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Is there any single word or short expression that could be used similarly to "yes", "no", "maybe", but that indicates an unwillingness to answer a question?

Bonus points if the word is also polite and doesn't have any negative connotation. For example, ideally, such a word could be used to decline to answer a personal question asked by a standup comedian, while still being well-received (as opposed to derailing the show).

Perhaps the word could fit with an accompanying head bobble?

The best I can come up with is "pass"...

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    The best answer for this question would be " ".
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jan 29 at 17:13
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    Just to confirm: You're looking for a single word or short phrase (ideally polite) that would have the same effect as responding, "I'd rather not answer that." Is that correct? Commented Jan 29 at 18:06
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    I think I'll pass.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jan 30 at 0:15
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    Bartleby the scrivener: "I would prefer not to."
    – Stef
    Commented Jan 31 at 11:20
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    Other than your one example of declining to answer a personal question asked by a standup comedian ("Can't say"), is the context in an everyday conversation? media interview? police interrogation? exam? There are different words/phrases, and also by country (e.g. US Fifth Amendment).
    – smci
    Commented Jan 31 at 19:04

13 Answers 13

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I am not certain that it works perfectly in your context (pass, which you suggest, works well there), but the phrase no comment comes to mind. It has a bit of a stilted, press-related/political/official bent to it, but I think it's used frequently enough that it can be used in other types of conversations as well.

From Cambridge:

used to say that you do not want to answer someone's question:

  • His publicist replied with a firm "No comment."
  • If anyone asks me about my father, I just say, "No comment."
  • "Were you in the area at the time of the assault?" "No comment."
  • "Sir, what is your response to allegations of corruption?" "No comment."
  • All this trouble would have been avoided if she had simply responded "no comment."
18

A somewhat obscure word is mu, which roughly rejects the validity of the question. From the OED (paywalled):

mu
Interjection
Used as an alternative to answering either ‘yes’ or ‘no’, in order to reject the validity of the question. rare.

1934: A monk asked Joshu, a Chinese Zen Master: ‘Has a dog Buddha-nature, or not?’ Joshu answered ‘Mu.’
N. Senzaki & P. Reps, Gateless Gate 9

1979: You see, ‘mu’ is an ancient Zen answer which, when given to a question, unasks the question.
D. R. Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach x. 312

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    I've always found the best example of mu is as the response to "Have you stopped beating your wife yet?" ("No" implies you are still beating your wife. "Yes" implies that you agree that you were beating your wife. "Mu" rejects the premise of the question.)
    – Brondahl
    Commented Jan 29 at 14:44
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    Weird that the OED is including mu in the dictionary when neither of the attestations shows it being used as a loan-word by an English speaker. Wouldn't they have to do that with every foreign word ever surrounded by quotation marks in an English text? Or was it that they thought the Zen connection was cool enough not to worry about such particulars?
    – TimR
    Commented Jan 29 at 15:53
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    Douglas Hofstader used mu repeatedly in his 'Godel Escher Bach' masterpiece.
    – Neil_UK
    Commented Jan 29 at 16:18
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    Interesting option, it's quite distinct from the other answers which are various forms of "I don't want to answer", while this seems to imply there is no answer. Commented Jan 29 at 17:02
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    This is interesting, but not really an English word, and not likely to be understood by most English speakers. I'm fairly well read and have a passing familiarity (via Alan Watts' books for example) with some Zen-related foreign words and have never heard it before. I would guess rather than being a valid word to use in the OP's context, it's just going to confuse most people. Commented Jan 30 at 21:33
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Next question

I refuse to comment on or have said all that needs to be said about the thing you asked, so move on to the next question. Almost always said as a complete sentence.
Farlex Dictionary of Idioms

That is settled, let's move on to something else. (Usually a way of evading further discussion.)
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs

It makes the point without being rude and can be used to tell the person asking that they have crossed the line into personal or delicate topics.

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(I'm/we're) not going there!

This short phrase could be used to indicate an unwillingness to respond to a line of questioning. It indicates a desire to avoid the entire topic, rather than declining to answer just one specific question. It could be an appropriate response to a comedian asking about your sex life, for example.

11

For completeness, a standard official non-answer has become known as the Glomar response [Wikipedia], which is that you can “neither confirm nor deny” what the question suggests.

It's often used in response to requests for information or questions about supposed events, situations, or plans, as a way of avoiding making any comment on whether they exist or are as claimed.

