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What do you call it when a person asks somebody a question when they know they'll criticise any answer regardless? For instance, a man asks you something like "If you were recruiting staff would you employ an ex-convict?". If you answer yes he says "Well that shows you don't care about security". But if you'd said no then the reply would have been "So you wouldn't give a person a second chance then?"

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Question: will you accept any answer? :p – Ollie Ford Feb 17 '14 at 23:15
How specific do you want your word to be? "asking a trick question", "trolling", "looking for a fight" all describe behaviors which are a superset of this one, but are not exclusive to it. – rumtscho Feb 17 '14 at 23:56
I'm not about the OP's original question implying criticism. I think the category "ex-convict" is too broad to jump to conclusions. I guess if the job were guarding money, then an ex-con who was convicted of theft would be a poor choice, but if I were hiring someone to dig ditches I wouldn't have a problem at all. A pedophile may not be the first choice for my Ice Cream trucks, but might do OK in the accounts department. Etc.<br /> BTW my favorite non-answerable question is, "Are you going to wear that?!" – SiteNook Feb 18 '14 at 2:01
Remind me not to frequent your accounts department with my children in tow!!!!! – David M Feb 18 '14 at 3:39
I would call it a "Kobayashi Maru question," assuming my reader/listener has a cursory knowledge of Star Trek :D ( ) :D When I looked on Wikipedia, I found the term "zugzwang," which is a chess term used to describe a situation where all possible moves lead to bad outcomes ( ) (see ) – David Schwartz Feb 18 '14 at 20:15

11 Answers 11

up vote 50 down vote accepted

I upvoted David's loaded question because it's a very common usage, but on reflection I realised that's not quite right for OP's context.

A loaded question is nearly always one that's asked in such a way as to force or encourage a particular answer (that the answerer might not give if the question were presented "fairly").

But a trick question is one where the questioner usually doesn't care what you answer - you'll be wrong no matter what you say. I don't normally cite Urban Dictionary, but here's their definition...

An inquiry having no correct answer, or one asked for the sole purpose of starting controversy or eliciting certain responses. Basically, a no-win situation.

Girlfriend asks: "Do I look fat in this?" (trick question)

If you tell her she does, she'll throw a fit and tell you how insensitive you are. If you tell her she doesn't she'll call you a liar and go off on a tangent about how "all men are the same" or some nonsense like that.

My favourite trick question is "Have you stopped beating your wife yet?", but David's "When polar bears eat penguins, do they get indigestion?" is neat too. But they're both slightly different to the example cited above (that has two wrong answers, ours don't really have "answers" at all).

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I agree with you that the fit is not exact (and have up voted your response in kind). I believe I said as much in my answer. Trick question is a good fit, too. Although, I don't know that it implies the same damned if you do, damned if you don't. For instance, a trick question could be: "When polar bears eat penguins, do they get indigestion?" The answer, of course, being "There are no polar bears native to the Southern Hemisphere, and no penguins native to the Northern Hemisphere." – David M Feb 17 '14 at 22:39
There are no kangaroos native to the Northern Hemisphere, but a lot seem to get eaten by domestic dogs. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 17 '14 at 22:55
@David: Good point. But now I'm starting to wonder if OP himself has asked a loaded/trick question! I think you could reasonably say it's "loaded", in that it presupposes there's a single "unambiguously correct" answer. But quite often a loaded question can also be a trick question (even though the asker is steering you towards one particular answer, you're trapped because you know he'll criticise both that and the alternative). On top of which, "Have you stopped beating your wife yet?" is obviously both loaded and trick. – FumbleFingers Feb 17 '14 at 22:59
@Edwin: That's our fault for initially buying kangaroo steaks because we thought they would be an interesting novelty (and on paper, extra lean and healthy). First it turned out we didn't really like them, so we fed the leftovers to the dogs, which gave them a taste for it. Then all the Northern Hemisphere would-be-millionaire "kangaroo ranchers" realised it wasn't worth farming the roos they'd imported, so they let them escape. – FumbleFingers Feb 17 '14 at 23:03
@EdwinAshworh Those damned kangaroos ... They won't stop beating my wife or giving my polar bear indigestion! – David M Feb 17 '14 at 23:05

I would call that a "loaded question."

A loaded question is one where the person asking it has an agenda behind it. While there are other cases where a loaded question is the appropriate term, I believe this to be one type.

Of course, one can say that traditionally a loaded question has some information that forces the other person to agree to unsavory terms to answer the question. See here

But, I would still characterize this as a subtype of loaded question.

Essentially the asker of this type of question is only asking it as a means of embarrassing the other person. Hence, my characterization.

It does not give any name to this type of question, but there is an excellent discussion of the usage in James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man here.

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So now you have a choice.

You can strike a blow for evolving language and the insights new and vigorous young commentators offer, and show that you are not mired in stodgy tradition by checking David M's loaded question.

Or you can recognize the subtle distinctions offered by a seasoned veteran and not fall for the easy titillation of a flashy newcomer, by acknowledging FumbleFingers erudite trick question.

Sounds like a no win situation to me.

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+1 for the witty commentary! And you left out the fact that both @Fumblefingers and I up voted one another's answers in testimony that we each see merit in the other's. – David M Feb 18 '14 at 3:39
Why no win? You can always bounce back the question: "You're asking me if I'd hire a convict? Would you hire one?". – Pieter B Feb 18 '14 at 8:58
If you're up for some sort of position where you would need to make hiring decisions, bouncing back the question shows that you don't have confidence in yourself to make leadership decisions. – PeterL Feb 18 '14 at 15:52
I think this one is a loaded choice. In that link, native Cree can only choose one option (education, free hospital care, welfare, etc. or the bleak traditional existence in the bush). But users here can upvote both answers, so it's a win-win situation. (Or win-win-win if they upvote your answer too! :) – FumbleFingers Feb 18 '14 at 18:56
@FumbleFingers After thinking about it, my choices should have been You can show you're mired in stodgy tradition by rejecting David M ... or You can ignore the seasoned veteran .... But as you say, these are not really the only choices, because we run a kindlier gentler place than that. – bib Feb 18 '14 at 20:13

There is a term: a trap question.

