Rhetorical Question – Definition, Examples & Meaning

20.09.22 Improving your academic writing Time to read: 7min

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In the study of language, a rhetorical question is recognized as a figurative inquiry employed in dialogue, not with the expectation of a response, but to highlight a point, provoke thought, or underscore a declaration. This stylistic device is not aimed at gathering information but serves to draw attention, stimulate contemplation, or reinforce an argument. This type of loaded question is a common and effective tool in the realms of literature, marketing, debates, and daily communication.

Rhetorical question in a nutshell

A rhetorical question is a stylistic device with a rhetorical question mark that seeks no response because the answer is implied or obvious.

Definition: Rhetorical questions

The word rhetorical has its origin in the Greek language as “rhetorikos,” meaning “skilled in speaking.” It is a figure of speech in the form of a question posed for stylistic and dramatic effect rather than to elicit an answer. Unlike regular questions, which seek information or clarification, rhetorical questions are used to make a point, persuade, provoke thought, or create a dramatic effect.

They are designed to encourage the listener or reader to consider the implied answer within the context of the question itself, rather than to respond verbally. They are commonly used in literature, speeches, and everyday conversation to emphasize a point, express irony, or lead the audience toward a particular conclusion. When talking about academic writing, rhetorical questions have no place in it since they are used for creative flair instead of clarity.

Example

  • You’re asking me if I want to go on an all-expenses-paid trip? Is the sky blue?
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Examples

Rhetorical questions are employed across various contexts to engage audiences, provoke thought, emphasize points, or express emotions. Below you will find examples in different contexts and their functions.

Here are common example sentences used in daily communications.

Examples

  • Do I look like I was born yesterday?
  • Is money growing on trees?
  • Have you ever seen me arrive late to anything?

Rhetorical questions in literature are often used to provoke thought, emphasize themes, or convey the characters’ emotions succinctly. Here are some short popular examples from various literary works.

Examples

  • All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others, aren’t they?
  • Was he not born of (a) woman?
  • Can’t repeat the past? Why, of course, you can!

Below you’ll find several examples that could be seen in marketing and media.

Examples

  • Want to save money on your car insurance?
  • Why settle for less when you can have the best?
  • Isn’t it time we talk about mental health?

In speeches and debates, especially of a political nature, rhetorical questions can be used to provoke an audience’s thoughts and guide them to a specific answer.

Examples

  • How long will we tolerate injustice and remain silent?
  • Is it not our duty to ensure every citizen has access to healthcare?
  • Do we want to live in a society where education is a privilege and not a right?

Rhetorical questions with obvious answers

Most rhetorical questions asked have an obvious, implied answer.

Examples

  • Is the sky blue?
  • Don’t you want to win?
  • Are you serious?

Rhetorical questions that have no answers

More rarely, a rhetorical question is expressed with no real answer implied. These are often used to make a strong negative point or to prompt further discussion.

Examples

  • Why not?
  • Who cares?
  • Why bother?

The 3 types

Rhetorical questions frequently appear in fiction, non-fiction, speeches, and everyday conversation. Some are so common they’re clichés. Rhetorical questions come in three flavors – anthypophora, erotesis, and epiplexis. Respectively, they argue the point, reinforce a point, or attack the question’s target.

Types Definition Examples Function
Anthypophora/
hypophora
Question that immediately answers itself. What do we stand for? We stand for freedom, justice, and equality for all. Control the discussion and guide thoughts in a specific direction before any objections arise.
Epiplexis Question used to challenge the audience. Do you call this justice, to let the guilty walk free while the innocent suffer? Criticize or condemn to provoke the audience and make them reflect on their actions or beliefs.
Erotesis Question used to evoke a strong reaction. How can we expect to achieve peace by continuing to prepare for war? Persuade or convince the audience by highlighting the obviousness or absurdity of the situation.
Rhetorical-question-types
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Effect

In the world of communication and rhetoric, rhetorical questions are powerful tools that can have profound effects on the listener or reader. Here are some of the theoretical and psychological impacts they have, along with plenty of examples.

Engagement and interest

Rhetorical questions draw the audience’s attention and engage them more deeply in the subject.

Example

  • Have you ever wondered what it means to live a good life?

This question invites the audience to reflect personally on the concept of a good life, making them more invested in the ensuing discussion.

Emphasis

They emphasize a point or highlight an issue, making it more memorable or striking.

Example

  • Is freedom of speech not the foundation of a democratic society?

By questioning the importance of free speech, the speaker underscores its critical role in democracy.

