What Is a Rhetorical Question?
Wouldn’t it be great to understand why someone asks a rhetorical question? How many times a day do you ask questions that don’t have an answer? Don’t we all do this in everyday speech? Who knew? Is the sky blue?
You may have noticed I was not waiting for a response to any of the above queries. That’s the thing about rhetorical questions; the questions do not require an answer.
When used effectively, these sassy, confident inquiries can enhance your written and spoken communication by emphasizing critical points, inspiring contemplation or creating a mood. When executed poorly, rhetorical questions may seem rude, arrogant and off-putting.
What Is a Rhetorical Question?
A rhetorical question requires no reply. People typically use this kind of figurative language to highlight a point. It may already have an obvious answer, but the speaker asks anyway, using sarcasm for emphasis. It may be a broad inquiry to inspire thinking or introspection or a query put forward in advertising to persuade consumers. Regardless of the intended result, rhetorical questioning aims to produce an effect on the listener, not to gain information.
Usually, you pose inquiries to obtain knowledge. However, this is not the case with rhetorical questions. Because the speaker does not want an answer, many people think this type of figure of speech should not end with a question mark. In the late 1500s, Henry Denham, an English printer, designed a reverse question mark specifically for these questions. He called it a percontation point. People used this punctuation until the 17th century, when it fell out of use. Writers today sometimes choose to end rhetorical queries with an exclamation point or period.
Rhetorical Question Definition
A rhetorical question is a speech technique posed to make a point or create a dramatic effect rather than gather information. The questioner does not expect a direct response.
For example, I say, “How many times have I told you that your laundry belongs in the basket and not on the floor?” at least once a day, but I do not want my child to provide me with an exact number. I merely desire that she, please, for the love of baked goods, put the clothes in the hamper already. Oh my gosh.
Why Do People Use Rhetorical Questions?
There are various reasons someone may use a rhetorical question. Authors and musicians often use rhetorical language as a style choice to create allure, interest or engagement. During debates, participants may use it as a tool to declare an opinion. Speechwriters use this method to inspire reflection. Marketers use this approach to persuade customers to take action. There are many possible intended objectives, such as:
- To emphasize an idea or intent
- To suggest doubt
- To start a conversation
- To point out the obvious
- To challenge the reader or listener
- To provoke deep thinking
- To impose sarcastic reasoning
- To convey the speaker’s opinion
Rhetorical Question Examples
When I ask a household youth, “Do you want to set the table for dinner?” I intend this to be rhetorical. I do not desire a reply. I want the plates on the table already, before the food gets cold, please. When a teacher asks a pupil, “Will you please stop playing with your pencil?” trust me, the teacher does not want an answer. It is best for everyone involved if the children do not respond when parents ask, “Do you want me to call Santa? Do you want to go to bed without dinner tonight? Were you born in a barn?”
Bold and Brazen
When you feel sassy and wish to emphasize your point, you might ask the following:
- Do birds fly?
- Do ducks quack?
- Is the sun bright?
- Are your toys going to pick themselves up?
- How do you like them apples?
You can use rhetorical questions to make positive statements, too. You don’t always need to be so negative. For example:
- Have I ever told you how magnificent you are?
- Do you know I love you?
- Why are you the cutest?
- Did you know you’re the best?
- What would I do without you?
- Why are you so talented?
- How are you so beautiful?
- How is it that you are good at everything?
Sometimes, people illuminate their current mood with a rhetorical question, such as:
- Why me?
- Will it ever end?
- How should I know?
- What on Earth?
- Why does this always happen?
- How could I be so stupid?
- Who cares?
- Are you kidding me?
- Sure, why not?
Using rhetorical devices is common in advertising. If executed well, marketers engage the audience and convince them to conclude on their own that they need the product or service. Some examples include:
- Do you want to get rid of back pain for good?
- Do you want glowing, youthful skin?
- Do you miss your mom’s home-cooked meals?
- Are you looking for affordable skincare?
- Are you sick of cleaning bathrooms?
- Are you tired of being tired?
Writers use this technique as a stylistic choice to pique the reader’s interest or spur critical thinking. In the following passage from Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” rhetorical questions illustrate that all people, even those not part of a majority group, are human:
“If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”
In the poem “Harlem” by Langston Hughes, the questions posed are not intended to gain knowledge but rather to convey imagery with inventive language:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore-
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over-
like a syrupy sweet?
Public speakers use rhetorical questions to create an audience reaction. These proposals engage listeners more emotionally by invoking curiosity and reflective thinking. Rhetorical questions like the examples below introduce an unexpected break from a speech’s flow, sparking interest and spurring contemplation or conversation:
- What are some ways you sabotage yourself?
- Don’t you deserve a day to relax?
- How many times must you suffer the same consequence before you act?
- What is your inaction costing you?
- If the entire world were blind, how many people would you impress?
- Can you imagine a life without any fear?
Rhetorical Question Problems
Why do we love asking a rhetorical question? Because using it makes us feel quick-witted, clever and confident. However, you must carefully implement these audacious questions as they can have potentially adverse consequences.
Too many pointed inquiries like this can stifle discussions and engagement in a work setting. They can seem rude or dismissive in conversation. If advertisers do not carefully craft their words, they can turn off their audience. For example, questions like, “Do you want to lose 20 pounds today?” or “Do you want to make fast cash and quit your job tomorrow?” may make a company seem untrustworthy.
Are you entirely over being asked questions that do not merit a response? You don’t have to reply. I am assuming the answer is yes. Hopefully, these rhetorical question examples make sense, and you now have new ways to show your sass, make a point, enhance your writing style and inspire deep thoughts. When masterfully crafted, rhetorical questions strengthen your writing and speech in various ways. Would you have it any other way?
Do you now understand what a rhetorical question is? Do you like using them, or do you find them uninviting? I’m not asking rhetorical questions this time. Leave your answers below!
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I first encountered a rhetorical question in a most unexpected place – the Marine Corps – in 1953 at age 22. Even though i was a college grad I had never heard the term and didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to respond. My response cost me 30 days of mess duty!
Sarge was chewing out a group of us, for what I no longer remember and in the process he asked that rhetorical quetion – I don’t even remember what it was, but it amounted to why weren’t we doing what he ordered. Okay, he didn’t want an answer, but I thought he deserved one and I responded that he didn’t know how to lead men!
His response surprised me when he said that was a rhetorical quetion he had asked and didn’t call for a response. I was sent to the booddocks until the meeting was over and another sarge told me I was going on mess duty tomorrow.
Frankly, I was surprised that the sergeant knew what a rhetorical question was. I tend to avoid them because someone might answer.
Haha! That’s a great story, Ralph!