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'A great question'


Looking for potential substitutes to a frequently overused response.

After a recent lecture by a young medical student delivered via Zoom, I watched as an audience member asked a question about the interesting work described in her presentation.

The student responded with “That is a great question!” before giving her answer.

A second audience member asked a question and the response was once again prefaced by “That is a great question!”

When questions 3, 4 and 5 were raised, the answers began with – you guessed it, “that is a great question!”

Luckily, this was not one of those drinking games during which everyone has to consume alcohol each time a certain word or phrase is used.

If it had been, we would have quickly become insensible.

Previously by Dr. McDonnell: Living forward: We still have to understand backward

Apparently, we Americans employ this rhetorical device much more frequently than is the case in other English-speaking nations.1

Some explanations include these:

1. Speakers want the person asking the question to feel good. They are telling them “I think you are intelligent.”

2. The speakers wants a few seconds to think about their answer before they respond and, rather than have a moment of quiet that might seem awkward they feel better with having their mouths say the 4 words while their brains think about things.

3. Speakers want to be liked, so they throw out the compliment as a way to endear themselves to the audience.

4. According to at least 1 public speaker authority, the phrase can be used as a “bridge,” which is a device by which the speaker tries to make a transition to a somewhat different topic.
Politicians, of course, are experts at this, such as when they do not answer the question they were asked and instead talk about what they want to talk about (i.e. their so-called talking points).
To me, this is the opposite of explanation #1, because the speaker is communicating that “I think you are so stupid that all I have to do is praise your question to make you not care that I refuse to answer it.”

Also by Dr. McDonnell: Succession planning: Following an 'institution' can be tough

It seems to me that routine use of this expression has its potential drawbacks:

1. What if an audience member asks a question and the speaker’s brain forgets to include the obligatory “that is a great question!” Will the audience member be offended, interpreting the lack of praise for his or her question as the equivalent of the speaker saying “what a stupid question!”?

2. When a speaker does it routinely, it quickly becomes a kind of a joke for the audience members who find themselves waiting eagerly to hear it time and time again.

My recommendation is that speakers at least make an effort to change things up a bit, so that they compliment the questioner without sounding silly and achieve whatever other goals they might in buying a few seconds to think.

For example:

1. What a perspicacious insight!

2. What a sagacious interrogatory!

3. What a percipient query!

4. What a shrewd and discerning disquisition!

Will one day we be able to put an end to the overuse of this phrase?

That is a great question!

Read more editorials by Dr. McDonnell



1. Dubner SJ. Freakonomics. That’s a Great Question! (Ep. 192). January 15, 2015; Accessed June 14, 2021. https://freakonomics.com/podcast/thats-a-great-question-a-new-freakonomics-radio-podcast/

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