An Introduction to Rhetorical Questions

Is This a Rhetorical Question?

rhetorical question
When young children are asked rhetorical questions (such as, "Are you finished whining?"), they often respond in a literal way because they don't perceive that the rhetorical questions are actually directives. (Jena Cumbo/Getty Images)

A rhetorical question is a question (such as "How could I be so stupid?") that's asked merely for effect with no answer expected. The answer may be obvious or immediately provided by the questioner. Also known as erotesis, erotema, interrogatio, questioner, and reversed polarity question (RPQ).

A rhetorical question can be "an effective persuasive device, subtly influencing the kind of response one wants to get from an audience" (Edward P.J. Corbett). See Examples and Observations, below. They may also be used for dramatic or comedic effect, and may be combined with other figures of speech, such as puns or double entendres.

In English, rhetorical questions are commonly used in speech and in informal kinds of writing (such as advertisements). Rhetorical questions appear less frequently in academic discourse.

Pronunciation: ri-TOR-i-kal KWEST-shun

Types of Rhetorical Questions

Examples and Observations

  • "Something [rhetorical] questions all have in common . . . is that they are not asked, and are not understood, as ordinary information-seeking questions, but as making some kind of claim, or assertion, an assertion of the opposite polarity to that of the question."
    (Irene Koshik, Beyond Rhetorical Questions. John Benjamins, 2005)
  • "Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who would want to live in an institution?"
    (H. L. Mencken)
  • "It did not occur to me to call a doctor, because I knew none, and although it did occur to me to call the desk and ask that the air conditioner be turned off, I never called, because I did not know how much to tip whoever might come—was anyone ever so young?"
    (Joan Didion, "Goodbye to All That." Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 1968)
  • "The means are at hand to fulfill the age-old dream: poverty can be abolished. How long shall we ignore this under-developed nation in our midst? How long shall we look the other way while our fellow human beings suffer? How long"
    (Michael Harrington, The Other America: Poverty in the United States, 1962)
  • "Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery? Is that a question for republicans? Is it to be settled by the rules of logic and argumentation, as a matter beset with great difficulty, involving a doubtful application of the principle of justice, hard to understand?"
    (Frederick Douglass, "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?" July 5, 1852)
  • "Hath not a Jew eyes?
    Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?
    If you prick us, do we not bleed, if you tickle us, do we not laugh?
    If you poison us, do we not die?
    (Shylock in William Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice)
  • "Can I ask a rhetorical question? Well, can I?"
    (Ambrose Bierce)
  • "Aren't you glad you use Dial?
    Don't you wish everybody did?"
    (1960s television advertisement for Dial soap)
  • "To actually see inside your ear canal--it would be fascinating, wouldn't it?"
    (Letter from Sonus, a hearing-aid company, quoted in "Rhetorical Questions We'd Rather Not Answer." The New Yorker, March 24, 2003)
  • "If practice makes perfect, and no one's perfect, then why practice?"
    (Billy Corgan)
  • "Isn't it a bit unnerving that doctors call what they do 'practice'?"
    (George Carlin)
  • "Am I alone in thinking it odd that a people ingenious enough to invent paper, gunpowder, kites, and any number of other useful objects, and who have a noble history extending back three thousand years, haven't yet worked out that a pair of knitting needles is no way to capture food?"
    (Bill Bryson, Notes From a Small Island. Doubleday, 1995)
  • "The Indians [in the Oliver Stone movie The Doors] serve the same function they did in Dances With Wolves: they make the far more highly paid white movie actors seem soulful and important and in touch with ancient truths. Do Indians enjoy being used this way, as spiritual elves or cosmic merit badges?"
    (Libby Gelman-Waxner [Paul Rudnick], "Sex, Drugs, and Extra-Strength Excedrin." If You Ask Me, 1994)

Rhetorical Questions in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar"

