I am looking for a particular word that describes:

a question that is asked in order to expose ignorance/lack of knowledge.

As with a rhetorical question, the questioner knows the answer, but suspects the person being addressed doesn't.

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    Are you sure you specifically want a British English term? As BrE myself, I can only think of loaded question, but that covers all questions where the asker knows that the respondent will be forced to give an answer that he doesn't want to (the "answer" in your specific case being "I'm forced to admit I don't know"). But it is a form of rhetorical question (the asker knows that's the answer he'll get). – FumbleFingers Apr 2 '15 at 16:56
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    Although perhaps not designed as such, purposely directing “higher order [thinking] questions” at those of us whose higher order thinking skills are getting rusty could be seen as a nasty trap. – Papa Poule Apr 2 '15 at 19:22
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    Frankly, I'd call it rude and leave it at that. – keshlam Apr 2 '15 at 20:16
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    Of all the options mentioned so far, I think "loaded question" comes closest. – Hot Licks Apr 3 '15 at 0:15
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    It's not a single word, but the expression "calling his bluff" might still be useful. – o0'. Apr 4 '15 at 16:20

17 Answers 17


Teachers sometimes refer to this kind of question as a trap:

From The Pragmatics of Mathematics Education by Tim Rowland:

One common perception is that the questions teachers ask their pupils are not searchlights focused to reveal truth, but traps set to expose ignorance.

Rowland was quoted in Teacher-student Interaction by Alandeom Wanderlei de Oliveira.

Seymour B. Sarason expresses the same notion in a different way in Letters to a Serious Education President:

They are both surprised and puzzled by my question, as if I am setting a trap to expose their ignorance.

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    This may not be the particular word the OP is looking for, but is the first word that came to my mind. There are many designs of the trap question – ScotM Apr 2 '15 at 19:02

If you are trying to educate, instead of expose, the answerer, I would say Socratic.

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  • No—Socratic doesn't describe the situation where "the questioner knows the answer." By definition, under the Socratic method, the questioner doesn't know the answer ("I know that I know nothing"). – Joe Mornin Apr 3 '15 at 19:09
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    @Joe Mornin It may be off-topic, but one who've read Socrates dialogues may notice, that it doesn't seem like his real goal was to find the answer in a discussion. He was just dragging his students into direction to the certain answer he already kept in mind. Sophistic inheritance's influence, i guess. – Aeternia Apr 3 '15 at 20:19
  • @JoeMornin actually, this I is on the right track, it's called Socratic irony – rasher Apr 5 '15 at 1:47
  • @JoeMornin Did you ever watch "The Paper Chase"? The professor claimed that his instruction method was Socratic -- instead of simply lecturing the students, he asked them questions to stimulate them into coming up with the answers themselves. But he surely knew what the expected answers should be. – Barmar Apr 6 '15 at 18:18
  • @Barmar I read a lot of Plato as an undergrad. When I got to law school, I expressed surprise when professors using the so-called "Socratic method" chastised students for giving "wrong" answers. "Well," a professor told me, "it's not Socratic as in Socrates." My point is that a lot of people think "Socratic" means "asking leading questions," but that meaning is pretty far removed from Socrates' elenctic method in the original dialogues. – Joe Mornin Apr 6 '15 at 19:43

Teachers and politicians sometimes call these "gotcha questions."

Here's an excerpt from a discussion of gotcha questions in a Daily Caller article:

The infamous “gotcha” question is something politicians always rail >against. But what exactly defines a “gotcha”?

“I suppose a gotcha question is one that’s fundamentally unfair because it has a hidden or misleading premise,” former Clinton White House adviser and CNN contributor Paul Begala told The Daily Caller. He provided this example: “Q: Which Yankee before Jeter had 3,000 hits? A: No one!”

“A gotcha question is a knowledge question in which the moderator attempts to make the person … look stupid,” offered infamous Republican political consultant Roger Stone. “I think it is more like saying to Donald Trump, you know: ‘How many members of the U.S. House of Representatives [are there]?’”

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A pointed question; one that cannot be answered with a vague generalization, but only precisely.

BTW "asking a rhetorical question" doesn't mean that you suspect the hearer(s) don't already know the answer. It means you are making a statement (perhaps of something that is obvious) more emphatic by expressing it as a question, for example "Do you want to be free men or slaves?"

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  • You misparsed the sentence in the question. The mention of rhetorical question was "As with a rhetorical question, the questioner knows the answer". The remainder of the sentence elaborates on the word being sought, not rhetorical question. – Ben Voigt Apr 4 '15 at 19:12

While I am unable to offer a noun, there are a couple of adjectival descriptions which typify questions designed to achieve certain ends, which could prove useful, i.e., “tactical”, “calculated”.

tactical adjective: of, relating to, or constituting actions carefully planned to gain a specific military end.