Provoking thought

Rhetorical questions encourage the audience to critical thinking and reflect on their beliefs or assumptions.

Example

  • What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?

This question, derived from biblical context, prompts deep contemplation about the value of material vs. spiritual wealth.

Expressing irony or sarcasm

They can convey irony or sarcasm, critiquing a situation without directly stating the criticism.

Example

  • Oh, because we all have the luxury of time, don’t we?

Used in a context where time is limited, this question sarcastically comments on the unrealistic expectations of having ample time.

Creating a persuasive argument

Rhetorical questions can strengthen a persuasive argument by leading the audience to an intended conclusion.

Example

  • Can we really afford to ignore the environmental crisis any longer?

This question implies that the cost of inaction is too high, persuading the audience towards recognizing the urgency of environmental issues.

Building connection

They can create a sense of connection and rapport by involving the audience in the conversation.

Example

  • Haven’t we all been in a situation where we wished we had spoken up?

This question resonates with common human experiences, building a bond with the audience.

Challenging assumptions

Rhetorical questions challenge the audience to reconsider their assumptions or preconceived notions.

Example

  • Do we truly believe that all men are created equal?

It prompts the audience to reflect on their personal beliefs and the societal values around equality. By questioning the sincerity of the belief in equality, it encourages individuals to consider inconsistencies between stated values and actual practices or policies and societal justice.

Expressing frustration

They can express frustration, disbelief, or incredulity about a situation or behavior.

Example

  • Are we seriously still debating this issue?

This question expresses frustration over the prolonged discussion of what the speaker perceives as an obvious or resolved matter.

Benefits & problems

Since we have already discussed possible effects, these questions can offer several benefits in communication, but they also come with potential drawbacks. Understanding both can help in effectively leveraging rhetorical questions for desired outcomes.

Benefits

Below, you’ll see several advantages rhetorical questions can offer.

Benefit Explanation
Engagement They engage the audience by encouraging them to think about the question and its implications, making the communication more interactive and thought-provoking.
Emphasis Rhetorical questions are excellent for emphasizing a point or highlighting an issue, making the message more memorable and impactful. They’re especially useful for headlines.
Persuasion By leading the audience to consider a question and its obvious answer, the audience is subtly guided to agree with the speaker’s viewpoint, making them a powerful tool.
Drama They can add dramatic effect or intrigue to a speech or writing, capturing the audience’s attention and maintaining their interest.
Reflection Rhetorical questions encourage reflection and critical thinking, prompting the audience to ponder deeper meanings and implications.

Problems

While there are numerous advantages, disadvantages can also arise when using rhetorical questions that may make you consider using them.

Problem Explanation
Misinterpretation If the implied answer is not clear to the audience, rhetorical questions can lead to confusion or misinterpretation, potentially diluting the message’s effectiveness.
Overuse Frequent use of rhetorical questions can become tiresome and may diminish their impact, leading to disengagement or annoyance among the audience.
Condescension Some audiences may perceive rhetorical questions as patronizing or condescending, especially if the implied answer seems to undermine their intelligence or opinions.
Culture differences The effectiveness can vary significantly across different cultures. In some contexts, they might not be as easily understood, affecting the communication’s impact.
No directness In situations where direct communication is necessary, relying too much on rhetorical questions can obscure the message, making it less straightforward and harder to grasp.

Rhetorical question vs. leading question

A leading question (also, a suggestive question) is a question that prompts or encourages the desired answer. It’s often used in legal contexts, interviews, or surveys to guide the respondent toward a specific response, sometimes subtly implying it.

The key difference lies in their intent: rhetorical questions aim to engage thought or emphasize a point without expecting a response, while leading questions seek to elicit a specific response, steering the conversation or testimony in a desired direction.

Examples

  • You saw the defendant at the scene, didn’t you?
  • Don’t you agree that the product works wonders?

FAQs

It is a question that is asked for a specific purpose rather than obtaining information.

To better illustrate, emphasize, and reiterate the (persuasive) points they want to make. Rhetorical questions can also invite further, unguided thought — even if they’re unanswerable. Open-ended queries make good starting points for free-flowing seminars and rhetorical debates.

Occasionally, it can be. Poorly timed, targeted, or phrased rhetorical questions often appear to talk down to the reader — or appear to tell them what they should think. Accidental, pathetic humor (bathos) may result from questions that are too obscure or niche to be relatable or mistakenly express a truly unpopular opinion.

“How should I know?” is a question that shows frustration, while expecting no answer.

Rhetorical means that it is made for style or effect, meaning a rhetorical question is used for mere effect, rather than an answer or information.