Rhetorical Question

What is Rhetorical Question? Definition, Usage, and Literary Examples

Rhetorical Question Definition

 

A rhetorical question (rih-TOE-rih-cal KWEST-chan) is a figure of speech where a question is posed not to elicit an answer but to emphasize a point or create dramatic effect.

The word rhetorical first appeared in English in the mid-15th century and meant “eloquent.” It derived from the Latin rhetoricus, indicating “oratorical.” Question first appeared in English in the early 13th century and indicated a “philosophical or theological problem.” Question came from the Latin quaestionem, meaning “a seeking, inquiry, examining, judicial investigation.”

The words were first combined into the term rhetorical question in the 1670s and bore the same meaning then as it does today.

 

Why Writers Use Rhetorical Questions

 

This literary device draws attention to concepts in a more graceful way than stating the ideas outright. Rhetorical questions can initiate a wider examination of a subject, allow ideas to resonate for dramatic effect, or indicate the speaker’s position. Although rhetorical questions aren’t intended to elicit answers, using them keeps readers actively engaged. Rhetorical questions are a tool of rhetoric, meaning they’re a tool of effective language.

 

Rhetorical Questions vs. Hypophora and Aporia

 

Rhetorical questions are often confused with two other figures of speech: hypophora and aporia. While they have some similarities, they’re not identical.

Hypophora

This is a figure of speech where the speaker poses a question and then immediately answers it. Hypophora is frequently used in persuasive speeches because asking and then immediately answering a question convinces the audience that the speaker has the knowledge and decisiveness to answer any questions and resolve doubts.

Unlike the questions posed using hypophora, rhetorical questions aren’t meant to be explicitly answered. The answer to a rhetorical question is implied, but the question itself remains unanswered, lingering in the air to create greater dramatic effect.

Aporia

This is also a figure of speech, one where a speaker expresses doubt. Aporia can contain real doubt or doubt that’s created for rhetorical effect. Depending on how it’s phrased and if it’s sincere, an instance of aporia can also be a rhetorical question.

If the doubt is expressed as a sincere question, it’s not rhetorical because the speaker is genuinely searching for an answer to resolve their doubt. For example, “Did he think that was a good idea?” can be asked sincerely, making it aporia but not a rhetorical question. If the doubt is feigned for effect and posed as a question that implies an answer, then that use of aporia is also a rhetorical question. So, if the question was “He tried to pet a bear; did he really think that was a good idea?” then it would be rhetorical because the answer is clearly no, it wasn’t a good idea.

 

Rhetorical Questions Outside of Literature

 

Rhetorical questions are frequently encountered in realms outside of literature.

Political Speeches

These are a common venue for rhetorical questions. Politicians, activists, and other public figures frequently use rhetorical questions for dramatic purposes to persuade their audience to support their positions.

For example, Sojourner Truth’s famous speech at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention used repetition of the rhetorical question “Ain’t I a woman?” to emphasize the need for racial justice along with equal rights for women.

Song Lyrics

Songwriters and singers may pose rhetorical questions to their listeners. Examples include the litany of rhetorical questions in the song “How Do You Solve a Question Like Maria?” from the musical The Sound of Music; those explored in Tina Turner’s ballad “What’s Love Got To Do With It?”; the philosophical musings of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”; or the breezily confident “forever, foreva eve, foreva eva?” asked by Andre 3000 about the duration of love in Outkast’s classic “Ms. Jackson.”

In Conversation

Rhetorical questions are often encountered in everyday conversation. Sometimes speakers use them to imply affirmation by asking humorous questions with obvious answers, such as “Is the Pope Catholic?” or “Is the sky blue?” At other times, rhetorical questions creep into conversation as an aspect of small talk; for instance, when speakers say things like “Why not?” or “Who knows?”

 

Examples of Rhetorical Questions in Literature

 

1. William Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice

In Act III, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s play, the titular merchant Shylock tries to convince the Venetians around him that he—a Jewish man—is just as human as Christians like them. He says:

…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?

Shylock uses a series of rhetorical questions to assert the essential shared humanity of all people—but specifically, Christian and Jewish people—and explain his continued desire for vengeance against Antonio, who he believes has wronged him.

2. William Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience

Blake’s famous poem “The Tyger” from this collection uses a series of rhetorical questions to advance the imagery:

Tyger Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

The answer to this rhetorical question—and the eleven more that Blake poses in the poem—is that only God could have made a beast as majestic and powerful as a tiger.

3. t’ai freedom ford, “ode to an African urn

In ford’s poem, she alternates a series of rhetorical questions of her own devising with rhetorical questions taken from John Keats’ poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” In the first stanza, she writes:

what men or gods are these?
what mad pursuit?
what sin or odd odds are these?
what men or gods are these?
what unarmed boys down on bruised knees?
what made blue suits?
what men or gods are these?
what mad pursuit?

The italicized lines are taken from Keats’s poem, while the plain text lines are composed by ford. Her questions all imply their own answers, but they’re dependent on the readers’ familiarity with Keats’s poem as well as the fact that ford dedicated the poem to “Trayvon and them,” indicating it’s meant as an elegy for Trayvon Martin and other victims of racial violence.

4. Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

In Chapter VII of Carroll’s delightful book, Alice takes tea with the March Hare and the Mad Hatter. During this “Mad Tea-Party,” the following dialogue occurs:

“Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.
“I’ve had nothing yet, “ Alice replied in an offended tone, “so I can’t take any more.”
“You mean you can’t take less,” said the Hatter: “it’s very easy to take more than nothing.”
“Nobody asked your opinion,” said Alice.
“Who’s making personal remarks now?” the Hatter asked triumphantly.

The Hatter concludes their testy exchange by asking a rhetorical question whose answer (that Alice is making personal remarks) is obvious to everyone.

 

Further Resources on Rhetorical Questions

 

Insanul Ahmed compiled a list of 50 Great Rhetorical Hip-Hop questions for the rap site Complex.

Jerry Weissman analyzed former President Barak Obama’s use of rhetorical questions and other rhetorical techniques for Forbes.

 

Related Terms

 

  • Aporia
  • Hypophora
  • Loaded question
  • Rhetoric