Types of Question

(Foreword: This is a non-exhaustive list of some question types that exist in English. Many of these categories overlap, and any particular question could be in two or more categories. Some of the labels and definitions in this list relate to form or syntax, while some refer to the purpose of the question in an interaction and others deal with the intended effect upon the respondent. I have therefore split the list of categories into three groups.)

Basic Formal Categories

Yes/No Question – A question which can be answered with ‘yes’ or ‘no’, e.g. Are you satisfied with your life right now?

Wh-Question – A question starting with where, when, who, what, which, why, or how, e.g. Who’s at the door?

Closed Question – A question which implies a limited choice of possible answers, e.g. Would you like tea or coffee? Yes/no questions are a type of closed question.

Open Question – A question which allows for a wide range of answers, e.g. How do you think we can fix this problem?

Tag Question (also known as a Question Tag) – A question attached to the end of a statement, e.g. You don’t want any more tea, do you?

Interactive Categories

Phatic Question – A part of everyday interaction, which expresses friendliness or conformity to social norms and does not require a detailed response, e.g. Hey, how are you doing? or Cold today, isn’t it?

Follow-up Question – A question which asks for more details about the answer to a previous question, as exemplified in this interaction:
A: What’s your favourite colour?
B: Orange.
A: Why orange?

Indirect Question – A question contained within another question or statement, e.g. Could you tell me what you are doing? instead of the direct question What are you doing? Indirect questions are generally regarded as ‘softer’ and more polite. They can be used for polite requests, e.g. I wonder if I could borrow your hedge clippers?

Display Question – Often used by teachers, this is a way of checking how much the respondent knows, e.g. Can anyone tell me the past participle of ‘fight’? The purpose is not to find out the answer (as the teacher should know this already!) but to find out if the students know the answer. The opposite of a display question is sometimes called a referential question.

Reflective Question – A question that requires some thought to answer and usually has no objectively correct or incorrect answer, e.g. How satisfied are you with your life right now? or What can I learn from my experiences over the past year? These types of questions can be asked of oneself as a tool for self-growth.

Instrumental Categories (tools of persuasion)

Rhetorical Question – A question intended to clarify or persuade, without requiring a spoken or written response from the listener or reader. Often used in presentations and speeches, and often followed directly with an answer, e.g. What does this new technology mean for us? Well, there are three areas where it can help us to improve our efficiency. These are…

Leading Question – A question designed to nudge the respondent into giving the answer desired by the questioner, e.g. Can you confirm that you saw this man, John Shaw, enter the victim’s house at 11.03am? Here, a ‘yes’ answer requires only one word, whereas a ‘no’ requires an explanation of which details are incorrect and how they are incorrect. Another example of a leading question is Does anyone have any objection if I open the window? The phrasing of this request puts potential respondents under pressure to comply: to ‘object’ is to risk being seen as disagreeable, while giving no answer will be taken as silent approval.

Forced-Choice Question – A type of closed question which forces the respondent to choose one of a restricted list of options. These are frequently used in surveys and polls, e.g. How satisfied are you with the current government, on a scale of 1-5? The respondent has no option to say It depends on the issue, or to give a rating of 2.5. Forced-choice questions can also be used to set up a false dichotomy (a false choice) such as Are you going to co-operate with me or are you going to oppose everything I do? The falsehood here is the implied idea that full co-operation or full opposition are the only possible choices.

Complex Question – A question which contains a presupposition, e.g. Do you feel good after losing all that excess weight? This question assumes two things – 1. the respondent has lost weight, and 2. the respondent’s previous weight was excessive. To answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’, the respondent has to implicitly accept both of these presuppositions. If the questioner’s intention is to push the respondent into accepting the presuppositions, a complex question becomes a loaded question.

Loaded Question – A statement of opinion designed as a question, e.g. Do you really believe it’s acceptable to let large corporations go on destroying the world that we all share? This is a type of complex question, but in this case it is used with the intention to trap the respondent into agreeing with the presupposition that large corporations are destroying the world. Answering either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ allows the presupposition to stand. Emotive words such as destroying are a typical feature of loaded questions.

Further discussion of question types:

Douglas Walton: The Fallacy of Many Questions: On the Notions of Complexity, Loadedness and Unfair Entrapment in Interrogative Theory.

Effectiviology: False Dilemmas and False Dichotomies: What They Are and How to Respond to Them.

Main photo by Ann H from Pexels.

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