During an exam, an examiner can put to an ordinary student a question that may be quite difficult even for the best of the group. What if, for some reason, the examiner has a predetermined intention to fail or mark down someone no matter how good they may be on the subject? To achieve that, they start asking deliberately tricky, difficult questions and finally, achieve their goal.

What the examiner's approach to the student may be called (interested, biased, prejudiced?), and is there a word for the question which is supposed to fail most of the students (a stumper, a sticker?)?

What typical words and expressions, or idioms may help to describe this situation:

A. In in a conversation between close friends, one of whom flunked the exam because of very tricky questions he couldn't answer?

B. In an official complaint against the examiner? (What did he actually — formal proceedings let aside — do to fail the student?)


2 Answers 2


One idiom that could be used is:

The deck was stacked against the student.

This idiom means:

stack the deck (against someone or something) also the deck was stacked against you
to arrange things against someone or something; to arrange something so that it is unfair to someone

Cambridge defines this as:

stack the deck (against someone/something)
to arrange something so that the results are unfair


You could say that the instructor has it out for you.

  1. have it out for (someone)
    To persistently try or desire to criticize, cause harm to, or harass someone, especially due to a grudge.

I've also heard

have something against someone
Dislike or bear a grudge against someone:

In situation A, you could call the particularly tricky question a

  1. trick question
    : a deceptive question that is intended to make one give an answer that is not correct or that causes difficulty
  2. curve ball
    1. Slang Something that is unexpected or designed to trick or deceive:
      That last question on the exam was a real curve ball.

These meanings do not necessarily imply malice.

About the trick question, you could say he threw us a curve ball, for example.

  1. pitch/throw (someone) a curve ball Slang.
    1. To mislead; deceive.
    2. To cause to be surprised, especially unpleasantly so.

In situation B, you could call it an unfair question, though, you this would be in your opinion. It might not be the opinion of all the students.

  • Can "stumper", "toughie", "poser", and "sticker" be used in the like situations as synonyms of "trick question"? They all are in WordWeb off-line dictionary. as well.
    – Victor B.
    Commented Aug 9, 2016 at 15:14
  • 1
    @Rompey - To me, the essence of "trick question" is that it's unfair in some way; it is designed to mislead the listener, and is actually easy once you know the trick. For example, "What's in the exact center of America?" The answer is "The letter 'r'." That's a trick question because it's all about misleading the hearer into thinking it's about America the place, not "America" the word. That's different from a "toughie" or "poser", which might be very difficult, but are legitimately, honestly difficult.
    – stangdon
    Commented Aug 9, 2016 at 15:54
  • 1
    This Ngram indicates that "have it in for (someone)" is 30 times more widely used than "have it out for (someone)". books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – JavaLatte
    Commented Aug 9, 2016 at 15:59
  • @stangdon - Thanks awfully; I thought a tricky question is the one which doesn't seem difficult but at the same time has concealed difficulty and actually is a very difficult one. Suggesting that an examiner is unbiased, overuse of such questions put to one particular student is the context of my question.
    – Victor B.
    Commented Aug 9, 2016 at 16:08
  • @JavaLatte - Thank you for the comment; it's been taken note of.
    – Victor B.
    Commented Aug 9, 2016 at 16:13

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .