What Are the Different Types of Leading Questions?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Leading questions, or questions where the desired answer is embedded in the wording, can come in a number of forms. The questioner may make an assumption, imply something, create a link, or use a multi-part question to confuse the subject, for example. In law, it is only permissible to use leading questions in very strict circumstances to avoid tainting evidence or testimony. Outside the law, such questions are common in journalism, and it can be helpful to learn how to identify them.

Leading questions may be directed at a courtroom witness.
Leading questions may be directed at a courtroom witness.

In a classic example of a leading question, an attorney could say, “On the night of 19th, you saw George dispose of the body, didn't you?” This yes or no question is leading, as it assumes what the subject of the question was doing. In a direct examination in court, this question would provoke an objection, and the attorney would need to rephrase, asking “What did you see on the night of the 19th?” or “Where were you on the 19th?” Attorneys are allowed to ask leading questions when handling a hostile witness or a cross-examination.

Leading questions are often used by journalists when digging deeper for print stories.
Leading questions are often used by journalists when digging deeper for print stories.

In addition to assumptions, leading questions can take the form of linked statements like “What is your opinion of John Cross, the murderer?” or ask for agreement, where the question requires the responder to agree with it. Leading questions can also create a forced choice, where neither option fits but the witness feels obliged to pick one. Tag questions are another type of leading question, where the question includes a directive implying a particular desired response tagged onto the end. An attorney might say “That's not how you would conduct a physical examination, doctor, is it?” Leading questions can also be coercive in nature, forcing a respondent to give an answer that may not fit.

Multi-part leading questions are a common tactic. These can confuse a witness, and they may set up a situation where the witness has trouble answering the question accurately. The witness might want to say “yes” to some of the question and “no” to the rest, and be unable to articulate this clearly. This technique is common in journalism, and is something people should watch out for when being interviewed by the media, as it is easy to be led into making an inaccurate statement.

Loaded terminology can also be a questioning tactic. An attorney may use a deprecated term in the hopes of creating a distraction as the subject attempts to straighten out the terminology, or is forced to respond using the same phrasing, prejudicing the answer. Other leading questions can ask for speculation about what another person thought or said. This is not permissible in evidence because it is hearsay.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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