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What is a Rhetorical Question?

By Sherry Holetzky
Updated May 23, 2024
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A rhetorical question is a question often based on rhetoric that does not necessarily require an answer. It is often a way of making a tentative statement by phrasing it in the form of a question. Such questions are often used in debate to avoid making an outright declaration, but at the same time still make a point. If called out on the point later, or shown that it was not accurate, the speaker can then claim it was only a question.

Rhetorical questions tend to suggest a correct or desired answer, and are often declaratory, like the question, “You are ashamed, aren’t you?” This style of questioning tends to be used in court, with questions like, “You were at the scene of the crime, correct?” They are often leading questions, and are sometimes used to make someone confess to something.

Sometimes, a rhetorical question is asked only as a thought provoking gesture or a way to stimulate discussion. This also occurs frequently during debates, especially political debates. For example, “How corrupt is the government?” is rhetorical. This question does not really have a concrete or measurable answer; the answer is opinion based. Yet, such questions are quite capable of inspiring thought and further debate.

Parents have long directed rhetorical questions toward their children. Many jokes have been made in this regard. When a child exclaims everybody else is doing something he or she has been forbidden to do, a parent might respond with a rhetorical question such as, “If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?”

A rhetorical question often includes a rhetorical expression or figure of speech too. Sometimes, one becomes a figure of speech over time. “Are you kidding?” is a good example of the latter. However, not every unanswerable inquiry qualifies as rhetorical. Some are just silly questions or are asked for entertainment.

There are even television specials that use questions as titles, such as, “Where Are They Now?” which relates to former stars that are no longer as popular as they were. The question is not designed to obtain a response from the audience, but is answered throughout the program. A similar situation occurs when a speaker seems to be asking a rhetorical question but then goes on to answer it him or herself.

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Discussion Comments
By anon109795 — On Sep 09, 2010

If a sibling posts "lithium????" as a rhetorical, how would you take it?

Thanks for your opinions.

By anon104418 — On Aug 16, 2010

is "does it have on-the-playlists?" within an advertisement, then it goes on to answer it for you. But it is totally in the middle of a paragraph, and there are no other questions surrounding it. Thanks.

By anon100463 — On Jul 30, 2010

remember that it does not have an answer.

By bigblind — On Jun 19, 2010

@davis22 - I bet I know why the percontation point, also called the irony mark, didn’t stick around. Part of the fun rhetorical questions and ironic statements is that they tend to fit seamlessly into a conversation, while they introduce a certain element of humor and subtlety. By marking every time this type of humor is used, it becomes too obvious, and that subtlety is lost. I would bet that rhetorical questions and irony fell out of favor for awhile in the decades after the percontation point became “official”. People just love sarcasm too much to see it become such a prescriptive part of English grammar. This is all speculation though.

By davis22 — On Jun 19, 2010

@klow – That is quite interesting. I wonder why the percontation point didn’t stay popular. It would seem especially useful nowadays, where irony and twisted rhetoric seem to be the backbone of comedy.

By klow — On Jun 19, 2010

I came across something quite interesting when I was reading about sarcasm and the rhetorical question not too long ago. Apparently, in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the English language had a special punctuation point for rhetorical questions, sarcasm, and irony. A famous English printer named Henry Denham came up with the idea in the 1570’s or 1580’s. Basically, it’s a question mark turned backward so it curves away from the sentence and not towards it. For a few decades, it became an official punctuation mark, known as the percontation point in the English language, but fell out of favor sometime in the 1600’s.

By snappy — On Dec 19, 2009

Don't forget the tried and true use of a rhetorical question in an argument, makes use of both sarcasm and derision!

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