Source: pp 152-153, A Concise Introduction to Logic (12 Ed, 2014) by Patrick J. Hurley

[p 152:] The fallacy of complex question is committed when two (or more) questions are asked in the guise of a single question and a single answer is then given to both of them. Every complex question presumes the existence of a certain condition. [...]

[p 153:] The fallacy of complex question should be distinguished from another kind of question known in law as a leading question. A leading question is one in which the answer is in some way suggested in the question. Whether or not a question is a leading one is important in the direct examination of a witness by counsel. Example:

Tell us, on April 9, did you see the defendant shoot the deceased?   (leading question)
Tell us, what did you see on April 9?                (straight question)

Leading questions differ from complex questions in that they involve no logical fallacies—that is, they do not attempt to trick the respondent into admitting something he or she does not want to admit. To distinguish between the two, however, one sometimes needs to know whether prior questions have been asked.

How do the two differ? Leading Questions appear the same as Complex Questions to me. The grey does not distinguish them for me, because how do Leading Questions not attempt to trick the respondent into admitting something he or she does not want to admit?


The leading question contains a question, and information about what answer it expects, planting an idea in the respondent's mind, but not drawing any inappropriate inferences about his answer. So it is a trick of psychology, (using the priming effect, or false memory induction) not of logic.

  1. Would you say the defendant was dressed shabbily?

as opposed to

  1. Can you characterize how the defendant was dressed?

(Trickery is not often entirely absent, but it is basic peer-pressure, or otherwise emotional and not logical in form.)

The complex question contains two questions, with the veiled implication they expect the same answer, tricking him into assuming they mean the same thing.

  1. Did that person appear to be intoxicated, or were they aware of what was going on?

This is obviously two questions

  1. Did this person appear to be intoxicated?

  2. Was this person aware of what going on?

The form implies that if they were not intoxicated, they were aware, which is not logical, since we are often unaware for other reasons entirely. Perhaps the person was just tired or distracted.

As a rhetorical device, independent of the logical trick, the complex question (3) also makes the respondent more willing to answer. Since they know the answer to one of the two questions (4 or 5), they will give an answer, even if they do not know the answer to the other question.

If they then later claim not to know the answer to that other question when it is asked on its own, they can be portrayed as inconsistent or misleading.

If someone asked:

  1. Was this person aware of what is going on?

Careful people will answer that they do not know (since they are not mind-readers.)

But given the combined question (3), they will answer the first half (4), and then later they can be quoted as answering the second half (5).


They are actually roughly interchangeable, as per the Logically Fallacious index. Just as an example, if someone in a courtroom were to ask a truly innocent man being wrongfully tried for domestic violence, the prosecutor might ask something like:

Are you going to continue to beat your wife after today?

This would arguably fall under both categories. Although the correct answer is "no", because he was not beating his wife in the first place, and therefore could not possibly continue, the defendant would still sound guilty because of the implicit presupposition that he was, indeed, beating his wife. This becomes a fallacy when the audience, or in this case, the jury, does not understand that this implication has not yet been proven and simply accepts it as fact, even temporarily.

However, to me, the grey seems to distinguish them based on (in)formality. In any rigorous philosophical environment, devoid of human biases or emotional reactions, a leading question would not be fallacious. Taking the current example,

Were you at home on the night she was beaten?

This would be a leading question. Although looking at this formally would have only a true or false value, it is only leading in the colloquial sense and is therefore an informal fallacy.

However, it seems to me that the two are similar enough to the point at which you can refer to the same statement as "complex" or "leading" depending on the formality of the discussion.

  • A loaded question is not just a leading question. The index does not mention the latter.
    – user9166
    Dec 21 '15 at 20:20

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