Is there a word and/or neologism that describes the act of answering a multiple choice question with "YES" or "NO" to imply both(none) or either(neither)?

Q: Do you like Ice Cream or Frozen Yogurt?

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    Boolean literalism? Oct 16, 2015 at 2:23
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    In my family it was informally known as "how to get smacked by your grandmother for being a smart aleck, in one easy lesson."
    – Sven Yargs
    Oct 16, 2015 at 2:52
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    I don't think there will ever be a situation where a YES or NO will suffice as answer to a multiple choice question. But, i have seen this usage a few times in popular Sitcoms as an instrument for humor. Oct 16, 2015 at 6:24

3 Answers 3


If the answer (yes or no) is intentionally ambiguous, exploiting ambiguity describes the act of knowingly making such an answer to what is intended to be a multiple choice question. If the answer (yes or no) is unintentionally or inadvertently ambiguous, containing or involving ambiguity describes the act of unknowingly making such an answer.

To simplify those phrases to one word, a yes or no answer to a question intended to be a choice question (also called an alternative question), will always be ambiguous, and so the act of knowingly or unknowingly answering yes or no to a question intended to be a choice question may best be described as an ambiguous act.

Discarding the intentionality of the question's ambiguity (which I here distinguish from the ambiguity of the yes-no response), there are two types of ambiguity in the question: a 'polarity or alternativity' ambiguity, and an 'exclusive or inclusive disjunctivity' ambiguity.

Of the first type of ambiguity, polarity or alternativity, the question may be interpreted as asking for either polar (yes-no) or alternative (choice) answers. How the question is interpreted depends on the context. Usually, but not always, the likely interpretation will positively rule out one or the other of the types, yes-no or choice.

Of the second type of ambiguity, exclusive or inclusive disjunctivity, the question may be interpreted as containing either an exclusive or inclusive 'or'. If the 'or' is interpreted as being exclusive, the question will be interpreted as requiring a choice, that is, it will be considered a choice question and answered with one of "ice cream", "frozen yogurt", "neither", or "both". If the 'or' is interpreted as being inclusive, however, the question will be interpreted as being a polar (yes-no) question, and the answer will be "no" if neither of the two is liked, or "yes" if both are liked.

To sum up, your question here is not an easy question to answer unambiguously. If after reading this answer your interest in the subject persists, an article titled "Responding to alternative and polar questions" (by María Biezma and Kyle Rawlins, in Linguistics and Philosophy, October 2012, Volume 35, Issue 5, pp 361-406) examines the topic in some detail. Additionally, an article titled "On Polar Questions" (by Robert van Rooy and Marie Safarova) may give you entry into and perhaps suggest a path through the maze of ambiguity.

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    I don't think answering yes to that question is ambiguous in the sense the OP means. Notice it is spelled with capital letters. This indicates to me that the person answering is asserting that they like both. Oct 17, 2015 at 0:39

The popular website TV Tropes calls this a Mathematician's Answer: "If you ask someone a question, and they give you an entirely accurate answer that is of no practical use whatsoever, they have just given you a Mathematician's Answer."

It includes things like "Is that a sheep or a goat?" "Yes." (Because it's one of the two.) But also questions in other forms such as (their example) "Dad, is there a word to describe answers that are completely correct but entirely useless under the circumstances?" "Yes, yes there is."

It may well be a coinage of TV Tropes people, but Google shows a few uses on other informal websites.

It apparently derives from "the supposed habit of mathematicians to make unhelpful answers", which is the subject of various jokes. The basis is that mathematicians use a high level of abstraction in their work, and there may be an insinuation that their work has little or nothing to do with the real world, at least by comparison to science or engineering.

There is a Reddit thread with some of these jokes, such as the following which relates to mathematicians treating people as integers:

A physicist, a biologist and a mathematician are sitting on the front porch, watching the house across the street. They see two people walk in. A little while later, three walk out. The physicist says, "Hm... measurement error." The biologist says, "Oh! They reproduced." The mathematician says, "Aha! Now if exactly one person enters the house, it will be empty again."

And a bit longer, but letting the mathematician get his own back:

A mathematician is walking over a field. Suddenly he hears a voice over his head. "Hey, you there! Where am I?"

The mathematician is confused and looks up to find a hot air balloon, hovering above his head. The voice shouts again: "Yes, I meant you. I have lost track due to the fog. Can you tell me where I am?" The mathematician thinks for a moment, then looks up again and answers: "Ah, I know! You are in a hot air balloon!"

The man in the balloon answers: "Thank you, but you're a mathematician, aren't you?" "How did you know that?" "Well, your answer was perfectly correct and absolutely useless."

To which the mathematician replies: "And I'm pretty sure you're working in the management." "That's right, how did you guess that?" "You are very high up and were brought there by nothing but hot air. Also you can't solve your own tasks, but blame everyone else for it, who doesn't solve them for you."

  • The house-watching mathematician is making a wrong assumption and does not give 'an entirely accurate answer [/explanation] that is of no practical use whatsoever'. But +1 for the term and the balloon yarn. Jun 1, 2023 at 14:06

It might be boolean as curious-proofreader said. In a computing OR gate, "yes" means that at least one is liked. This can mean both/all, just as long as one is liked or preferred or true.

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