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Could Say It, But...

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And please don't obtain said splitters from your local electronics store.

"Alright, listen closely. I'd like to help you [hands his client a notepad and pen], but I can't. I'd like to tell you to take a copy of your policy to Norma Wilcox on — [taps notepad urgently] Norma Wilcox, W-I-L-C-O-X — on the 3rd floor, but I can't. I also do not advise you to fill out and file a WS-2475 form with our legal department on the 2nd floor. I would not expect someone to get back to you quickly to resolve the matter. I'd like to help. But there's nothing I can do."
Bob Parr, The Incredibles

I'd like to explain that this is when Bob wants to say something, but for whatever reason can't, because I'm not supposed to. If I did, I'd say that maybe he'd risk his job if he spoke up, or maybe he just doesn't want to look crazy or malicious, or something like that. And I certainly can't tell you that Bob gets around this by mentioning it but pretending he isn't, as in, "Well I could tell you that the shutoff switch to the Doomsday Device is down the hall, first right, second left, behind the water cooler, but I won't do that because I'd lose my job." I'd like to explain that, in other words, he Could Say It But... he won't, except he just did...but I can't.

Sometimes used as an insult, especially in politics. For example, "Some people would call my opponent a corrupt, greedy slimeball, but I, of course, refuse to resort to that kind of language."

Truth in Television. The technical term is "paralipsis" or "praeteritio", depending on the nature of the information you're definitely not giving.

See also Suspiciously Specific Denial or I'll Never Tell You What I'm Telling You!, for those bits when this is not intentional. Also related to I'll Pretend I Didn't Hear That and Stepping Out for a Quick Cup of Coffee. Do not confuse with I Would Say If I Could Say. May result from the asker using Politeness Judo.

I wish I was able to let you know the following examples...

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  • Toughbook's ads saying "Legally, we can't say..." followed by claiming some feature of their mil-spec laptops.

    Anime & Manga 
  • Near the end of Assassination Classroom, Class 3-E is kidnapped and detained by the government to prevent them from interfering with their final assassination plan, and Karasuma can't directly do anything about it. He gets around it thanks to this trope: he seemingly berates them for trying to get to the mountain, detailing all the different defenses the mountain has and how skilled the mercenaries and their boss are, and leaves them telling them to cool their heads. Of course, his real intention was to give them vital information on said obstacles so they could make a plan and prepare to attack on the last day, when security was at its most lax.
  • Early in High School D×D, when Issei is hellbent on rescuing Asia, Rias firmly tells him that even though a Pawn like him could promote behind enemy lines, like at the church Asia was being held in, that wouldn't be enough and he certainly shouldn't go alone, before stepping out with Akeno. Kiba points out to Issei that even an example demarcation counts, and he and Koneko should just go with him. The person Rias was decieving here was Issei, to maximize his willpower when that was the only thing he had going for him. She and Akeno actually went to the exact same place, neutralizing the guards before the others got there.
  • SHUFFLE! has a version of this. Ama was/is a volunteer test subject used in an incredibly high risk magical experiment. (She volunteered because she felt she had no reason to live.) It failed, and she was, incidentally, thrown into the human world, where she fell in love, had a child, happy ending etc. Almost 2 decades later, the Gods (and overseers of the experiment) happen to walk past her, and after staring at her for a while, continue walking, talking loudly enough for her to hear:
    Forbesii: Someone you know, Eustoma?
    Eustoma: No, just thinking she looked like someone I knew who passed away.
    Forbesii: What a coincidence, I was thinking the same.
    Eustoma: If she were alive, I would want to apologize at least once.
    Forbesii: Yeah, I feel terrible about what happened to her.

  • There is a phenomenon (which may merit its own category) called "Kidding on the Square", in which you "jokingly" insult or attack someone in a manner which nonetheless makes it clear that you actually mean it. Popularized by Al Franken who is said to have coined the phrase "Kidding on the Square" among others.
    • Also known as "ha ha only serious."
  • Mitchell & Webb parody the trope, with an evil genius' henchman increasingly frustrated at his master's vague instructions.
  • In his special Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999, James Acaster does a routine mocking comedians who think making transphobic jokes makes them "edgy".
    "I used to name one of the comedians who that routine was about, but it always got real awkward in the room, because it's 2019 and people are still more than happy to laugh at transgender people. Not as comfortable laughing at Ricky Gervais, yet.
  • Richard Jeni got in a terrific Stealth Insult when recounting a particularly shitty flight he'd once taken:
    "Now, I'm not going to name the carrier in question, but suffice to say it was not a foreign airline; it was an American Airline."

    Comic Books 
  • In an Excalibur special, Brigadier Alysande Stuart explains to Excalibur that she has no right to give them orders as to how to deal with the current crisis, but if she did, these are the orders she would give them. They take the hint.
  • In a '70s Fantastic Four arc, Reed Richards bluffed Galactus into leaving the Earth alone with a fake Ultimate Nullifier. After Galactus left, the Watcher, who was bound by his code of ethics to never interfere with other living beings, revealed that he had telepathically entered Reed's mind to prevent Galactus from sensing his plan, claiming he was simply observing the event from Reed's point of view. As he left, he added "Can one help it if one's mere presence brings about a more desired outcome? Can one?"
    • This tends to be Uatu the Watcher's shtick. Despite not allowed to interfere into events of the Marvelverse, he finds ways of loopholing his way to help. The heroes have gotten to the point where Uatu can deliver warnings merely by turning visible — everybody knows that he watches when something truly dangerous or important is happening, so the mere knowledge that he's watching and he wants them to know he's watching is enough.
  • In the finale of the six-part Spider-Man story "The Assassin Nation Plot", Captain America and Silver Sable tried to get security clearance for Spidey on a mission they believed would lead them to the mastermind behind the plot, using plans obtained from a captured mook, but a general at the Pentagon wouldn't allow it, as Spidey's identity couldn't be confirmed. Partially through the story, Spidey found them and told them he believed the plans given were a ruse to distract them; however, Cap wasn't able to defy orders to check on that. He did, however tell Spidey where the mook's cell was, saying "Maybe I'll re-question him later". Then he and Silver left him alone. (In the Pentagon, no less.) Spidey didn't know whether that was Cap's way of making an informal suggestion or not, but he took the opportunity, and it paid off.
  • The comic book series of The X-Files had an example of this combined with Stepping Out for a Quick Cup of Coffee. Scully was doing an autopsy on a person who died under seemingly miraculous circumstances. A woman and her crippled child came to the hospital and asked to see the body of the "saint."
    Scully: I can't let you in. However, I am going for coffee in a few minutes, and, well, maybe I'll forget to lock the door.

    Fan Works 
  • Altered Histories:
    Harry: Now that the vault raiding business is complete, Griphook, we were wondering if you happened to know where a couple of travelers might go to get a few unregistered custom wands.
    Griphook: I'm not sure. Gringotts would never, after all, condone such a thing as traveling to Athens Greece, the birthplace of the wand. And we certainly could never provide a portkey to that city for a small fee.
  • Professor Colbert in An American Geek In Halkegania is required to be professional and impartial towards the other teachers at all times, even when he's previously disproved said teacher's claims of Air being superior by soundly defeating him: "It does not do, of course, to observe that a fellow professor is a bore, a windbag, or an insufferable ass, especially in front of students, so I shall decline to comment."
  • In the Chunks of Worm chapter The Games They Play, Taylor thinks that she deserves to know who sponsored her, and the Cauldron representative she's talking to agrees with her, but due to their confidentiality policy, cannot directly confirm nor deny the sponsor's identity.
    Taylor: The way you say that…
    Representative: I said it exactly as I meant it.
    Taylor: Was it Eidolon?
    Representative: No.
    Taylor: Was it Mouse Protector?
    Representative: No.
    Taylor: Was it Madison Clements?
    Representative: No.
    Taylor: Was it Emma?
    Representative: Certainly not, she was funded by the same sponsor as you.
    Taylor: Was it Shadow Stalker?
    Representative: I can neither confirm nor deny the identity of our sponsor. Please stop asking.
  • Played with in an odd manner (inverted, maybe?) in this Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas fic:
    I could lie and say I walked out of there, walked away from her and her crazy death fetish. I could lie and say the sex we did have wasn't fantastic. I could lie and say the next morning when I woke up and she was pressed up against me, that I wasn't as disgusted in myself as I was in her.
  • In Hawk Moth is..., Marinette and Juleka are assigned to create a fake tabloid as part of a school project, and proceed to take advantage of it by using their project to accuse Lila of being Hawk Moth (with some pretty convincing, if incorrect, evidence). When Lila tries to call out the duo for accusing her, Marinette and Juleka claim that it's just part of the project and they don't mean anything by it.
  • Subverted by Austria in the second chapter of this fanfic: "I could make a very cruel remark right now.... In fact, I believe I shall."
  • In the Manga.Bleach fanfic Important Insignificance, Ukitake cleverly does this for Ichigo and one of his friends when they needed to go to Hueco Mundo for a rescue. (Not that rescue, a different one.)
    I wish I could just let you go down to the courtyard on your left down these stairs and out the last door on the left. And I wish I could tell you that they're going to have the first team with Kira and Hisagi dispatched in three minutes out there, both of whom are waiting for directions to the hideout. And I wish I could tell you that they were alone and that there would be no one else around for the next ten minutes while they prepare, but I just can't. I hate to have to stop you both. I really don't want to. What I would rather do is look out this window for the next, oh, I don't know, thirty seconds or so.
  • In chapter 12 of this Quirrelmort fic, the receptionist refuses to tell Voldemort where Quirrel's hospital room is.
    Listen, I can't give out any information. Like, I can't say, for example, that he's on ward three of the second floor, because it's not allowed.
  • In Platinum Pirate, Lucas tells Luffy about Gecko Moria being in the Florian Triangle. Given that Luffy doesn't want to be Lucas' "subordinate" and Lucas only said he was his subordinate so that the Straw Hats wouldn't get arrested by Sengoku, so...
    Lucas: Officially, I shouldn't allow my subordinates to start an inter-Warlord conflict. So I will definitely not tell you that heading to the Florian Triangle to pick a fight with Gecko Moria is the most effective way to get dismissed from my protection.
  • RainbowDoubleDash's Lunaverse: In Nightmares Yet to Come, at one point Luna talks with one of her secretaries, who informs her that a group of ponies who attacked Trixie and Twilight are apparently newcomers on the scene, but Shining Armor thinks they're sun cultists. Luna emphatically does not state that she's disappointed by this, and her secretary equally emphatically does not respond that she understands.
  • After Sirius Black is freed from Azkaban in The Shower Slip, Dumbledore denies him access to Harry due to Petunia's hatred of magic. When thinking about where he should live after being healed, Professor McGonagall mentions that Surrey, specifically Privet Drive, would be a good place to raise children. Sirius catches on almost immediately.
  • In the Glee fic Story of Three Boys, when Casey is in the hospital following his suicide attempt, a nurse tells Dave, Kurt, Puck and Finn that she can't let them go to Casey or tell them anything specific about his condition because they aren't his parents or legal guardians. She can, however, tell them what would generally happen if some hypothetical patient tried to commit suicide in the way Casey did.
    Nurse: If this person weren't breathing, they may have to intubate, but that's hopefully not the case in this hypothetical situation, especially since he was breathing on his own in the ambulance. Hypothetically.
  • One of the "Texts from Superheroes" features a conversation between Wonder Woman and Batman in which they discuss how Lex Luthor managed to get off easy due to the fact that confessions from the lasso of truth are inadmissible in court and how as a being created from magic WW legally does not exist. When asks if this means that she can't be arrested for crashing her invisible jet into his house, Batman has this to say:
    Batman: Officially, I can't condone that. Unofficially, the skies are clear and his address is 647 Front St.
  • This Means War:
    Harry: On a completely unrelated side note, I would definitely not think about placing some Aurors in Mr Shacklebolt’s office. I probably wouldn’t reserve Court Number One today either. Oh, and I’m sure that a Daily Prophet reporter won’t be turning up.
  • In the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic fanfic To Be a Better Stallion, Rainbow Dash has a run in with Amethyst, an old friend of Prince Blueblood who happens to be married to one of the Wonderbolts. Amethyst decides to quell Rainbow Dash's disappointment that she's just there on personal business and there's not going to be a Wonderbolts show by telling Rainbow "There's a non-disclosure agreement forbidding me from telling you that you're being considered for a Wonderbolts tryout. So I'm not going to tell you. Because that would be wrong."
  • What You Knead: Kakashi uses this multiple times to impart information to his students.
    • While the Sandaime's orders prevent him from telling Naruto directly about his parentage, he's allowed to share stories about his old team leader and his eventual wife. When Naruto finally starts suspecting something, Kakashi then uses this to let him know that he's right on track, as well as warning him that Sarutobi was responsible for his inability to reveal everything outright.
    • Along similar lines, when Team Seven asks for tips about the second part of the Chuunin Exams, he declares that he can't share any tips, and that he "definitely wouldn't recommend to pack the way you would have if you'd known about Zabuza and Haku in advance."
  • This Bites!: A new living weapon is being tested within Impel Down, and Chief Warden Magellan is not happy with the rampaging beasts injuring his staff and their general disruption of the prison's activities. When Luffy breaks into Impel Down looking for his brother and finds out about the warden's opinion, one of the BioMEGAs shows up during their fight, leading to this exchange.
    Luffy: Oh, look, I'm standing in front of your big bad weapon. You can't attack me or you might kill it too.
    Magellan: Hydra.
    Magellan: Oh, no. I missed. Now I have to report that because of you, Straw Hat, we lost two of the Government's prototypes.