Rhetorical questions are those so worded that one and only one answer can be generally expected from the audience you are addressing. In this sense, they are like the unmentioned premises in abbreviated reasoning, which can go unmentioned because they can be taken for granted as generally acknowledged.
"Thus, for example, Brutus asks the citizens of Rome: 'Who is here so base that would be a bondman?' adding at once: 'If any, speak, for him have I offended.' Again Brutus asks: 'Who is here so vile that will not love his country?' Let him also speak, 'for him I have offended.' Brutus dares to ask these rhetorical questions, knowing full well that no one will answer his rhetorical questions in the wrong way.
"So, too, Marc Antony, after describing how Caesar's conquests filled Rome's coffers, asks: 'Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?' And after reminding the populace that Caesar thrice refused the crown that was offered him, Antony asks: 'Was this ambition?' Both are rhetorical questions to which one and only one answer can be expected."
(Mortimer Adler, How to Speak How to Listen. Simon & Schuster, 1983)

Are Rhetorical Questions Persuasive?

"By arousing curiosity, rhetorical questions motivate people to try to answer the question that is posed. Consequently, people pay closer attention to information relevant to the rhetorical question. . . .
"At this point, I think it is important to note that the fundamental problem in the study of rhetorical questions is the lack of focus on the persuasive effectiveness of different types of rhetorical questions. Clearly, an ironical rhetorical question is going to have a different effect on an audience than an agreement rhetorical question. Unfortunately, little research has been conducted on how different types of rhetorical questions operate in a persuasive context."
(David R. Roskos-Ewoldsen, "What Is the Role of Rhetorical Questions in Persuasion?" Communication and Emotion: Essays in Honor of Dolf Zillmann, ed. by Jennings Bryant et al. Lawrence Erlbaum, 2003)

Punctuating Rhetorical Questions

"From time to time, people become dissatisfied with the broad application of the question mark and try to narrow it down, usually by proposing distinct marks for the different kinds of question. Rhetorical questions have attracted particular attention, as—not requiring any answer—they are so different in kind. An Elizabethan printer, Henry Denham, was an early advocate, proposing in the 1580s a reverse question mark (؟) for this function, which came to be called a percontation mark (from a Latin word meaning a questioning act). Easy enough to handwrite, some late 16th century authors did sporadically use it, such as Robert Herrick. . . . But printers were unimpressed, and the mark never became standard. However, it has received a new lease of life online . . .."
(David Crystal, Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation. St. Martin's Press, 2015)

The Lighter Side of Rhetorical Questions

-Howard: We need to ask you a question.
-Professor Crawley: Really? Let me ask you a question. What does an accomplished entomologist with a doctorate and twenty years of experience do when the university cuts all his funding?
-Rajesh: Ask uncomfortable rhetorical questions to people?
(Simon Helberg, Lewis Black, and Kunal Nayyar in "The Jiminy Conjecture." The Big Bang Theory, 2008)
-Penny: Sheldon, have you any idea what time it is?
-Sheldon: Of course I do. My watch is linked to the atomic clock in Boulder, Colorado. It's accurate to one-tenth of a second. But as I'm saying this, it occurs to me that you may have again been asking a rhetorical question.
(Kaley Cuoco and Jim Parsons in "The Loobenfeld Decay." The Big Bang Theory, 2008)
-Dr. Cameron: Why did you hire me?
-Dr. House: Does it matter?
-Dr. Cameron: Kind of hard to work for a guy who doesn't respect you.
-Dr. House: Why?
-Dr. Cameron: Is that rhetorical?
-Dr. House: No, it just seems that way because you can't think of an answer.
(House, M.D.)
"I forget, which day did God create all the fossils?"
(An anti-creationism bumper sticker, cited by Jack Bowen in If You Can Read This: The Philosophy of Bumper Stickers. Random House, 2010)
Grandma Simpson and Lisa are singing Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" ("How many roads must a man walk down/Before you call him a man?"). Homer overhears and says, "Eight!"
-Lisa: "That was a rhetorical question!"
-Homer: "Oh. Then, seven!"
-Lisa: "Do you even know what 'rhetorical' means?"
-Homer: "Do I know what 'rhetorical' means?"
(The Simpsons, "When Grandma Simpson Returns")

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "An Introduction to Rhetorical Questions." ThoughtCo, Oct. 29, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, October 29). An Introduction to Rhetorical Questions. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "An Introduction to Rhetorical Questions." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 2, 2023).