It Depends

Some of the pages on this wiki are phrased as declarations of fact or questions requiring answers when there is no concrete, absolute fact or single answer one can supply.

To reply with ItDepends is often a valuable and contributory answer which will save you and others much time and effort in matters which often tend toward generation of much more heat than light.

When you use this answer, it can be compared to keeping your hand out of a boiling pot.

What brought this to mind was a page on this wiki which fits the above description. (Many pages fit this description)

(Approach is SimpleMinded)

It Depends -- on where your mind set is.

It Depends is a sufficient, concise answer

It Depends is a non-confrontational answer

It Depends is the quickest way out

It Depends can be a cop out

It's not all roses; although the above situations hold sometimes, an answer of 'ItDepends' may just as well be

ItDepends is a "cop out" -- here are some ways of looking at it:
  1. To avoid doing something that you should do or that you have promised to do because you are frightened, shy, or you think it is too difficult
  2. A way of avoiding doing something difficult or unpleasant that you should do, or the excuse that you use to do this
  3. An instance or act of evading responsibility or not fulfilling a promise (Related Word: excuse)
  4. A failure of these types:
    a) A failure to fulfill a commitment or responsibility or to face a difficulty squarely
    b) A person who fails to fulfill a commitment or responsibility (see 3, above)
    c) An excuse for inaction or evasion
    d) A failure to face some difficulty squarely
  5. A way or an excuse to avoid responsibility or to avoid doing something
  6. Verb: choose not to do something

Difference of Opinion

There is a genuine difference of opinion here! To avoid something may be but is not always a "cop out", at least from the viewpoint of the avoider. If you are saying that all challenges must be responded to regardless of interest or expertise, I would disagree, not just say "ItDepends".

I think you misunderstood my point. I am not sure, because I do not know what you mean by "at least from the viewpoint of the avoider" (who is the avoider?). Of course there are valid differences of opinion. As there are undecidable issues etc., I was pointing out that the phrase ItDepends may be used in these ways. In fact I said essentially the opposite to "all challenges must be responded...". Nobody has to respond on an issue! ItDepends is a response, and sometimes it is an inappropriate one. Saying ItDepends is an assertion about the nature of the problem, after all. In some cases, an appropriate response would be "I don't know", or "Obviously you have thought a lot about this, but I haven't. I don't feel I have the time to do so, so I will leave this discussion." The latter is not the same as 'OK, you are right', but neither is asserting that you aren't. A similar alternative would be "Obviously you have thought/read more about this than I have, but I don't see your position as correct because such-and-such. Can we have a useful discussion about it, or are you going to attempt more argument from authority?" Sometimes, this won't work. Sometimes, people's understanding and training is so far apart that they won't be able to afford the time to construct a useful discussion. And finally , sometimes it just doesn't depend, period. Perhaps it is logically solvable, and you just don't have the time to understand the problem. In this case, it is obtuse to state "it depends". I also raised some other cases when "it depends" is a poor choice.

To challenge some one as utilizing ItDepends as a cop out, you must first show it is that person's duty or responsibility to respond or issue an opinion or argument.

This does not follow. Even if it did, "it depends" is a response, of course. No argument, ItDepends is a limited response which recognizes the existence of other viewpoints, but is a limited response in that the responder is not issuing a detailed opinion, statement or argument. He may very well have very strong opinions but in using ItDepends, he can shift the issuance of the opinion to a time and manner of his own choosing. (For an instance in the text of a book or treatise he may be working on) ContextMatters?

When someone says "it depends", I tend to volley back with "On what?". This has a great advantage - it expands the conversation into new territory. The ItDepends/OnWhat? exchange is, in my opinion, a telltale sign of dialogue going on.

In my opinion, your case merely shows how little value the term has in that context. Consider: if you were to type out the conversation, then edit out every ItDepends/OnWhat? pair, you have not removed any real content, whatsoever. Clear thinking benefits clear dialogue; in your scenario if both parties actually have that goal, there is no need for these exchanges. Sometimes this is simply a result of intellectual immaturity, when one or the other party is not thinking clearly about what they want to say, the conversation will tend to wander. Equally, the problem may be a lack of time, as rushed responses are seldom as clear as first thought. The statement "It depends." is by nature an incomplete thought. If it is not immediately followed by support of some sort, it is unlikely to add anything worthwhile to a conversation.

