A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from October 24, 2015
“Have you stopped beating your wife?” (loaded question)

"Have you stopped beating your wife?” is the classic loaded question that cannot be answered “yes” or “no.” It assumes—perhaps incorrectly—that the person asked the question has beaten his wife. A “yes” answer confirms this, and a “no” answer means that he still does it. Diogenes Laërtius wrote in Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers (first half of the third century AD):

“But Heraclides says that in his doctrines he was a thorough disciple of Plato, and that he scorned dialectics; so that once when Alexinus (c. 339-265 BC—ed.) asked him whether he had left off beating his father, he said, ‘I have not beaten him, and I have not left off;’ and when he said further that he ought to put an end to the doubt by answering explicitly yes or no, ‘It would be absurd,’ he rejoined, ‘to comply with your conditions, when I can stop you at the entrance.’”

English logician Richard Whately (1787-1863), the Archbishop of Dublin, wrote in Elements of Logic (1844):

“This resembles the hackneyed instance of asking a man ;whether he had left off beating his father.’”

“Have you left off beating your wife?” was cited in print in 1861. The “wife” expression—the most-used form—began to have great popularity from the 1890s. “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” was cited in the Chicago (IL) Record in 1894. “May I ask if you have left off beating your wife?” was cited from London in 1895.

“When did you stop beating your wife?"/"When her chess game improved” is a joke on the expression.

[This entry was prepared with assistance from the Quote Investigator.]


Wikipedia: Loaded question
A loaded question or complex question fallacy is a question that contains a controversial or unjustified assumption (e.g., a presumption of guilt).

Aside from being an informal fallacy depending on usage, such questions may be used as a rhetorical tool: the question attempts to limit direct replies to be those that serve the questioner’s agenda. The traditional example is the question “Have you stopped beating your wife?” Whether the respondent answers yes or no, they will admit to having a wife and having beaten her at some time in the past. Thus, these facts are presupposed by the question, and in this case an entrapment, because it narrows the respondent to a single answer, and the fallacy of many questions has been committed. The fallacy relies upon context for its effect: the fact that a question presupposes something does not in itself make the question fallacious. Only when some of these presuppositions are not necessarily agreed to by the person who is asked the question does the argument containing them become fallacious.Hence the 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.

Wikipedia: Richard Whately
Richard Whately (1 February 1787 – 8 October 1863) was an English rhetorician, logician, economist, and theologian who also served as the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin.

Google Books
Elements of Logic
Eighth edition, revised

By Richard Whately, D.D.
London: D. Fellowes
1844
Pg. 181:
This resembles the hackneyed instance of asking a man “whether he had left off beating his father.” [See Vol. of Charges and Tracts, p. 379.]

Google Books
The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers
By Diogenes Laërtius
Literally Translated by C. D. Yonge, B A.
London: Henry G. BOhn
1853
Pg. 109:
But Heraclides says that in his doctrines he was a thorough disciple of Plato, and that he scorned dialectics; so that once when Alexinus asked him whether he had left off beating his father, he said, “I have not beaten him, and I have not left off;” and when he said further that he ought to put an end to the doubt by answering explicitly yes or no, “it would be absurd,” he rejoined, “to comply with your conditions, when I can stop you at the entrance.”

Google Books
1 October 1861, Evangelical Christendom, “Literary Correspondence,” pg. 625:
Here I interrupt my transcription in order to settle the “preliminary question” — a question akin to that famous one, “Have you left off beating your wife?” Those who are so unhappy as not to have read Whately, may require to be informed, that if you answer “ Yes, “ then you are held to have acknowledged that you were formerly in the habit of beating her; whereas, if you answer “No,” you avow that the habit is one which you have not yet given up.

Google Books
October 1864, Edinburgh Review, pg. 372:
ART. III.—1. Miscellaneous Remains from the Commonplace Book of Richard Whately, late Archbishop of Dublin. London: 1864.
2. Memoirs of Richard Whately, Archbishop of Dublin. With a Glance at his Contemporaries and Times. BY WILLIAM JOHN FITZPATRICK, J.P. 2 vols. London: 1864.
Pg. 397:
The lawyer’s fallacy of requiring a categorical answer to every question, ‘yes or no,’ he would solve by instancing a question to which no one can answer “yes or no;’ ‘Have you left off beating your father?’

