Experiments on Question Form

… not to engage the question but to outflank it …



Harold F. Kress (director), No Questions Asked, 1951


Questions can be asked in infinitely varied ways about an infinite number of subjects. It is not possible, except in a purposive or else purely metaphoric way, to sample the universe of all survey questions, instead, our strategy has been to identify a small number of important ways in which questions vary in form, and investigate whether these variations have systematic effects that are detectable regardless of exact wording or subject matter. For example, almost any attitude question can include an explicit “don’t know” alternative, but most survey questions do not provide this option for the respondent. In Chapter 4, we look at how this apparently simple variation—offering or not offering a don’t know option—affects results for a number of different survey questions. At a later point in the present chapter we will outline all the major variations in question form that we have investigated. Of course, the assumption that there are important formal ways in which questions vary is itself tested throughout the entire volume.

Howard Schuman and Stanley Presser, Questions and Answers in Attitude Surveys:
Experiments on Question Form, Wording, and Context

We went outside and asked all the people we could find all the questions we could think of. None of the answers led anywhere, except to repeated assurance that the bomb hadn’t been chucked through the window.

Dashiell Hammett, The Dain Curse

“May I ask, Mr. Spade, if there was, as the newspapers inferred, a certain—ah—relationship between that unfortunate happening and the death a little later of the man Thursby?”

Spade said nothing in a blank-faced definite way.

Cairo rose and bowed. “I beg your pardon.” He sat down and placed his hands side by side, palms down, on the corner of the desk. “More than idle curiosity made me ask that, Mr. Spade. I am trying to recover an—ah—ornament that has been—shall we say?—mislaid. I thought, and hoped, you could assist me.”

Spade nodded with eyebrows lifted to indicate attentiveness.

“The ornament is a statuette,” Cairo went on, selecting and mouthing his words carefully, “the black figure of a bird.”

Spade nodded again, with courteous interest.

“I am prepared to pay, on behalf of the figure’s rightful owner, the sum of five thousand dollars for its recovery.” Cairo raised one hand from the desk-corner and touched a spot in the air with the broad-nailed tip of an ugly forefinger. “I am prepared to promise that—what is the phrase?—no questions will be asked.” He put his hand on the desk again beside the other and smiled blandly over them at the private detective.

Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon

He was detained two hours. When he came back, he ascended the old staircase alone, having asked no question of the servant; going thus into the Doctor’s rooms, he was stopped by a low sound of knocking.

“Good God!” he said, with a start. “What’s that?”

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

SIR TOBY. No question.

AGUECHEEK. An I thought that, I’d forswear it. I’ll ride home to-morrow, Sir Toby.

SIR TOBY. Pourquoi, my dear knight?

AGUECHEEK. What is ‘pourquoi?’do or not do? I would I had bestowed that time in the tongues that I have in fencing, dancing, and

bear-baiting. Oh, had I but followed the arts!

SIR TOBY. Then hadst thou had an excellent head of hair.

AGUECHEEK. Why, would that have mended my hair?

SIR TOBY. Past question; for thou seest it will not curl by nature.

AGUECHEEK. But it becomes me well enough, does’t not?

William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night; or, What You Will

[Footnote 8: In the MS. a blank space is left after this question.] Why the eye sees bodies at a distance, larger than they measure on the vertical plane?

Which light is best for drawing from nature; whether high or low, or large or small, or strong and broad, or strong and small, or broad and weak or small and weak?

[Footnote: The question here put is unanswered in the original MS.]


How the ages of man should be depicted: that is, Infancy, Childhood, Youth, Manhood, Old age, Decrepitude.

[Footnote: No answer is here given to this question, in the original MS.]

Leonardo da Vinci, The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci

“There was a question just now, Mr. Jaggers, which you desired me to waive for a moment. I hope I am doing nothing wrong in asking it again?”

“What is it?” said he.

I might have known that he would never help me out; but it took me aback to have to shape the question afresh, as if it were quite new. “Is it likely,” I said, after hesitating, “that my patron, the fountain-head you have spoken of, Mr. Jaggers, will soon—” There I delicately stopped.

“Will soon what?” asked Mr. Jaggers. “That’s no question as it stands, you know.”

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

We shall not further develop this question here, since it has only recently become of moment and we lack the required elements and perspective for a serious analysis. At all events, we record its existence and its undeniable interest.

Daniel Buren, Beware!

“Verhovensky an enthusiast?”

“Oh, yes. There is a point when he ceases to be a buffoon and becomes a madman. I beg you to remember your own expression: ‘Do you know how powerful a single man may be?’ Please don’t laugh about it, he’s quite capable of pulling a trigger. They are convinced that I am a spy too. As they don’t know how to do things themselves, they’re awfully fond of accusing people of being spies.”

