A rhetorical question
is a figure of speech
A figure of speech is the use of a word or words diverging from its usual meaning. It can also be a special repetition, arrangement or omission of words with literal meaning, or a phrase with a specialized meaning not based on the literal meaning of the words in it, as in idiom, metaphor, simile,...
in the form of a question
A question may be either a linguistic expression used to make a request for information, or else the request itself made by such an expression. This information may be provided with an answer....
posed for its persuasive effect without the expectation of a reply. 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
In rhetoric, a rhetorical device or resource of language is a technique that an author or speaker uses to convey to the listener or reader a meaning with the goal of persuading him or her towards considering a topic from a different perspective. While rhetorical devices may be used to evoke an...
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.
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
Monty Python's Life of Brian, also known as Life of Brian, is a 1979 British comedy film written, directed and largely performed by the Monty Python comedy team...
) should be read as The Romans have never done anything for us
. Similarly, when Shakespeare lets Mark Antony
Marcus Antonius , known in English as Mark Antony, was a Roman politician and general. As a military commander and administrator, he was an important supporter and loyal friend of his mother's cousin Julius Caesar...
exclaim: Here was a Caesar! when comes such another?
The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, also known simply as Julius Caesar, is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written in 1599. It portrays the 44 BC conspiracy against...
, 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 context
Sarcasm is “a sharp, bitter, or cutting expression or remark; a bitter jibe or taunt.” Though irony and understatement is usually the immediate context, most authorities distinguish sarcasm from irony; however, others argue that sarcasm may or often does involve irony or employs...
s. 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
A metaphor is a literary figure of speech that uses an image, story or tangible thing to represent a less tangible thing or some intangible quality or idea; e.g., "Her eyes were glistening jewels." Metaphor may also be used for any rhetorical figures of speech that achieve their effects via...
for a question already asked. Examples may be found in the song Maria
"Maria", sometimes known as "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" is a show tune from the 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, The Sound of Music....
from the 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were a well-known American songwriting duo, usually referred to as Rodgers and Hammerstein. They created a string of popular Broadway musicals in the 1940s and 1950s during what is considered the golden age of the medium...
musical, The Sound of Music
The Sound of Music is a musical by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and a book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. It is based on the memoir of Maria von Trapp, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers...
, 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
as metaphors for Maria give insight into her character and the nature of the problem.
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?
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?
- The butler did it... or did he?
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 (!), but it is generally best to use a question mark for any question, rhetorical or not.
Rhetorical questions may be signaled by marker phrases; questions that include "after all", or "by any chance" may be intended as rhetorical.
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."
In the 1580s, English printer Henry Denham
Henry Denham was one of the outstanding English printers of the sixteenth century.He was apprenticed to Richard Tottel and took up the freedom of the Stationers' Company on August 30, 1560. In 1564 he set up his own printing house in White Cross Street, Cripplegate, but in the following year he...
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.
Some have adapted the question mark into various irony mark
Although in the written English language there is no standard way to denote irony or sarcasm, several forms of punctuation have been proposed. Among the oldest and frequently attested are the percontation point invented by English printer Henry Denham in the 1580s, and the irony mark, furthered by...
s, but these are very rarely seen.
"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."
"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."