(It was named for CIA's response to newspaper reports in 1975 about an alleged secret project involving the salvage vessel then known as the USNS Hughes Glomar Explorer.)

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Demur

  1. VERB If you demur, you say that you do not agree with something or will not do something that you have been asked to do.

Collins Dictionary

It is somewhat ambiguous about how someone 'demurs'. In context it could mean that a person expresses reticence to answer a question.

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    I don't think this fits, it's not a non-response. Demurring expresses disagreement - if someone asks you out and you demur, it means you rejected them, not that you gave no indication either way (although the rejection could be implied rather than explicitly stated). It's also not something you would ever say in response to a question, you'd only use it to describe an action. Commented Jan 30 at 16:22
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    To me 'demur' means what the OP is looking for, i.e. to express reticence to answer, albeit in an unspecified way (perhaps using body language or some unspecified words to decline to answer). You wouldn't answer a question with "I demur" but you could demur when asked.
    – Rich006
    Commented Jan 30 at 17:23
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    @NuclearHoagie To demur is to decline, but in this context if you demur the question, you're declining to the action of answering the question. It's a disagreement, but it's a disagreement with the concept of providing an answer, not a disagreement on the content of the topic being asked about.
    – R.M.
    Commented Jan 30 at 17:30
  • @R.M. I agree demurring may not involve an explicit response to the question, but the reticence usually indicates that someone does not want to give an answer that will be received negatively, not that they are making no indication either way. Demurring may sidestep a definite "yes" or "no", but the "no" is usually very strongly implied. From NPR: "I asked him to give me a demonstration in person, but he demurred." That means he in some manner declined to give a demonstration (maybe by making excuses rather than saying "no"), not that he didn't respond or couldn't provide an answer. Commented Jan 30 at 17:43
  • @NuclearHoagie asking someone to do something isn't a question, it's a request, so the point about demurring on a question remains. Commented Jan 30 at 17:59
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"I abstain"

This is only really correct to say when you are being asked to pick a side or make a choice, rather than being asked a matter of fact.

"What's your name?" "I abstain" - this exchange makes no sense.

But in the context of this question, for yes/no questions, it can apply, since it means to explicitly refrain from voting one way or another.

However, beware of its primary meaning, "not to partake". So if someone says "do you take drugs?" and you say "I abstain," that would generally be taken as saying "No, I don't take drugs", rather than "I decline to answer".

Merriam-Webster: abstain verb ab·​stain əb-ˈstān abstained; abstaining; abstains intransitive verb 2: to choose not to vote

Ten members voted for the proposal, six members voted against it, and two abstained.

Cambridge dictionary: abstain verb [I] (NOT VOTE) to decide not to use your vote:

63 members voted in favor, 39 opposed, and 15 abstained.

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"I'd rather not say."

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  • Clown question bro! Commented Feb 8 at 19:50
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In a context of repeated questioning in legal circumstances, "Fifth!".
(But, U.S. only.)

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    Shockingly (at least it shocked me when I saw this on a video made by a law firm) due to US case law of the last 5-10 years you DON'T REALLY have the right to remain silent. Remaining silent under questioning can be taken as an admission of guilt. For real, this case, they asked "Did you do this?" and his remaining silent was presented as evidence of guilt. This case decided under questioning you MUST say "I am exercising my right to remain silent" or "I'm taking the fifth" or words to that effect to invoke your right to remain silent (which in itself means you can't stay silent, but OK.)
    – hwertz
    Commented Jan 29 at 19:06
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    @hwertz Does anyone understand that ruling at all? Nonsensical and corrupt. Apparently your rights only exist if you are aware of them and and let people around you know that you know they exist (regardless of whether they themselves know your right exists).
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Jan 29 at 19:54
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    @KNguyen I found it rather nonsensical. It hit me as the Texas/southern style "Well, if he got arrested he must be guilty, let's throw out procedure to 'get the conviction' " types of decisions to me. It bothers me as a comp sci type that the Miranda right wasn't modified, still says "You have the right to remain silent" when having to speak to invoke that right in itself means you can't REALLY remain silent. Maybe this will be overturned at some point, but how many people that get rick-rolled by the cops like this are going to afford to take a case to the supreme court?
    – hwertz
    Commented Jan 30 at 20:55
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    "I'm pleading/taking the fifth" is far from unknown (or unused) in the UK nowadays. But it hasn't the same legal status; the police caution includes '... Failure to disclose something you later rely on' [in evidence may count against you, paraphrasing]. Commented Jan 31 at 14:43
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Similar to Jack O'Flaherty's answer, in the U.S. one would say "I plead the fifth" as a way to avoid answering a question. However, I would argue that, while this statement would have meaning in a legal sense, it has also entered into more casual speech as a way for someone to say that they don't want to answer something. In that case, I would argue it fits your criteria because it is a well-known phrase and doesn't really have a connotation either way.