• (of a person or their actions) showing adroit planning; aiming at an end beyond the immediate action.

synonyms: calculated, planned; see Google tactical

calculate verb: 3rd person present: calculates; past tense: calculated; past participle: calculated; gerund or present participle: calculating

2. intend (an action) to have a particular effect. "his last words were calculated to wound her"

Or, “the question was calculated to expose his ignorance.”

synonyms: intend, mean, aim, design; Google calculate

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  • Both are good general modifiers for question. If the tactic suits the motive of exposing ignorance what would be the specific description? – ScotM Apr 2 '15 at 19:09
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    You've just exposed my ignorance, @ScotM. – user98990 Apr 2 '15 at 19:11
  • Inadvertent, my dear, but just as painful I'm sure. If it is any comfort, we are walking together in blissful ignorance on this one :-) – ScotM Apr 2 '15 at 19:15
  • I bet Sherlock Holmes could answer this OP, @ScotM. – user98990 Apr 2 '15 at 19:18

test \ˈtest\ noun -MW

2,a : (2) something (as a series of questions or exercises) for measuring the skill, knowledge, intelligence, capacities, or aptitudes of an individual or group

If (underlined) If you happen to be a troll, this question was a test of our gullibility; seeking the knowledge of if we're unbeknownst to your trollishness and how far you'd get away with it.

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I think the best option would be a disingenuous question.

Brainstorming some more ideas: Trick question. A question designed to show someone up. Insincere, testing question. A question designed to catch someone out or show their ignorance. Malicious question. Uncomfortable question.

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I think the closest term to what you're looking for is a trick question, defined by Wiktionary as:

A complex question, whose wording hinders the ability to answer it correctly.

Basically, these are questions designed to make the person answering fail. For example:

- When did Elvis Presley die?

- Is that a trick question? The King's not dead!

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I saw it wasn't listed so it took me an hour of googling to find this specific word for you. Depending on your intention of use this is a word that captures a different but similar meaning to what you said you are trying to find.


A shibboleth (/ˈʃɪbəlɛθ/[1] or /ˈʃɪbələθ/[2]) is a word or custom whose variations in pronunciation or style can be used to differentiate members of ingroups from those of outgroups. Within the mindset of the ingroup, a connotation or value judgment of correct/incorrect or superior/inferior can be ascribed to the two variants.

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  • This was my thought too. Note that shibboleth refers more to the answer or piece of information than the question itself, but could be used in a similar way. – 2012rcampion Apr 4 '15 at 23:09
  • The word itself comes from the Bible, in the book of Judges 12:6, where the word "shibboleth" is used to differentiate Gileadites from Ephraimites by the Gileadites. You pronounced the word "wrong" and you were put to death (as an enemy combatant). – insaner Apr 5 '15 at 6:56
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    @insaner likely the first ever use of biometric authentication. – AviD Apr 5 '15 at 11:47

'In A cleft stick' - "In a difficult situation, unable to choose between unfavourable options; in a dilemma. "

Source; Wiktionary http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/in_a_cleft_stick

'Caught between a rock and a hard place' - "Having the choice between two unpleasant or distasteful options; in a predicament or quandary."

Source; Wiktionary http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/between_a_rock_and_a_hard_place

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Just as those who are sent on and attempt to accomplish “a fool’s errand” are doomed to failure and ridicule, for the errand's goal is impossible to obtain; those who are asked and attempt to answer “a fool’s question” suffer similar fates, for "there are no answers to a fool’s question."

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I think a "trick question" usually means what you are asking about. While it is a colloquial phrase, it usually means a question which offers a choice of answers none of which is the correct one. It forces the person answering the question to pick one of the answers thereby exposing the fact that he does not know the true answer.

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probing or fathoming one's depth

probing question



1 : that investigates something in a tentative way : that tests or tries out something experimentally

a probing procedure

2 : that penetrates deeply in an exploratory way to the essence of something : keen and to the point : sharply analytical : searching

a probing question

a probing study

Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary

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  • Is probing a real word? – Edwin Ashworth Apr 2 '15 at 16:45
  • @Edwin Ashworth Yes, both as adjective and ing-form of "to probe." Added to my answer. – Marius Hancu Apr 2 '15 at 16:58
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    I don't think a probing, searching, incisive, revealing, etc. question necessarily implies one to which the addressee doesn't actually know the answer. All it means is in the opinion of the asker (or whoever is reporting the process), the answer (or lack of one) will expose some fact (perhaps the respondent's ignorance, or something else he doesn't wish to reveal) that's highly relevant to the matter under discussion. – FumbleFingers Apr 2 '15 at 17:16
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    It was an attempt to get you to correct 'tathoming' without it having to be spelled out. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 2 '15 at 18:04
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    Probing questions can expose ignorance, but they are not designed to expose ignorance. – ScotM Apr 2 '15 at 18:59

My girlfriend uses the word interrogation every time I do this, and it seems to fit:

synonyms: questioning, cross-questioning, cross-examination, quizzing.

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Wiles - The use of clever tricks by someone in order to get what they want or make someone behave in a particular manner.

Artifice - The use of clever tricks to cheat somebody.

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  • Oh thanks, I can't even defend my case by attributing the mistake down to malapropism. But I think it might have played a part there. :) – Andy Semyonov Apr 4 '15 at 11:01


You ask someone a question that you know the answer to in order to expose them as ignorant.

You are challenging their competence.

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This is a yiddish expression that my mother uses whenever my brother asks her a question that he knows the answer to, just to see if she knows it. She always says, "I don't need you to farher me." A farher is an oral exam. Not an answer but related.

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