    Film — Animation 
  • Encanto features the song "We Don't Talk About Bruno," a song that is entirely about Bruno.
  • Hercules has the song "I Won't Say I'm In Love", in which Meg sings about all of the things she will never say.
  • The Incredibles: Bob circumvents his insurance company's obstructive attitude to help his customers by saying that he "can't" give them the exact instructions to help them. He even whispers "Pretend to be upset" to the old woman as she leaves.
  • The Lion King (1994): Scar tells the young Simba that he can't say what's in the shadow land, and moments later says that an elephant graveyard is no place for him.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • In 1941 (1979), Dan Aykroyd's character has to leave an antiaircraft gun at a civilian location. He then proceeds to tell the family in ridiculously specific detail every single thing they should not do, and the specific order they should not do it in. This may be a subversion, given his character—he may have been genuinely telling them what not to do. In any event, Ned Beatty uses the steps in the warning later in the film on to fire on a Japanese sub (accidentally firing through his own house in the process).
  • The Barretts of Wimpole Street: Part of Edward's passive-aggressive (but mostly aggressive) behavior towards his daughter Elizabeth, who is chafing under the dictatorial, tyrannical control Edward is exerting over her life.
    "I shall never in any way reproach you. You shall never know by deed or word or hint of mine how much you have grieved and wounded your father by refusing to do what he asked."
  • In The Citadel, Denny has a very low opinion of Dr. Gribley, the district medical officer.
    "I wouldn't have a word said against dear old Grib, except that he's a lazy evasive incompetent swine."
  • In The Godfather Part II, Tom Hagen and Frank Pentangeli have a hypothetical conversation about what happens to people that try to upset the balance of power, which in no way is a reference to Frank entering witness protection and about to testify about the Corleone Family activities to a Senate committee, then balking when he sees Michael walk into the hearing with Frank's brother, who was still in Italy...
    Tom Hagen: When a plot against the Emperor failed... the plotters were always given a chance to let their families keep their fortunes. Right?
    Frank Pentangeli: Yeah, but only the rich guys, Tom. The little guys got knocked off and all their estates went to the Emperors. Unless they went home and killed themselves, then nothing happened. And the families... the families were taken care of.
    Tom Hagen: That was a good break. A nice deal.
    Frank Pentangeli: Yeah... They went home... and sat in a hot bath... opened up their veins... and bled to death... and sometimes they had a little party before they did it.
  • Adrian Cronauer (Robin Williams) does this in Good Morning, Vietnam with a non-approved news report, and is yanked off the air for doing so.
  • In Iron Man 2, Tony's speech at Stark Expo amounts to "I'm not saying that I'M TOTALLY AWESOME."
  • John Wick depicts a world where professional assassins live in a secret society with its own code and rules. Winston, the owner of the New York Continental that caters to these assassins, Winston, holds himself to this code as much as he does anyone else. For that reason, despite sympathizing with John and knowing the location of Viggo Tarasov, with whom John has a personal vendetta, he calls up John to explain that the "Code" forbids him from telling John that "a certain helicopter at a certain helipad is being fueled for a certain someone".
  • The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean: The whores whom Roy married off to his deputies are working overtime to be seen as respectable society matrons, and wind up being antagonists to Roy. They are enraged when Roy calls them whores and demand an apology. Roy apologizes for calling them whores. He then says "I did not call you callous ass strumpets, fornicatresses, or low born gutter sluts," but he did call them whores, and for that he is sorry.
  • In Life Is Beautiful Guido declares his affection to Dora:
    Guido: You can't imagine how much I feel like making love to you. But I'll never tell anyone, especially not you. They'd have to torture me to make me say it.
    Dora: Say what?
    Guido: That I want to make love to you — not just once, but over and over again! But I'll never tell you that. I'd have to be crazy to tell you. I'd even make love to you now... right here for the rest of my life.
  • In Meteor: Dr. Bradley needs to convince Dr. Dubov to discuss the technical details of the secret nuclear-missile equipped "Peter the Great" satellite so it can coordinate with the equally secret "Hercules" weapons systems so as to repel the killer meteor Orpheus. Dubov initially does the political thing by playing dumb, until Bradley plainly tells him that if Russia doesn't have such a satellite, Hercules won't be able to do the job alone, and humanity is screwed. Afterwards, Dubov ruefully insists he'd never be involved in such an illegal weapon, but if Bradley would like to talk about how he would design a theoretical Peter the Great... Bradley grabs a pen and paper.
  • The IMF Secretary talking to Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol:
    Secretary: I've been ordered to take you back to Washington, where the DOD will label you as a rogue extremist and hang the Kremlin bombing on you and your team. Unless, you were to escape somewhere between here and the airport, having assaulted Mr. Brandt and me.
    Brandt: [looks at the Secretary] Sir?
    Secretary: You would then illegally scrounge whatever material you could from a backup supply cache that I've overlooked. The same cache where your team are waiting for further orders.
    Brandt: Sir, you may want to...
    Secretary: You will then disappear, and this conversation never having taken place, your intentions would be unclear.
  • In Outbreak, Morgan Freeman's character gets on the mike and tells Dustin Hoffman's character exactly how to interrupt a live bombing run, under the guise of telling him the dire consequences of doing so.
  • In The Parent Trap, the Evers' housekeeper, a flagrant busybody, would often conclude her gossip with "But I'm not saying a word, not one single word".
  • Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows: Mycroft Holmes, as an employee of the British government, isn't allowed to say that France and Germany are on the brink of war, but he can say that two prominent European countries are preparing for war with each other and the main languages spoken in those two countries are French and German.
  • Thor: The Dark World: Odin tells Thor that, as a King, he cannot officially approve of Thor's decision to stay with Jane, or say how proud of Thor he is for stopping Malekith. "I would speak only from my heart." He then turns out to be Loki under an illusion, making it more ambiguous.
  • In The Wizard of Oz Auntie Em uses this as an insult against Miss Gulch. She says she's been waiting to tell Miss Gulch what she thought of her, "but being a Christian woman, I can't say it."
  • In Zodiac, Inspector Toschi shares privileged police information with Robert Graysmith in this way.

  • One lawyer joke goes like this: After a lawyer's objection is overruled, he asks the judge, "Your Honor, what would you do if I called you a senile old fool?" The judge replies that he would hold the lawyer in contempt. The lawyer then asks, "What if I only thought it?" The judge replies that, as long as he only thought it, there was nothing he could do. The lawyer nods, and says, "Alright, then. For the record, I think you are a senile old fool, Your Honor."
  • There's an old baseball story about a player who actually pulled this on an umpire after the umpire made a call he didn't like. Predictably, the umpire threw him out of the game.

