A rhetorical question is a persuasive literary device commonly used in fiction, non-fiction, speeches, conversation, and theoretical works.
Rhetorical questions reinforce a work’s crucial points by succinctly phrasing an author’s observations and expressions in a query form. The author does not expect (or want) a direct answer from the audience.1
Definition: Rhetorical questions
A rhetorical question is any relevant point stated as an open-ended query in prose. Often, the asker doesn’t expect a direct answer, contradiction, or further debate from anyone else in response. Instead, the rhetorical question attempts to strengthen an argument, introduce a topic, or better convey the author’s feelings and thoughts through sheer impact.1
Rhetorical questions are always (to a degree) implicative and interpretative. The answer presents to the reader without the author fully stating what it is supposed to be. Through euphemism, rhetorical flourishes nudge the reader to stop and think deeply and clearly about what the author is really trying to say.2
Rhetorical questions can also serve as a subtextual “call and response” prompt to reinforce what a target audience already believes, assumes, or knows. Politicians, activists, and newspapers often use this tactic to impact, reassure, and marshal their audience.2
Rhetorical questions may be prosaic, political, philosophical, patronizing, humorous, or ironic.¹ Popular, recurring rhetorical questions (e.g. “are you serious?”) tend to evolve into stock responses and literary clichés over time.² Questions can also better segment (i.e. theme) long or monotonous texts.3
Rhetorical questions with obvious answers
Most rhetorical questions asked have an “obvious”, implied answer.3
Rhetorical questions that have no answers
More rarely, a rhetorical question is expressed with no real answer implied. These are often used to make a strong negative point or to prompt further discussion.3
Types of rhetorical questions
There are three distinct categories of rhetorical questions we can find in use in conversation, fiction, and prose non-fiction. How these argumentative techniques are defined hinges on the question type’s post-response, purpose, and placement.
Anthypophora is a versatile, two-stage typeset of rhetorical questions answered straightaway by the asker. They’re often used to explore an argument, refute counterarguments, expand on an initial point, or answer any potential objections.
Hypophora is a similar rhetorical technique and may form the initial part of an anthypophoric question. However, a hypophoric query only uses questioning to highlight an area already under discussion without irony or supposition. Anthypophora requires topical impact, implication, and elaboration to work well.2
Erotesis is the enthusiastic cheerleader of rhetorical techniques. Erotesis allows a strong negative or positive emphasis to attach to a paragraph, statement, or expression via a punctuating rhetorical question. The response is implicative (not stated).
Erotesis is often used to underline and repeat a central point rather than expand on it further. The “loudspeaker” effect of erotesis makes it a favorite choice of persuasive writers, politicians, and propagandists. It can also be used as a “call and response” in chants, slogans, and catchphrases, boosting an argument’s succinctness, identity, and replicability.2
One common criticism of erotesis is that it tends toward making “all or nothing” statements. Good writers and speakers must be careful to include nuance.
Epiplexis represents the darker, abusive side of rhetorical questions. Each query strikes directly at the audience, subject, or another party to criticize their behavior, actions, plans, or beliefs. An epiplectic question intends to wound, critique, browbeat, or demonize the target.2
Rhetorical criticism presents an unanswerable statement to which the author has taken a personal, irredeemable offense. Each question asked has an unfixed temporal basis (e.g. past actions) and a request (often implicit) for change, humiliation, or submission.
Third-party epiplexis can play to another intended audience by promoting resentment, outrage, and condemnation (e.g. “how dare they…?”). In literature, it’s often effectively deployed against “strawman” opponents (i.e. unflattering, flawed caricatures of real people and ideologies) by demagogues seeking to command and control.
It’s worth remembering that epiplexis is distinct from vulgar insults grounded in kneejerk reactions (although it may accompany taunts). As it’s constantly fixed (however fairly or unfairly) to past behavior or an abstract critique, epiplexis can infinitely rerun – even if the target does change their ways.
Despite these strengths, epiplexis isn’t unrebukable. Insulting criticism in this format may still fall flat by expressing an ad hominem or non sequitur.2
Benefits of rhetorical questions
As we’ve seen, rhetorical questions have many uses, abilities, and strengths. Let’s summarize what they can do.1 2 3
|Types of rhetorical questions||Function|
|Accuse||Rhetorical questions can serve as an effective mode of attack against targets, real or imagined.|
|Explore||Rhetorical questions, particularly anthypophora, can better outline philosophical discussions and arguments as a conversation.|
|Interject||Rhetorical questions can break up and spice up otherwise bland prose. They can frame humor and provocative thought, too.|
|Persuade||Rhetorical questions can convince readers or argue a complex point by expressing it in understandable, brief language.|
|Reinforce||Rhetorical questions are excellent for getting simple, repetitive points into shared consciousness through chronic repetition. They can also reiterate what the reader or listener already believes or knows.|
A rhetorical question is an impactful statement in prose phrased as an open question to which no direct answer is expected. See directly above for an example.
To better illustrate, emphasize, and reiterate the (persuasive) points they want to make. Rhetorical questions can also invite further, unguided thought – even if they’re unanswerable. Open-ended queries make good starting points for free-flowing seminars and rhetorical debates.
Sometimes. Poorly timed, targeted, or phrased rhetorical questions often come across as talking down to the reader – or appear to tell them what they should really think. Accidental, pathetic humor (bathos) may result from questions that are too obscure or niche to be relatable or mistakenly express a truly unpopular opinion.2
1 Bitesize. “What is a rhetorical question?.”Accessed September 06, 2022. https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/topics/zmfc7ty/articles/z7dyvk7/.
2 Nordquist, Richard. “An Introduction to Rhetorical Questions.” ThoughtCo.. February 06, 2020. https://www.thoughtco.com/rhetorical-question-grammar-1692060.
3 Gunner, Jennifer. “Rhetorical Question Examples and Definition.” YourDictionary. Accessed September 06, 2022. https://examples.yourdictionary.com/rhetorical-question-examples.html.