I'm gonna simplify and clarify this question, since it has proved popular:

Look at this SO QA ..
Where an ellipsis exists, is there a term for the missing text?

Observe that at first it appears AA was being asked. People answered this at length. Then after some clarification it would appear BB was being asked. Other people answered this at length. Finally it appeared CC was being asked.

The same sort of thing also happens particularly in business - it's thought that the client wants A but after some work on A everyone realises they really meant B .. and so on. (See my earlier over-long edit of this question for an example.)

What's the best term for this particular type of snafu?

There's kind of a taxonomy of fuck-ups in communications, in business, in rhetoric, in discussion: as DB mentions below, "spec creep" is an excellent example of something that would be in such a taxonomy!

What's the best phrase or perhaps single-word here?

  • Dan -- superb thinking; magnificent. But you know, I'm thinking more those shit situations where - not so much "more and more was added" - but, just as with the "ellipsis" question: at first the question appeared to be totally different, due to, basically, a crap explanation of the question.
    – Fattie
    Commented Aug 28, 2014 at 17:06
  • 2
    Ah, I see. Well, there's "moving the goalposts" as well, which I'll add to my answer.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Aug 28, 2014 at 17:11
  • 3
    There's always the classic tree swing comic(s). Commented Aug 28, 2014 at 17:13
  • Ah! Superb on "moving the goal posts". Yes, to be honest "scope creep" is not it: notice in particular the ellipsis question example. It's the perfect example! Maybe "moving the goal posts" is just it, that's the answer, perhaps. Awesome
    – Fattie
    Commented Aug 28, 2014 at 17:18
  • 1
    A couple of loosely related terms you might be interested in: * The XY Problem * Wicked Problems
    – Dancrumb
    Commented Aug 28, 2014 at 22:26

3 Answers 3


That's classic "scope creep". Per Wikipedia:

Scope creep (also called requirement creep and feature creep) in project management refers to uncontrolled changes or continuous growth in a project’s scope. This can occur when the scope of a project is not properly defined, documented, or controlled. It is generally considered harmful.

According to that article, one of the principle causes of scope creep is ambiguous or unclear requirements. In your case, it sounds like your clients are deliberately taking advantage of this (inherent) ambiguity, which I would call disingenuous.

Another way to describe the practice of changing the objectives as you play is "moving the goalposts":

Moving the goalposts (or shifting the goalposts) is a metaphor, derived from soccer or other games, that means to change the criterion (goal) of a process or competition while still in progress, in such a way that the new goal offers one side an intentional advantage or disadvantage.

And of course, from the other side, there's the classic "bait and switch".


Mixture distribution of causes here, IMHO.

Goal elucidation? Pilot project? Goal discovery? Reality check? Need for cognition? Measure twice, cut once.


Your basic question is: "Single word, or good words/phrase for 'confusingly asked question where meaning changes.'”

Stick to the simple. Try "ambiguity" or "ambiguous"

"..that can be understood in more than one way; having different meanings" Ref: Oxford English Dictionary online.

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