What Is a Rhetorical Question?

Questions and Answers About Rhetoric and Style

rhetorical question
Alison Lo has observed that rhetorical questions "can often make stronger statements with greater emphasis and implication than . . . straightforward assertion[s]" ( Job 28 As Rhetoric, 2003). (Gary Waters/Getty Images)

As defined in our glossary, a question is "rhetorical" if it's asked merely for effect with no answer expected. The purpose of this figure of speech is not to secure a response but to assert or deny a point implicitly. A rhetorical question may serve as a subtle way of insinuating an idea that might be challenged by an audience if presented directly.

The following passage from Richard Russo's novel Straight Man (Vintage, 1997) contains two rhetorical questions.

The narrator is William Henry Devereaux, Jr., chair of a college English department, reporting on a telephone conversation with his mother.

A couple days after she'd begun the task, she called me, all excited, to say that she'd discovered two hundred pages of a novel in manuscript, dating back nearly twenty-five years. "Isn't it amazing?" she wanted to know, and I didn't have the heart to tell her that it would have been more amazing if there hadn't been two hundred pages of a novel. He was an English professor. What did she expect?

The first rhetorical question in this passage--"Isn't it amazing?"--functions as a type of interrogative  exclamation. Another way of expressing the question would be as a statement followed by a tag question: "It's amazing, isn't it" The second rhetorical question--"What did she expect?"--is a conventional way of conveying the idea that there really wasn't anything surprising about the discovery of an English professor's unpublished manuscript.

Linguist Irene Koshik regards the term rhetorical question as "somewhat misleading." (She prefers the label reverse polarity question.)  Rhetorical questions often do receive answers, she observes. "What they have in common is that they are heard as asserting opinions rather than as seeking new information.

When answers are given, they are designed to either align or disalign with the assertion conveyed" (Beyond Rhetorical Questions: Assertive Questions in Everyday Interaction, 2005).

A different sort of rhetorical question, one in which a speaker raises a question and then immediately answers it, goes by the name hypophora in classical rhetoric. During his tenure as Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld frequently employed this strategy when addressing the press. Here's an example from a news briefing on October 26, 2006:

You say have they agreed to "it"? Are they meeting and having discussions on these things? Yes. Have they been meeting for some weeks and months? Yes. Does that imply a certain amount of understanding that that process might be useful? Yes. But can I say that they--that is to say the prime minister and his government--have come down and said, yes, we'll do this, we won't do that or, yes, we will do this, we won't do that, and we'll do it by this time? No. I--one would have thought they might have announced that if they decided all of that.

Hypophora, like a conventional rhetorical question, enables a speaker to control a discussion and shape the terms of an argument. In an article titled "What Is the Role of Rhetorical Questions in Persuasion?" (Communication and Emotion, 2003), David R.

Roskos-Ewoldsen concludes that "rhetorical questions can, under certain circumstances, enhance persuasion." In addition, he says, "rhetorical questions can improve message recipients' memory for the message."

For additional examples of this ancient rhetorical strategy, see Is This a Rhetorical Question?