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This is a synonym for trick question. The example quoted is a good example of the type of question, but I think this is not the standard usage of the term trap question. – David M Feb 19 '14 at 1:13
@DavidM While technically synonymous, I think that a trick question is widely viewed as light-hearted, almost asked as a joke. A trap question on the other hand implies malicious intent on the part of the asker. – Dryden Long Feb 19 '14 at 18:32
@DrydenLong Based upon my googling of trap questions, most of them came up with the term "Female Trap Questions." And, the examples given were that of "Do I look fat?" type questions. In these cases, I think you'd be hard pressed to imply a malicious intent on the part of the asker. But, rather, an underlying insecurity that makes the question a trap because the asker doesn't actually know what answer they would like to hear! This differs from the OP whose asker is deliberately bating you to take the wrong step. – David M Feb 19 '14 at 19:02
@DavidM Yes, Google's results do tend to lean more towards the "Do I look fat?" type of questions, but I would still argue that a trap question has less to do with insecurity and more to do with "setting a trap" for the person being asked. I would say that the motives behind asking "Do I look fat?" determine whether it is a trap question or fishing for compliments. To me a trap is something that is deliberately set, with the intent of forcing the target into a position, whether it be physically, emotionally or mentally. – Dryden Long Feb 19 '14 at 19:14

As I've been answering people's comments, I've noticed myself using a phrase over and over again.

Question Trap

I do not claim this to be current or common parlance. But, in fact, I think I will sit here and begin the coining process!

I acknowledge the similarity to the term trap question, but I've chosen this word order to reflect that it is a trap that takes the guise of a question.

It is adequately descriptive of the intent and process going on here. And, best of all as the coiner, I can set whatever terms I choose for its usage. Hence, I state it to be an all-inclusive term that comprises, but is not limited to, the subset of both Trick and Loaded Questions.

And, for all who question my motivation as a fame whore, I will set this answer to community wiki status!

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@FumbleFingers I think I may have hit upon a compromise! – David M Feb 19 '14 at 0:10
It has actually been used a few times before, but in OP's context I think it's really just an unusual inversion of @inspironen's far more common trap question. Having said that, your version works nicely in the case of the teacher who would occasionally lay a "question trap" for his unthinking pupils. – FumbleFingers Feb 19 '14 at 1:03
(congrats on passing the 1000 rep point, btw. You'll gain some extra "privileges" from that, but I look forward to seeing you get to 2000 soon enough - then you'll be able to help out with the "minor edits" housekeeping that nobody can be bothered to do enough of) – FumbleFingers Feb 19 '14 at 1:07
@FumbleFingers Thanks! I'm around 3300 on, so I'm familiar with the process. I must say I've enjoy this site quite a bit! The verbal sparring alone is priceless! – David M Feb 19 '14 at 1:12
What I love about SO is the built-in 5 minutes grace for comment edits. I don't think there's really an English equivalent to l'esprit d'escalier (the straight translation is just lame), but SO does at least allow us to polish our turds before they're locked down for posterity. I've been here a while now, but I still come across gems from years ago, as well as the current stuff (H2O2 being a cracker today!) – FumbleFingers Feb 19 '14 at 1:34

In casual usage, you could call it a gotcha question, although that can encompass both trick questions (there is no correct answer because the question makes incorrect assumptions), obscure questions (What is the name of the Lieutenant Governor of the tenth-largest US state?), and the kind of question you describe.

This was made famous by Sarah Palin a few years ago and many politicians since have complained about them. This article gives a good run-down:

The most prominent example is a very close fit to what you have described. The question to Palin "What do you read?" could only serve to harm her: no one would be persuaded to vote for her ticket however she answered, and whatever the answer there would be someone who could find fault with it.

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It sounds like the scenario you are describing is the common phrase "Catch 22", aka "damned if you do, damned if you don't". This is popularized by the novel of the same name ( Essentially there is no right answer.

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A Catch-22 is a logical implosion more than a trap of a question. The example from Heller of flying missions: " a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions." – David M Feb 19 '14 at 0:02

"If you were recruiting staff would you employ an ex-convict?" could also be considered a Rhetorical question, that is, a question with no intended answer. The questioner could then continue with something along the lines of "Of course not, because ...etc." As the question was not intended to be answered any answer given could possibly be criticized.

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It could be a rhetorical question, but it isn't in the OP's context. They were describing a situation where the questioner waits for an answer, only to take issue with whatever answer is given - not a situation where the questioner isn't expecting an answer. – starsplusplus Feb 18 '14 at 10:30

I've always described situations like this as being 'a cleft stick' or 'caught between a rock and a hard place', especially when you are placed in an unanswerable dilemma.

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I think the term describing a question which elicits an answer that provokes an argumentive statement from the questioner is 'argumentative'. This is like the cross-examiner at a trial whose question is objected to by the opposing counsel: 'Your honor, the question is argumentative', i.e., inducing the witness to engage in argument with the cross-examiner rather than stating facts.

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I always thought this type of question was, 'Begging the Question'.

The answer is included in the premise, so he can criticize it no matter what you say.

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In that case you always thought wrong. To beg the question has two meanings - originally, to present an argument which presupposes the truth of the very proposition it's intended to prove, and latterly and more popularly, to present an argument that prompts your audience to seek answers to another (more loosely related) question. – FumbleFingers Feb 18 '14 at 19:06

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