8 September 1866, New-York (NY) Daily Tribune, “Paris,” pg. 5, col. 1:
The situation of His Imperial Majesty, Napoleon III of France, made by an anonymous writer in a foreign newspaper, was much like that in which Bishop Whately’s question may place any honest man: “yes or no, have you stopped your habit of beating your father?”

27 February 1867, Daily Evening Bulletin (San Francisco, CA), “Uncertainties of Logic,” pg. 5, col. 7:
We would likely consider it an axiom that a statement must be either true or not true. Taking this as his starting point, the lawyer asks: “Is it true or false that you have ceased beating your wife?” “Why,” the witness says, it’s neither true nor false.”
(...)
-- Round Table.

Google Books
Elementary Lessons in Logic:
Deductive and Inductive

By William Stanley Jevons
London: Macmillan and Company
1870
Pg. 182:
Lastly, there is the somewhat trivial Fallacy of Many Questions, which is committed y those who so combine two or three questions into one so that no true answer may be given to them. I cannot think of a better example than the vulgar pleasantry of asking, “Have you left off beating your mother? Questions equally as unfair are constantly asked by barristers examining witnesses in a court of justice, and no one can properly be required to answer Yes or No to every question which may be addressed to him. As Aristotle says, “Several questions put as one should be at once decomposed to their several parts. Only a single question admits of a single answer: so that neither several predicates of one subject, nor one predicate of several subjects, ut only one predicate of one subject, ought to be affirmed of denied in a single answer. 

Read Prof. de Morgan’s excellent and amusing Chapter on Fallacies, Formal Logic, Ch. XIII.

Whately’s remarks on Fallacies, Elements of Logic, Book Ill., are often very original and acute.

Google Books
The Elements of Deductive Logic:
Designed Mainly for the Use of Junior Students in the Universities

By Thomas Fowler
London: Macmillan and Company
1880
Pg. 152:
The so called ‘Fallacia plurium interrogationum’ has not been noticed in the text, because it is a rhetorical artifice, rather than a logical fallacy. It consists in covertly putting as a single question what is in reality two, as for instance, ‘Are gall and honey sweet?’ ‘Have you cast your horns?’ (known as ‘cornutus’ ). ‘What did you take, when you broke into my house last night?’ ‘Have you given up beating your father?’ The object is to entrap the respondent into an admission which he would otherwise not be likely to make.

4 February 1894, Philadelphia (PA) Inquirer, “The Court’s Mistake,” pg. 18, col. 4:
The attorney for the defense was angry, the witness perfectly cool and the Court sleepy.

“What’s that?” queried the Court, arousing himself from his reverie.

“The witness says he cannot answer my question by yes or no,” returned the attorney for the defense, taking a bite from his plug of tobacco and comfortably setting himself back in his chair to listen to the Court “roast” the witness.

“Answer that question by yes or no,” thundered the Judge in a voice that completely drowned the noise of the cable cars without.

“But all questions cannot be answered by yes or no,” replied the witness, not at all squelched by the violent demonstrations of the Court.

His Honor’s retort was short and to the point. “Ask me a question I cannot answer by yes or no,” he said, as, with a knowing look at the attorney, he lay back in his chair to enjoy the discomfiture of the witness.

But the witness was not at all ill at ease. On the contrary, he smiled slightly as he asked the Court: “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?”

The Court looked embarrassed. During the titter that rose in the room her could be heard ordering the evidence struck out and the witness dismissed.—Chicago Record.

17 November 1895, Springfield (MA) Sunday Republican, pg. 7, col. 5:
STORIES OF LONDON LAWYERS.
[London Letter in New York Mail and Express.]
(...)
It is not often that anyone scores off Lockwood. Generally it is the other way. Once he was engaged on the opposite side of Sir Charles Russell (now Lord Russell, of Killowen), who was trying to browbeat a witness into giving a direct answer, “Yes” or “No.”

“You can answer any question ‘Yes’ or ‘No’” declared Sir Charles.

“Oh, can you?” retorted Lockwood. “May I ask if you have left off beating your wife?”

Of course, Lord Russell is not a wife-beater, but he was fairly cornered. If he said “Yes” he admitted the practice; if he said “No” the situation was still worse. He did not press the point with the witness.

