I. What is a Rhetorical Question?
A rhetorical question is a question that is not asked in order to receive an answer from the audience or reader. It’s just posed to make a point. Don’t we do this all the time in everyday speech? Sometimes a rhetorical question will just be left open, but other times the speaker will immediately go on to answer it. In either case, no answer from the audience is expected.
II. Examples of a Rhetorical Question
“What’s the deal with airline food?”
This sort of rhetorical question is often asked by standup comedians. They’re not actually asking the audience to answer the question – they’re just setting up a joke or monologue about the subject of airline food.
“Want to order a pizza?”
“Sure, why not?”
You’ve probably used this rhetorical question before. Rather than just saying “yeah,” you ask a question. But the question is entirely rhetorical. Imagine if someone actually responded by explaining why you shouldn’t order a pizza – you might suspect that they missed your point.
III. The Importance of a Rhetorical Question
Rhetorical questions are so common in everyday speech that it’s hard to define their overall effect. It’s just part of the way people speak in real life, so using a rhetorical question here and there can make your writing sound more natural. In addition, a question gives the feel of a dialogue, because the reader feels as though he or she is being addressed directly by the writer. (The fancy word for this is that rhetorical questions “interpellate” the reader.)
There’s at least one clear purpose for rhetorical questions in formal essays: they’re a great way to move an argument forward (see section 6 for an example). Instead of just saying “I will now talk about x,” you can ask a question about x and give your reader a better idea of where you’re going. This is a much more natural and conversational way to write. Imagine a dinner party where someone raised their hand and announced what they were going to talk about next – no one does this! But you can easily imagine someone raising a rhetorical question instead. You can mimic this flow of conversation in your writing.
V. Examples of a Rhetorical Question in Literature
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet!” (Juliet, Romeo and Juliet)
One of Shakespeare’s most famous lines is a rhetorical question. In this line, Juliet is raising the question to prove a point – that names don’t mean anything and it shouldn’t matter if Romeo’s last name is unacceptable to her parents. She’s asking the question rhetorically, and doesn’t expect that someone will come in and tell her what is in a name.
“Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (Play by Edward Albee)
This rhetorical question also contains a clever pun. The play is all about a pair of English professors who discuss the work of British author Virginia Woolf; they also sing a humorous version of the song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” onstage.
VI. Examples of Rhetorical Question in Pop Culture
“If vegetarians eat vegetables, then what do humanitarians eat?”
This joke is an example of a rhetorical question. It doesn’t really need an answer, since the punch line is already implied by the question – do humanitarians eat humans?
“How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?”
(Mona and Homer Simpson, The Simpsons)
In this episode of The Simpsons, Mona Simpson is singing a famous song by Bob Dylan in which the first line is “How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?” Obviously it’s a rhetorical question because the singer doesn’t expect an answer, but Homer fails to understand this and hazards a guess.
VII. Related Terms
An “aporia” is a rhetorical expression of doubt, usually when the author doesn’t actually feel the doubt. An aporia is often expressed in question form, and in these cases it’s an example of a rhetorical question. It’s often used in philosophy and other argument-heavy fields when the author wants to move the conversation forward. Take this line from a philosophy paper, transitioning from one section into another:
Therefore, the democratic citizen should speak as plainly as possible so that his or her fellow-citizens can understand. But what exactly does it mean to “speak plainly” when it comes to complicated political issues? And are there exceptions to the general rule?
In these sentences, the author is getting ready to raise a new point in the argument, and the rhetorical questions help smooth the transition. Obviously, the author isn’t expecting a response – in fact, the author is about to go forward and answer the questions herself.