"Why did you stop beating your wife?"- What does this mean?

I’ve seen this question pop up occasionally as an example of…bad logic? something else? I’m not entirely sure what it means when used in this way. Could someone elucidate?

I believe it is “When did you stop beating your wife?”

It’s a loaded question, since you are screwed no matter what you say.

Actually, the more common version of the question is “have you stopped beating your wife?”

This sort of question requires a yes or no answer (a reply of “I’ve never beaten my wife” is too long for a sound bite) and neither of those answers is particularly good. “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t” in other words.

“Have you stopped beating your wife?” is shorthand for a type of leading question that impugns the respondent regardless of the answer.

Answer “yes” … oh, so you used to beat your wife?

Answer “no” … oh, so you’re still beating her now?

Obviously, a more complicated answer is necessary. This can lead the respondent into putting on more of a show than intended in answering the question, and in turn making them look guilty of whatever.

I’ve always heard it as “When did you stop beating your wife?”, classically, as an example of a trap question by a reporter to a politician. The idea is that there’s no way to answer it “correctly”, assuming you haven’t actually beat your wife. It’s assuming within the question facts not in evidence (that is, that you beat your wife at one time.)

If you answer with a date, it’s admiting you used to beat your wife. If you refuse to answer, it suggests you’re still beating your wife. If you answer “Never!” it sounds like you’re still beating your wife. If you answer with “I never beat my wife, so the question is a ridiculous one,” an unscrupulous editor could trim that to fit a headline “Never!” There’s not really a way to answer it that can’t be taken out of context or trimmed to a damning sound bite.

Slight quibble – I don’t think it’s so much that an expository answer is too long. The main idea seems to be just to get someone to express a (semi-)wordy denial, which makes a lot of folks presume guilt.

Kent Brockman: Apu, will you ever stop selling spoiled meat?
Apu: No – I mean, yes – I mean – uh oh.

[/Homer and Apu]

I always thought it was a little silly, I would just turn the question around into a verbal assault on the asker and not worry about the consequences.

“I have never beat my wife and you a dirty little snot for asking such a weaselly question? How did you ever get a job with a respectable news service? Are you drunk or just a scumbag?”



“I have never beat my wife and you a dirty little snot for asking such a weaselly question? How did you ever get a job with a respectable news service? Are you drunk or just a scumbag?”


“You didn’t answer my question.”

“In an abusive tirade against this reporter, Doper What Exit? launched into attack mode after I asked him a simple question about his home life. Unprovoked, he referred to me as “a dirty litle snot” and a “drunk” and “scumbag”, the hatred of women clear in his barely controlled rage. Allegations have been looming for weeks that his mental health is unstable, and this new evidence makes it clear that he is unfit for office.”

:smiley: See?

Yes, but there will be other news outlets to go to with the story. They might even enjoy tweaking the nose of a competing reporter. I said I would accept the consequences. I do not allow myself to be intimidated easily.


Nicely done, but what about a simple “I never beat my wife?”, or, perhaps more aptly “I have never supported <UNPOPULAR POLITICAL STANCE>”? Surely it can’t be so simple to contort such a reply into an attack?

Waits to be disabused

The answer to this and all loaded questions is “Mu”.

which has the following::

According to the Jargon File, a collection of hacker jargon and culture, Mu (here pronounced “moo”) is considered by Discordians to be the correct answer to the classic logical fallacy of the loaded question “Have you stopped beating your wife?”[1] Assuming that you have no wife or you have never beaten your wife, the answer “yes” is wrong because it implies that you used to beat your wife and then stopped, but “no” is worse because it suggests that you have one and are still beating her. As a result, various Discordians proposed “mu” as the correct answer, alleged by them to mean “Your question cannot be answered because it depends on incorrect assumptions”. An equivalent English reply would be ‘not’, instead of ‘yes’ or ‘no’, as ‘not’ is one possible meaning of ‘mu’.

However, (while I doubt that has ever actually been used that way), a frequent scenario has the exchange occur in a trial where the lawyer asks the question and, when the witness attempts to explain, the lawyer asks the judge to direct the witness to respond “yes” or “no.”

You could always hit them with an answer that can’t be used as a soundbite:

“I reject the premise. Next question.”

You’ll have it out and be on the next question before the reporter finishes writing down your answer. :smiley:

To formalize this a little bit, the problem with this type of question is that it presumes something that may not be true. To answer the question as posed validates the presumption. The only way out of the problem is to challenge the presumption rather than answer the question.

“Have you stopped beating your wife?” is the epitome of a presumptive question. The presumption is so obvious and the example so well known that it can be used as a rebuttal:

Q: When will you take responsibility for the corruption that has taken place under your leadership?
A: When will you stop beating your wife?

The answer accuses the questioner of presuming something that isn’t true.

I have seen it like that, but I think we know no honest judge would allow for such a line of questioning. I have also seen the Smart Alec reporter use it in poor scripts. It annoys me because it sounds cute but it is actually rather dumb and very obnoxious.


Also known as that oft-misused term “begging the question”: “Why has the US government consistently concealed evidence of alien spacecraft?” Actually this one begs two questions: that there is such evidence, and that it has been concealed.

The famed medical examiner Dr. Charles Wetli, in his presentation “The Art of Courtroom Testimony”, suggests that you respond with the answer, “Do you want me to contravene my oath?” (to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God. I do. You may be seated. Thank you, your Honor. May I make reference to my notes? - etc.)

In the courtroom, the proper objection is “Objection, compound.” Because it purports to ask a single question, when actually is asks two (presuming the answer to the first one); namely, 1) Did you beat your wife?, and 2) When did you stop? Of course, your lawyer has to be paying attention, because the witness can quickly walk into the trap before a distracted lawyer figures out to object.