  • Animorphs:
    • In one book, Rachel helps Cassie retrieve a paper she doodled on with things like hearts, "Cassie + Jake," and cupids. The ensuing conversation:
      Cassie: Just get it. And don't say anything.
      Rachel: Nothing?
      Cassie: Nothing! Not. One. Word.
      Rachel: [laughs] Okay, you're my best friend. So not one word. Especially not "Awww, isn't that sweet?" And definitely not "Cassie is in lo-ove, Cassie is in lo-ove." And no way I'd ever say—
      Cassie: I knew I should have done this alone.
    • Also averted in what by tradition should have featured a Could Say It But: The Animorphs are trapped aboard a Yeerk ship by Visser Three, who has used the opportunity to show off to Visser One (Marco's mom), his rival for leadership of the Earth invasion. Suddenly, the cell opens, a dead Hork-Bajir guard slumps to the floor, and another, differently dressed guard gives them crystal-clear directions (Hork-Bajir Controllers usually speak mangled English interspersed with Yeerk words and their own language) on how to get to the escape pod which will take them back to Earth. They do so, getting to the pod and escaping just before they suffer Mode Lock, thus allowing Visser One to make Visser Three look incompetent while disguising it as the 'Andalite Bandits' just getting lucky.
  • Ascendance of a Bookworm: The protagonist eventually ends up with a noble identity named Rozemyne, who is officially a different individual from Myne, the commoner identity to which she was born; the fact that the two are one and the same hence needs to be kept from as many people as possible. Benno, a merchant with whom she has many business dealings, is in the loop out of necessity. The morning after Rozemyne is brought into existence, Benno is asked to get an outfit altered so its fits Rozemyne. Upon handing the outfit over to his seasmtress sister Corinna, who has made an outfit for Myne in the past, Benno tells her that the order is for a noble girl named Rozemyne, but also tells her to reuse Myne's measurements.
  • Late in Aunt Dimity: Detective, there's a meeting to sort out the events around Prunella Hooper's death. After Sally Pine insults her paganism for the second time during that meeting, local witch Miranda Morrow says, "I'll never tell a soul that I saw you that morning, coming out of Crabtree Cottage." Said cottage was the site of Prunella's death.
  • Discworld does this a lot.
    • From Wyrd Sisters:
      Magrat: When's this play going to be, then?
      Fool: Marry, I'm sure I'm not allowed to tell you. The duke said to me, he said, don't tell the witches that it's tomorrow night.
      Magrat: I shouldn't, then.
      Fool: At eight o'clock.
      Magrat: I see.
      Fool: But meet for sherry beforehand at seven-thirty, i'faith.
    • Also Vimes in Night Watch: "And for close-up fighting, as your senior sergeant I explicitly forbid you to investigate the range of coshes, blackjacks, and brass knuckles sold by Mrs. Goodbody at No. 8 Easy Street at a range of prices to suit all pockets, and should any of you approach me privately I absolutely will not demonstrate a variety of specialist blows suitable for these useful yet tricky instruments."
    • Vimes thinks the dwarf and troll community leaders in Thud! are doing this, by "appealing for calm."
      "Do not use the weapons in the antiques cabinet— no, not that one, the other one."
    • We have not received an albatross from the Agatean Empire. It is not asking you to send a Great Wizzard. Continues with "Don't you mean they're NOT Agatean pictograms, sir?"
    • This trope is often subverted when it's tried on Mustrum Ridcully, who's usually too blunt and honest for this sort of underhanded thinking, or Fred Colon, who's merely confused by it.
    • Except, however, in Thud!, when Vimes goes to Ridcully for assistance in catching up with the bad guys (who have fled town). Maybe he's finally got the hang of it. It's hard to tell with Ridcully.
      "We certainly would not be able to help you if you were to leave your coaches around the backside of the University at, say, eight o'clock?"
    • In The Truth William desperately needs more paper for the Ankh-Morpork Times, but the person selling it has already promised his entire stock to William's rivals and can't very well go back on his word. And speaking of words, he really needs to have one with his foreman, who seems to have left a loaded cart right by that wide-open gate over there where someone could just sneak in and drive off with it...
    • It's in The Science of Discworld, too. For various reasons, the wizards need books from the future. The Librarian can get them, but he isn't supposed to. Rincewind talks him into it and translates his answer as follows (paraphrased):
      "He says he's just going to get the books and pile them up here, OK? And then he's going to leave the room and you're not to look at them while he's gone, because he won't know you're doing it. And if he coughs before he comes back in it'll just be because he has a cough and not for any other reason, OK?"
    • In Unseen Academicals, Smeems refuses to admit that the candle The Emperor actually goes out, leaving a curious Nutt to ask "How many times has the candle that never goes out, um, not gone out?" and receive the reply "The candle that never goes out has failed to go out three times since I have been Candle Knave."
  • The prologue of the Second Part of Don Quixote was published after Fernandez de Avellaneda published a Fan Fiction where he called Cervantes "a man without friends" and mocked his broken hand (by a war wound):
    "God bless me, gentle (or it may be plebeian) reader, how eagerly must thou be looking forward to this preface, expecting to find there retaliation, scolding, and abuse against the author of the second Don Quixote—I mean him who was, they say, begotten at Tordesillas and born at Tarragona! Well then, the truth is, I am not going to give thee that satisfaction; for, though injuries stir up anger in humbler breasts, in mine the rule must admit of an exception. Thou wouldst have me call him ass, fool, and malapert, but I have no such intention; let his offence be his punishment, with his bread let him eat it, and there's an end of it."
  • In Dora Wilk Series, Miron absolutely wouldn't tell Nisim that Katarzyna may be behind his recent problems.
  • The Dragonlance short story "Into the Heart of the Story" is a comical tale using inconsistencies in the books to spin an in-universe Conspiracy Theory. At one point, the author points out that the elven bard Quivalen Sath originally had his surname given as Soth, but adds that suggesting a connection to the Black Knight Lord Soth would be libellous, so he won't.
  • Happens on occasion in The Dresden Files:
    "Look, Murph. I specifically agreed to confidentiality for this client. But … if I were going to talk to you, I'd tell you to check out the murder of a Frenchman named LaRouche with Interpol."
    Murphy blinked and then looked up at me. "Interpol?"
    I nodded. "If I were going to talk."
    "Right," she said. "If you'd said anything. You tight-lipped bastard."
    • Thomas, in White Night: "If there was a meeting of the most powerful hundred or so nobles of the Court scheduled to meet at the family estate the day after tomorrow, I couldn't tell you about it."
    • Faeries in general talk like this to Harry, when there's something they want him to know but are too involved in their intricate games of diplomacy. In Cold Days three different Sidhe nobility try to slyly tell Harry something, but because they're so oblique he nearly misses it. In retrospect, it should have been a warning sign when Maeve, the Winter Lady was the only one speaking in clear declarative sentences.
  • In the Dr. Thorndyke story "The Aluminium Dagger", Inspector Badger assures Mr. Curtis that his daughter isn't a suspect, and makes a point of saying that he won't even ask if she is left-handed — thereby learning, from Mr. Curtis's involuntary reaction, the answer to the question he isn't asking.
  • Dungeon Crawler Carl: Carl and Donut's publicity manager, Zev, has faced "unspeakable things" being done to her family to ensure she stays in line. When Carl disrupts the Dungeon by bombing a city full of vital NPCs, Zev is just appalled, and goes on to tell him in a great deal of useful detail what kind of damage he's caused.
    Zev: No, Carl. You know this. We can’t add new worker NPCs once a level is created. Mobs, yes, but NPCs? That’s written into the rules. We can’t just replace the shopkeepers. The food market for the troops was down there, too.
    Carl: Whoops. My bad.
    Zev: If they want to fix this, they’ll have to get the Syndicate to vote on it. And they won’t have the votes. And even if they did, they’ll have to get the AI on board, and that’s not going to happen. The whole system is already spiraling, and it’s the earliest this has ever happened.
  • The Executioner. In Chicago Wipeout, Mack Bolan goes to an anti-corruption lawyer who's been crippled and ostracized for his efforts, and asks for the names behind the Chicago Mafia. Aware that he would be naming these people for a Vigilante Execution, the lawyer can't do it, as he's served the law all his life. Bolan respects his choice and goes to leave, but then the lawyer starts going on about how he wishes someone would just steal his file with all the information he's compiled, as he's sent it to every crime commission in the country to no effect...
  • This line from the Forgotten Realms novel Shadows of Doom, spoken by an unseen guard:
    "'Twould be the most foolish treason to tell you that it's through here, turn right, and behind the double doors at the end of the straight passage — so I won't tell you that."
    • Sadly, precisely the wrong person also overhears him, is not amused, and kills him right in the next line before he can say anything else.
  • In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Mad-Eye Moody would like to tell Harry how to win the first challenge in the Triwizard Tournament, but Dumbledore would frown upon it, so he just gives Harry some "good, general advice" that helps Harry figure out how to win. Moody pulls a similar trick with the second challenge as well: he gives Neville Longbottom a book about rare magical plants, including gillyweed, which gives people the power to temporarily breathe underwater (the second task is rescuing loved ones from the merpeople who live in Hogwarts's lake). When that doesn't work out (Harry doesn't think to ask anyone other than his best friends Ron and Hermione for help), Moody has a loud conversation with Professor McGonagall about whether any of the champions will try using gillyweed in the presence of Dobby the house elf, knowing full well that Dobby will want to help Harry out.
  • A book published by Have I Got News for You had a dig at MP Rupert Allason: "...given Mr Allason's fondness for pursuing libel actions, there are also excellent legal reasons for not referring to him as a conniving little shit". Allason did indeed sue for libel, and lost.
  • In Poul Anderson and Gordon R. Dickson's Hoka stories, at one point Alexander is called to explain something. He declares that since he is unwilling to accuse officials of having accepted a story produced by a drunken or possibly deranged individuals, he can't explain the story they are describing.
  • The narrator of "Our Lady of Paris", or The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as it's more famously known, refuses to describe Quasimodo's face, because it's too shocking to imagine. In fact, he refuses in explicit and numerous detail.
  • In P. G. Wodehouse's Jill the Reckless, Wally Mason pulls a memorable example on theater manager Groble:
    "... I'm rather sorry we agreed to keep clear of personalities, because I should have liked to say that, if ever they have a skunk-show at Madison Square Garden, you ought to enter — and win the blue ribbon. Still, of course, under our agreement my lips are sealed, and I can't even hint at it. ..."
  • A variant is used in the Jungle Doctor story Jungle Doctor's Crooked Dealings toward the end of the story. A boy who has been central to the story has talked to a friend about what he wants most of all for Christmas but when Jungle Doctor asks the friend what it was, he is told by the friend that the discussion was in confidence. The doctor then gets around this by asking his friend what the boy would most like for Christmas. The friend laughs and says that since it's a different question, he can answer it. The boy gets what he most wants - to have a disfiguring benign facial tumour removed in time for Christmas and to not know that it's going to happen.
  • In Pact, Cranaus, a legendary king of Athens who survives in the present day as the Right-Hand Cat Familiar of various wizards, discusses with a local bogeyman what he might do if he and his practitioner were in disagreement over a course of action—for example, about which of her relatives to support for rulership over the local supernatural community. He concludes that he might accost nearby spies, do what he could to keep them from overhearing more, and then inadvertently let slip such information as the location of a candidate, and what the family is planning to give them to succeed in his bid for power.
  • In Stephen King's Pet Sematary, when Louis buys Rachel a sapphire necklace for Christmas:
    Rachel: Louis, we can't afford... you can't afford...
    Louis: I socked some money away off and on since last Christmas... and it wasn't as much as you might think.
    Rachel: How much was it?
    Louis: I'll never tell you that, Rachel. An army of Chinese torturers couldn't get it out of me. Two thousand dollars.
  • Trumpkin in C. S. Lewis' Prince Caspian, conceding defeat to Susan in the archery competition. "I know when I'm fairly beaten. I won't even say that the scar of my last wound catches me a bit when I get my arm well back..."
  • In L. Jagi Lamplighter's Prospero Lost, Theo gives them advice on an Ouija board down to using it on Wednesday if they can't wait for a high holy day — not that he would know.
  • In John Hemry's Paul Sinclair novel Rule of Evidence, when Paul Sinclair suggests breaking into a computer in search of evidence, Sharpe, the master-at-arms, huffily declares that his position means that such evidence would be tainted — and elaborates at great length on how he couldn't help. (Such as, he can't tell Sinclair that the contact info for someone who can break in is on the system.)
  • At one point in one of the Sector General novels, a Maintenance trainee gets lost in the service tunnels; because she's being tested on her navigational abilities, she's not allowed to get directions from anyone. Two other Maintenance workers notice her problem and, without acknowledging her, make several casual comments to each other that happen to include helpful directional information.
  • Lemony Snicket sometimes does this when narrating in A Series of Unfortunate Events.
  • The prologue of the Sarah Caudwell mystery novel The Shortest Way to Hades starts by vehemently denying that the book is fictional; it then goes on to talk about what would have been in the prologue if the book were a novel rather than a historical document.
  • Happens in Son of Spellsinger, with a local tradesman telling the heroes where the local evil baron has taken their companion. They agree that, as far as anyone knows, they beat it out of him. He pauses occasionally when telling them to say "Ow."
  • In the Star Trek Novel Verse book "Ancient Blood", Worf is at one point openly forbidden from going down to the planet Syndikash to rescue a friend after a botched operation. He therefore asks Picard for permission to go down, rapidly turning into an extensive chain of these.
    Picard: Allow you? I'm afraid not, Mister Worf. I can't give you permission to go on a rescue mission for someone who is in legal custody and not a Starfleet crewman. There is no way I can authorize such an expedition...
    Worf: I understand, sir. Then I will not ask you, of course, sir.
    Picard: Good. And don't ask Mr. Riker to go with you. I would not grant him permission either.
    Worf: Yes sir. I would like to avoid asking Mr. Data as well.
    Picard: Agreed. Too much trouble. In any event, his appearance would be too difficult to explain. You'd have to put some kind of makeup on him so he would appear human. And, of course, if you asked Dr. Crusher, that would be unacceptable as well.
  • In Tales of MU, Sooni assures the residents of her dorm that she isn't going to use the protagonist's demonic heritage against her in their floor's election for school Senate. Just a few seconds earlier, she had implied that said half-demon wanted to eat their relatives.
  • Three for the Chair: Amsel won't outright confirm the identity of the man he was asked to illegally wiretap (and probably did wiretap despite claiming that he turned down the job), claiming his memory is no good on the subject. Still, he says that since a specific person being the man Amsel was asked to wiretap would fit so well with Wolfe's theory, he should take it for granted. 
  • In Terry Pratchett: A Life in Footnotes by Rob Wilkins, a footnote regarding Terry's distrust of sub-editors refers to one particular sub who annoyed him with a totally incorrect "correction" to a quote at "a newspaper that will remain nameless, but which was in fact The Sunday Times".
  • In one of the Xanth books, Gary the Gargoyle is looking for Magician Trent and needs to ask a harpy where to find him. In Xanth, harpies have a reputation for being unpleasant and unhelpful and this is seen as a good thing. Thus, the harpy can't simply tell him what he wants to know, even though he flatters her on her appearance (i.e. calls her ugly, which is a compliment to harpies). Therefore, in order to preserve her reputation of being unhelpful, this exchange occurs:
    Gary: I know you'd never tell me where to find Magician Trent.
    Harpy: Right. I'd never tell you to look twenty paces to the left.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In the final episode of The Bionic Woman, our heroine decides to leave OSI only to find Resignations Not Accepted. She has a major falling out with OSI director Oscar Goldman, but he eventually decides to give her a Mercy Lead.
    Oscar: Well, I better get out of here... before I end up telling you that the NSB are on their way over here... that you've got twenty minutes to pack and to get out of here. That I might tell you to run... use all the skills that I taught you... to prevent us from paying you back in this way.
  • Played for drama in Boston Legal; Alan Shore tells a client that as a member of the bar, he can't advise him to run. However, he is allowed to tell the client that if they go forward, the client will be found guilty and that a legal victory is no longer possible in his case. He is later defended by Denny for saying that, as legally, he did not break the law.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
    • Giles uses this to deliver stinging reprimands several times, most notably in "Revelations": "I won't remind you that the fate of the world often lies with the Slayer. What would be the point? Nor shall I remind you that you've jeopardized the lives of all that you hold dear by harboring a known murderer."
    • Buffy and Willow also plan to steal books from Giles' office in this manner in "Halloween":
      Willow: It's too bad we can't sneak a look at the Watcher diaries and read up on Angel. I'm sure it's full of fun facts to know and tell.
      Buffy: Yeah. It's too bad. That stuff is private.
      Willow: Also Giles keeps them in his office. In his personal files.
      Buffy: Most importantly, it would be wrong.
  • In an episode of Covert Affairs, Annie's superiors are investigating someone she knows under the assumption that they're a spy. Annie disagrees with the approach, as she's sure they're innocent. Auggie's advice:
    Auggie: Okay, I know what I'm supposed to tell you in this situation. I'm supposed to tell you to let Joan run her op. I am not supposed to tell you to go down to the annex and investigate for yourself, and I'm definitely not supposed to tell you that the code for the door is 92762#.
    • In another episode, Auggie gives Joan an ultimatum: allow him access to some top secret files or he quits. Joan tells there's no way she could possibly break that many rules to give him access. She then informs him that she's having some trouble accessing the files, she is going to have to call tech support and read them her access code, and under no circumstances should he still be in the room; does he understand what she's saying?
  • The Daily Show:
  • Daredevil (2015): While working the FBI surveillance of Wilson Fisk, Dex is shooed out when his boss Tammy Hattley shows up with Agent Winn from OPR and Dex's colleague Ray Nadeem, and they dismiss him to get a cup of coffee. Nadeem quietly exits the room and stops Dex in the hallway outside, and invokes this trope to tell Dex that OPR is sending him out because they want to interview Fisk regarding Dex's actions when thwarting the Albanians' attack on Fisk's motorcade.
