What Is a Rhetorical Question? Definition and Examples

Illustration of two silhouettes in conversation about rhetorical questions

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“It’s 107 degrees outside. Can you believe it?” a friend asks you on a sweltering summer day.

Do you feel the need to answer the question? Probably not. That's because your friend asked you a rhetorical question: a question asked for effect or emphasis that requires no answer. In this instance, your friend's question simply served to emphasize the intensity of the heat.

A rhetorical question is a question that requires no reply, either because the answer is obvious or because the asker already knows how the answer.

Rhetorical questions are generally used to draw a contrast, persuade the audience, make the listener think, or direct the reader’s attention to an important topic.

We use rhetorical questions in conversation every day: "Who knows?" and "Why not?" are two common examples. Rhetorical questions are also used in literature, usually to emphasize a particular idea or persuade the audience of a point.

Types of Rhetorical Questions

Rhetorical questions are used everywhere from casual conversation to formal works of literature. While their content is wide-ranging, there are three primary types of rhetorical questions that everyone should know.

  1. Anthypophora/Hypophora​​Anthypophora is a literary device in which the speaker asks a rhetorical question and then answers it herself. Though sometimes the terms “anthypophora” and “hypophora” are used interchangeably, they have a subtle difference. Hypophora refers to the rhetorical question itself, while anthypophora refers to the response to the question (generally provided by the original questioner).
    Example: "After all, what's a life, anyway? We're born, we live a little while, we die." —E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web
  1. Epiplexis. Epiplexis is an interrogative figure of speech, and a persuasive tactic, in which the speaker uses a series of rhetorical questions to expose the flaws in the opponent’s argument or position. In this case, the questions being asked don’t require answers because they are not being used to secure a response, but rather as a mode of argument-via-questioning. Epiplexis is confrontational and reproachful in tone.
    Example: “When, O Catiline, do you mean to cease abusing our patience? How long is that madness of yours still to mock us? When is there to be an end of that unbridled audacity of yours, swaggering about as it does now?” —Marcus Tullius Cicero, “Against Catiline”
  1. Erotesis. Erotesis, also known as erotema, is a rhetorical question to which the answer is profoundly obvious, and to which there is a strongly negative or affirmative reply.
    Example: “Another thing that disturbs me about the American church is that you have a white church and a Negro church. How can segregation exist in the true Body of Christ?"—Martin Luther King, Jr., "Paul's Letter to American Christians”

Literary Examples of Rhetorical Questions

In literature, political speech, and drama, rhetorical questions are used for stylistic purposes or to demonstrate a point for the sake of emphasis or persuasion. Consider the following examples of how rhetorical questions are used effectively in literature and rhetoric.

Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” Speech

Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman?

I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman?

I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?

Rhetorical questions are often used in the context of public speaking or persuasive arguments in order to confront the audience or get them thinking.

Sojourner Truth, a former slave who later became a renowned abolitionist speaker and courageous human rights activist, delivered this iconic speech in 1851 at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio.

What’s the answer to Truth’s question? Of course, it’s a resounding yes. “Obviously, she’s a woman,” we think—yet, as she demonstrates, she isn’t afforded the rights and dignity offered to other women. Truth uses a recurring rhetorical question here in order to drive home her point and strike a stark contrast between the status she is given as an African-American woman and the status enjoyed by other women during her time.

Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice

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? (3.1.58-68)

Characters in Shakespeare’s plays frequently use rhetorical questions in soliloquies, or monologues delivered straight to the audience, as well as in persuasive speeches to one another. Here, Shylock, a Jewish character, is speaking to two anti-Semitic Christians who have mocked his religion.

As in Truth’s speech, the answers to the rhetorical questions Shylock asks are obvious. Certainly, Jews, like everyone else, bleed, laugh, die, and avenge their wrongs. Shylock points out the other characters’ hypocrisy, as well as how he’s being dehumanized, by humanizing himself—here, with the help of a series of rhetorical questions.

“Harlem” by Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over—

like a syrupy sweet?

 

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

 

Or does it explode?

Langston Hughes’ short, sharp poem “Harlem” also serves as the prologue for Lorraine Hansberry’s famous play, A Raisin in the Sun, setting the scene for the disappointments and heartbreak to follow onstage.

The series of rhetorical questions in Hughes’ poem are poignant and persuasive. The narrator asks the reader to pause and reflect on the aftermath of a lost dream and a broken heart. Posing these reflections as rhetorical questions, rather than statements, requires the audience to provide their own internal “answers” about their personal losses and evokes a nostalgic pang of soul-deep pain.