What is a rhetorical question? It is a figure of speech that native speakers often use in conversations or presentations. The purpose of a rhetorical question is not to obtain a response, but to implicitly assert or deny a particular point that one is making. In other words, a rhetorical question ‘is asked to make a point rather than to elicit an answer’ (Gideon Burton, Brigham Young University, 2007).

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This might be because the rhetorical question does not have a definitive answer. Instead we are expressing a lament or an insult in question form. The use of this type of rhetorical question is called epiplexis.

(a) ‘What is the point of this horrible life?

(b) ‘Why has this terrible thing happened to me?’

In question (a), the speaker is bemoaning the futility of existence; in (b), he’s wondering why he has been the victim of a bad experience. There can be no definitive answer to either question — at least, not at this point in human history. Nor would the person expect an answer; they are simply communicating their despondency and frustration at life’s iniquities.

Rhetorical questions can also be used to communicate a person’s attitude towards somebody’s behaviour — particularly negative attitudes (which indirectly form insults). For example:

Anna: ‘Donna left her baby boy alone in the car and went shopping for an hour. How irresponsible can you be?’

In the example above, the speaker is not really asking her friend exactly how irresponsible she thinks a person can be — the criticism of Donna is implicit in the question. The answer would obviously be: ‘Very irresponsible!’

It is not necessary to provide an answer in this instance — in fact it would be bizarre for the interlocutor to do so, since Anna’s question is not seeking a response.

Another example of epiplexis:

‘John, you’ve been with Louise for twenty years — when will you ask your girfriend to marry you? When hell freezes over?’

The final question above implies criticism of John’s procrastination with regards to marrying Louise. It doesn’t actually require a response.

Sometimes a rhetorical question is used to emphasise an affirmative or negative answer to a previous question that has been asked. For example:

Mike: ‘Are you going to the party on Saturday?’
Bill:’Is the Pope a Catholic?’

Bill’s rhetorical response is the same as saying ‘Yes, of course I am going to the party on Saturday’ expressed in a more concise, informal way. Bill could also have replied: ‘Do bears live in the woods?’ or ‘Can birds fly?’ (etc.) to convey his affirmative response.

At this juncture it is salient to note the difference between Mike’s question and Bill’s question. Mike’s question is actually seeking information; Bill’s, on the other hand, is simply making a point, vis-á-vis the certainty of his going to the party. The latter question is an example of percontatio — a type of ‘affective’ question, one that wants to influence the way a conversation is going.

As we have already seen, there are actually different types of rhetorical questions. It is an oversimplification, therefore, to suggest that rhetorical questions are merely those questions that do not demand or expect answers; the truth is more nuanced. These types of rhetorical questions have formidable Latin titles (like epiplexis — see above), but don’t be deterred from learning more about them — they are actually quite easy to understand.

Let’s look at a few more. There are rhetorical questions that are used to persuade an audience about a common interest (anacoenosis); some are used to think through a problem oneself, without involving anyone else (anthypophora); and some are used to feign or express doubt about how one should proceed in a particular situation, with the speaker rhetorically asking his audience what he should do (aporia).

Let’s start with anacoenosis.

The writer Mark Forsyth provides a classic example of how politicians might use anacoenosis to appeal to the audience at a party conference:

‘Take the question, ‘Which party cares about what’s best for Britain?’ This might be asked by a Labour leader at a rally of Labour supporters and get the answer ‘Labour!’ Or it might be asked by the Conservative leader… and get the answer ‘Conservative!’ (Both of these would be anacoenosis.)’

— Mark Forsyth, ‘The Elements of Eloquence’, 2013

In the science-fiction film The Running Man, sinister game-show host Damon Killian (played by real-life US game-show host Richard Dawson) uses the mindless catchphrase ‘And who loves you, and who do you love?’ to work his studio audience into an almost concupiscent fervour; this use of anacoenosis works to keep the adoring public on Killian’s side, as they lovingly chant ‘Killian!’ in response to his egomaniacal rhetoric.

Anthypophora is the choice of neurotics everywhere. Imagine that you are stressed in a difficult situation. A common way of trying to order our thoughts is to pose ourselves questions, in the hope of gaining clarity. It’s almost like arguing with ourselves in order to reach a satisfactory conclusion.

‘I don’t have any money; things need to change! How could I get some money? I could get a well-paid job. Okay, so what kind of job? A writing job. How could I do that? By applying to newspapers who are looking for journalists, perhaps. Hmm… which newspapers would I be best suited for? The Times. No, maybe it’s too intellectual for me. Perhaps I should write for The Sun?…’

Linguists differ in their definitions of anthypophora and the similarly titled hypophora. Some use the term hypophora for the overall practice of asking oneself questions in general, whilst others use the term hypophora for the question asked, and anthypophora for the response given.

Aporia is used when one is pretending to have doubts about how best to proceed in a particular situation. A person might do this when they wish to emphasise their benevolence or generosity, thus belittling or discrediting their ‘opponent’. For example:

‘I can’t believe you just said that I never buy you anything. Should I talk about the time you couldn’t afford to pay your rent, and I paid it for you? Should I remind you about the expensive chocolates I bought for you last week? Or maybe I should recall the time I paid for your plane ticket to Las Vegas?’

Obviously, the questions above do not require answers. They are deployed to make the point that the speaker has in face bought his/her ‘adversary’ many things.

Let’s look at one more type of rhetorical question: erotesis — a question posed in expectation of receiving a strong affirmative or negative answer.

«Think, McFly! Think! I gotta have time to recopy (the homework). Do you realize what would happen if I handed in my homework in your handwriting? I could get kicked out of school. And you wouldn’t want that to happen, would you? WOULD YOU?»

— Biff Tannen to George McFly, ‘Back to the Future'(‘Regreso al futuro’), 1985

In truth, as Mark Forsyth says, erotesis is ‘the sort of question that really isn’t a question at all’. Biff, the workshy bully who regularly torments feckless milquetoast George McFly, clearly expects McFly to simperingly reply: ‘No, of course I wouldn’t want you to be kicked out of school!’ — which, of course, George does, in order to quell Biff’s incipient wrath.

«Erotesis, or Interrogation, is a figure by which we express the emotion of our mind, and infuse an ardour and energy into our discourse by proposing questions. . . As these questions have the force of a climax, they ought to be pronounced with increasing force to the end.»

— John Walker, ‘A Rhetorical Grammar’, 1814

Clearly, using rhetorical questions at appropriate times can enhance one’s use of language. Try taking our test to see how you manage using rhetorical questions.


A. Porter

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