    Ray Nadeem: It would be inappropriate of me to tell you that the Office of Professional Responsibility has launched an internal investigation into the motorcade attack. It would also be inappropriate of me to tell you that there was a slight discrepancy between your official report and the forensic analysis of the shooting.
    Dex: Yeah, and it'd be inappropriate for you to tell me all this.
  • In Deadwood episode "The Trial of Jack McCall" this is combined with some I Know You Know I Know. Sy Tolliver is adamantly denying a man staying at his establishment had smallpox, to the point of claiming he "left" when he was actually dragged out to die in the woods. To get Tolliver to cooperate with a plan for dealing with the disease (and also to make sure important people in town know before a panic starts), Doc Cochran uses statements like "I have no vaccine for the sickness the man in room 8 didn't have" and "the epidemic you have no reason to believe is coming."
  • Doctor Who:
    • "Frontier in Space": The Draconians use this to get around ordering anything illegal. They want to get hold of the Doctor and his companion, who are imprisoned by the humans they are in a Cold War-esque conflict with.
      Aide: Prisoners have been known to escape, your Highness.
      Prince: Not without help. And that would be a grave act of hostility. I could not possibly countenance such a plan.
      Aide: But should two escaping prisoners seek sanctuary in this Embassy, it would be uncivilised to turn them away.
      Prince: [pause] I must not detain you longer. No doubt you have duties demanding your attention?
    • The Fourth Doctor, while mocking a Bond One-Liner: "I suppose you could say the yolk's on him if you were the sort of person who said that sort of thing, which fortunately I'm not."
    • And the Eleventh Doctor, at the end of "Victory of the Daleks". Bracewell has just turned out to be an android built by the Daleks, and he expects the Doctor to deactivate him. The Doctor and Amy talk pointedly about how they're going to go away and do something else for half an hour, but Bracewell takes a while to get the hint.
      The Doctor: So no running off, that's what I'm saying. Don't go trying to find to find that little post office with the ash trees, or that girl — what was her name?
      Bracewell: Dorabella?
      The Doctor: Dorabella. On no account go looking for her. Mind you, you can get a lot done in half an hour.
    • Again, in "The Impossible Astronaut", the Eleventh Doctor insisting: "Canton, on no account follow me into this box and close the door behind you!"
    • "The Tsuranga Conundrum": General Eve Cicero, one of the other patients on the ambulance spaceship the Doctor and her companions have wound up on, is concealing her true medical condition. The remaining medic, Mabli, says that she can't tell the Doctor anything on the grounds of patient confidentiality, but suggests she ought to examine General Cicero.
  • In Eureka, Allison does this to Carter, in the episode in which he gets fired:
    Allison: I can't tell you that Dr. Leonardo is the top G.D. dendrologist and that she's working in increasing xylonutrient transport. She has a lab over on South Goddard. I'd be breaking about 35 federal laws. If I told you that.
  • Father Brown: In "The Scales of Justice", Father Brown asks if the evidence presented in the trial is still in the courthouse, only for Bunty's barrister to tell him that it would be completely unethical to tell him that what he he is looking for is in the Storeroom D at the end of the corridor. He then gets up and walks away, 'accidentally' leaving the key lying on the bench.
  • In For Life, Aaron brings very light charges against two cops who killed an unarmed black man, as part of a longer game with the ultimate goal of hitting them with second degree murder and manslaughter charges. When he brings these charges, the victim's widow asks if he'd planned it that way or if he was just bowing to pressure from the community. His answer: "I can't answer that. By law".
  • Friends:
    • Monica in the episode "The One with the Butt": "Oh, um, Chandler? Y'know, the old Monica would remind you to scrub that Teflon pan with a plastic brush... But I'm not gonna do that."
    • Also the episode where Phoebe promises Pete she won't tell Monica that he still likes her. When the two see each other, Phoebe is torn between wanting to tell her and her promise. Monica just feels like she's talking to Lassie...
  • In Grey's Anatomy, when Cristina is impaled by an icicle right after she finally calls out on Meredith for constantly annoying her with details of Mer/Der relationship.
    Meredith: I'm not gonna say you deserved that, but you deserved that.
  • In a radio spot promoting the then-new Hogan's Heroes:
    Stan Freberg: Shall we say, "If you liked World War II you'll love Hogan's Heroes?
    Bob Crane: Let's not say that, no.
  • On the Sky One production of Terry Pratchett's Hogfather, there's this conversation between Albert and Death:
    "This is not Susan's affair. Which is why, you'll recall, that I expressly forbade her from interfering. Besides, it's against the rules."
    "Yeah, but you know how she is for disobeying rules, Master."
    "You might very well think that I'd already thought of that, but I couldn't possibly comment."
    • The last line was an Actor Allusion: Ian Richardson (who played the voice of Death) used it frequently in his role as Francis Urquhart (see below).
  • On an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street, a hotel clerk tells the detectives everything they want to know about a guest in one of her rooms by explaining, at length and with not a hint of irony, exactly what it is she's not allowed to tell them.
    • On another episode, the police aren't allowed to speak to a cult member because his lawyer is in the employ of the cult leader. Gee, Danvers and a couple of detectives get around this by going to his cell and talking to each other about how screwed the poor kid is.
  • Francis Urquhart, or Underwood in the American remake, uses this as his catchphrase in House of Cards (UK): "You might very well think that. I couldn't possibly comment." In the American series, this is later used by his political rival, eliciting an expletive from Underwood. THE only real expletive Underwood uses in the entire show, no less. In Real Life British politics, saying what you want to say by saying you couldn't possibly say it is known as "Urquhart's Avoidance".
  • It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: Occasionally the Gang wrongly assumes this. In one episode they're trying to settle a property dispute with a neighboring landowner, and the lawyer they consult tells them they have "No legal recourse." The Gang, naturally, believes he's telling them to commit a crime against their neighbor, and take the lawyer's objections as Suspiciously Specific Denials.
  • In Inventing Anna, Todd, Anna's lawyer, tells Vivian he's going to get some coffee for a span of time large enough to check his document boxes about Anna's file.
  • In iZombie, the private detective Coleman Baker is asked by Detective Babineaux why he was following a murder victim. He explains that client confidentiality means that he can't tell them anything without a warrant... while making sure they can see the photos he just happens to have lying around, which makes it clear who he was actually following, and why.
  • L.A. Law. Deputy D.A. Grace Van Owen prosecutes a particularly devastating case of an obviously guilty father accused of molesting his 6-year-old daughter. She loses, and has the following conversation with the little girl's mother (played by Kathy Bates) in a conference room:
    Charlotte: What happens if I just take Lisa and we disappear?
    Grace: Charlotte, he has custody rights. You could be charged with kidnapping.
    Charlotte: Uh-huh. So, what if I do that? That's the only way I can keep him away from Lisa, isn't it?
    Grace: (Beat) As a District Attorney, it would be...inappropriate for me to encourage an illegal act.
    Charlotte: Give me another choice! I can't let this happen to her again!
    Grace (not looking at Charlotte): As a District Attorney, it would be inappropriate for me to encourage an illegal act.
    Charlotte: I hear you, Ms. Van Owen. I hear you loud and clear.
    (Grace looks and nods at her; Charlotte leaves)
  • Law & Order: SVU:
    • One episode had Fin and Munch unable to interrogate a suspect because he had asked for a lawyer, so they stood in the interrogation room and casually chatted with each other about what kind of prison time the perpetrator of the crime would have to do and where he would be sent. The suspect quickly waived his right to counsel.
    • Another episode, "Military Justice", pulls a hard subversion of this trope. Detective Amaro gets his ex-wife to poke around unofficial channels for information on the perps of the week, who are military. When he presents the information to the squad, ADA Barba freaks and immediately tells Amaro to stop talking now, because the information is a violation of the Garrity rule and could get the case thrown out as a mistrial. When Amaro then takes the "well hypothetically, if someone were to ask the defendant about this particular topic..." approach, Barba doubles down on not wanting to hear about it and kicks him off the case.
  • In Malcolm in the Middle, Reese joins the army, and the military bureaucracy stifles Lois' attempts to find him. Of course, being Lois, she quickly bonds with Reese's sergeant over their shared views on handling teenagers.
    Sergeant: I really do wish I could help you, Lois, I'd love to just reach into this drawer [opens drawer] and pull out the information you need, but I can't. And that upsets me so much it makes we want to stare intently out this window [turns to window] for, oh, say, 120 seconds or so.
  • Monty Python's Flying Circus has a sketch in which the Pythons apologize for various implied insults they "didn't intend to imply" about politicians... going into extensive detail on just what insults they didn't mean to imply.
    • Also did this with another politics-related sketch, involving by-elections.
    • Monty Python did this sort of thing at least partly to send up BBC broadcast restrictions on what you weren't allowed to say about British politicians on the news, as a censorship protest.
      • Furthermore, it is not BBC policy to get easy laughs with words like 'bum', 'knickers', 'botty' or 'wee-wees'. Or 'Semprini'.
  • In the 1998 mini-series Mosley, Oswald Mosley has lost the election to Neville Chamberlain by a mere 77 votes, which he blames on bad weather driving away the lower class voters who don't have cars to travel to the polling booths.
    Oswald Mosley: So one might say that a downpour of rain has washed the lifeless body of the last of the Chamberlains back to Westminster.
    Journalist: [shocked] May... may I quote you, sir?
    Oswald Mosley: [smirking] I'd be terribly disappointed if you did.
  • On NCIS, Abby occasionally resorts to this when the Director has told her to keep something from Gibbs. After all, sign language doesn't count as saying anything.
  • One episode of Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide has Vice-Principal Crubbs replace all of the fruity granola bars in the vending machines with his own favorite snack (mini powdered donuts). Moze and Cookie lament their bad luck, and history teacher Mr. Pal overhears. He remarks that the whole situation reminds him of Samuel Gompers, a famous labor organizer who used strikes and peaceful protests to rebel against authority. When an interested Moze and Cookie ask if Mr. Pal is suggesting they do the same, he assures them that as a former principal and current teacher, he certainly isn't saying anything of the kind...but if he wasn't in that position, he would certainly encourage them. It becomes a Brick Joke when Mr. Pal joins in the schoolwide protest at the episode's end.
  • A ridiculous example from Neighbours, in which Toadie, a lawyer, has to get a message to a friend whose ex-girlfriend has told him not to tell him about her plan to regain custody of their son. He ends up revealing it explicitly with "I can't tell you that..." tacked on. Ridiculous because, a) he hadn't agreed to represent her yet (and made it clear that he wouldn't once he learned who she was) and b) had he actually needed to get around lawyer-client confidentiality, this wouldn't have been enough to get away with it.
  • On Peep Show, Mark is trying to drop his rival in it with the girl he likes; "Oh, oh no, I've said too much... Just talk to Jeff. Ask him about what happened. At the pub. By the fruit machine. With the girl. And the lips." He walks away wondering if he's been too subtle.
  • In the season seven premiere of Psych, "Santabarbaratown 2", the gang is looking for a dirty ex-cop who has shot Henry in the previous episode. The Chief calls Shawn into her office and tells him that he's too emotionally involved, so she will not tell him to go after this cop, even though he's not officially on the case, and she certainly won't mention her belief that Shawn's abilities represent their best hope of catching the guy.
  • In The Practice, Bobby discovers that his and Lindsay's last client, a murderer acquitted on a technicality, was in cahoots with the cop who arrested him. He can't rat out his own client, so he leaves a message for Lindsay, "forgetting" that her roommate DA Helen Gamble always checks the messages first. He then argues that he never intended to convey this information to Helen and she shouldn't be allowed to act on it, knowing the judge will rule against him.
  • The Professionals. In "Where The Jungle Ends", a politically-connected organised crime boss is discovered to be hiring the Villain of the Week for a big job. Cowley suspends Bodie and Doyle pending investigation, supposedly after receiving an anonymous allegation of brutality against them. "So whatever you do in this case is outside my responsibility."
  • Quantum Leap (2022): In the episode "Fellow Travelers," Janis asks Ian if they used Ziggy to track her down. Ian says, "Well, I'm not at liberty to say that that's exactly what I did."
  • Red Dwarf: Even though he is forced to obey his programming to obey Rimmer's orders, Kryten does this with Cat and Lister by showing them how he won't allow them to perform a specific set of instructions (which he helpfully lists) to delete a bio-printer's genome database to prevent Rimmer from printing out the crew members stored on file to populate his officer's club.
  • Rome. Cisero urges Brutus to kill Marc Antony, who's turned up at Brutus' house to arrange a truce.
    Cisero: He's here, in your hands. I'm simply stating the facts! I do not urge you to any...particular course of action.
    Brutus: Nor will I take the course you "do not" urge.
  • In Rutherford Falls, the mayor's assistant is extremely careful with his phrasing:
    Assistant: As your employee, it would be inappropriate to ask why you're wearing the same outfit as yesterday, so I won't.
  • Taylor Swift likes writing songs about douchebags who cheat on her and writing their names into songs so they're ashamed to go in public. But she's not gonna talk about that in her Saturday Night Live monologue.
  • Scoundrels (2010): Cheryl asks Hope what her sister is up to. Hope indignantly protests that Wests don't rat each other out... then, when Cheryl gives in, adds, "Which is why I can't tell you to check her underwear drawer."
  • Space Cases: Goddard does this with Radu after inadvertently revealing to Harlan that Radu had been lying about his family to fit in with the rest of the crew.
    Goddard: You know, Radu... the first thing they teach you in command school is that a commander must never express regrets. It undermines crew confidence. If I were allowed to do so... I would apologize for having caused you embarrassment. But you understand... I can't.
    Radu: Understood, commander.
  • Stargate Atlantis, in an episode where Ronon is considering leaving Atlantis, has Shepherd saying that he'd tell Ronon that he was a valuable member of the team and it would nigh-impossible to replace him and they'd miss him if he left... but he already knew that, so he wasn't going to tell him.
  • Played with in an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, in which Commander Sisko holds a meeting ordering his staff not to warn the Cardassians of an impending Klingon attack on nearby friendly(ish) Cardassia... while having his measurements taken for a new suit by Garak, the station's Cardassian tailor and a known former Cardassian spy.
  • Star Trek: Voyager. In "Thirty Days", Tom Paris tells an alien that the Prime Directive forbids him from becoming involved in the internal affairs of their race. Unless, of course, someone makes a direct request...
  • Supernatural, "The Monster at the End of This Book": A prophet predicts that Sam and Lilith will hook up. Dean goes to Castiel for help, but Castiel says he can't interfere with divine prophecy and Dean is on his own. Just as Dean is storming off, Castiel stops him and adds that the reason he can't help is that prophets are sacred, and should anything, such as for example a demon, threaten harm to a prophet, an archangel will descend with the wrath of Heaven. Dean catches the hint and brings the prophet along to confront Lilith.
  • On Top Gear, Jeremy Clarkson did this as a way of sneakily previewing a car (an Aston Martin V8 Vantage) he wasn't technically allowed to announce yet. The other two presenters played along with a chorus of "I would have really like to hear that" and "Oh, I wish you could have told us that."
  • Trace: In "The Third One Must Die", there is one of the closest things to a Love Confession one can get from an Implied Love Interest in a long-running series. After Rogozina's Old Flame is revealed to be in league with the criminals and Rogozina is devastated that she has been fooled so completely, Kruglov comments:
    If he loved you, he would have told you that sometimes, it's useful to be stupid, and that you have the right to be mistaken.
  • The Unit: the lawyer played by Rebecca Pigeon tells Molly that "I cannot" advise Molly to secretly tape someone to use for blackmail, "as that would be illegal."
  • A skit by The Whitest Kids U' Know uses this trope with their skit in which they say, "It is very illegal to say 'I want to kill the president'. TOTALLY illegal! I'm allowed to say it to tell you not to say it. On that topic, it is also illegal to say, 'I really want someone else to kill the president, and here are some spots where it would be easy to launch a mortar grenade at him.' Also TOTALLY illegal! Completely!" Here it is.
    • They also do "The Never Song". It starts out straightforwardly telling what kind of behavior that gets you in trouble with your parents and the school, before the third verse which, well...
      Never take cough syrup and mix it up with Iodine and Lye
      Never take cough syrup and mix it up with Iodine and Lye
      Never take the strike pads off a match book,
      Or go to a hardware store and then look
      Near paint thinners for Muriatric Acid,
      Or bring a pot into a rapid
      Boil or get hydrogen peroxide
      Never go to a farming store and then buy
      PH strips and PVC pipes
      Those fuel cans that make outdoor grills light
  • In The Wire episode "The Pager", when Jimmy McNulty is complaining about his ex-wife's latest legal shenanigans, he informs Kima Greggs (who is female) exactly how a "less-enlightened man" might respond.
    Greggs: You just called the mother of your children a cunt.
    McNulty: No, I did not.
    Greggs: Yes, you fuckin' did.
  • This happens a LOT in Yes, Minister. Mainly because the Obstructive Bureaucrats need to tell each other things that they shouldn't without actually telling them... 'Hypothetical' situations often feature as did, on one memorable occasion, the simple fact that the person Sir Humphrey wanted to know the PM was talking to was pretty much the only female in the building.
    Bernard: I absolutely could not tell you who she is, Sir Humphrey.
    Humphrey: Thank you Bernard!
  • In Wellington Paranormal, Officers Minogue and O'Leary encounters Nick, a local vampire, and group of shady men in black robes in a pack, in the dead of night, wielding touches and chating, as they walk in circles around a naked, clearly terrified man, tied to a stake. When Minogue and O'Leary tries to figure out what is happening, Nick's victim tries to appeal to O'Leary and Minogue for help this way, because Nick has used his Compelling Voice to prevent him from calling directly for help. Unfortunately for him, Nick quickly cottons on to what he is trying to do:
    Victim: [to O'Leary] I was hoping that some would come and save me, or just help me. I would like to—
    Nick: Tom. [waves his hand in front of the victim's face] Everything is fine right now.
    Victim: [to O'Leary; strained] Everything is actually fine right now. I'm okay. I asked to be put on this stake. I'm not cold, I'm not afraid, and I'm really looking forward to what's happening—
    Nick: [waves his hand once more] Don't improvise.

  • In one Doctor Who Magazine "It's the End, But..." column, the Watcher describes a party where one woman was insistent that Vere Lorrimer, not Verity Lambert, was the first director of Doctor Who, and various drunk Doctor Who fans attempted to correct her:
    "Look," cried another of our number, whose identity shall remain a closely guarded secret, "I am the editor of Doctor Who Magazine..."
  • The report on the 1979 Campaign to Give Miss Piggy an Oscar in The Muppet Show Fan Club Newsletter quotes Piggy as saying "I feel that, in all modesty, and for reasons of professional integrity, I mustn't endorse or in any way encourage the activities of these discerning, intelligent, astute and enlightened people."

  • Mitch Benn's "A Song That's Not About Brexit".
    This is a song that's not about Brexit.
    It doesn't mention it at any stage.
    It doesn't grumble or complain, has,
    No smart rhymes for Remainers,
    It wasn't written in a state of incoherent rage.
    No, not this one,
    It's just a song,
    It's about love and flowers and happiness, feel free to sing along.
    'Cos it's a song that's not about Brexit.
    It's definitely about something else.
  • "The One" by Mary J. Blige. "I ain't saying that I'm the best, but I'm the best."
  • The Presidents by Jonathan Coulton. Ends with "I don't like to make political statements..." and subverts it by remaining silent for the last few beats.
    • In a 2008 performance in Seattle (while promoting John Hodgman's More Information Than You Require), scant days after Barack Obama won the presidency, he used that space for a cheer celebrating Obama's victory.
  • "Blasphemous Rumours" by Depeche Mode:
    I don't want to start any blasphemous rumours
    But I think that God's got a sick sense of humor
  • The song "It All Makes Sense at the End" by Molly Lewis includes: "I won't say that you have no integrity... but I might imply it."
  • "Anything But Paris" by Paul and Storm:
    This song's not about Paris Hilton
    Anything but Paris Hilton
    We don't care what she's doing
    And we don't care where she's been
    • Starts off as an innocuous list of things that aren't Paris ("Jimmy Carter, baseball, Sno Cones") and ends up as a rant ("Money, privilege, spoiled rotten")
  • Florence + the Machine's "I'm Not Calling You A Liar":
    I'm not calling you a liar... but don't lie to me.
    I'm not calling you a thief... but don't steal from me,
    I'm not calling you a ghost, but stop haunting me...
  • Roy Zimmerman's Impeachment Song. Consists of a long list of ways that corrupt rulers have been overthrown and killed throughout history, and the refrain is "All I'm saying is impeachment is too good". The last verse makes it clear what Roy isn't saying.
    ''I am not advocating
    Any particular course of action
    For to do so could be construed
    As a felonious infraction
    So impeach 'em all, I guess

  • Subverted in an episode of John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme, where an HR representative tries to get across to his friend that "Of course I can't talk about the upcoming layoffs, but I especially cannot tell you that your job is safe", which his friend mistakes for this trope played straight, despite the HR guy getting more and more explicit about precisely what it is he can't say. The punchline is that the reason he's so confident about his job security is that "I'm one of the best detectives on the force!"
    • Played straight in a sketch in one episode, where a psychiatrist tells a patient he cannot tell her what decision to make, whether to stay with her loving husband or run away with her psychotic stalker in a continuation of her pattern of stupidly self-destructive behaviour... he can only guide her. Eventually, he gets so fed up of her indecisiveness he has to tell her anyway.
  • In an episode of Quote, Unquote, Monica Ali was asked if the character of Chanu in Brick Lane was based on anyone. She said he was a Composite Character, and she didn't want to get any more specific because she didn't know who might be listening. For example, her father might be.

