Rhetorical Question

Close your eyes and imagine you are seven years old. You are in a car with your uncle and you are feeling impatient. You really want to get out of the car. You ask:

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Table of contents

    Are we there yet?"

    The car is still moving so you know you have not arrived at your destination. You know that the answer is no, you are not there. Then why do you ask?

    Rhetorical Question Car Example StudySmarterFig. 1 - "Are we there yet?"

    This is an example of a rhetorical question. When speakers and writers use rhetorical questions they already know the answer to the question or they know that there is no answer to the question. What is the purpose of rhetorical questions then?

    Rhetorical Question Meaning

    On the surface, a rhetorical question has no answer.

    A rhetorical question is a question with an obvious answer or no answer that is used for emphasis.

    At first, it might seem a bit odd that people would ask questions with an obvious answer or no answer at all. But rhetorical questions can actually be quite useful when making an argument or prompting people to reflect on an important point.

    The Purpose of Rhetorical Questions

    One main purpose of rhetorical questions is to help a speaker bring attention to a topic. This can be of particular use in persuasive arguments, like when a politician wants to convince people to vote for them. For example, imagine that a politician is giving a speech and asks the audience:

    Does anyone here want violence in our cities?”

    The obvious answer to this question is no. Of course no one wants city streets full of violence. By asking this question the politician reminds audience members that urban violence is a problem. Reminding them of this allows the politician to propose a potential solution to violence in the city and convince the audience that their solution is necessary. This example of a rhetorical question also shows how rhetorical questions can be used to point out a problem and propose a solution.

    People also often use rhetorical questions for dramatic emphasis too. For example, imagine your friend is struggling to complete a math assignment. She might turn to you and say:

    What’s the point?”

    There is no clear answer to this question, but your friend asks it to express her frustration. She does not really expect you to explain the point of doing the assignment to her, but she wants to draw your attention to how exasperated she is.

    What Are Some of the Effects of Rhetorical Questions?

    Rhetorical questions can also serve to purely engage an audience. For example, singers often come onstage at concerts and ask something like:

    Well, this is a good turnout, isn’t it?”

    Of course, the singer knows the answer to this question and does not expect an answer from people in the audience. But by asking this, the singer gets audience members to listen to what they are saying and engages them in the performance.

    Some Examples of Rhetorical Questions

    You might not have noticed, but we hear rhetorical questions all of the time in our daily lives. From everyday conversations to the content we read and listen to, rhetorical questions are all around us.

    Rhetorical Questions in Everyday Conversation

    People use rhetorical questions in everyday conversation to express emotion, bring attention to a topic, or make an argument. For example, have you ever been asked about what the weather will be like tomorrow and responded with:

    How should I know?"

    In this situation, you are not really asking someone to explain to you how you should know what the weather will be like. You are using dramatic emphasis to underscore the fact that you do not know the answer to the question at hand. By saying this instead of simply stating “I do not know,” you are expressing more emotion and emphasizing the point that you do not know.

    Parents also frequently ask young children rhetorical questions such as:

    “Do you think money grows on trees?"

    In this situation, the parent typically does not expect the child to respond but rather asks the child to make the child think about the value of money.

    A quick way to tell if a question is a rhetorical question is to ask if there is a simple answer that is not obvious. For instance, imagine someone asks you: "Do you want to watch television?" This is a question that has an answer-either you want to watch television or you don't. That answer is also not an obvious one, the way “Does money grow on trees?” is. The person asking you needs to wait for your reply to know the answer. Thus, the question is not rhetorical.

    Rhetorical Questions as a Literary Device

    We see rhetorical questions in all types of literature. For example, in William and Shakespeare’s tragic play Romeo and Juliet, Juliet asks Romeo:

    What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”1

    When Juliet asks this question, she is not really expecting a specific answer. There is no exact answer to the question “What’s in a name?” By asking this question she prompts Romeo to think about the fact that people’s names should not determine their identities.

    Poets also use rhetorical questions to emphasize critical points and prompt readers to reflect on a key topic or theme. For instance, consider the end of the poem ‘Ode to the West Wind’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley. In it Shelley writes:

    The trumpet of a prophecy!

    O Wind, If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?" 2

    In the final line, Shelley is not really questioning whether or not Spring comes after Winter. This question is rhetorical because it has an obvious answer – of course, Spring is not far behind Winter. However, here Shelley is using this question to suggest that there is hope for the future. He is bringing the reader's attention to the way warm weather comes after cold weather and uses this fact to suggest that there is a better time lie ahead.

    Rhetorical Question Spring Example StudySmarterFig. 2 - "Can Spring Be Far Behind?"

    Rhetorical Questions in Famous Arguments

    Since rhetorical questions are useful in emphasizing problems, speakers and writers often use rhetorical questions to enhance their arguments. For example, the American abolitionist Frederick Douglass frequently used rhetorical questions in ‘What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” He asks:

    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?"3

    In these questions, Douglass is not really asking the reader whether or not he should argue the wrongfulness of slavery or what the argument against slavery should be based on. In asking these questions with obvious answers Douglass is using dramatic emphasis to emphasize how out how ridiculous it is that he must argue against such a problem.

    Using Rhetorical Questions in Essays

    As Douglass proved in the above example, rhetorical questions can be a useful tool for furthering an argument. When trying to convince your reader of your main point you can use rhetorical questions to get your reader thinking about the issue at hand. For example, a great way to use a rhetorical question in an essay is to use one in the introduction. Using a rhetorical question in the introduction hooks your reader's attention. For instance, imagine you are writing an essay in which you try to convince your reader to recycle. You might open your essay by writing something like:

    A world full of garbage, extreme temperatures, and wars over drinking water. Who wants to live there?"

    The question at the end here, "Who wants to live there?" is a rhetorical question because of course no one would want to live in an unpleasant world like that. This question prompts the reader to reflect on how awful the world will be if climate change gets worse. It is a great way to get the reader thinking about the importance of the topic and eager to learn what they should do about it.

    While rhetorical questions are an effective way to prompt reflection on a topic, it is important to not overuse them. If you use too many rhetorical questions in an essay your reader might get confused and not understand what your main point is. Using one or two in an essay and then explaining the answer in detail will help ensure you use rhetorical questions effectively.

    Rhetorical Question - Key Takeaways

    • A rhetorical question is a question with an obvious answer or no answer
    • Rhetorical questions help bring attention to important points, further arguments, or add dramatic emphasis. Writers use rhetorical questions in literature to develop critical ideas and themes.
    • Writers also use rhetorical questions to strengthen key points of an argument.
    • Questions that have an answer that is not obvious are not rhetorical questions. For example, the question: “Do you want to watch television?” is not a rhetorical question.

    1. William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (1597)

    2. Percy Bysshe Shelley, 'Ode to the West Wind' (1820)

    3. Frederick Douglass, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? (1852)

    Frequently Asked Questions about Rhetorical Question

    What is a rhetorical question?

    A rhetorical question is a question with an obvious answer or no answer, used for emphasis.

    Is rhetorical question a rhetorical strategy?

    Yes, rhetorical question is a rhetorical strategy because it helps a speaker emphasize a point. 

    Why use rhetorical questions?

    We use rhetorical questions to emphasize points and bring attention to a topic. 

    Is rhetorical question figurative language?

    Yes, rhetorical question is figurative language because speakers use the questions to convey complex meaning.  

    Is it ok to use rhetorical questions in essays?

    It is ok to use rhetorical questions in some essays such as persuasive essays. However, rhetorical questions should be used sparingly because they do not provide direct information.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following is a function of a rhetorical question? 

    Spot the rhetorical question. 

    Spot the rhetorical question.


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