How Cartesian. And I'm the one who's French. (No wonder I waver between INTJ and INTP. But I have it on good authority that I might someday graduate to INFP.) "Type out the conversation and edit out ItDepends/OnWhat?"... This would seem to remove all the real value of the conversation : the process of learning that was going on during the conversation. What remains afterwards is about as valuable as a dried turd, metaphorically speaking. Incomplete thoughts are the best sort to have - they attract additional knowledge to fill the void.

Thanks for clarifying, though. I knew we'd get somewhere eventually.

On the contrary. The point was that no real content is lost. The ItDepends/OnWhat? pairs are completely empty, so long as they are followed by something that addresses the 'on what' part. If you need this sort of rhetorical crutch, by all means employ it. Don't, however, make the error of believing that people cannot have an intellectual dialogue, exchanging ideas between open minds without this sort of prodding. If all parties are applying critical thought and are open to real discussion, the exchange you will see is full of the sort of learning you are speaking of, with nary a 'it depends' in sight. The point of the above, which may have been missed, was that for your example exactly the same conversation could have occurred without a single ItDepends/OnWhat? exchange. The result would be clearer to follow third-hand, and more focused as well.

ItDepends on "If all parties are applying critical thought and are open to real discussion". How many or what percentage of your discussions fit this category? Whether you utilize the "crutch" or not verbally, you have utilized it intellectually when you use the thought "If". To say it another way, we utilize this comparison and branching mechanism in thought, why not in word as well. If you are the questioner and you receive the answer ItDepends, rather than a return that is a question leading to a role reversal, It is up to you to furnish the question and await the reply to "On what?"

''There is no logical connection between my "If", which is a condition on the participants, and your "ItDepends" which is an ill-posed conditional. To say it another way, following your analogy, you are defining a protocol with redundant information. I am suggesting you simply removed this from the protocol. As for percentage of my discussions? Rather lower on Wiki than in "real life" unfortunately. To stem some apparent confusion: I say that in this context the ItDepends is a crutch because it has only two possible uses (in *this* context). Recall that we are concerned with the statement "It depends." in absence of any qualifier.

Thus the first use is a valid but empty statement that does not progress the discussion at all (because it requires a prompt to supply additional information which could just as easily be provided initially).

The second usage represents an intellectual dishonesty: the claim of "it depends" without any real logic or evidence as to why this must be true. This is the statement of someone who doesn't want to accept a line of argument, but is incapable or unwilling to counter it, so they merely assert that it is not true. The honest response to this situation is something like "I am not convinced, but I {don't know enough | won't take the time} to refute it at the moment". Replacing this with "it depends" is a cheap cop-out.''

I see now what it is you understand ItDepends to mean, Your use of the word "we" is a condition I do not accept, that "we are concerned with the statement ItDepends in the absence of any qualifier" There are many more concerns and contexts expressed on this page. It is a "cheap cop out" for a person who is capable of giving an honest thorough answer and who offers a frivolous "ItDepends" Answers sometimes can be given very directly with Yes/No, It is/It isn't, but in the case of difficult and complicated issues, the polarity of such answers begin to fade away and the real answers are dependent on shifting and uncertain facts/information.

Take for example the questions offered by the press on complicated and uncertain international issues involving many peoples and interests. There are no right and universally understandable and acceptable responses which can be given. ItDepends is not a satisfactory response, and because of that it is rarely given as a response. But if all of the issues, peoples, points of view, governments, religions, are factored into the answer, the time taken would be longer than the respondent or the listeners have to give to it. So often both the press and those they question "cop out" and settle for a compromising partial, foggy answer that sets well in the headlines.


I disagree with some of your characterizations above, and only have time to sketch why at the moment:

"It depends" is concise, but often insufficient. I find two of your examples under that heading unconvincing:

Or stated in another way: ItDepends on whether I want to answer or not.

"It depends" may very well be confrontational. Not all issues or questions fit your model, I think. Put another way: "ItDepends on the issue or model"

The introductory comment did not define all issues or questions, but rather those things "often phrased as Declarations of fact when there is no concrete, absolute fact to declare" Put another way "ItDepends on a clear definition"

The quickest way out?

The place of Ambiguity

Ambiguity is not an enemy, it may in fact be a catalyst causing one to initiate a search for a competent reply, or to encourage the supplying by one competent of the exact answer, or a set of answers. Ambiguity is often the enemy of clear thought and discourse. It is not always so, but most often seems to be. While I agree this is a possibility, and one could construct theoretical situations with it, I cannot think of a realistic scenario where the discourse would not be far better served by the less ambiguous answer.

