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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.