When is a question not a question? Whether you’re writing an essay for school or conversing with a friend, you’ve likely asked a rhetorical question at some point. Rhetorical questions are said or written to make a point rather than to solicit an answer from the audience.
In this guide, we’ll explore the meaning of rhetorical questions, their purpose, and the different types of rhetorical questions as well as give plenty of examples.
What is a rhetorical question?
A rhetorical question is an inquiry that ends in a question mark but is asked for effect rather than to elicit an answer. It’s often used in persuasive writing but is also common in everyday conversation.
Depending on the context of the rhetorical question, its purpose may be to emphasize a point, prompt the audience to consider a topic, or lend intrigue to an argument. The answer to a rhetorical question is usually very obvious or the opposite, meaning it can’t be easily discerned.
What are the different types of rhetorical questions?
Rhetorical questions are broken down into different types that are used to gain specific outcomes. The different types of rhetorical questions include anthypophora, epiplexis, and erotesis.
Anthypophora, also known as hypophora, involves asking a question in order to answer it immediately. As a rhetorical question, it allows one to promptly answer a question that the audience or speaker wants addressed without giving others an opportunity to develop a different response or voice opposition.
- Who is impacted by pollution? Everyone.
- What are the signs of spring? New growth, pollen, and rain.
- Why should you believe in me? I’ll give you three good reasons . . .
Epiplexis is a rhetorical device in which one asks a question in order to admonish rather than receive an answer. This figure of speech is meant to chide and convert those who either hold an opposing or neutral perspective on a point.
- Who wouldn’t want to save the whales?
- Can’t you see what’s happening?
- How could you do that?
Erotesis positions the question in a way that elicits a strong reaction, either in agreement or rejection. However, this type of rhetorical question typically anticipates a negative response.
- Are you against freedom?
- Am I my brother’s keeper?
- Do you want to lose?
When are rhetorical questions used?
Rhetorical questions are used in various forms of writing and rhetoric. They can be found in literature and are often used in persuasive writing, like essays, debates, and speeches of all kinds, whether political or a commencement speech.
They’re also common in everyday conversation as figures of speech and in marketing advertisements.
Rhetorical question examples
In William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet’s soliloquy, in which she reflects on discovering Romeo’s family name, includes two rhetorical questions:
’Tis but thy name that is my enemy.
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name.
And for that name, which is no part of thee
Take all myself.
Juliet uses anthypophora as a rhetorical device when she answers her own question, What is Montague? with a response describing what Montague is not.
Another famous example of rhetorical questions comes from 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?
In Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Hatter asks a rhetorical question after a brief debate with Alice:
“Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.
“I’ve had nothing yet, “ Alice replied in an offended tone, “so I can’t take any more.”
“You mean you can’t take less,” said the Hatter: “it’s very easy to take more than nothing.”
“Nobody asked your opinion,” said Alice.
“Who’s making personal remarks now?” the Hatter asked triumphantly.
In his 1980 speech, President Ronald Reagan strategically used stacked, rhetorical epiplexis to amplify his opinion of the prior administration’s results:
Can anyone look at the record of this administration and say, “Well done”? Can anyone compare the state of our economy when the Carter administration took office with where we are today and say, “Keep up the good work”? Can anyone look at our reduced standing in the world today say, “Let’s have four more years of this”?
In Emma Watson’s United Nations speech on gender equality, she employed a rhetorical question to provoke contemplation:
I decided that I was a feminist, and this seemed uncomplicated to me. But my recent research has shown me that feminism has become an unpopular word. Women are choosing not to identify as feminists. Apparently, I’m among the ranks of women whose expressions are seen as too strong, too aggressive, isolating, and anti-men. Unattractive, even.
Why has the word become such an uncomfortable one? I’m from Britain, and I think it is right that I am paid the same as my male counterparts. I think it is right that I should be able to make decisions about my own body. I think it is right that women be involved on my behalf in the policies and decisions that will affect my life. I think it is right that socially I am afforded the same respect as men.
Below are a few examples of rhetorical questions that might be used in everyday conversation.
When used in context to state something obvious or express sarcasm:
- Is the sky blue?
- Is water wet?
To express the speaker’s current frame of mind or a positive emphasis for a point:
- Why not?
- Who’s to say?
- How should I know?
- Who knows?
- What’s not to like?
Rhetorical question FAQs
What is a rhetorical question?
A rhetorical question is a question that is not meant to have or does not require an answer.