To "twist the serious by comedy", "the important by flippant disregard", "the valuable by devaluing" are "particular circumstances". While serious, important, and valuable are value laden, they do seem to exhibit fairly clear and universal values. The arguments you make are valued as such.

The "avoider" is the person accused of "copping out".

In short, while I find some of your characterizations useful, I also find the phrase "it depends" less appropriate to widespread use in discourse than you seem to. My difficulties lie in its inherent ambiguity. Most of the situations I can see using this phrase, even in the context of the better (to my thinking) usages above, would be far better served by less ambiguous language. In many cases above, such as the examples I gave, it seems to me that your explanation of what you were trying to say with "it depends" was far more straightforward and useful than the statement "it depends". ItDepends then on examples and explanations. These can be supplied if the questioner has time and patience to hear them out without interruption or comment in the midst of the explanation or example.

I agree the range of issues answerable with the phrase "it depends" is limited to the narrow range of statements posing to be statements of fact, when there truly is ambiguity in the statement, or when varying interpretations can be made of the statement based on the observer's relative position. (An elephant is like a rope, tree, wall to each of three blind men who experience by touch only the tail, leg or side of an elephant). The position may be value based, experimentally based, philosophically based, arbitrarily based or scores of other bases.

I agree on the limitations; this was not evident (to me) in the statements of this page. I was never arguing against the use of ItDepends as an answer when the subject is truly ambiguous, merely pointing out that in practice this approach is often taken without warrant, or in some cases out of IntellectualDishonesty. Agreed, but misuse and dishonesty are easily refuted.

ItDepends on what you mean -- answering with a question

Thought experiment. As a sort of acid test for the usage of "it depends" consider this: can you think of any usage of the term "it depends" that could not plausibly (or probably even) yield the response "What do you mean?" Perhaps ItDepends should be replaced by WhatDoYouMean? Certainly, a clear question is more likely to elicit a clear response. This page seems to be more about ambiguity than clarity.

In some cases, the posing of such a question invites individual interpretation "you", which will disagree with other "yous" who will be seeing things differently. What you mean by "user" and "users" answered on this basis on the page DontCallPeopleUsers, will invite interpretations that are widely different depending on the area of the using as well as the medium that is being used. ItDepends is also a recognition of this ambiguity.

The Ultimate Answer

The ultimate answer to everything. What's two and two? ItDepends. It gets you out of any moral obligation to answer decisively, because ItDepends. What on? ItDepends. And so on!

The ultimate answer to everything does not exist, even though some say the answer is 42.

In a search for consensus, one must discover the factual, rational and informative descriptions that clarify and eliminate ambiguity. Since the inclusion of all such descriptions would lead to a nearly endless loop of clarifications and dependencies, it is useful to recognize that with a substituted abbreviation ItDepends. This is particularly useful when it might obfuscate or confuse the ongoing discussion with points which tend to deflect the intent of the discussion. See ConversationalChaff. This is not an excuse for discovering and clarifying the ambiguities which are truly germane to the discussion and necessary for clarity.

Units Enter In

Units of measurement introduced to the equation as a dependence: What's two and two? Four. What's two dollars and two cents? $2.02, when adding or otherwise calculating. It pays to keep the units straight. (Ask those responsible for the MarsLander? if it matters!)

It depends on the introduction of a dependency

Rules of combination introduced as a dependency: What's two and only two?

Answer: 2

ItDepends on a counting method:

If you introduce a dependency or a qualification, you have introduced another situation of ItDepends: If you wish to count in binary, trinary, etc., do so, and while doing so, you will be applying the rules of that system.

The opening statement was based on the widely used decimal system and indicating addition. It utilized the convention of using the digits: zero, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, and nine.

Two plus two is four whichever base you use. (Whether 2+2 = 4 is another matter). It's the same in denary: six (6) plus six (6) is twelve (12), not 'tenty-two' or 'one two'. Likewise in binary: two (10) plus two (10) is four (100). The opening statement is, in fact, made in English and illustrates the outcome of arithmetic irrespective of the base or symbols used. Unless, of course, the statement is actually made in a different language where 'what's' means 'do', 'two' means 'apples' and 'plus' means 'taste like', in which case 'what's two plus two' means 'do apples taste like apples'. The answer may seem to be obvious ('apples taste like apples' sounds like a tautology), but I've found empirically that for a while after I've cleaned my teeth apples do not taste like apples, so ItDepends after all!'' -- lanAshtonJeanes

But two plus two is one in the group of integers modulo 3 over addition. ItDepends on the domain you are doing arithmetic in.

