Lesson 1, Topic 1
In Progress

1.3. Question wording and types

ryanrori December 23, 2020

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Question wording

At the most detailed level, considerable attention must be given to the actual wording and terminology used in each question. Again, certain simple principles can be prescribed:

  • Most wording problems are associated with unintentional ambiguity; that is, the respondent infers that the question is asking about something other than what the designer intended it to do.
  • It is possible to accidentally word questions in such a way that the response is largely controlled by whether the respondent has a similar cultural, educational or ethical background to the designer of the survey, rather than by what he or she really thinks about the topic.
  • We commonly make linguistic assumptions about the respondents’ vocabulary, grasp of the language, and so on.
  • Double negatives are widely used, partly in error, but occasionally they are used deliberately for emphasis. In survey questions this will always create confusion.
  • The most difficult ‘wording’ problem is really a structural problem in the design of the questionnaire, caused by trying to combine questions in order to simplify the process. This is the tendency to use ‘double-barrelled’ questions. For example, we might ask a question that says ‘Are you a member of the ANC and did you support the party in the last election?’ There are four possible answers to this question (Yes/Yes, Yes/No, No/Yes, No/No) because it is really two questions masquerading as one. Whatever answer we get, we will never know which of the four the respondent really meant.

Question types


An open question is one in which you do not provide any standard answers to choose from. A series of lines or a blank space is provided in which the respondents are encouraged to write, in their own words, how they feel about the topic in the question.

What do you like most about the course you are attending?



A closed question is one in which you provide the response categories, and the respondent just chooses one:

How old are you?

  • 15 – 19 years old
    • 20 – 24 years old
    • 25 – 29 years old
    • 30 years or older


There are different varieties of closed questions, depending on the way in which the respondent is asked to place their answers.

The simplest type of closed-ended question provides the respondents with only two options.


Do you have access to the internet at home?

  • Yes
  • No


Instead of using the “yes/no” options, the quality of information collected can be increased and made more descriptive by formulating what is called paired-comparison.

In this type of question, the respondent also only selects one option, but has to actually think about the options and compare their meanings.


The police want to extend their services in the community. As a member of this community, if you had to choose between the following two options, which one would you prefer? (Tick one answer.)

  • More regular foot patrols in the streets
  • More officers on duty where children hang out in the shopping malls

The above example illustrates the fact that the wording of questions must be guided by our initial purpose for doing research, and by any information we have gained from doing literature surveys.

Contingency questions

Questions that only apply to some of the respondents and must therefore include clear instructions.


Have you nursed a cancer patient before?

  • Yes
  • No

If yes, please answer the remaining questions.

If no, please skip question14-18. Go to question 19 on the next page.

“Have you nursed a cancer patient before?” functions as a filter question, which is used to identify the subgroup in the sample who have nursed cancer patients before.

Ranking questions

Instead of selecting one option, respondents are required to rank or order the options from the least to the most (or from the most to the least), according to their preferences.


Instructions:  What do you prefer to do as a nurse? Please number the activity you prefer the most as 1, number your second choice as 2, and so on, until you number the activity that you prefer the least as number 5.

  • Writing reports
  • Assisting in operations
  • Giving medication
  • Supervising student nurses
  • Bedside care

Inventory question

The respondent is not limited to selecting only one option. The purpose of inventory questions is to obtain a comprehensive overview of all possible options that could apply to each respondent.


Which of the following sources conveyed reliable information about recent changes to your conditions of employment (tick all the sources that apply to you?)

  • Internal memos
  • Notices on the notice board
  • Fellow workers
  • Your immediate supervisor
  • Electronic mail
  • Staff meeting
  • Other (fill in the other source[s])

Multiple-choice questions

Questions can be worded in different ways, depending on what is being investigated. They do share one characteristic, namely, that the respondent must select one of the options from those given. Multiple-choice questions are also often used to collect demographic data.


Please indicate your age by putting a tick next to one of the groups below.

  • 20 or younger
  • 21-30
  • 31-40
  • 41-50
  • 51-60
  • 61 or older

The Lickert scale

The Lickert scale is one of the most frequently used scales in research. Probably because the categories used as options have been tried and tested over the years. These categories consist of the following:

  • Strongly agree
  • Agree
  • Neutral (neither agree nor disagree)
  • Disagree
  • Strongly disagree

Ordering of questionnaire items

Although there are no fixed rules for arranging questions in a questionnaire, the following serves as a good guideline:

  • Begin with general or broader questions and proceed to more precise or specific items.
  • The grouping of questions should follow a logical pattern.
  • To avoid the respondent from feeling hostile, begin with neutral questions and place sensitive questions in the middle.

Errors in data collection

Before examining the basic methods of analysing data, we need to review the major sources of error in collected data. Without an appreciation of these, we may believe that the data we collected is in some way ‘perfect’; this may lead us to place too much confidence in the conclusions we draw from the data.

Sampling errors

Errors in defining and selecting the sample will bias the results by making the sample less representative of the target population. The potential errors include:

  • Non-inclusion errors – people who should be included in the sample are not; they may be replaced by others, thus changing the composition of the sample.
  • Non-response errors – members of the sample do not respond, thus changing the characteristics of the sample.

Observation errors

Even if the sample is correctly chosen, errors can be generated during the data collection process. These might include:

  • Question errors – the question is wrongly worded or misleading
  • Interviewer error – the interviewer makes an error whilst asking the question
  • Recording error – the interviewer incorrectly records the answer by the respondent
  • Coding error – the data on the survey form is wrongly encoded during the pre-processing stage.

Processing errors

Once the data has been coded and collated, errors can occur during the processing stage:

  • Computational errors – the analyst makes errors during the calculation of statistics
  • Inappropriate measures – the analyst decides to use analytical techniques that are inappropriate to the data.

Obviously these types of errors can never be totally eliminated, as they are caused largely by human error. The incidence of such errors can, however, be minimised by extending training and careful application of sound administrative practices.