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Some questions appear clear, but are deceptively difficult to define, and their answer is very sensitive to the exact technical definition of the question, in such a way that it renders the original question almost meaningless.

What would you call such a question?

Examples

How many islands are there in Denmark?

According to wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denmark#Geography_of_Denmark), there are 72 inhabited islands, 443 named islands, and 1419 islands above 100 square meters. However, it does not list how many islands there are in total, since it is so hard to define what constitutes an island. Some islands would be extremely small, and others tidal. Islands are created and destroyed by geothermal activity so you would have to specify a time or take it as the time of asking. Also, sometimes a peninsula (e.g. Jutland) may be considered an island if it is separated from the mainland by rivers.

How many words are there in English?

It depends on which dictionary you look at

What proportion of the laws of the United Kingdom are made in the European Union?

This was a subject of an article on the BBC's Radio 4 programme 'More or less'. It is difficult to define what is a law, since there are statutory instruments and various regulations that may or may not be counted. Also, some laws implement European Union law, others just refer to it. I believe the program said the total could be between 7-50%, depending on your definition.

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    The things these questions address are called imponderables: [Google]: noun plural noun: imponderables a factor that is difficult or impossible to estimate or assess. >> I don't think the term 'imponderable questions' has made it to idiomatic status yet. – Edwin Ashworth May 6 '14 at 13:13
  • While imponderables is fine I guess, basically most questions are poorly asked, and with enough dedication and spare time you can make "it depends" work as an answer to anything at all. However, a good answer will actually proceed to say what it depends on, and give rough figures for the various scenarios (just as BBC and Wikipedia did in your examples). So it's all in the answer, really. If askers were omniscient, questions would plain not exist to begin with. So vagueness, ambiguity and imponderability are really the norm. – RegDwigнt May 6 '14 at 13:17
  • You could call them nested questions, I suppose, or hierarchical questions, because, in order to answer the main question, you'd need to answer some related questions first. (By the way, the answer to "How many words are there in English?" doesn't depend on which dictionary you look at; most dictionaries don't claim to list every word in the language. Instead, the follow-on questions would be ones like: What constitutes a word? Does slang count? What about chemical terms, such as diisobutylphenoxyethoxyethyldimethylbenzyl-ammoniumchloride?) – J.R. May 6 '14 at 20:07
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If the answer to the question depends on how someone chooses to define the terms used in the question, and the choice of definition is not obvious, clear, or widely-agreed-upon, then I would say that the question is ill-defined (or "poorly defined", if you prefer).

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If the question is worded in such a way that the reader does not know what is being asked, because the syntax of the sentence can be interpreted in more than one way, then the question is "vague".

This question is clear in the sense that it is only asking for the number of islands in Denmark, and not for anything else:

How many islands are there in Denmark?

However, this question contains "non-specific terminology" or "includes vague terms" because the definition of "island" depends on whether the island is large enough to be considered an island. Parts of the question "need clarification".

In the question "How many words are there in English?" the word "English" is a non-specific term, because whether or not a word is recognized as being a word varies according to the exact variant of English used, E.G. Modern English.

However, because the word "word" could include or not include slang that might not be considered a word, you could argue the question is vague because it contains multiple non-specific terms: "English" and "word".

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I consider questions ambiguous if they lack sufficient context or sufficient detail to permit a precise answer.

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I think that the kind of questions you are referring to can be defined either unanswerable or rhetorical , depending on the reason why you are asking them.

  • unanswerable: simply because if you are really looking for an answer, there is no definite answer to a question like 'how many word are there in English?'

  • rhetorical: if by asking the above question you are not looking for a real answer but you are just using the question to create an effect on those who are listening with the intent to convey a message or a concept (of something impossible for instance).

  • I never thought about the rhetorical, thanks for that! I think unanswerable is closest to what I was thinking about. – Paul Richards May 12 '14 at 7:15

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