A rhetorical question is meant to make a statement or point, in the form of a question. But that is different from a question that is asked with the intent to cause doubt. For instance, a lot of conspiracy theories are communicated this way, by asking for instance "How can jet fuel melt steel beams?" or "Is the Covid vaccine safe?" Sometimes these are asked sincerely, sometimes they're asked rhetorically. But a lot of the time they are asked merely to plant a seed of doubt, and not necessarily to ask or assert anything--the questioner only wants to accomplish a kind of psychological manipulation. Basically causing the listener to subconsciously think "Well if they're asking the question, it must be because there is cause to have doubt." There is some kind of pragmatic context that the listener is meant to infer.

The broad phenomenon seems to currently be understood by the popular phrase "just asking questions". But I'm wondering if there is any more official linguistic name for this kind of expression.

  • 2
    A very modern and recent term is "sealioning". Commented Feb 5, 2022 at 18:34
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    The phrase just sayin', or just askin' (the non-velar nasal at the end is practically required) can have this effect.
    – jlawler
    Commented Feb 5, 2022 at 19:58
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    I think you mean "sow".
    – fdb
    Commented Feb 5, 2022 at 21:59
  • Are these not related to the concept of "leading questions"?
    – jogloran
    Commented Feb 7, 2022 at 1:00
  • @jogloran I would think a leading question is one such that you are trying to elicit a certain answer. Not usually seeding doubt.
    – Addem
    Commented Feb 7, 2022 at 1:23

1 Answer 1


In Conversation Analysis I have read of the concept of 'challenges' being used to refer to the case you are describing.

This is a paper that uses the term, maybe it is helpful: Koshik, Irene. "Wh-questions used as challenges." Discourse Studies 5.1 (2003): 51-77.

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