complex question (fallacy)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

complex question
To the interrogator, a complex question is a heads-I-win, tales-you-lose proposition. (Gerville/Getty Images)


A complex question is a fallacy in which the answer to a given question presupposes a prior answer to a prior question. Also known as (or closely related to) a loaded question, a trick question, a leading question, the fallacy of the false question, and the fallacy of many questions.

"Have you stopped beating your wife?" is the classic example of the complex question. Ralph Keyes has traced this example back to a 1914 book of legal humor.

Since then, he says, it "has . . . become the standard allusion to any question that can't be answered without self-incrimination" (I Love It When You Talk Retro, 2009).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:


Examples and Observations

  • "'Let's talk about Glaucon. Where did you get the poison you used on him?'

    "'I never!'

    "'His whole family died—wife, children, mother, the lot. Surely you feel badly about that?'

    "Didymus passed his hand over his eyes. 'I didn't poison anyone.'”
    (Bruce Macbain, The Bull Slayer: A Plinius Secundus Mystery. Poisoned Pen Press, 2013)

  • "He was woken two hours later and presently a doctor examined him.

    "'What drugs were you on?' he asked.

    "Wilt stared at him blankly. 'I've never taken any drugs in my life,' he muttered."
    (Tom Sharpe, Wilt in Nowhere. Hutchinson, 2004) 

  • The Unjustified Presumption
    "Plurium interrogationum, which translates as 'of many questions,' is otherwise known as the fallacy of the complex question. When several questions are combined into one, in such a way that a yes-or-no answer is required, the person they are asked of has no chance to give separate replies to each, and the fallacy of the complex question is committed. . . .
    - Did the pollution you caused increase or decrease your profits?
    - Did your misleading claims result in you getting promoted?
    - Is your stupidity inborn?
    All of them contain an assumption that the concealed question has already been answered affirmatively. It is this unjustified presumption which constitutes the fallacy. . . .

    "The complex question has to be broken into simpler ones; and often the denial of the fact presumed invalidates the larger question altogether."
    (Madsen Pirie, How to Win Every Argument: The Use and Abuse of Logic, 2nd ed. Bloomsbury, 2015)

  • Trick Questions
    "The fallacy of complex question is the interrogative form of the fallacy of begging the question. Like the latter, it begs the question by assuming the conclusion at issue. . . .

    "Before rushing to answer a complex question, it is best to question the question:
    a) Have you stopped beating your wife?
    b) Did John ever give up his bad habits?
    c) Are you still a heavy drinker?
    In each of these questions there lies an assumed answer to a previous question. Did John have bad habits? is the unasked question whose answer is assumed in question b. We need to withhold any answer to question b until this prior question has been resolved. In some instances of this fallacy, considerable struggle may be necessary in order to liberate ourselves from the misleading influence of a complex question.

    "The serious consequences of complex questions can be appreciated by considering these trick questions, which would be out of order in a court of law:
    d) What did you use to wipe your fingerprints from the gun?
    e) How long had you contemplated this robbery before you carried it out?
    (S. Morris Engel, With Good Reason: An Introduction to Informal Fallacies, 3rd ed. St. Martin's, 1986)

  • An Implicit Argument
    "Although not an argument as such, a complex question involves an implicit argument. This argument is usually intended to trap the respondent into acknowledging something that he or she might otherwise not want to acknowledge. Examples:
    • Have you stopped cheating on exams?
    • Where did you hide the marijuana you were smoking?
    Obviously, each of the questions is really two questions."
    (Patrick J. Hurley, A Concise Introduction to Logic. Thomson Wadsworth, 2005)