Rhetorical Question

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Questions not expected to be answered

What is Rhetorical Question?

Rhetorical question is generally defined as a query posed by an advocate for which an answer is not expected. In advocacy contexts, a rhetorical question tends to produce an atmosphere of openness which brings about a possibility of multiple answers, but in many cases the situated force of the utterance seriously undermines the veracity of any answer other than that implied by the advocate. Based on this concept, rhetorical questions may be conceptualized as a way of making indirect assertions or claims.

The rhetorical question as a figure of speech Opens in new window is usually employed in the form of asking a question in order to achieve a given purpose other than to obtain an answer to the question. It can be primarily to express emotion, as with the specific types: ErotemeOpens in new window and EpiplexisOpens in new window.

For example, “Why are you so indecisive?” is likely to be a statement regarding one's opinion of the person addressed rather than a genuine request to know.

Similarly, when someone responds to a tragic event by saying, “Why me, God?” it is more likely to be an accusation or an expression of feeling than a realistic request for information.

The functions typically ascribed to a rhetorical question are: emphatic assertion, persuasion of the hearer, or an appeal to him by means of emotions.

Rhetorical questions can be an effective persuasive device, subtly influencing the kind of response one wants to get from his/her hearers. In some occasion, the rhetorical question tends to prove effective than a direct assertion; and at some point, the rhetorical question challenges the hearers and excites them to be more alert.

Examples of Rhetorical Question

Considering a contemporary example. In an essay arguing against gays in the military, a writer might pose a rhetorical question such as:

  • “Do the proponents of gays in the military believe that heterosexual soldiers will accept gays without a fight?”

In this context, the rhetorical question does a few things. First, it puts words in the mouths of gay rights supporters by suggesting that their view of the way in which the military operates is unrealistic.

Second, it in effect makes the claim that heterosexual soldiers will openly resist the inclusion of acknowledged gays in the military, but because this claim is made indirectly, the writer is not under any obligation to provide support for the assertion.

Finally, the indirectness of the assertion distances it from the writer, thereby allowing the writer to avoid taking a stand on the legitimacy of the predicted action. This example (without any form of paraphrase) is adapted for use here, from James Jasinski’s Sourcebook on RhetoricOpens in new window.