LINGUIST List 5.754

Wed 29 Jun 1994

Sum: Quandary/Abusive questions

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  1. Bruce Nevin, Summary: quandary/abusive questions

Message 1: Summary: quandary/abusive questions

Date: Tue, 28 Jun 1994 14:57:29 Summary: quandary/abusive questions
From: Bruce Nevin <bnevinLightStream.COM>
Subject: Summary: quandary/abusive questions

In Linguist digest Volume 5 number 700 for Thu 16 Jun 1994 appeared my
"rhetorical question" of Tue, 14 Jun 1994 as follows:

>A friend has asked, and I could not say, what is "the term" for a yes-no
>question with a derogatory presupposition, of the type "Have you stopped
>bothering Linguist readers with trivia questions yet?"

I quickly came to realize that it need not be a yes-no question. A
number of people pointed out that the standard example is some variant on
the theme "have you stopped beating your spouse yet?", which I had
wrongly assumed was so well known as not to require mention. My apology.


There were some jocular suggestions, like "the have-you-stopped-beating-
your-spouse question" (Louis B. Hillman There were two
other avowedly non-serious contenders:

Cherilyn Reno <>:
>I don't know if there is a "proper name" for yes/no questions like that.
>I have heard them referred to in conversations as "have-you-stopped-
>beating-your-wife-yet questions" or "damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't

These hyphenosities apparently have some currency, since Marion Kee
(Marion.KeeA.NL.CS.CMU.EDU) also said she refers to these questions in
these ways.

This in turn reinforces my impression that there is no "official" term.


Serious suggestions of terms were as follows: (Kjetil Raa Hauge)
>I have never heard of a term, and if it turns out that none has been
>established, may I suggest "wife-beating questions", as the archetype is
>"Have you stopped beating your wife yet?". We have a precedent in "donkey
>sentences", see Linguist 5-280.

Jacob Hoeksema <>
>I think the usual term for a question like the one
>you posted on Linguist would be a `loaded question'. (Bert Peeters)
>I would refer to this kind of questions with a derogatory presupposition as
>rhetorical questions. Surely it is a term you must have heard. Or am I
>missing something?

Michael Kac <>:
>I think the device is called 'compound question'.
>I think you could call that a biased question.

William in Bahrain <>:
>Certainly, it is a type of leading question as lawyers would say.

Michael Kac <> also suggested looking into the kinds of
rhetorical classifications made by lawyers.


None of these seems entirely satisfactory. For brevity, I will call this
class of questions "quandary questions" in this summary. (Another term I
have considered is "abusive questions". Both terms are so far as I can
tell new coinages.)

A rhetorical question is an assertion disguised, for rhetorical effect,
as a question, because the speaker (writer) assumes that only one answer
is possible. The rhetorical effect is in eliciting a response from the
hearer (reader), who, coming up with it as his or her own thought, finds
it therefore more striking and more convincing. For quandary questions
more than one answer is possible, but whichever answer is given also
affirms the covert presupposition of the question.

There is a presupposition in rhetorical questions (as in all this sort of
opinionated language) that one who does not find the preselected answer
obvious is a fool or worse, and that suggests a sort of cousin relation,
but the presupposition is an overtly expected answer to a rhetorical
question, vs. a covert premise whatever the answer to a quandary

Leading questions suggest a presupposed answer, but there is no quandary
for the answerer. They are not necessarily "damned if you do, damned if
you don't" questions.

I'm not familiar with the term "compound question". As a descriptive
term, it suggests to me questions that are compound in some syntactic
sense. It does not seem to me to isolate what is distinctive about
quandary questions.

Loaded questions also constitute a more general class of questions whose
answers have ramifications that might get the answerer into trouble.
Marion Kee suggests that

>abusive questions are a special case
>because the presupposition is directly implied/contained in the
>question. They're sort of "self-contained loaded questions".

>I tend to think of loaded questions as sneakier set-ups. Perhaps the
>person questioned will not notice right away that the question is

She offers a number of examples, including:

> When does the fetus acquire a soul?
> <salesman> Mr. Smith, which of these *free premiums* appeals to you
> the most?
> <New Testament> Who do men say that I am?
> How many soap operas do you watch each week?
> When was the last time you were constipated?"

Biased questions are perhaps the same as loaded questions. It may be
that this is the French corollary to "loaded questions". In any case, it
suggests a more general class of questions


I can only agree with Marion Kee that "the area of rhetoric under
consideration here is a complex one." Two areas that seem rich for
research have been suggested, the language of sales and the language of

In law, there are rules of evidence designed to disallow unreliable
testimony, such as hearsay testimony. Leading questions are disallowed
when you (as lawyer) are questioning your own witness because they
contaminate the construction of the witness's story, putting your words
in the mouth of the witness. The opposing lawyer can ask leading
questions, and the supporting lawyer can ask them with permission if e.g.
the witness is shy or reluctant. We see friendly leading questions a lot
in congressional hearings, where clearly rules of evidence are suspended,
e.g. Senator Orrin Hatch questioning Clarence Thomas about Anita Hill.

Leading questions from the opposing lawyer can intersect with badgering
the witness. "And isn't it true, Mr. Murphy, that you had that very same
afternoon of June 12th been wearing those overalls that were later found in
Mrs. Murphy's chowder?"

Another direction is what is referred to in therapy as reframing. This
technique leverages the unsuspected ambiguity of situations, actions, and
utterances to recontextualize them. The technique has obvious abuses.

The segue to hypnotic suggestion is pretty direct. And advertising
techniques. Which connects of course to the language of sales.

The issue of presuppositions has barely been scratched, I think.

Jacqueline Leon ( mentioned ongoing
work in French news interviews from the perspective of conversation
analysis. She has a paper in French Language Studies 1992 vol.2, CUP,
written in French. She also recommends work of A.Coveney and A. Borillo
but has not provided detailed citations for that work.

I hope this summary is useful to someone. My colleague is as well
answered as possible, I think, and my own curiosity in the matter is more
than slaked, at least for the present.

My thanks to all who responded.

 Bruce Nevin
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