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Great Question!

Questions have muscle. That’s what I mentioned last week while praising the strongest question word of all, Why. Even the weakest of questions has strength not found in any declarative sentence: the strength to require a response. If someone makes a statement, you don’t have to do anything. But if someone asks you a question, you must answer.

Why is that?

(See, now I have to answer.) Well, it’s not because anybody passed a law. There are no language police eavesdropping on conversations and writing tickets for those who fail to respond to a question. No self-appointed language vigilantes either, because nobody disobeys this rule.

It’s more fundamental than that. It’s a rule of our language, a fundamental rule of conversation that everyone using the language understands.

But what if you don’t want to answer? Is there any way to defy this rule?

As it happens, yes. In fact, in the United States there are two ways out.

One is in fact a matter of law. It’s the guarantee of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which declares, “nor shall any person … be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” That leads to statements along the lines of “I decline to answer that question on the grounds that it may incriminate me.”

And it leads to the Miranda warning given to criminal suspects that begins, “You have the right to remain silent.” It takes the full force of a constitutional amendment to create this exception to the rule.

That’s great for interrogation rooms and Congressional hearings. But what can we do when we’re not being asked about a crime? Is there any way to fend off a question in a civilian setting?

As a matter of fact, there is. Just switch to a metalanguage.

Metalanguage? As in “I never met a language I didn’t like?”

No, metalanguage as in, language about language, talk about talk. You talk about the question instead of answering it. Like this:

“Why do you ask that question?”

This shifts the burden of answering to the questioner, and with why as your question word, you can keep the questions going in reverse as long as you wish, or until the questioner gives up.

There’s another more amicable escape via metalanguage, one especially favored by pundits and politicians. If you like a question but need time to think about your answer, just switch to metalanguage in praise of the question:

“That’s a good question.”

“That’s a really good question.”

“That’s a great question.”

Beware of going overboard. “That’s the best question I’ve ever heard in my life” might raise suspicions. Otherwise, though, employ liberally.

OK, lesson over. Can I help you with anything else?

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