Fully recognising this is a somewhat passive-aggressive approach to take (:p), one often encounters incredibly ambiguous questions where the responder is either indirectly expected to, or passively forced to ask clarifying questions, e.g.

I'm trying to put together a chair by IKEA but it's not working. Any ideas?

or, the facebook classic:

Ugh, why me?

One approach is to simply attempt to clarify before giving an answer proper, by asking questions like "What is the problem exactly; did you take it out of the box; do you have enough screws; are you missing any parts?" etc etc ad nauseam. Or "sweetie what happened; are you ok; is it about work; did someone hurt you?" etc.

Another (admittedly, not better) approach is to answer the question with a trivial answer (or a series of trivial answers) that makes lots of specific assumptions which may well not be true; forcing the questioner to clarify further. e.g.

- "You need to take it out of the box first, silly"
- "Oh, I did. But I still can't put it together"
- "Ah. Well, there's probably not enough screws in the box then; call IKEA to complain!"
- "Oh it's not the screws"
- "Then what is it?!


- "It's ok, lots of people can't handle work pressure".
- "Oh this isn't about work"
- "Ah. Don't worry, I'm sure you'll find someone better"
- "Oh we haven't broken up"
- "Ah. Well, care to throw me a friggin bone here then?"

Ethics of taking the latter approach aside, I was wondering if there is a name for this kind of technique, as I feel there should be one.

"Leading answer?" perhaps? "Nudge answer?". "Disambiguation-by-sarcasm?". I'd love to hear your thoughts :)

(edit to address comment by MetaEd: The above phrases are what I researched hoping to find an the answer, but I did not find something relevant.)

  • I'm not sure this is popularly recognized as a valid strategy. It seems to me if someone did this, it would be because he or she has made a generalization by mistake. Generally, I feel that most people in such a situation would instead simply ask for clarification, such as: "I still can't put it together!" "Why not?"
    – R Mac
    Sep 2, 2016 at 15:43
  • 2
    "Pumping the well" comes to mind. When it's not working, It's "like pulling teeth".
    – Phil Sweet
    Sep 2, 2016 at 16:00
  • Thank you for your question. We are looking for thoughtful, intriguing questions posed as you would ask them of an expert, including evidence that you have put effort and research into the question. Please edit to share the results of your research. Questions which lack results of research may be closed. (more) A dictionary or thesaurus may be quite helpful. Your question should include the results of your search. It should also explain why the results were not adequate to answer your question.
    – MetaEd
    Sep 2, 2016 at 16:23
  • Thanks for your comment @MetaEd. I edited the question to point out my suggestions were the results of research. Sep 2, 2016 at 19:28

2 Answers 2


Will you take a four-word phrase?

When you respond with these flippant assumptions of the context for the vague remark, you are

shooting in the dark

Here's a definition of a shot in the dark:

an attempt to guess something when you have no information or knowledge about the subject and therefore cannot possibly know what the answer is

from the from the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary & Thesaurus, Cambridge University Press

  • I consider this answer to be only partially correct, since it fails to capture the reason for the "shooting in the dark" style questions in the first place (which is to lead the subject into clarifying their question by making intentionally bad questions, rather than because only less useful questions are available due to lack of information), which is in fact the main question here. However, since there are no other answers, I'm accepting this as "close enough". Feb 18, 2017 at 2:45

Rhetorical device. I was thinking about whether "talking things to it's logical extreme" was appropriate and looking it up on Wikipedia which led me to Rhetorical device which is described as a technique that a speaker uses to convey to the listener a meaning with the goal of persuading him or her towards considering a topic from a different perspective.

i.e. by asking absurd follow-up questions you ask the other person to consider their initial question from your point of view and thus clarify their point.

"I can't get my suitcase in the car"
"Have your arms fallen off?"
"Has the car been stolen?"
"No, it's too heavy, will you help me?"

  • 2
    It sure is, but so is a rhetorical question. Rhetorical device is very likely a hypernym to what we are precisely looking for.
    – Helmar
    Sep 2, 2016 at 16:35
  • 1
    Good point! I might be tempted to call this a "Rhetorical Answer" in juxtaposition to a "Rhetorical Question" ... but I suppose a rhetorical answer is more likely to be perceived as a hollow answer full of rhetoric (i.e. something a politician might use) Sep 2, 2016 at 19:23

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