Wouldn’t you like to finally understand rhetorical questions? Of course you would! (Or at least I’m guessing you would, since you ended up on this page.)
You see, that was a rhetorical question itself—I wasn’t really waiting for a response, since the answer seemed quite obvious. Rhetorical questions work like that: they don’t require responses, making them perhaps the sassiest and most confident of questions.
For this reason, when used effectively, rhetorical questions can help to enhance your written and spoken rhetoric by emphasizing key points that resonate with your audience.
What Is a Rhetorical Question?
Rhetorical questions can be sarcastic, humorous, or reflective. They aren’t used to elicit an actual answer, but rather to create a dramatic effect or to emphasize a point.
Take, for example, the rhetorical question “It’s awfully cold today, isn’t it?” This question (also known as a tag question) puts emphasis on the fact that it’s very cold; in most cases, it’s not intended to draw a thoughtful response.
Rhetorical Question Examples
Below are several examples of common rhetorical questions that you’ve probably used or at least recognize:
- Who cares?
- How should I know?
- Who’s counting?
- How many times do I have to tell you… ?
- Can’t you do anything right?
- What could be better?
As you can see, some of these questions might be asked defiantly, sarcastically, or even just to draw attention to certain facts. In each case, however, an answer is usually not expected.
Rhetorical questions are basically a requirement for any effective speech, which is why you’ll often find them sprinkled throughout political addresses. They help to make the speaker’s point more clear, and they often resonate with the audience, prompting them to reflect further on an idea.
Take this example, delivered by President Barack Obama in 2014:
"Are we a nation that tolerates the hypocrisy of a system where workers
who pick our fruit and make our beds never have a chance to get right
with the law? Are we a nation that accepts the cruelty of ripping
children from their parents' arms? Or are we a nation that values
families, and works to keep them together?"
By juxtaposing two very different scenarios through striking imagery, the president was trying to remind the American people of their values and the policies he wanted (and didn’t want) them to support.
Rhetorical Questions in Literature
Below are several examples of rhetorical questions from literature.
The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
"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?"
These questions, posed by the character of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, don’t really need answers; the point is that the answer to each question above should be obvious.
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
"What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Juliet’s question of “what’s in a name?” is intended to make a point about how little significance a name should hold.
“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?"
The questions posed in this poem by Langston Hughes also don’t require responses. The speaker is simply pondering what happens to a “dream deferred,” using creative language and imagery to convey the possibilities.
Learn to Use Rhetorical Questions
If overused, too many rhetorical questions might make you come off as too sarcastic or even arrogant.
But when used skillfully and in combination with other rhetorical devices, such as ethos, pathos, and logos, rhetorical questions can enhance your speech and writing by emphasizing key points.
Not a rhetorical question: Did you find this post helpful? Let us know in the comments below!