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When some one is asked a question, sometimes if they are trying to avoid answering the question, they respond with something unrelated. What is the word for that response?

Eg. A: Why were you late? B: This bagel tastes good.

What I am looking for is the name of that response, not the action.

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    I am so disappointed that nobody has written a totally unrelated answer to this question. – Oldcat Dec 18 '14 at 22:35
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    @Oldcat Well, Oldcat, Rome wasn't built in a day. – Centaurus Dec 18 '14 at 23:26
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    On other Q&A sites they call it an "answer". – DeveloperInDevelopment Dec 19 '14 at 2:01
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    Actually, that could be "begging the question", in its poorly-understood original meaning. – Hot Licks Dec 19 '14 at 2:51
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    Any kind of 'fallacy of irrelevance' (many online examples) will suffice here, such as 'I was late because I have a doomed life' (appeal to pity) . But it seems you are looking for something totally off-topic 'I was late because ... hey look at that squirrel'. Is that right? Otherwise, other terms like avoidance or equivocation describe the response. – Mitch Dec 19 '14 at 14:44

20 Answers 20

64

The response in that example could be called a non sequitur: 'a statement having little or no relevance to what preceded it'. This doesn't imply deliberate avoidance, however.

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    Despite OP's acceptance, I don't think this is an answer to the question. Rather it's an example of what OP was talking about. :-) – R.. GitHub STOP HELPING ICE Dec 19 '14 at 23:28
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    It'd only be a non sequitur if the person who responded had no intentions of avoiding the question. Depending on the context, it could be any of the several answers provided here but I think this is probably the least likely one given the context provided in the question. – Matthew Dec 20 '14 at 21:34
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    @R, that's hilarious R. – user98990 Dec 21 '14 at 19:34
  • A non sequitur is an unintentional evasion! The correct answer evaded ME! – ScotM Dec 22 '14 at 15:19
  • But the non sequitur assumes that there is a logical statement where a conclusion does not follow from the premise. A question, as in the OP, is not a logical statement of this form. This answer is somewhat ... irrelevant. – István Zachar Jan 3 '15 at 13:36
55

Evasion is a common word used to describe that activity. Other words are hedging, diversion...

an indirect answer; a prevaricating excuse; a trickery, cunning, or deception used to dodge a question, duty, etc; means of evading

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    Your post would be improved if it included a reference. See the help center to learn more about how to write a strong answer. – andy256 Dec 18 '14 at 22:27
  • Thanks for the upgrade, @medica. I like the red word links and the tan box links, but I haven't found out how to create them :>) – ScotM Dec 19 '14 at 17:23
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    Scot, ">" (without quotes) will give you a box of text, and "[what you want here](webaddress)" gives you a hyperlink. Forgive my lack of familiarity with terms. I'm very challenged! – anongoodnurse Dec 19 '14 at 18:58
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    This should be the accepted answer, as the question is written. – rory.ap Dec 20 '14 at 1:46
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    @ScotM To see the formatting more clearly, simply click the “Edit” link on your answer; then you’ll see exactly what the code looks like. In addition, there is a small icon on the right-hand side of the formatting bar above the text (when editing), a yellow circle with a white question mark in it. Clicking on that icon will reveal a secondary help bar, which also has a link to “Advanced help”, where all the markdown you can use when writing answers is explained quite thoroughly. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 20 '14 at 16:11
19

To dodge a question is a useful expression:

  • To evade (an obligation, for example) by cunning, trickery, or deceit: kept dodging the reporter's questions.

(from TFD)

  • I wouldn't say OP's example shows much cunning. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 18 '14 at 22:10
18

The term for this is a non-answer. The practice of giving non-answers could be described as evasion, avoidance, dodging the question, etc. A non sequitur is a statement that doesn't follow logically from the statements/premises that came before it, but in my experience it's not used to describe non-answers.

13

In the legal world, such an answer would be called non-responsive and is a well-known type of objection that can be raised against a witness' testimony.

http://thelawdictionary.org/nonresponsive-answer/

12

The phrase changing the subject would fit.

Deliberately talk about another topic, as in If someone asks you an embarrassing question, just change the subject. This term uses subject in the sense of “a topic of conversation,” a usage dating from the late 1500s.

