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I'm wondering about the right or possible interpretations for the "I don't want to know..." construction when followed by questions.

I'm not a native speaker, but in my own hypothesis the cause of "don't want to know" can be the speaker's or the subject's ignorance, or existing knowledge with regard to the answer to the question. So for the sentence [1], there are two possible interpretations (a) and (b):

[1] I don't want to know who came.

a. because I don't care!

b. because I already know! Why are you telling me this! (e.g. I feel ashamed that people have assumed that I didn't know who came)

Does this fit your intuition? Thank you!

  • 2
    Grammar can take you only so far. I don't want to know X tells you only that the speaker has denied a need for enlightenment about X. Without context, you don't know the reason for the denial or even whether the speaker is serious. I don't want to know implies that the speaker doesn't or pretends he doesn't know. – deadrat Aug 28 '16 at 5:23
  • Thanks. You are right, I study semantics so I definitely care more about interpretations and meanings than grammar (syntax) itself. As you said, I'm actually asking what kind of contexts the "I don't want to know" construction can license. – iyum Aug 28 '16 at 5:42
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As a semantician, you must know that grammar often implies basic semantics. Thus I don't want to know has the syntax of a denial, which carries a basic interpretation. The full meaning depends on the context, what I believe is often called the frame. Here are few off the top of my head:

  1. Client: Do you want to know what happened?
    Lawyer: I don't want to know what you did.

    This is straightforward request to remain ignorant. In the US, a lawyer is not permitted to let his client testify if the lawyer knows the client will perjure himself. By remaining ignorant of the facts, the lawyer may put his client on the stand with (his own) impunity. Obviously there many reasons to remain ignorant, including avoiding discomfort, maintaining disinterestedness, etc.

  2. Parent (to child): Go outside and play. And I don't want to know what you've been doing unless you're bleeding severely.

    This is clearly hyperbole. It's a parent's request for a little peace and quiet.

  3. Mary: Do you know how much you had to drink last night?
    John: I'm so hung over that I don't want to know how much I drank.

    This is facetious. John probably has a very good idea of how much he drank from how bad he feels.

  4. A: Do you know that today is the first day of the rest of your life?
    B: I don't want to know what your theory of life is.

    This means that B isn't interested in A's cliched approach to life.

Context is everything, and I'm sure you can multiply the meanings.

  • Thank you! Your examples are very helpful. Seems like the most salient reading of "don't want to know" results from speaker ignorance. The third examples sounds more of a pragmatic effect to me. – iyum Aug 28 '16 at 6:35
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Example 1

Person A) There is this super gross thing here!

Person B) I don't want to know! (I was perfectly comfortable before and I really don't need to know what about that super gross thing--It's not important to me and would make me uncomfortable.)


Example 2

Person A) Hey, I already saw this movie and there is this great twist at the end where...

Person B) I don't want to know! (Please don't spoil the surprise.)


Example 3

Person A) Hey, did you know that I saw Joyce getting coffee with...

Person B) I don't want to know! (Knowing this has the potential to make me feel uncomfortable in the future or conflicts with my morals.)


Generally speaking, this phrase indicates, not mere apathy towards knowing something (If I didn't care, I would just say that I didn't care), but an actual aversion to knowing something because it could cause discomfort, spoil some surprise, be against your morals, or just generally reveal something you don't wish to be aware of.

This same situation can occur when someone asks a question. It is harder to think of examples, but it is generally a similar situation.

  • 1
    There's also the case of wanting more specific/different information. "I don't want to know who came. I want to know who left." Or "I want to know who came early." – miltonaut Aug 28 '16 at 6:17

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