Searching for truth, or control over the response

"Have you stopped kicking your dog yet, yes or no?" [Obviously Note 1]

The questioner is not after any truth, because he already knows the only correct answer is, "I don't have a dog." Therefore, there is no "it depends" portion of the answer. Many questions fit into this category and none of them can be answered properly, dependency or no.

No, the answer is still ItDepends, some people have dogs, some people have stopped kicking their dogs, some have not. Some have never started kicking their dogs, they each have answers depending on circumstances. Your criteria for answering is incomplete, it has not considered all dependencies.

However, questions in this category (unanswerable) don't need equivocation for the answer, since there is no answer. You can talk about "it depends" until you are blue in the face and that won't change the outcome. These types of questions aren't really questions at all -- they are attacks thinly veiled as a search for answers.

Communicating with equivocation

That is what ItDepends is. To insist that there is only one answer, when there are many answers is not factual. ItDepends recognizes this. The unequivocable view can be found on the page ItDoesntDepend.''

A key test for whether this is justified equivocation or just vague woolly thinking is to ask what it actually depends on. If ItDepends on specific application characteristics, then it is a useful statement. If ItDepends on who you ask, then you haven't pushed for enough clarity and organizational cohesion. -- BillBarnett

True, and to use the Journalist's criteria of examination of detail in reporting a story ItDepends not only on the What & Who you mention, but also on the How, Why, and When. Clarity does not always lead to brevity, and if one fills in all the blanks, the accusation of BlahBlahBlah might be invoked.

The TippingPoint has a lot of good material on how context sensitive our behaviour actually is. We like to think we are solemn strong towers. Will you cheat? It depends. Will you steal? It depends? Will you deface a subway? It depends. Will you smoke? It depends. Will get pregnant before 16? It depends.

Can you anwer all these questions definitively to everyones satisfaction? Yes, if each will sit down and hear my answer and the qualifications which have given rise to the use of the answer ItDepends.

 Some of the pages on this wiki are phrased as declarations of fact when they are not absolute facts. 

Opinions on this topic

Would somebody please translate this WoodenLanguage page into something useful?

It is useful, if you do not understand it or it seems "hollow" to you, please ignore it. You may always use your own understanding of dependencies.

Aaaarrrrrgggghhhhhhh - see SplitByTopicNotByOpinion for a very cogent argument as to why this should never be done. All that's happened here is we've got two pages of drivel covered gems instead of one.

It is split on topic, the first having to do with certaintly, the second having to do with uncertainty. Opinion exists within each topic supporting the topic statement. This is preferred by those who approach things with a mindset governed by PositiveDialogue. Support is constructive, verifiable and testable. Opinion is trumped by fact.

An answer, not a Question

ItDepends is not a question, but an answer given for all the reasons shown above. It is an answer to a question that has many answers, not zero answers! The dependency is left to figure out from the basis and context of the listener, who can fill in the blanks for themself)''

Context Matters

Statements are based on a certain context. Within a specific context, a statement may be absolutely true, but viewed from a different context the same statement may be questionable or downright false. To reply "It depends" to a statement is usually an indication that the participants are using the statement in different contexts. At that point it is no longer productive to discuss the initial statement, rather one needs to discuss the differing contexts. Only when the latter are resolved can we return to a discussion of the original statement.

It happens all the time

It happens in technical discussions in particular, that a question is asked in a way that needs to be narrowed down to be answered definitively. ItDepends can be a vehicle for defining the parameters in which the question CAN be answered definitively. This is preferred to sweeping general statements that fail to clarify. When dependencies are accounted for, the resultants are much more useful!

See FindingTheMiddleWay for an application to CategoryLifeStrategies.


  1. This is the classification of questions such as, "Have you stopped kicking your dog yet, yes or no?" for which there can obviously be no answer at all, particularly if you have never had a dog.

See: CulturalRelativist, MeaningDependsOnContext, WholeSortOfGeneralMishMash, ImaRelativist, SeparationOfConcerns, SeparationAndGroupingAreArchaicConcepts, WoolenLanguage

Contrast: ItDoesntDepend

CategoryOrganization, CategorySubjectivityAndRelativism

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