The situation being when you are accused of something, and provide a logical reason why you wouldn't (not couldn't) do such a thing, and such an explanation only makes you sound more guilty.

For example, if your boss has recently been murdered, and your coworkers know you didn't like him, and someone accuses you of killing him, and you say something like "Why would I do that? He just gave me a raise!" (This isn't the best example, I'm sure there are reasons that would seem more manufactured.)

I think this is one of the situations that the 5th amendment tries to protect against in court. It seems to be a subtle form of double bind, since not defending yourself makes you seem guilty, as does defending yourself.

Is there any term for this situation in English?

  • 1
    Isn't this a form of own goal? Are you looking for an informal or formal expression. In particular, are you looking for an expression a defence lawyer might use?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 27, 2015 at 13:55
  • You could describe it as making the mistake of "dignifying an accusation by responding to it," since we often hear public figures say, "I won't dignify that accusation/comment/rumor by responding to it." (Of course refusing to dignify an accusation by responding to it doesn't always make the accused seem less guilty either.)
    – Sven Yargs
    Jun 29, 2015 at 23:57
  • By the way, did you stop beating your wife?
    – Conrado
    Sep 10, 2020 at 18:19

6 Answers 6


In this example, you might be protesting too much.

Shakespeare introduced the phrase in Hamlet: "the lady doth protest too much, methinks".

"The lady doth protest too much, methinks" is a quotation from the 1602 play Hamlet by William Shakespeare. It has been used as a figure of speech, in various phrasings, to indicate that a person's overly frequent or vehement attempts to convince others of something have ironically helped to convince others that the opposite is true, by making the person look insincere and defensive. (Wikipedia)

The phrase can mean the denial/protest is too frequently repeated but it can also just be due to the vehemence or phrasing of the denial. It can be thought of — as the Wikipedia article on the line in Hamlet says — a subtle, unintentional apophasis.

Apophasis is a rhetorical device wherein the speaker or writer brings up a subject by either denying it, or denying that it should be brought up. (Wikipedia)

A single misplaced word can cause others to think the person protests too much.

Accusing someone of protesting too much is a not-so-subtle form of double bind. To deny it is to protest even more.

  • Oh, Avon & @Tushar are ganging up on me!
    – user98990
    Jun 27, 2015 at 9:52
  • @LittleEva: Haha. Not at all. I just followed Avon's link and realized his answer was missing its most compelling arguments.
    – Tushar Raj
    Jun 27, 2015 at 9:55
  • 1
    @LittleEva I'm sure Tushar Raj will edit yours too if you ask nicely
    – Avon
    Jun 27, 2015 at 9:55
  • @LittleEva This one english.stackexchange.com/questions/255298/… ?
    – Avon
    Jun 27, 2015 at 10:04
  • The very one, Avon!
    – user98990
    Jun 27, 2015 at 10:06

We often say, "He's digging his own grave," when someone's attempt to defend themselves makes them sound guilty. (US)


Hmm, I can't quite recall something that elegantly covers this exact case. Here are lots of pieces to work with though.

Doing anything that ultimately damages yourself can be described as, "digging your own grave".

Specifically saying something that is contrary to your best interest is, "putting your foot in your mouth".

The act of doing anything that incriminates yourself is just self-incrimination.

Jon could have stopped talking, but he self-incriminatingly put his foot in his mouth instead.

  • The first solution has already been suggested by @Oldbag. The second suggests that the speaker is guilty, while the third, self-incriminating, is a statement made by the speaker which incriminates him/her as a result. Not quite the same as "appearing" guilty because you have given a logical or plausible alibi/explanation.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 28, 2015 at 7:26
  • "Putting your foot in your mouth" only implies that you've done something detrimental to yourself, which could definitely include becoming someone who appears to be guilty. Whether you're actually guilty or not is beside the statement's point. I'm reasonably certain that becoming apparently guilty is as self-incriminating as actually proving that you're guilty. For all intents and purposes directly following the event described, you are incriminated in the eyes of anyone present. Whether you stay incriminated is again beside the point. Jun 28, 2015 at 17:38
  • It's my understanding that a statement that is self-incriminating, provides some proof or evidence that you might have had a motive in committing the offence or crime. It could also indicate that your alibi is flimsy. The OP's example, "Why would I do that? He just gave me a raise!" doesn't incriminate the speaker at all. If the statement had been " "Why would I do that? Yes, we had arguments in the past but nothing serious" that might induce people to believe there was some substance behind the accusation.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 28, 2015 at 18:25
  • 1
  • Yes, exactly. The OP implied that by saying anything at all, the speaker was exposing themselves to an accusation. I think self-incrimination isn't limited to the act of providing proof, instead it is any action that leads to the accusation. Jun 28, 2015 at 18:43

Answering the question/accusation: “You killed him, didn’t you?/Why did you kill him?” with anything but a firm denial gives the impression that one is dodging the question and therefore can raise suspicion that the truth is being withheld. (Wikipedia)

Asking rhetorical questions in response to questions certainly has its place and is not always evidence of ‘question dodging,” but even if one fancies themselves as possessing the intelligence and logic of Socrates, responding to a murder accusation by asking such a question will, at best, not result in being excused from further interrogation and at worst is tantamount to “shooting oneself in the foot.” (without getting into the cited ELU discussion concerning whether that phrase means ‘intentional,’ ‘unintentional,’ or either kind of self-harm)


the phrase (as) guilty as sin Merriman-Webster

completely, or very[sic] guilty

As in:

Despite his protestations, he appeared in body and manner guilty as sin!


Perhaps it's not an actual term that people use, but perhaps we should reference it as an "appeal." Maybe "Appeal to Motive," or something along those lines. And then we all can just agree that "Appeal to Motive" is a blanket statement for defending or attacking someone's views/actions based on establishing a motive, or lack thereof, to think/do that thing.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.