  • "Non sequitor", the chosen answer of the OP, is a phrase and so technically does NOT answer the OP question: What is the WORD for that response? But who cares? It captures the essential thought. "Changing the subject" is also a phrase that captures the essence of the response. – ScotM Dec 19 '14 at 1:23
  • @ScotM It could (and should, if you ask me) easily be argued that non sequitur is a word, not a phrase. In fact, I find it rather more difficult to think of any cogent arguments for why it should be a phrase. Phrases are, after all, linguistic units in general, rather than orthographic units, so if we’re debating words vs. phrases, we must use the linguistic, rather than the orthographic, definition (to the extent that there is one) of word as well—and the only way I can make non sequitur not fit the bill of a word is by using the purely orthographic definition. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 20 '14 at 16:16
  • @Janus Bahs Jacquet. It would be an interesting argument. I agree that it is generally used as a word as if it were spelled "nonsequitur", but it is spelled "non sequitur", and in the Latin it is a two-word phrase translated (loosely) "not following". Since it is two words in the original language, and we spell the unit as two words in English, it seems legitimate to refer to it as a phrase, but it is a distinction I would never loose sleep over:) – ScotM Dec 20 '14 at 17:36
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    @ScotM That's exactly what I meant by orthographic vs. linguistic definitions. Orthographically, “sta irs” is two words, while “hecamedownthestairs” is one, but that doesn't make a difference to the fact that linguistically, we're talking one and five words, respectively, with typos. In Latin, non sequitur (‘it does not follow’) is certainly two words, but that's not really relevant for English. In Arabic, algebra is two words, but not in English. A lexeme cannot be broken up, and non sequitur fits that; a phrase can be broken up, and non sequitur can't. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 20 '14 at 17:46
  • I'm smiling. You have correctly "refuted" the second leg of my argument, but we must still wrestle with the fact that non sequitur, unlike "algebra", is spelled as two separate words in English. I would not be opposed to overthrowing convention to make it "non-sequitur" or even "nonsequitur". I sleep soundly while our culture wrestles with the inconsistencies of our language. – ScotM Dec 20 '14 at 18:07
12

One option that's not been mentioned so far is deflection, used as in sense three of Merriam-Webster's entry for deflect: "to keep (something, such as a question) from affecting or being directed at a person or thing."

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Non sequitur

Merriam-Webster says

a statement that is not connected in a logical or clear way to anything said before it

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    @Ellie Yes; that answer and mine were being typed at the same time, with it being posted a moment faster. I immediately gave credit in a comment on that answer. Mods have now removed such trivia. Such "cleanup" is not always helpful :-) – andy256 Dec 21 '14 at 20:21
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You can say the person is being evasive or is giving an evasive answer:

evasive - "tending or intended to evade"

e.g. She gave an evasive answer Merriam-Webster

To be evasive is to avoid something, whether it's a touchy subject or the person who's "it". If you're dodging the truth and not giving straight answers, then you're being evasive, which is probably not the best strategy when the police are asking the questions. From the French évasif, it’s an adjective that describes someone who's being intentionally shifty or vague. But a concept that’s hard to pin down or comprehend can also be considered evasive.

  • This does not actually address the OP's question, who wanted to know what such a response is called. The correct answer is non-sequitur. Or, if you prefer, an evasion. – anongoodnurse Dec 19 '14 at 1:04
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    @medica To have "non-sequitur" as the answer, the question should have been better formulated. "What rhetorical device...", "What kind of fallacy..." The way it was phrased, I think "an evasive answer" is a perfect fit. – Centaurus Dec 19 '14 at 1:14
  • To each his (or her) own. I agree the wording could have been much better. But to blame the OP for a so-so answer is, well, i dunno. What's a good word for that (the actual false accusation, not the act of seeking to blame falsely)? – anongoodnurse Dec 19 '14 at 1:15
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    @medica: Calumny – Brian Hitchcock Dec 19 '14 at 2:40
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red herring

a fact, idea, or subject that takes people's attention away from the central point being considered:

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    Much like the answer giving non sequitur, this answer seems to be out of context. A red herring is specifically a fallacy used in making an argument. It's not a term for a non-answer in a general context. – R.. GitHub STOP HELPING ICE Dec 20 '14 at 18:36
5

To provide a non sequitur to the question, to stonewall, according to Merriam- Webster, is to,

refuse or fail to answer questions, to do what has been requested, etc., especially in order to delay or prevent something

2

That response is irrelevant.

ir·rel·e·vant

adjective

not connected with or relevant to something.

synonyms: beside the point, immaterial, not pertinent, not germane, off the subject, unconnected, unrelated, peripheral, extraneous, inapposite, inapplicable; ...

