact was a CIA agent. Or could just be because he wasn't working on an unannounced product. –  Steve Jessop Mar 13 at 21:58

"nunya" (which is short for "none of your business")

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This answer could be more helpful if you tell us more about why you think it is a good fit. For example, tell us why you think this would fit a situation where you cannot answer a question (as opposed to trying to deflect), or describe in what situations it is appropriate to use this phrase. –  aedia λ Mar 13 at 22:03

If the context is that you know the answer but the information is private, you might say "I am not at liberty to discuss this matter." Less formally, you might say "That's above my pay-grade" or "I'd tell you, but then I'd have to kill you." (Obviously VERY informal and only to be used with people that would understand the humor.)

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You can say "Ask me no questions, and I'll tell you no lies."

This is generally taken as a hint not to ask questions. Of course, if they persist in asking questions, you're in a fix. I suppose you can just make things up—they've been warned.

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I always say:

I wish I had an answer for that.

or

If you figure that out, be sure to let me know.

or, my personal favorite

When you figure out the answer to that, there should be a Nobel Prize waiting for you in Sweden.

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"I could tell you, but then I'd have to shoot you".

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1  
That's more of a deflection. –  David M Mar 13 at 18:11

Tossing my two cents onto the pile...

I do not know the answer because I do not understand the question. Would you please rephrase?

I do not know the answer (now) but I will research and get back to you.

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How about: I can neither confirm nor deny that there is an answer to your question or whether I could tell you if I were to know.

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I'd love to help you @user129811, but I can't think of anything right now.

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Consider the phrase Damned if I know!

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Some other examples. Normally preceded by I'm sorry.

  • I can't give you that information.
  • I'm not allowed to tell you that.
  • I'm not allowed to share that with you.
  • That information is restricted.
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Some rather informal versions, the first of which is quite popular slang in the UK at present:

  • "I haven't got a scooby" - from rhyming slang, "scooby doo" = "clue"
  • "No idea"
  • "Beats me"
  • "Pass"
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How about:

I only know as much as you do.

Which is to me, mostly for people you consider your equals.

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You could say: (It) beats me!

thefreedictionary (It) beats me. and (It's) got me beat.; You got me beat. Inf. I do not know the answer.; I cannot figure it out. The question has me stumped.

Example1:

Bill: When are we supposed to go over to Tom's? Bill: Beats me.

Example2:

Sally: What's the largest river in the world? Bob: You got me beat.

Another option:

If you want to show that you sincerely would have wanted to answer if only you had one - you could say:

I wish I knew / I wish I had an answer to that

Also,

you might be interested in some atlernatives to I have no idea like:

I haven't the faintest / I haven't the foggiest
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You can say, "Let me get back to you" or "I'll get back on that". And really mean to search for an answer. Else if you cannot know the answer, just say "I'm sorry, I really don't know". Honesty is the answer.

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I plead the 5th.

The privilege against compelled self-incrimination is defined as "the constitutional right of a person to refuse to answer questions or otherwise give testimony against himself

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To be clear, that phrase is mostly used humorously (unless you find yourself in a courtroom situation). –  IQAndreas Mar 13 at 9:23
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@IQAndreas - I wouldn't say it is "common" to say but it is said in work/everyday conversation. Like if your boss assigns you a stupid project and someone from another group asks why you are working on it... "I plead the 5th". Maybe this is regional and obviously it is mainly AE. –  RyeɃreḁd Mar 13 at 13:01
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This is used in context of avoiding an answer, which is specifically excluded in the question. –  Alok Mar 13 at 19:22

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