19 January 1898, Cleveland (OH) Plain Dealer, “It Was a Poser,” pg. 4, col. 6:
When the late Mr. Bradlaugh was once engaged in a discussion with a dissenting minister, the former insisted on the latter answering a question he had asked him by a simple “yes” or “no,” without any more circumlocution, asserting that every question could be replied to in that manner.

That reverend gentlemen rose in a quiet manner and said: “Mr. Bradlaugh, will you allow me to ask you a question on those terms?”

“Certainly,” said Mr. Bradlaugh.

“Then, may I ask, have you given up beating your wife?”

This was a poser, for if answered by “yes” it would imply he had previously beaten her, and if “no” that he continued to do so.—Pittsburg Dispatch.

Chronicling America
3 November 1901, The Times (Richmond, VA), “A Study in Caste,"pg. 22, col. 4:
The first question was anything; the second question was anything; but the third, pronounced by the clown after long self-communing, was steeped in guile: “Do you still beat your wife?” There is no way out of that; affirmative and negative alike are powerless to rob that “still” of its sting; and off goes the clown with his bottle of wine, crack goes the whip, round ambles the old white horse with a back like Table Mountain, and the Signorina resumes her petty capers. And to-day the ring-master is seen only for an instant, and the speaking clown not at all.—The Cornhill.

Google Books
Wit and Humor of the American Bar:
A Collection from Various Sources Classified Under Appropriate Subject Headings

By Henry Frederic Reddall
Philadelphia, PA:  G. W. Jacobs
1905
Pg. 16:
“Yes" or “No.”
It is not always easy to answer a legal question by a simple affirmative or negative. A browbeating lawyer once demanded that a witness answer a certain query by a ‘Yes” or “No.”

“I cannot do it,” said the man on the stand. “There are some questions that cannot be so answered.”

“Give the court an example!” demanded the lawyer truculently.

The retort came quick as a flash of lightning:

“Are you still beating your wife?” and the man of law, with a sickly grin, sat down.

Chronicling America
11 January 1920, Tulsa (OK) Daily World, “Barometer of Public Opinion,” sec. B, pg. 4, col. 3:
Rather Insinuating.
New York Times.
The manner of Mr. Borah’s maneuver is worse than its matter. He asks Governor Lowden to say whether, if elected president, he would consent “to the abandonment” of the principles of Washington, Jefferson, Jackson and Lincoln. it has a faint flavor of the historic question “when did you stop beating your wife?” The words are so nearly insulting as to lead to the belief that Senator Borah believes Governor Lowden is in favor of the treaty and means to provoke him.

Chronicling America
31 August 1920, The Sun and New York Herald (New York, NY), “P.S.C. Vainly Seeks Way to End Strike,” pg. 2, col. 5:
“That is much like the old question, ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’” said the receiver. “I cannot answer it directly, because I deny that I have failed to live up to the clause.”

OCLC WorldCat record
The Fallacy of Many Questions Or, How to Stop Beating Your Wife
Author: Frank Fair
Edition/Format: Article Article : English
Publication: Southwestern Journal of Philosophy, v4 n1 (1973); 89-92
Database: Philosophy Documentation Center E-collection

OCLC WorldCat record
“When are you going to stop beating your wife, Mr. Commissioner?”.
Author: RH Moser
Edition/Format: Article Article : English
Publication: JAMA, 1974 Sep 23; 229(13): 1784-5
Database: From MEDLINE®/PubMed®, a database of the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

OCLC WorldCat record
Have You Stopped Beating Your Wife?
Author: Edward Proffitt
Edition/Format: Article Article : English
Publication: College English, v38 n7 (19770301): 738-739
Database: JSTOR Arts & Sciences III Collection

OCLC WorldCat record
“Do You Still Beat Your Wife?” and Other Interesting Questions
Author: J R T Cassels; A H Johnstone
Edition/Format: Article Article
Publication: IEEE Engineering Management Review, v14 n4 (198612): 58-61
Database: IEEE Publications Database
Summary:
This publication contains reprint articles for which IEEE does not hold copyright. Full text is not available on IEEE Xplore for these articles.

OCLC WorldCat record
When did you last beat your wife?
Publisher: [S.l.] : Channel 4, 2007.
Series: Dispatches, broadcast 19-Mar-2007
Edition/Format: DVD video : English

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityGovernment/Law/Politics/Military • Saturday, October 24, 2015 • Permalink