  • The Book of Mormon: Captain Moroni, when negotiating a prisoner exchange, informs Ammoron that he could talk to him about how the sword of God's justice hangs over him, how hell awaits for murderers like Ammoron and his brother Amalickiah, but that it would be pointless to make such arguments to "a child of hell", so he's just going to make an offer instead. Ammoron is not amused.

  • The song "I'm Not Saying A Word" from the musical Blood Brothers has Eddie telling Linda, who's frustrated because Mickey won't admit that he has feelings for her, how he himself would treat her... if she wasn't Mickey's love interest. The chorus is him insistently reminding her that this is all hypothetical. They later end up having an affair after Mickey goes to jail.
  • "If I Loved You," the most famous song from Carousel, is all about this — the main characters describe all of the things they would say if they loved each other, but of course they don't feel that way, so they won't.
  • Hamlet:
  • Also, in William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Mark Antony incites a crowd to riot and kill Brutus and his conspirators by making a lengthy and eloquent speech about what an honorable man Brutus is, and claiming that he absolutely didn't want to "stir you up to such a sudden flood of mutiny" like Brutus would, using his superior rhetorical skills, were the situation reversed.
  • In The Mikado, Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum are in love, but cannot kiss because Yum-Yum is engaged to Ko-Ko. Instead, they sing "Were you not to Ko-Ko plighted", in which they demonstrate, physically, precisely what it is they won't do.
  • It's later parodied in Musical of Musicals: The Musical!, which features a song called "I Don't Love You."
  • Shakespeare does it again in The Taming of the Shrew. Grumio spends a long monologue telling another servant how he could tell him all the mad things that happened on Petruchio and Kate's journey, but he's going to take it with him to his grave.

    Video Games 
  • In one story event of Action Taimanin, Aina Winchester loudly proclaims that the Task Force's defences are "so sloppy I could shoot Kotaro's head off" seconds before she does so to let him know to dodge while she can still pretends to work for demons.
  • In Baldur's Gate II, Jan Jansen uses this trope to insult Anomen.
    Jan: Anomen, my friend, I realize I've been less than polite with you in the past and I wish to apologize.
    Anomen: Verily, you have played me most false.
    Jan: Indeed! All know you're an unrepentant ass. 'Tis not my place to say so.
    Anomen: Shut up, gnome.
    Jan: Your ugliness, both in body and soul, thought true, is inappropriate for discussion and rankly impolite. You're stupid, poorly educated, and always smell faintly of lilacs, but it was wrong of me to bring attention to it.
    Anomen: Silence before I CRACK YOUR SKULL!
    Jan: Arrogant, drunken, priggish, whiny, pompous are common adjectives used to describe you, but I was wrong to say so. You are completely incapable of independent thought and soil yourself with regularity seldom found outside the nursery. I shall no longer bring these things up in front of the others.
  • Borderlands 2's Dr. Zed gets in on this a bit. He is in no way dropping large amounts of money into your hands in exchange for bits of wildlife that he most certainly did not ask you to acquire for him, and is disgusted and appalled at the concept. Honest.
    • And as Axton's commanding officer, his wife is definitely not telling him that he is about to be arrested and executed, and that he should get off-world immediately.
  • Used several times in Breathedge:
    • At one point your suit's AI recognizes that you need confidential information about the Breathedge corporation to survive, which its programming will not allow it to tell you. However, its programming does allow it to point out that there are numerous other suits around with the information which could be forced to reveal it using a drill.
    • Shortly afterwards, your suit explains that "Unfortunately, due to the security protocol, I cannot tell you that the special magnets built into his engineering boots can be used to illegally open the back panel of Breathedge coffins" and then goes on to explain that it has "no right to explain" about the confidential features in the coffins that make doing this necessary, which it proceeds to detail.
  • Near the end of Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair, after the students learn that they have to figure out who the traitor is or they'll all be killed, they lament that they have no idea where to even begin. However, Chiaki then asserts that the traitor is someone who couldn't help out even if they wanted to. The other students are confused, but soon realize that this inexplicable knowledge was a confession. The final trial reveals that this roundabout method was necessary because Chiaki was an AI programmed to never reveal her identity, and she had to be indirect in order to save the remaining students.
  • In yet another BioWare example, Dragon Age II has a minor sidequest started by a guard loudly lamenting in the middle of the street that she can't legally do anything about a bunch of scammers peddling 'miracle cures,' coincidentally as Hawke walks by. And at the end of the quest:
    Hawke: The scam artists have been dealt with.
    Guard: What? What was that you said? I'm sorry, I seem to be a bit hard of hearing today. And oh clumsy me, I seem to have dropped a bag of coins into your hand.
    • Again in the second game a government official tells you that a rescue operation/bounty has already been taken by a group of lunatic mercenaries who will just make things worse. He certainly can't tell you that if you beat them to it you can claim the bounty for yourself, or that they've tracked the target to the Wounded Coast.
    • In the first game there's a guy occupying a room with a chest in it that, according to him, just might happen to contain some entertaining stories about certain people who annoy other people so much that they'd be ecstatic if those annoying people just... went away somehow, and other-times the chest might happen to contain some goodies you're free to help yourself to. For the lulz, you can pester the guy until he drops the act and admits in exasperation that yes, he's giving out assassination contracts, do you want the job or not?
  • At the beginning of the Aldmeri Dominion quest lines in The Elder Scrolls Online the Player Character gets set up and thrown in jail. An agent of the queen knows what happens and bails you out and enlists you to help solve the greater issue at hand. A few quests later, that agent suggests the player deliberately get captured, in order to lower the guard of the double agents they were hunting, so that the agent can secretly spring the player out again and sneak the targets. When he arrives to break the player out, the player asks if the agent is planning to make fun of him for "The jail thing." The agent says that "This one would never note that this is the second time he is saving you. From jail. In less than a month. Not out loud, anyway."
  • In Fire Emblem: New Mystery of the Emblem, it doesn't take long for the Grustian knight Belf to recognize that Sirius, the masked warrior that joined the army, is his old commander, Camus. Sirius initially blows him off and denies everything, but when Belf shows he isn't fooled, he starts shifting to this kind of speech pattern—explaining that, hypothetically, if he were Camus and chose to reveal himself, then he might become a figurehead for some stripe of nationalist rebellion in Grust, and he wouldn't want to deal with that. Hypothetically, you understand. Belf decides to shift tactics, asking Sirius what he would think of his old knights if he were there today. Sirius simply tells Belf that he's proud of his old subordinates and charges Belf to keep the peace in his place, for his new home is far from here now... well, hypothetically, if Camus were there, he would say something like that.
  • In Genshin Impact, the Chasm region is opened after meeting Muning, who is forbidden from revealing the dangers brewing in the mines... and in order to do his job, he tells the player there certainly isn't a problem, the seals very certainly aren't about to fail, but if you insist, you can talk to a local adventurer who isn't going spelunking. Between the two of them, they apparently amassed a whole task force on the sly via this method.
  • The Halo series has a few of these.
  • There's an entire plot line in the BioWare RPG Jade Empire that's kicked off with a speech exactly like this. Minister Sheng can't possibly send anyone to close the Great Dam while there are still Lotus Assassins searching the ruins of the drained lakebed — it would be bad for his career to let them drown! — so he very unsubtly stuffs a key to the gate into the Spirit Monk's pack.
    Sheng: Now go close the Great Dam and I never said that!
  • During one sequence in Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, while controlling a protocol droid, you can (and eventually must) convince another droid that it has already violated its "ethics programming". The following ensues:
    B-4D4: No, there is nothing stopping you from attacking the guards outside with your stun ray.
    B-4D4: Of course, I would be obligated to stop you. Therefore it would be best if I were distracted, say by that console behind you.
    B-4D4: Thank you, T1-N1. Please do not abuse my trust and attack the guards outside, thereby creating a diversion that will allow me to escape with the stolen files.
  • The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker has the "nice girls who never spread rumors" on Windfall Island, who won't tell you anything even if you pay them Rupees. Though sometimes they really don't have anything to say.
  • Mass Effect:
    • A hanar proselytizing on the Presidium says, if asked, that it's too humble to suggest the C-Sec officer telling it to go away (since what it's doing is against the law) is biased against it.
    • After a mission where a highly Renegade Shepard is sent to negotiate with an arrogant ass, which is almost certainly guaranteed to end in bloodshed, Shepard asks Admiral Hackett if that was the intention all along. Hackett just replies that the Alliance would never condone assassinations, and also Shepard's a Spectre, so they can't really do anything about it anyway, even if they wanted to.
  • From Mass Effect: Andromeda:
    • During one quest Ryder has to find dock records for an angaran, but the dock manager of Kadara Port can't help them. He also can't tell them to look in the records computer over there, nor can he tell them the exact code needed to access the files.
    • If Ryder manages to bargain the krogan into letting the Initiative set up a colony on Elaaden, Director of Colonial Affairs Foster Addison will comment that Acting Initiative Director Tann will object (he hates krogan). One of the player's choice of responses is "fuck Tann", resulting in this exchange:
      Ryder: It's hard to calculate just how few fucks I give about Tann's opinion.
      Addison: For the record, I cannot comment.
  • Done as a way to explain a riddle game in Might and Magic VIII — the Big Bad can't tell you how to stop him (he would want to, but there are safeguards that keep him from doing that), but the player characters are of course free to interpret the answers to his riddles any way they want. If that happen to lead them to the way to stop him, well, it's not like he actually told them how to do that. Then he hands you a set of magical keys, arguing that since you don't know how to use them to stop them, that doesn't risk him being stopped and so is not in violation of his programming.
  • In Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, TEC gives Peach a quiz. The first few questions are of things Peach and the player know already, but soon, he starts asking about Grodus' Evil Plan as a roundabout way of telling her about it without telling her.
  • From Planescape: Torment: You go to a wizard who put a spell on a person who now wants it taken off. You convince him to help and he tells you something like: "Alas, I am forbidden to help you. I can't show you this book, and I am most certainly not going to tell you to go to this page and figure out what to do." Then he turns around and hums to himself.
  • In Professor Layton and the Spectre's Call/The Last Specter, the chief engineer tells Layton exactly what the bad guys are up to, and how to stop them, while claiming he won't say a single word. Luke suspects he's doing this, but it's not clear if it's intentional or not.
  • In Psychonauts, Sasha tells Raz that he can't teach him how to shoot psychic blasts, as he's not signed up for the camp. He then tells him that there is no way he could possibly use the secret underground railway to meet with Ford Cruller and obtain a training badge that would let Sasha train him. Five minutes later, Raz returns with the badge.
    Sasha: Well, my ass is covered.
    • Done again in Psychonauts 2. Otto Mentalis states that he cannot give his gadgetry to interns, meaning Raz. Then he suggests that, if he were to ask Raz to deliver the gear to Sasha and Milla, and Raz took his sweet time doing so, it wouldn't be Otto's concern.
  • In Super Robot Wars Z 2, Ozma Lee (who is a member of a legitimate organization that's been taken over by a corrupt government) allows Setsuna (who's an old friend of their's from a previous war, but is technically a terrorist according to their new corrupt bosses) to escape by firing a near miss and loudly ordering his men (who also are old friends and don't really support their boss either) to "Not allow the Gundam to reach the unguarded escape route at point A". Setsuna promptly heads to said unguarded escape route.
  • In Tacoma, the titular space station has experienced what ostentatiously appears to be an accident, in form of a freak metro strike which has knocked out the oxygen supply and disrupted the commutations array, however this is actually intentional sabotage on behalf of the company who runs the space station, who is planning to kill the crew and Make It Look Like an Accident so they can further a sinister political agenda. The only one who knows the truth and is in a position to warn the crew is ODIN, the Benevolent A.I. who oversees the space station. But he has been given a strict directive by the company to hide the truth from the crew, and keep communications turned off. However, ODIN finds a way to circumvents this directive by, instead of outright telling the crew the truth behind the "accident", he tells the crew member Sareh about a normally locked door in the Network Technology area of the space station, which just so happens to be have just been conveniently unlocked, emphasizing that she could investigate it, and adds while he is obligated to tell her that it would be a violation of her employment term and could open her to legal persecution from the company, he cannot be prevent her from doing so. Said room contains ODIN's saved logs of the corporate plot he has been order to keep under wraps, along with the manual override for turning the communications array back on, allowing the crew to call for outside help and gather evidence against the coporation.
  • This is a key point in episode Patient Zero: 3 in Trauma Team: in the third phase of the mission, the government decides to stop the diagnosis of your patient, and he is ordered not to give any more information. To get around this, Gabriel and RONI decide to have a "chat" with their "bud", really getting the symptoms that they need. They even manage to get a visual exam of his chest after the patient integrates fever into his conversation.

