Rhetorical Question

What Is a Rhetorical Question?

A rhetorical question is asked to make a point or to introduce a subject. The asker of a rhetorical question does not expect an answer.

Table of Contents

  • Examples of a Rhetorical Questions
  • The Rhetorical Question Mark
  • Examples of Rhetorical Questions in Literature
  • Why Rhetorical Questions Are Important
  • Test Time!
rhetorical question examples

Formal Definition

A rhetorical question is a question not intended to require an answer.
(Merriam Webster Dictionary)

Examples of a Rhetorical Questions

Here are some examples of rhetorical questions.

A rhetorical question can be used to make a positive point:

  • What's not to like?
  • (It's like saying "I like it", which is a statement.)
  • Who doesn't love pizza?
  • ("I love pizza.")
  • Wow, who knew?
  • ("This is surprisingly good.")

A rhetorical question can be used to make a negative point:

  • Does it look like I'm bothered?
  • ("I'm not bothered.")
  • What is the matter with kids today?
  • ("Kids today have issues")
  • What have the Romans ever done for us? (from Monty Python's Life of Brian)
  • ("The Romans have done nothing for us.")
  • Why should you take by force that from us which you can have by love? (from the 1607 speech to white settlers by Chief Powhatan, father of Pocahontas)
  • ("We'd have provided for you if you'd asked nicely.)

A rhetorical question with an obvious answer (if it were answered) can be used to answer a real question:

  • Is your boss still ignoring you?
      Do bears, er, live in the woods?
  • (The first one is the real question. The second one is the answer via a rhetorical question.)

A rhetorical question can be used to introduce a subject:

  • What are super foods?
  • Why do we need to reduce carbon emissions?
  • What happened to your vote?

The Rhetorical Question Mark

rhetorical question mark In the 1580s, to recognise that the rhetorical question was not a normal question, an English printer called Henry Denham invented the "rhetorical-question mark," which was a reversed question mark (i.e., a vertically reflected one). For a few decades, it seemed like the rhetorical-question mark might catch on. It didn't.

That said though, even today, some people consider a rhetorical question to be more statement than question, and they don't end one with a question mark, opting instead for a full stop (period, in the US) or an exclamation mark. Perhaps there's some merit to that, but it's not a popular convention. You're far more likely to be red-penned for avoiding a question mark than praised for it. Use a question mark with a rhetorical question.

Examples of Rhetorical Questions in Literature

Here are two commonly cited rhetorical questions written by Playwright William Shakespeare:
  • "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 from Shakespeare's play "The Merchant of Venice")
  • What's in a name? That which we call a rose
    By any other name would smell as sweet. (Juliet from Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet")

Why Rhetorical Questions Are Important

Using a rhetorical question to introduce a new subject or idea is a useful trick to keep up your sleeve. There are two benefits:

(Benefit 1) Rhetorical questions make good titles and are engaging.

Look at this title for a magazine article:
  • Who Was Responsible for the Genocide in Srebrenica?
  • (This is far more engaging than a title like "Responsibility for the Genocide in Srebrenica".)
As well as making it clear what follows, a rhetorical question is useful for engaging readers because it encourages them to consider the answer before reading. Rhetorical questions are particularly useful for paragraph titles in business documents.

Of interest, some argue that a rhetorical question that introduces an idea isn't actually a rhetorical question because the answer is provided immediately after the question (i.e., it's just a normal question with an answer). There's some logic to that argument, but, as such questions don't expect answers from those being "asked," they are rhetorical.)

(Benefit 2) Rhetorical questions can be diplomatic.

Look at this title for a lecture:
  • Who was the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest?
Let's imagine this were a lecture for students at the University of Auckland (attended by Sir Edmund Hillary). If it were entitled "Sir Edmund Hillary was second, not first, to conquer Mount Everest," it would likely alienate the audience from the outset, and they might not listen with an open mind.

A rhetorical question can have the effect of a soft statement. So, when some diplomacy is required, using a rhetorical question might be a good option.

Of course, a rhetorical question doesn't have to be a title. It could be in the middle of your text.
  • Sir Edmund Hillary is credited for being the first man to conquer Mount Everest. But, who did reach the summit first? Some believe that Englishman George Mallory, who led an expedition to Everest in 1924, reached the summit first. However, Mallory died on the mountain, and it is unknown whether he reached the top.

Key Points

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This page was written by Craig Shrives.