I read a headline today on BBC that states:

North Korea refuses to deny Sony Pictures cyber-attack
Source: BBC News Asia, 2 December 2014

What is the exact meaning of "refuses to deny" and what type of usage is this?

I wish to know about the underlying tone of this phrase. Is it serious? Light? In-between? Is it a formal or informal expression for accepting something indirectly?

I get the point that we can't write “denies to refuse” as it is ungrammatical, but I still don't see the underlying tone of this phase.

  • 1
    The North Korea's spokesman refused to announce that North Korea was not involved in a cyber-attack on Sony Pictures. That is what BBC news tells us in this article.
    – user11470
    Dec 2, 2014 at 10:50
  • 3
    Ed: Who took my cookie? Ted: Beats me. Ed: You didn't take it, did you? Ted: Who knows? Ed: Will you at least deny that you took my cookie? Ted: I won't admit it, but I won't deny it, either. In that brief conversation, Ted has refused to deny that he took Ed's cookie.
    – J.R.
    Dec 2, 2014 at 11:02
  • I think there’s a good question here, but we need to know more about your current understanding in order for someone to give you more than you can find looking up the words yourself. What do you think this phrase means? Why do you doubt your conclusion? What do you mean by “type of usage”? Dec 2, 2014 at 20:21
  • @TylerJamesYoung I wish to know about the underlying tone like serious, light, or sort of-regarding this phrase. Is it formal or informal expression for "accepting" something indirectly? I got the point that we can't write 'denies to refuse' as it is ungrammatical, but still I don't find the underlying tone of this phase. This is all I can explain. Thank You.
    – Rucheer M
    Dec 3, 2014 at 5:57
  • 1
    There is nothing remarkable about the meaning or tone of the sentence. North Korea won't deny responsibility for the attack, but you can guess from the complicated wording that the won't confirm that they did it either. Dec 4, 2014 at 6:39

2 Answers 2


Refuse = to decline (I don't want any.) Deny = to say something is false (That's a lie!)

So, no, we cannot reverse them.

The Japanese government refuses to deny the news. The Japanese government declines to claim the news is false. (what it means)

The Japanese government denies to refuse the news. (grammatically impossible)


Here to deny a cyber attack means to say that you didn't do the cyber attack. If I deny a cyber attack it means I say that I didn't do the attack.

If I refuse to do something, it means somebody else asked me to do it, wants me to do it or expects me to do it - but I say NO!

In the Original Poster's example, other countries wanted or expected North Korea to deny that they attacked Sony. The North Korean government did not deny it. They didn't want to deny it.

Hope this is helpful!

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