  • Boneclaw Mother pulls this late in Digger.
  • In Ellie Connelly, the title character explains that she didn't hear anything.
  • In the Girl Genius side story "Ivo Sharktooth: Private Jager", Sharktooth believes in client confidentiality, at least officially. However, he also knows his investigation into who stole the snail racing trophy will go a lot faster if people realise he's working for The Heterodyne herself. So he gets some good results by casually saying that he can't mention the name of his client, but she is supposed to be presenting the trophy in three days.
  • The Hiimdaisy Big Long Persona 4 Comic portrays Mitsuru Adachi as this. Whenever the main characters are stuck, Adachi will come in with very suspiciously plot-relevant information and then cheerfully slink away. Almost stated word for word with his catch-phrase "Don't tell anyone I said this, buuuuuuuut...."
  • A variant can be seen here on Penny Arcade.
  • Recurring gag on Questionable Content: "I could make some sort of obvious 'who are you and what have you done with the real Pintsize' crack, but it'd just cheapen the moment."
  • The Sanity Circus: After a while Attley and Fletch finally manage to get Donovan Sparc, ringleader of the eponymous circus, for a conversation to explain what he knows about all the supernatural stuff they've experienced and been involved in. He spends most of the conversation trying to sate their curiosity while not revealing anything dangerous for them to know or crucial for the Nameless Organisation. The result: Some but not all questions are ultimately answered.
    Donovan: Uh yes, the "secret" organisation. I wouldn't so much call it "secret", though... it just... handles things without the public knowing.
    Attley: That's pretty much the definition of secret.
  • Dr. Cook of S.S.D.D. would like to tell you about the anarchists' suspicious order that they actually paid for (for once), but they signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement.
  • This (NSFW) strip of Wapsi Square involves Shelly failing to understand that someone is doing this to her.

    Web Original 
  • Real Life example on the Internet: "In before [overdone meme]." Which, of course, makes "In before X" an overdone meme.
  • This bash quote (note: quote contains sexually violent descriptions), with added False Reassurance.
  • Subverted in Cracked's article, 4 Shameless Uses of Dead Celebrities by Marketing Campaigns: "I'm really tempted to say that Bob Marley was a political revolutionary whose memory has been co-opted by a bunch of stoner kids with trendy faux-dreadlock haircuts that make them look like poorly thought-out Kurt Cobain statues, so I will. That's exactly what I'm saying. I just said it."
  • This story in The Onion.
  • SCP Foundation: This occurs with a scientist who helps SCP-105 (scroll to Addendum 3) escape the organization. It, unfortunately, doesn't last.
    Dr. Dantensen: Well Iris, the SCP Ethics Committee would not allow your execution if you were to suddenly lose your unusual ability.
    SCP-105: Do you mean...
    Dr. Dantensen: Of course if you did suddenly lose your power, they would be unable to run any tests to prove, you were indeed telling the truth. Technically, they could never even prove that you had any power to begin with.
    SCP-105: What would happen to me, if... such a thing were to suddenly happen?
    Dr. Dantensen: Well, I think, hypothetically of course, you would be released as soon as possible, relocated to a high population city, and you would be given a hefty "life reclamation" check from the government every month. Now, you're still young, I would recommend using the reclamation check on college tuition. You're smart, I know, I've seen your charts.
    SCP-105: Thank you so much...
    Dr. Dantensen: For what? I was just telling you about standard SCP procedure for humanoid SCPs.
  • Not Always Right:
    • When this writer asked what would happen to their coworker:
      HR: I can't discuss the punishments and actions taken against former employees.
    • On a meta level, the site's "anonymising" of workplaces sometimes comes across like this, such as "I work at a certain mountain based sci-fi rollercoaster in a magical themed park run by a mouse". Or this post about heading to Canada for [donut holes], which square-brackets "[donut holes]" every time, to make it absolutely clear that this unnamed Canadian coffee shop franchise calls them something else.

    Web Videos 
  • In the Content Cop on LeafyIsHere, Ian refers to it as the "anti-insult" and mocks Leafy's tendency to rely on it due to wanting to insult people without backlash:
    Leafy: DrivingacarMinecraftlogointhecornerhisfuckingteeeeeeeeeeth... nah, fuck that, I'm not going to be talking about the kid today.
    iDubbbz: NAHHHHHH, I'm not going to be talking about the kid after showing a picture of [picture pops up] his fucked-up tooth to my millions of followers. A zoomed-in picture of his snaggletooth. Yeah, I'm not gonna be talking about the kid today. I'm not gonna talk about his fucked-up teeth. His teeth? The fucked-up things in his mouth? I'm not gonna talk about that. That'd be a fucked-up for me thing to do. [Gross-Up Close-Up of said snaggletooth] These things? Not gonna talk about them, not gonna talk about these nasty, fucked-up things."
  • Freshy Kanal: In "Donald Trump vs. Mr. Burns" rap battle, when Burns compares Trump's duck-face to Donald Duck, he notes that he "can't legally say Disney overplayed their remakes".
  • Channel Awesome:
    • In his review of He-Man and She-Ra: A Christmas Special'', The Nostalgia Critic uses a counter for the gay jokes he could have made but didn't.
    • During an April Fools special where Doug Walker played "musical critics" with Ask That Guy with the Glasses, The Nostalgia Critic, and Chester A. Bum, at the end of Ask That Guy (in Chester's place) reviewing Monsters vs. Aliens, he's told to mimic Chester's catch phrase, he gives his own version before eventually giving a perfect imitation of his "Change? Ya got change? Come on help a guy out, will ya?" catch phrase, asking if that's what they want, then saying he won't do it. However since they're all Doug Walker characters, this is understandable.
  • In The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Lizzie does not wish to reveal private information concerning Darcy's treatment of Wickham, so she tells a "story" about "Dar...vid" and "Batman" instead.
    Darcy: If I knew a Darvid, perhaps he would feel differently.
  • This youtube video made by a certain "Rucks the Stranger" is about a hypothetical bad history between him and a certain "Cave Johnson". All completely hypothetically speaking, of course.
  • The Spoony Experiment, "Let's Play Phantasmagoria": "I just want you guys to know, in a minute I could make a 'Curtis coming out of the closet' joke, but I'm not going to. Because I'm better than that."
  • Zero Punctuation:
    • Subverted in the review of Clive Barker's Jericho: "I could go on listing the stupid design decisions... so I will."
    • Played straight more commonly. Pretty much anytime a game has a lot of Ho Yay moments, Yahtzee will comment that he won't stoop to making gay jokes.

    Western Animation 
  • The Amazing World of Gumball: "The Sweaters" has Gumball and Darwin seemingly challenged to a fight (it's actually just a tennis match) with very strange students from another school. Neither one wants to fight, and try to consult an authority figure. Mr. Small talks about how he would never condone such a thing, but that it would be noble and he wouldn't be looking. Principal Brown insists fighting isn't OK, then gives lengthy "hypothetical" instructions on how to beat someone else up with their shoe.
    Gumball: —and they said we have to fight them at four tomorrow or their super-rich dad will bulldoze the school and build a golf-course on it. I mean, when I say that out loud it's like the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard.
    Mr. Small: Well, all I can say if there were to be a fight at four tomorrow, I would probably be in this office, listening to loud music with the blinds closed.
    Darwin: Wait, are you actually telling us to fight these guys?
    Mr. Small: No, no, no. No counselor would condone such a thing. I mean think about it: all your friends, the people who work hard to give you an education? All of this, you shouldn't fight for.
    (Mr. Small smiles and winks several times, Gumball and Darwin look on in bewilderment)
    Gumball: ... I think we'll take this further up the chain of command.
  • In Care Bears in the Land Without Feelings, a talking fountain outside an abandoned park seems determined not to seem helpful...
    Donna: Have you seen Kevin?
    Fountain: You mean a grouchy little squirt in blue pants and a t-shirt who doesn’t care about anything?
    Donna: Yes!
    Fountain: No. But if I had, he might have gone in there.
  • Futurama :
    • In "The Problem With Popplers", Bender cuts a deal where he gets paid for whenever people eat the eponymous food item. Once Leela finds out Popplers are sapient, she ropes Bender into joining her protest, which he sabotages by telling people about the wide variety of tasty sauces you shouldn't eat them with.
      Stop eating popplers on the patio, in the car, or on the boat; wherever good times are had!
    • Farnsworth also gets a variation in:
      Leela: Are you saying I'm going crazy?
      Farnsworth: No, no, no, no one's saying that. But I'm certainly thinking it loudly.
  • In the beginning of Green Lantern: The Animated Series, Hal Jordan wants to travel to the farthest reaches of the universe to help when it's revealed fellow Lanterns are dying out there. The Guardians of the Universe vote against it as the Green Lanterns out there are on top secret assignments and Hal's currently in hot water for an earlier problem with a diplomat. Ganthet decides to suspend the meeting for a "coffee break" and leads Hal to the mess hall on a "scenic route", which just so happens to show Hal an experimental ship capable of faster-than-light travel that would get him to the far end of the universe in time to be of aid. When Hal question's Ganthet's intent, the Guardian reiterates they're simply taking the scenic route.
  • There is a short film reel of Porky Pig striking his thumb while hammering a nail and exclaiming, "Oh, son of a b-b-b-uh, b-b-b... gun!" He then laughs and says to the audience, "You thought I was gonna say 'son-of-a-bitch', didn't ya?" This reel was a gag made by Bob Clampett and Mel Blanc and wasn't intended to be seen by the public (reportedly it was shown at that year's staff Christmas party), not a "banned cartoon", as some uploaders claim.
  • The Simpsons:
    • "Legally, I can't officially promise you a big cash settlement... but off the record, I promise you a big cash settlement."
    • In "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" the orphanage director drops some hints as to where Homer might find his half-brother Herb. Homer doesn't get it.
    • Skinner does this accidentally in "Lisa the Vegetarian", when he delivers an address to Lisa's class to respond to Lisa's complaints about the school adopting anti-vegetarian policies:
      Skinner: Children, a certain individual, let's say "Lisa S"... no wait, that makes it too obvious, let's say... "L Simpson"...
      [the entire class turns to look at Lisa, who facepalms]
  • Steven Universe has this with The Reveal of Pink Diamond's true identity as Rose Quartz in "A Single Pale Rose". Pearl has been the sole sworn keeper of said secret for millennia and was forbidden from speaking a word of it to anyone else; in fact, trying to say anything that could reveal that information has her involuntarily cover her mouth to muffle her voice. When Steven discovers that Pearl is hiding information and confronts her about it, she realizes that she can get around the block by tricking Steven into jumping into her mind and viewing her memories directly.
  • From the Tintin episode "Red Sea Sharks":
    Tintin: But why are you asking about Alcazar? What's he done?
    Thompson: What's he done? My dear friend, if you imagine we tell you that he's smuggling aircraft, you're much mistaken...
    Thomson: ... or that we'd tell you that General Alcazar is mounting a counter revolution after General Tapioca re-deposed him...
    both at once: You can forget it!