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    In casual conversation, “taking the fifth” also suggests that the question itself is inappropriate.
    – Xanne
    Commented Jan 31 at 6:26
  • This is a variant of the other answer, not warranting a separate answer, Donald. Commented Feb 1 at 23:46
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Equivocate:

1: to use equivocal language especially with intent to deceive

2: to avoid committing oneself in what one says

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/equivocate

Example: I want to equivocate on this and not give a decisive answer.

When you do this, you are being:

Evasive:

If you describe someone as evasive, you mean that they deliberately avoid giving clear direct answers to questions. [...]

https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/evasive-answer#google_vignette

Note: Lawyers, especially prosecutors, sometimes declare a witness to be a 'hostile witness' meaning they must answer yes or no, so this is the opposite of allowing someone to be evasive.

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    That seems to fit the title, but this doesn't work in the context of the actual question, which is 'What can I say to indicate that I wish to not answer'. Your word might describe that kind of response, though. Commented Jan 31 at 22:05
  • @Heartspring: Probably you are correct. See my edit. Commented Jan 31 at 22:24
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I plead the 5th.

  • This can be viewed as humorous yet still be taken as a final response.

My name's Bennett and I ain't in it.

  • For the sake of staying neutral
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    This essentially just duplicates other answers and comments. Commented Feb 1 at 23:11
  • As it’s currently written, your answer is unclear. Please edit to add additional details that will help others understand how this addresses the question asked. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Commented Feb 2 at 2:00
0

TLDR:

  • Tone of voice is generally more important than the actual word(s) used.
  • Other possible options in addition to those mentioned by others: Sure, OK, Yeah, Alright

First and foremost, in these kinds of situations, the tone of voice used probably will speak volumes more than whatever words are actually spoken. That is, even the nicest thing said sarcastically could be reason to throw hands or vice versa, the meanest thing said in the sweetest voice could be a reason to laugh.

See this video by this person regarding tone of voice:

We often put more meaning into the speaker's tone of voice (how they say things) than into the words they use. And sometimes it only takes a slight change in our voice for something to be taken as a joke, an insult, or a friendly comment.

Tone of voice: what you REALLY mean 😡😑😊😂, Accent's Way English with Hadar

That being said, in addition to some of the other proposed answers, specifically, "No comment," "I plead the fifth" (in the US), and the one you yourself had proposed, "Pass," I would also like to suggest just answering with a very casually thrown-out, "Sure."

While by definition, "sure" means "certainly" and "definitely," colloquially, it also carries a slight to strong undertone of, "Yeah, OK," or "No, thank you," or "I could care less." Used with the right amount of cavalierness, it is a very non-committal "Yes" that means "No," which would imply "Maybe" but really just says everything and nothing at the same time.

Just see how angry the word "Sure" makes this person that they had to write a whole essay on it:

Then, there is my absolute least favorite affirmative phrase: sure. Not to be confused with “sure thing” (folksy, casual) or “for sure” (loose, stoned), sure is a word that makes my skin prick, my eye twitch. Sure is used as “yes,” though it never means “yes.” Sure is a thumbs up to your face, and a jerkoff motion behind your back. Sure says “if I must.” Sure is the Mars Rover of passive aggression — an envoy to see how far you can really go before the other person snaps and says, “You know what, you’re being an asshole.”

"'Sure' Is the Most Infuriating Way to Say 'Yes,'" The Outline

I would like to add, though, despite the angry rant and passive-aggressive tone discussed above, "Sure" with a smile would work fine in the context that you mention of not wanting to answer a question to the audience by a stand-up comedian, that is, it would be perceived as being polite enough and would not derail the show.

(Unless, of course, you paired it with a wide, knowing grin, in which case, "Sure" would be immediately perceived to be an immediate and definitive admission of guilt and would most likely result in an even more immediate uproar because the question had most likely been about something embarrassing.)

Meanwhile, the essay also mentions a few other options, "'K," (which could be expanded to "Mmm-kay" depending on how snarky one wants to be) and "Alright" or even the classic "OK" would be fine and acceptable, and most likely, the one that has the lowest chance of being construed as negative.

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