Ask: "Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral?"

There's an old game called "Twenty Questions" in which one person thinks of the name of an object and the other person, or group, tries to guess what it is. The first question is, "Is it animal, vegetable, or mineral?"

After that, all questions must be posed as "yes" or "no" questions.

The answerer must be knowledgeable about the object she has selected and scrupulously honest in her answers. Sometimes she may be uncertain and should say so or ask "Can you reformulate your question?"

A version of this game, called "What's My Line?" was a favorite TV program during the 1950s and 1960s. The host would present a new guest each week, and the panel of five regulars—who were masters of the game—would ask yes-or-no questions to determine the guest's line of business. Occasionally, the guest would be puzzled and there would be a whispered conversation with the host to clear things up. There was never any intention to mislead the players.

A whole chapter of Rudolf Flesch's excellent book The Art of Clear Thinking, is devoted to "Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral." Incidentally, Flesch is also the author of the famous book Why Johnny Can't Read.

Flesch states that "Twenty Questions" is the model of productive thinking.

I read The Art of Clear Thinking in 1974, as a first-year graduate student and started practicing "Twenty Questions" with one of my classmates, a brilliant student in aerospace engineering. The idea of the game is to ask questions that will divide the "universe" of possible answers in half. So, for example, after being told that the object is mineral, a good follow-up question might be: "Is it man-made?" This question divides the universe of answers into all those objects that are natural in origin and all those that are created by human beings. These are not exactly equal in number, but we can say that, roughly, we have divided the number of potential objects in half. If the answer is yes, we can stop thinking about quasars and quarks, protons and planets: We know the object is of human origin.

Once my friend knew it was a man-made object, he had a great follow-up question: "Can you buy it at Thrifty Supermarket?" I suppose today we would say "Wal-Mart." These are supermarkets that have everything from automobile parts to Zoloft. But there are still many things made by people that aren't in the store. Consider that vast number of products produced by the military-industrial complex. You can't buy a hand grenade at Wal-Mart. So the Thrifty question was a good divider.

Even neater was the series of questions that would follow if I said yes to Thrifty. Then my friend would divide up the store into departments, as if he were taking a walk through the aisles. This is easily accomplished by grouping departments: "Is it in any of the following categories—automotive, hardware, housewares, or electronics?" Notice that this is a fair yes-or-no question. You don't answer "Yes—housewares, boy are you clever!" You simply say yes, without telling the questioner which of the four is right. He will have to ask two more questions at most to differentiate between the four objects.

"Is it housewares or hardware?"

"Hardware?" "No."

Then the questioner knows it is housewares and doesn't waste another question confirming it.

The perfect questioner will divide the potential objects in half up to twenty times in a row, which means that she can differentiate 3 X 3 X 2 . . . X 2 = one out of about a million objects. Because

Chapter 19 Ask: "Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral?"

the English language has about a million words (many of which are not objects), the perfect questioner should win all games in which the object is described by a single word.

Of course, a very poor question to ask, after determining that the object is man-made, would be, "Is it a thumbtack?" If there were one million objects, then when you are told "No," you have not narrowed the question much: there are now 999,999 objects left to choose from.

The challenge of the game is that you have to think in terms of categories, classifications, and hierarchies. You must be imaginative and use good judgment. You must have a grasp of the meaning of words. "Twenty Questions" is a wonderful game that improves your thinking and costs nothing to play. It can be used to generate ideas and sharpen your understanding of things.

To make your games more enjoyable, I recommend writing down each question and answer and having a referee to keep the answers clear and honest. If you can play "Twenty Questions" well, then you're thinking like a rocket scientist.

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