Rhetorical question

Rhetorical question

A rhetorical question is a figure of speech in the form of a question posed for its persuasive effect without the expectation of a reply.[1] Rhetorical questions encourage the listener to think about what the (often obvious) answer to the question must be. When a speaker states, "How much longer must our people endure this injustice?", no formal answer is expected. Rather, it is a rhetorical device used by the speaker to assert or deny something (e.g., "Can you do anything right?"). While sometimes amusing and even humorous, rhetorical questions are rarely meant for pure, comedic effect. A carefully crafted question can, if delivered well, persuade an audience to believe in the position(s) of the speaker.[2]



Negative assertion

Often a rhetorical question is intended as a challenge, with the implication that the question is difficult or impossible to answer. Thus the question functions as a negative assertion. For example, What have the Romans ever done for us? (Monty Python's Life of Brian) should be read as The Romans have never done anything for us. Similarly, when Shakespeare lets Mark Antony exclaim: Here was a Caesar! when comes such another? (Julius Caesar, Act 3, scene 2, 257), it functions as an assertion that Caesar possessed rare qualities that may not be seen again for a long time, if ever.

Such negative assertions may function as positives in sarcastic contexts. For example, when a speaker repeats a statement reported to have been found true and adds a sarcastic Who knew?, the question functions as an assertion that the truth of the preceding statement was – or should have been – already utterly obvious: Smoking can lead to lung cancer. Who knew?

Rhetorical questions as metaphors

One common form is where a rhetorical question is used as a metaphor for a question already asked. Examples may be found in the song Maria from the 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, The Sound of Music, in which the How do you solve a problem like Maria? is repeatedly answered with another question: How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?, How do you keep a wave upon the sand? and How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand? These responses may be taken as asserting that "the problem of Maria" cannot be solved; and furthermore the choice of cloud, wave and moonbeam as metaphors for Maria give insight into her character and the nature of the problem.[citation needed]

In the vernacular, this form of rhetorical question is most often seen as rhetorical affirmation, where the certainty or obviousness of the answer to a question is expressed by asking another, often humorous, question for which the answer is equally obvious; popular examples include Is the sky blue?, Is the Pope Catholic? and Does a bear shit in the woods?[3][4][5]

Other forms

Sometimes the implied answer to a rhetorical question is "Yes, but I wish it were not so" or vice versa:

O mighty Caesar! dost thou lie so low?
Are all thy conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils,
Shrunk to this little measure?
(Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, III.i.148)

Another common form is the expression of doubt by questioning a statement just made; for example, by appending the following to a sentence: or did he?, or is it?, etc.

The butler did it... or did he?[citation needed]

It is also common to use a rhetorical question to bring an end to a debate or to finalize a decision. For example, when internally deciding whether to perform an action, one may shove aside the dialogue with a simple, "Eh, why not?" or "What the hell?"


Depending on the context, a rhetorical question may be punctuated by a question mark (?), full stop (.), or exclamation mark (!),[6] but it is generally best to use a question mark for any question, rhetorical or not.[7]

Rhetorical questions may be signaled by marker phrases; questions that include "after all", or "by any chance" may be intended as rhetorical.[8]

Written lists of rhetorical questions within a sentence require question marks, but do not require quotation marks. "Would he? Could he? Should he? she asked." [9]

In the 1580s, English printer Henry Denham invented a "rhetorical question mark" for use at the end of a rhetorical question; however, it died out of use in the 17th century. It was the reverse of an ordinary question mark, so that instead of the main opening pointing back into the sentence, it opened away from it.[10]

Some have adapted the question mark into various irony marks, but these are very rarely seen.[citation needed]


"The effectiveness of rhetorical questions in argument comes from their dramatic quality. They suggest dialogue, especially when the speaker both asks and answers them himself, as if he were playing two parts on the stage. They are not always impassioned; they may be mildly ironical or merely argumentative: but they are always to some extent dramatic, and, if used to excess, they tend to give one’s style a theatrical air." [11]

"Rhetorical questioning is…a fairly conscious technique adopted by a speaker for deliberate ends, and it is used infrequently, proportional to the length of the dialogue, oration, or conversation." [12]

See also


  1. ^ Gideon O. Burton, Brigham Young University. "Rhetorical Questions". specialized language definitions. http://rhetoric.byu.edu/figures/R/rhetorical%20questions.htm. Retrieved 2007-10-19. 
  2. ^ "Rhetorical Questions". The Library of Rhetoric. http://libraryofrhetoric.org/lor/?page_id=836. 
  3. ^ Powell, Chris; Paton, George E. C. (1988). Humour in society: resistance and control. Macmillan. p. 67. ISBN 0333440706. 
  4. ^ Moon, Rosamund (1998). Fixed expressions and idioms in English: a corpus-based approach (Oxford studies in lexicography and lexicology). Oxford University Press. p. 158. ISBN 019823614X. 
  5. ^ Fergusson, Rosalind; Partridge, Eric (1994). Shorter dictionary of catch phrases. Routledge. p. 25. ISBN 0415100518. 
  6. ^ http://www.whitesmoke.com/punctuation-question-mark.html#rhe Whitesmoke
  7. ^ http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/marks/question.htm
  8. ^ Javier Gutiérrez Rexach, "Rhetorical Questions, Relevance and Scales", University of Ohio, 1998
  9. ^ 6.126 and 6.56 Chicago Manual of Style 15th ed. 2003, University of Chicago Press.
  10. ^ Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots & Leaves, 2003. p. 142. ISBN 1-592-40087-6.
  11. ^ Gardiner, J (1907). "Manual of Composition and Rhetoric". Ginn & Company. http://www.worldcat.org/title/manual-of-composition-and-rhetoric/oclc/1926080&referer=brief_results. Retrieved 23 April 2011. 
  12. ^ Boyd, Boyd (1997). Electronic Discourse: Linguistics Individuals in Virtual Space. Albany: State University of New York Press. http://www.worldcat.org/title/electronic-discourse-linguistic-individuals-in-virtual-space/oclc/42636887&referer=brief_results. 

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • rhetorical question — is an assertion put in the form of a question without expecting an answer, e.g. Who do they think they are? …   Modern English usage

  • rhetorical question — n. a question asked only for effect, as to emphasize a point, no answer being expected …   English World dictionary

  • rhetorical question — noun a statement that is formulated as a question but that is not supposed to be answered he liked to make his points with rhetorical questions • Hypernyms: ↑statement * * * noun : a question not intended to elicit an answer but asked for… …   Useful english dictionary

  • rhetorical question — UK / US noun [countable] Word forms rhetorical question : singular rhetorical question plural rhetorical questions linguistics a question that you ask without expecting or wanting an answer …   English dictionary

  • rhetorical question — noun a) A question posed only for dramatic or persuasive effect. Are you nuts? Dont answer that its a rhetorical question. b) A question to which the asker does not expect an answer …   Wiktionary

  • rhetorical question — question whose answer is clear, question that was asked solely for the purpose of making an impression …   English contemporary dictionary

  • rhetorical question — rhe,torical question noun count a question you ask without expecting or wanting an answer …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • rhetorical question — a question asked solely to produce an effect or to make an assertion and not to elicit a reply, as What is so rare as a day in June? [1835 45] * * * …   Universalium

  • rhetorical question — rhetor′ical ques′tion n. a question asked solely for effect and not to elicit a reply, as “What is so rare as a day in June?” • Etymology: 1835–45 …   From formal English to slang

  • rhetorical question — /rətɒrɪkəl ˈkwɛstʃən / (say ruhtorikuhl kweschuhn) noun a question designed to produce an effect and not to draw an answer …   Australian English dictionary

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