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Some questions appear to be 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, 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. Commented May 6, 2014 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
    Commented May 6, 2014 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.
    Commented May 6, 2014 at 20:07
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    Ambiguous, or unclear, or (using terms that are) not well-defined. Commented Apr 7, 2022 at 11:59

6 Answers 6

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

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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 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).

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  • I never thought about the rhetorical, thanks for that! I think unanswerable is closest to what I was thinking about. Commented May 12, 2014 at 7:15
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In scientific literature, if the formulation is not rigorous enough, such that much is left to interpretation of the answerer or a lot of assumptions are needed - is called Ill posed.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Well-posed_problem

The question involving the number of danish islands is Ill posed, because you need to make an assumption whether you should count tidal ones in the tally or not.

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The other answers (open-ended, ill-defined, rhetorical, nested, imponderables) are interesting. Just to add a few others: the question may be "contingent" and depend on a dichotomous key, if you are referring to the actual process of classification being important prior to answering. Alternatively, if you are referring to how politicians "waffle" or dodge, tergiversate or prevaricate are specific words for this. I don't think you're looking for the word about the process of answering these types of questions, but rather a word to classify these types of questions.

In that case, I think "moot" or "academic" is the word you are looking for, as in a moot point or moot question. These words have taken on a negative connotation, but Merriam-Webster defines moot as

Moot:

1a: open to question : DEBATABLE

1b: subjected to discussion : DISPUTED

2: deprived of practical significance : made abstract or purely academic

I think sense 1a and 1b are describing exactly the "open-endedness" of these types of questions, particularly that they prompt debate and discussion; I think sense 2 is how most people use this word, and why it might seem negative to call something moot. That said, it's not necessarily the case, and sometimes moot questions are simply of the sense 1a/1b variety.

I agree with the sentiment put forward by RegDwigнt, that depending on how much the answerer/asker wants to split hairs or be pedantic, any question can be put into this category--even yours! Given that any question could fall into that category, there are words to describe when it is objectively the case for grammatical reasons, ie when a question appears deceptively clear, but on further scrutiny, the meaning is inscrutable. Some words to describe this ungrammaticality are "comparative illusions" or "Escher sentences". The following is a classic example:

More people have been to Russia than I have

While the question seems reasonable at first, on inspection it becomes inscrutable. Other words such as lexical and semantic ambiguity also get at this idea; again though, this is a strict linguistic sense, and not necessarily for when questions are more complicated than they first seem.

So in summary, I think "moot" is the most fitting word, but other words are possible, depending on exactly what notion is being captured.

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