“But you’re not afraid, are you?”

“N—no. I’m not very much afraid … But your case is quite different. I warned you that you might anyway keep it in mind. To my thinking there’s no reason to be offended in being threatened with danger by fools; their brains don’t affect the question. They’ve raised their hand against better men than you or me. It’s a quarter past eleven, though.” He looked at his watch and got up from his chair. “I wanted to ask you one quite irrelevant question.”

“For God’s sake!” cried Shatov, rising impulsively from his seat.

“I beg your pardon?” Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch looked at him inquiringly.

“Ask it, ask your question for God’s sake,” Shatov repeated in indescribable excitement, “but on condition that I ask you a question too. I beseech you to allow me … I can’t … ask your question!”

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Possessed; or, The Devils

Contrary to expectation, Maigret asked no further questions. Indeed, this created an atmosphere of unease. People in the room felt that having reached a culminating point, everything had stopped dead.

Georges Simenon, A Crime in Holland

Before their first meeting, her killer—whose real name was Nicholas Cohen—established some rules: a classic BDSM protocol. She was not to ask questions. She was not to cover her legs with stockings or tights in His presence. She would give a truthful account of her response to all His commands after obeying. She’d assented with glee, because how can you play a game without rules?

Chris Kraus, Summer of Hate

“I’ll manage,” he repeated into the silence, lowering the arm again and wishing he hadn’t raised it in the first place. His fingers sparked with pain as the blood pounded through them. “Have they spoken to you?” he asked.

“About what?”

“Come on, Siobhan …” She looked at him, unblinking. Her hands emerged from their hiding place as she leaned forwards on the chair. “I’ve another session this afternoon.”

“Who with?”

“The boss.” Meaning Detective Chief Superintendent Gill Templer. Rebus nodded, satisfied that as yet it wasn’t going any higher. “What will you say to her?” he asked. “There’s nothing to tell. I didn’t have anything to do with Fairstone’s death.” She paused, another unasked question hanging between them: Did you? She seemed to be waiting for Rebus to say something, but he stayed silent.

Ian Rankin, A Question of Blood

… not to engage the question but to outflank it, not to reformulate the base and superstructure, to find newer and cleverer ways to express ‘interrelations’ and ‘last instances’ but to side-step the question entirely. The only reason I can figure for retaining either the distinction or the argument is as a pious genuflection to the past and to feel morally upright, convinced we are on the right side of history.

James W. Carey, Reflections on the Project of (American) Cultural Studies
(Cultural Studies in Question)

As he wrote his book in the summer of 1950, Mourre saw the few months that separated him from Saint-Germain-des-Prés as centuries: Once, people actually lived like that! He had lived like that—moment to moment, he and his friends had found a way to say no to any question. Do you have a philosophy of life? Fuck off—or, Yes, I have a philosophy of life: “fuck off.” In a store: May I help you, sir? Fuck off. In a cafe: Yes? My good man, the question you have answered is a question I have refrained from asking—fuck off.

Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century

p. 458–7

The second blank is easier because it means the same thing as “irascible” which is a negative word meaning unpleasant and mean-spirited. Aging brings about physical changes but does not alter “disposition” which means one’s personality. If someone is “cantankerous” they are irritable and unpleasant. Someone who is churlish they are impolite, coarse, and rude. Benevolent means kind and caring. If someone is laconic they are terse, brief, and concise.


Henry Davis, Explanations for the Official SAT Study Guide Questions:
Detailed Explanations for the Answers for Every Question

Marcus felt that Gelb didn’t really answer that question or others. “He was partly responsive to about half the questions, and the others he just ignored,” Marcus told me. “That was that.” (Another board member said that Gelb listened patiently to Marcus’s “angry diatribe,” answered his questions, and added that the issues had already been considered.)

James B. Steward, A Fight At the Opera (The New Yorker)


For an answer which cannot be expressed the question too cannot be expressed.

The riddle does not exist.

If a question can be put at all, then it can also be answered.


Scepticism is not irrefutable, but palpably senseless, if it would doubt where a question cannot be asked.

For doubt can only exist where there is a question; a question only where there is an answer, and this only where something can be said.


We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer.


The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem.

(Is not this the reason why men to whom after long doubting the sense of life became clear, could not then say wherein this sense consisted?)

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

“My child”, said her father with sympathy and obvious understanding, “what are we to do?”

His sister just shrugged her shoulders as a sign of the helplessness and tears that had taken hold of her, displacing her earlier certainty.

“If he could just understand us”, said his father almost as a question; his sister shook her hand vigorously through her tears as a sign that of that there was no question.

Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis




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