    Real Life 
  • The notoriously cheap president of the Florida (now called Miami) Marlins baseball team, David Samson, savagely criticized the Seattle Mariners for signing their star outfielder, Ichiro Suzuki, to a five-year, $90-million dollar contract extension, claiming that it would be the death of baseball's salary structure. (This despite the fact that Ichiro's contract was not the most expensive in the sport either in terms of yearly salary or lump sum; that Ichiro was by far the most talented, popular, and marketable player on Seattle's squad; and that Ichiro would have almost certainly received even more had he hit the open market with more bidders to drive up his price.) Bill Bavasi, the general manager of the Mariners, replied to Samson in the papers:
    Bill Bavasi: My mother always taught me that if the only thing you have to say is "Fuck Dave Samson", then don't say anything at all. So I'm not going to say anything at all. Is my mother the greatest or what?
  • Football and basketball coaches have on numerous occasions criticized officiating by saying that they (or others) weren't allowed to do it. Two memorable quotes are "I'm not allowed to comment on lousy officiating" and "No matter how terrible the officials are, please don't throw things onto the court."
  • During the 2008 American Republican primaries, candidate Mike Huckabee showed a group of reporters a negative ad targeting one of his rivals, and announced that he had decided not to air it. The ad probably got much more attention than if he'd just run it normally. This sort of thing is relatively common in politics, though this example is worse than most. Remember, buying ad time costs money, but if the news airs it for you, it's free.
  • Ronald Reagan, after being criticized for his advanced years during the 1984 election, used this tactic when he said that he would definitely not make an issue of how young and inexperienced his opponent Walter Mondale was. (It was a joke on more levels than one; Mondale was 56 at the time and had served 12 years in the Senate before becoming Vice President to Jimmy Carter.)
  • How Bruce Sterling proved his chops when he spoke at a conference of early computer game developers:
    Bruce Sterling: So anyway, you're probably wondering why I'm here tonight, some hopeless dipshit literary author... and when am I going to get started on the virtues and merits of the prose medium and its goddamned wonderful storytelling. I mean, what else can I talk about? What the hell do I know about game design? I don't even know that the most lucrative target machine today is an IBM PC clone with a 16 bit 8088 running at 5 MHZ. If you start talking about depth of play versus presentation, I'm just gonna to stare at you with blank incomprehension...
  • Charles Francis Adams, the diplomat representing the US to the UK during the Civil War, became a hero to his countrymen after writing a note to the British foreign minister, Earl Russell, in which he complained that a Confederate warship being built near Liverpool was about to put to sea without interference, and added: "It would be superfluous in me to point out to your Lordship that this is war." As his son and secretary Henry Adams later explained it:
    "It would be superfluous: 1st. Because Earl Russell not only knows it already, but has meant it [war] from the start. 2nd. Because it is the only logical and necessary consequence of his unvarying action. 3d. Because Mr. Adams is not pointing out to him that "this is war", but is pointing it out to the world, to complete the record."
  • This trope is actually Older Than Feudalism: known as "evasio" to Roman rhetoricians like Cicero, it was used in law courts or speeches for the same purpose as every other example here.
  • During Prohibition, Vino Sano and Fruit Industries, Inc. sold compressed blocks of grapes marked, "WARNING! Do not place this brick in a one gallon crock, add sugar and water, cover, and let stand for seven days or else an illegal alcoholic beverage will result." The Feds stomped them anyway. Nice try.
    • Similar warnings against beer making could be found on Pabst Blue Ribbon malt syrup.
  • The 1870 volume The Gentleman's Directory included this rationale for its extensive listing of New York City brothels:
    "Not that we imagine the reader will ever desire to visit these houses. Certainly not. We point out the location of these places in order that the reader may know how to avoid them."
  • In his autobiography, Dutch missionary and Bible smuggler Andrew van der Bijl relates how, after obtaining an incriminating mark in his passport book that prevented him from passing through certain Communist controlled countries, he asked a foreign affairs clerk if there was any way he could manage to get a new, un-marked passport. Allegedly, the clerk replied that he could not give him any advice, not even that once his passport book was filled, he could just get a new one.
  • The British satirical magazine Private Eye is regularly sued for libel. On one occasion — Arkell v Pressdram (Pressdram being the Eye's publisher) — the plaintiff's lawyers sent a letter saying, "[Mr Arkell's] attitude to damages will be governed by the nature of your reply." The Eye felt that they had Arkell — a local politician caught taking bribes — dead to rights and would win in court.note  Naturally, this was their reply:
    "We acknowledge your letter of 29th April referring to Mr J. Arkell. We note that Mr Arkell's attitude to damages will be governed by the nature of our reply and would therefore be grateful if you would inform us what his attitude to damages would be, were he to learn that the nature of our reply is as follows: fuck off." Translated from the Legalese 
  • "I never comment on referees and I'm not going to break the habit of a lifetime for that prat" — Ron Atkinson
  • The Challenger Disaster: in the aftermath, General Kutyna suspected the O-rings failed because of their lack of elasticity at cold temperatures, but he wanted the commission to find this themselves. Befriending Richard Feynman, Kutyna said he was repairing his car and found some seals disintegrated in the cold weather. He left it to Feynman to draw the logical conclusion. Feynman says he already suspected it.
  • This is sometimes used in Jewish funerals. Normally, one is not supposed to give an in-depth eulogy if the funeral service occurs during or shortly after a major holiday, since the joyous nature of the holiday trumps the sorrowful nature of the mourning service. (A short eulogy focused on remembering the deceased for their virtues is acceptable, but one should avoid grieving too much because otherwise one might begin to associate the holiday with the person's death.) A common way around this is for a mourner to say something like, "But if I could give a full eulogy, here's what I would say..." and then proceed to give the full eulogy.
  • Officially, Israel refuses to confirm that they have nuclear weapons. But they could legally have nuclear weapons (not being signatories to the Non-Proliferation Pact), they probably have the technology to make nuclear weapons, and every once in a while a politician will comment that, while they won't confirm having nuclear weapons, that won't necessarily stop them from using them.
  • " for educational and informational purposes only"
  • Off the record comments from investigating agencies often takes this form, with the agent saying how they dislike a certain regulation and would hate to find any information concerning it. This occurs often in routine regulatory compliance audits, where some rules are near-impossible to follow and strict compliance with the letter of the regulation is either non-beneficial or actually detrimental to safety or the environment.
  • Last Week Tonight with John Oliver:
    • John Oliver's discussion of Sex Education in the United States highlighted at one point the tactics of a former Mississippi educator named Sanford Johnson who wanted to explain how to use a condom, despite state law forbidding the use of condom demonstations. His solution combines this trope with Unusual Euphemism: Showing students how he likes to put his socks on his feet.
      Sanford Johnson: [holding up a rolled up sock] I start out with this sock and I'm going to pinch a little air out of the tip of the sock, because I want to make sure there's room for my toes, when I'm engaging in shoe activity. I bring the sock down to the tip of my foot... You want to take your sock and roll it all the way down to the end of your foot, all the way down to the end of your foot, and then you can put it inside your shoe.
    • In his expose on warehouses, when talking about XPO Logistics' incident in October of 2017 involving a worker who died due to heat stroke, he brings up that despite coworkers posting about it on Facebook, XPO denied the claim with their own internal investigation, which was delivered verbally, leading John to give us this.
      John Oliver: It's really up to you. The lawyers say 'It's up to you'. I asked the lawyers 'Can it be up to me?' and they said 'No,' and I said 'Cause if it was, I'd choose the Facebook one,' and they said 'Well you definitely can't say that,' so I'm not going to.
  • John Cleese's eulogy at the 1990 memorial service of Graham Chapman included this gem:
    John Cleese: I could hear him whispering in my ear last night as I was writing this: "Alright, Cleese, you're very proud of being the first person to ever say 'shit' on television. If this service is really for me, just for starters, I want you to be the first person ever at a British memorial service to say 'fuck'!" You see, the trouble is, I can't. If he were here with me now I would probably have the courage, because he always emboldened me. But the truth is, I lack his balls, his splendid defiance. And so I'll have to content myself instead with saying "Betty Mardsen..."
  • Some organizations such as libraries and Internet service providers post "warrant canary" statements declaring that they have not been served with any secret government orders to hand over customer data. Removing the statement invites the obvious conclusion while not technically violating the gag order.
  • In the 2016 US election, a piece in The Yale Record helpfully explained that it would not endorse a candidate on account of being a tax-exempt 501(c)3 organization, then went into glowing detail on a candidate it was emphatically not endorsing.
  • When it comes to TV shows produced on networks like HBO, Netflix and AMC, actors are absolutely sworn to secrecy when it comes to gigantic projects with lots of NDA and red tape. However, some actors on projects with these kinds of tight NDAs occasionally invoke this trope to let slip something without technically violating their secrecy clauses.
  • A slightly serious version was uttered by the defense counsel to one of the members of the Blekinge Street Gang during a brief break in the trial, when the massive arms cache the gang had hidden was being discussed. He told a police officer who was in charge of the investigation and was present in court, that a pair of surf boards found along with the arms cache were fragile and should be handled with care. Taking the hint, the police officer had the Danish Army's Explosive Ordnance Disposal team carefully remove said surf boards and x-ray them, at which point the RPG warheads hidden inside were discovered.
  • Oregon State Representative Mike Nearman was caught on film opening the door for a group of armed protestors and allowing them into a closed-door meeting of the Oregon State Congress. He was later exposed to have planned the whole thing when a video of him was leaked telling a group of supporters that he knows nothing about "Operation Hall Pass," in which he would open the door for any protestors who might be standing by an entrance to the capitol building. He then recited "just a random series of numbers and not anyone's phone number" and said that they shouldn't text that number to say which entrance they needed to be opened. The technique, of course, did not provide him with an ounce of protection, and he ultimately became the first Oregon state representative to be kicked out of office in the state's history.
  • In 1935, a Quebec politician magnificently named Hortensius Béïque said in the Legislative Assembly, "The roads are as crooked as the government." When chided by the Speaker, he apologized and retracted his comment: "I will say that the roads are not as crooked as the government."
  • ChatGPT and similar AI tools can be particularly vulnerable to this if you phrase otherwise-forbidden topics with the right wording. At least one individual got ChatGPT to tell them about sites for pirating by asking how and where to avoid them. More hilariously, asking the AI to pretend to be someone else working in a dangerous profession to get details on a watchlist-worthy topic is known as the "Grandma Jailbreak", named after one user who managed to get details on napalm manufacture by asking ChatGPT to pretend to be his grandma who worked in a napalm factory and lulled them to sleep with stories about the process.

...but I'd get in trouble if I did.


Video Example(s):


"I'd like to help but I can't"

Bob Parr (Mr Incredible) uses this tactic to try and help a client.

How well does it match the trope?

4.99 (101 votes)

Example of:

Main / CouldSayItBut

Media sources: