Complex question

Complex question

Complex question, trick question, multiple question or plurium interrogationum (Latin, "of many questions") is a question that has a presupposition that is complex. The presupposition is a proposition that is presumed to be acceptable to the respondent when the question is asked. The respondent becomes committed to this proposition when he gives any direct answer. The presupposition is called "complex" because it is a conjunctive proposition, a disjunctive proposition, or a conditional proposition. It could also be another type of proposition that contains some logical connective in a way that makes it have several parts that are component propositions.[1]

Complex questions can but do not have to be fallacious, as in being an informal fallacy.[1]


Implication by question

One form of misleading discourse is where something is presupposed and implied without being said explicitly, by phrasing it as a question. For example, the question "Does Mr. Jones have a brother in the army?" does not claim that he does, but implies that there must be at least some indication that he does, or the question would not need to be asked.[2] The person asking the question is thus protected from accusations of making false claims, but still manages to make the implication in the form of a hidden compound question. The fallacy isn't in the question itself, but rather in the listener's assumption that the question would not have been asked without some evidence to support the supposition. This example seems harmless, but consider: "Does Mr. Jones have a brother in jail?"

In order to have the desired effect, the question must imply something uncommon enough not to be asked without some evidence to the fact. For example, the question "Does Mr. Jones have a brother?" would not cause the listener to think there must be some evidence that he does, since this form of general question is frequently asked with no foreknowledge of the answer.

Complex question fallacy

The complex question fallacy, or many questions fallacy, relies upon context for its effect: the fact that a question presupposes something does not in itself make the question fallacious. In other words, a presupposition by itself, doesn't have to be a fallacy. It is committed when someone asks a question that presupposes something that has not been proven or accepted by all the people involved.[1][3][4][5][6] For example, "Is Mary wearing a blue or a red dress" – with an assumption that Mary is wearing a dress – is likely non-fallacious, if it is common knowledge that Mary wears dresses. Only when some of these presuppositions are not necessarily agreed to by the person who is asked the question and are intended to trick them into replying in a way they wouldn't do if the question was simple, does the argument containing them become fallacious.[1][4][5][6]

Hence we can distinguish between:

  • legitimately complex questions (not a fallacy): A question that assumes something that the hearer would readily agree to. For example, "Who is the Monarch of the United Kingdom?" assumes that there is a place called the United Kingdom and that it has a monarch, both true.
  • illegitimately complex question: On the other hand, "Who is the King of France?" would commit the complex question fallacy because while it assumes there is a place called France (true), it also assumes France currently has a king (false). But since this answering the question does not seem to incriminate or otherwise embarrass the speaker, it is complex but not really a loaded question.[7]

When a complex question contains controversial presupposes (often with loaded language – having an unspoken and often emotive implication), it is known as a loaded question.[3][4][6] For example, a classic loaded question, containing incriminating assumptions that the questioned persons seem to admit to if they answer the questions instead of challenging them, is "Have you stopped beating your wife?" If the person questioned answers "Yes", then that implies that they have beaten their wife before. A loaded question may be asked to trick the respondent into admitting something that the questioner believes to be true, and which may in fact be true. So the previous question is "loaded," whether or not the respondent has actually beaten his wife. The very same question may be loaded in one context, but not in the other. For example the previous question would not be loaded if it was asked during a trial in which the defendant has already admitted to beating his wife.[4]

Similar questions and fallacies

A similar fallacy is the double-barreled question. It is committed when someone asks a question that touches upon more than one issue, yet allows only for one answer.[8][9][10]

This fallacy can be also confused with begging the question,[11] which offers a premise no more plausible than, and often just a restatement of, the conclusion.[12]


  1. ^ a b c d Walton, Douglas. "The Fallacy of Many Questions". University of Winnipeg. Archived from the original on 2006-11-29. Retrieved 2008-01-22. 
  2. ^ "compound question, definition". Retrieved 2010-02-03. 
  3. ^ a b Michel Meyer, Questions and questioning, Walter de Gruyter, 1988, ISBN 3-11-010680-9, Google Print, p. 198–199
  4. ^ a b c d Douglas N. Walton, Fundamentals of critical argumentation, Cambridge University Press, 2006, ISBN 0-521-82319-6, Google Print, p. 194–196
  5. ^ a b Douglas N. Walton, Informal logic: a handbook for critical argumentation, Cambridge University Press, 1989, ISBN 0-521-37925-3, Google Print, p. 36–37
  6. ^ a b c Douglas N. Walton. Witness testimony evidence: argumentation, artificial intelligence, and law, Cambridge University Press, 2008, ISBN 0-521-88143-9, Google Print, p. 329
  7. ^ Layman, C. Stephen (2003). The Power of Logic. p. 158. 
  8. ^ Response bias. SuperSurvey, Ipathia Inc.
  9. ^ Earl R. Babbie, Lucia Benaquisto, Fundamentals of Social Research, Cengage Learning, 2009, Google Print, p. 251
  10. ^ Alan Bryman, Emma Bell, Business research methods, Oxford University Press, 2007, ISBN 0-19-928498-9, Google Print, p. 267–268
  11. ^ Fallacy: Begging the Question The Nizkor Project. Retrieved on: January 22, 2008
  12. ^ Carroll, Robert Todd. The Skeptic's Dictionary. John Wiley & Sons. p. 51. ISBN 0-471-27242-6. 

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