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    Welcome to ELU.SE! Please note that the source of quotations must be referenced explicitly in plain text as well as by a link. This is so that the source can still be identified if the link is not reproduced for some reason (for example, if SE content is reproduced badly elsewhere). Link to relevant policy You should also use the > format character to indicate the quoted material. – Andrew Leach Dec 19 '14 at 10:45
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Inadequate comes to mind. It's used when the answer doesn't meet the required standard, or is irrelevant (see @Jimbo's answer).

"His reply was inadequate in answering my question"

2

I agree that the answer is a non sequitur for cases where the response is truly unrelated, and that this tactic may be employed as a dodge, as in the example. But you can also answer with a seeming non sequitur as a way of answering obliquely.

This description would fit the example if B was late because he stopped to buy the bagel, and could express B's valuation of gustatory pleasure over punctuality.


There's a great example of this in the movie LA Confidential, when Kevin Spacey lies to a struggling boxer about getting his brother's prison term commuted. After the boxer has shared his information, fulfilling his part of the deal, he asks, "I'll hear from you about my brother?"

By way of reply, Spacey pantomimes a boxer's defensive stance and says: "Keep it up, Lenny. Up."

  • "Non sequitur" may be the best answer, but "oblique answer" is not bad! – ScotM Dec 19 '14 at 1:17
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    @ScotM - actually I don't think any of the answers are bad. They're actually all good. They just don't fulfill the OP's request. Seeing as this was about fallacious responses, it kind of tickles me. – anongoodnurse Dec 19 '14 at 2:49
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Politicians refer to it as staying on message.

For example, consider the following excerpt from Six Lines to Help you Stay on Message in a Media Interview by Tim Ward.

For scientists and other experts building their skills at staying on message, here are six tag lines we find helpful for staying on message:

  1. “I hear your concern about X, and while that’s important, the heart of our research is really Y. Here’s why Y matters most...”

  2. “You’ve raised an interesting point about X. Another interesting point that’s closer to our research is Y...”

  3. “I’m not familiar with the details of the issue you raised, as it outside the scope of our research. What I can tell you about Y is...

  4. “Well, we can agree to disagree about X. I would like to return to the topic of my research and share something about Y that we’ve not yet touched on...”

  5. “I can’t really speculate about X. Our research focuses on Y, and here’s what I can tell you...”

  6. “While I am familiar with the issue of X, I’m here today to talk about the findings of our newest research on Y. Here’s what we think is most important...”

  • This is a great and useful answer...to a related but distinct question. This answer is about keeping on topic. The OP is asking for what to call it when you manage to keep off topic. – Mitch Jul 5 '18 at 13:26
  • @Mitch The subtlety is easy to miss. When someone answers the question he’d have preferred you’d asked rather than the one you did, the other person stayed on message — namely the message that he intended from the outset to convey. – Greg Bacon Jul 5 '18 at 14:39
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Possible terms might be tangential or circumstantial speech.

Tangential speech is a medical condition, possibly related to dementia, in which the sufferer doesn't reply directly to questions. However I have heard the term used in everyday speech to mean a response not directly related to the question.

the train of thought of the speaker wanders and shows a lack of focus, never returning to the initial topic of the conversation.

Likewise, circumstantial speech is also a psychiatric term, where the speaker may go off on a tangent but does eventually return to the primary topic.

In circumstantiality, apparently unnecessary details and seemingly irrelevant remarks cause a delay in getting to the point.

This may be caused by a cognitive disorder (ASD, confusion) or it may be intentionally evasive.

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Equivocate - "Use ambiguous language so as to conceal the truth or avoid committing oneself" OED online. You equivocate in order to avoid answering a question, to deflect the question, often by responding with a non sequitur.

0

An

intentional fallacy

could be appropriate if they want to deceive in a special kind of way. A fallacy itself can be unintentional and does not really answer your question - where being

intentionally fallacious

could be construed as avoiding the question. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fallacy

I don't think it fits perfectly, as one could simply be obtuse (a little like your example) or ridiculous or evasive - which are not quite examples of fallacy arguments.

0

Distraction also fits the bill.

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The question specifically states,

What I am looking for is the name of that response, not the action.

An answer that does not address the question is unhelpful or not helpful.

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