Question Wording

Designing questionnaires can be an exercise in cross-communication, since words often have a special meaning to some people and the key to good surveys is to elicit the information we need, but also to know what the respondents mean when they respond. Remember the conversation between Humpty Dumpty and Alice in Lewis Carroll’s "Alice in Wonderland"?

Humpty Dumpty: "…There are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get unbirthday presents."

"Certainly", said Alice.

"And only one for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for you."

"I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’." Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument’."

"But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’.

"It means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less."

Or how about this example of cross-communication from Hagar?

In order to avoid this kind of frustrating exercise in communication, let us first look at the two different question types, and then look at common errors in question wording to avoid.

Please see this very helpful article by Pamela Narins from the SPSS website on how to write more effective survey questions. And if you think only inexperienced researchers have trouble with the wording of questions, take a look at this debate over ethnic background that has been troubling the experts at Statistics Canada for years!