A rhetorical question
is a figure of speech
in the form of a question
posed for its persuasive effect without the expectation of a reply. For example, "Why me, Lord?" Rhetorical questions encourage the listener to reflect on what the implied answer to the question must be. When a speaker states, "How much longer must our people endure this injustice?"
or "How many times do I have to tell you to stop walking into the house with mud on your shoes?"
; no formal answer is expected. Rather, it is a device used by the speaker to assert or deny something.
In the 1580s, English printer Henry Denham
invented a "rhetorical question mark" for use at the end of a rhetorical question; however, it died out of use in the 1600s. It was the reverse of an ordinary question mark, so that instead of the main opening pointing back into the sentence, it opened away from it.
Some have adapted the question mark into various irony marks
, but these are very rarely seen.
A rhetorical question that intends the communication of "yes, of course".
The answer to a rhetorical question can also be "no!" or "never!" or "of course not":
- But where will Europe's latter hour
- Again find Wordsworth's healing power?
- (Matthew Arnold. "Memorial Verses") (The implied answer is "Never! Wordsworth was
- one-of-a-kind as far as 'healing power' goes!")
- Here was a Caesar! when comes such another?
- (William Shakespeare, "Julius Caesar," Act 3, sc. 2, 257)
- (The implied answer is "Never! We'll never have
- a Caesar as good as that one was!")
- When can their glory fade?
- O the wild charge they made!
- (Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "The Charge of the Light Brigade")
Sometimes the implied answer to a rhetorical question is "Yes, but I wish it were not so" or "No, but I wish it were yes":
- O mighty Caesar! dost thou lie so low?
- Are all thy conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils,
- Shrunk to this little measure?
- (William Shakespeare, "Julius Caesar," Act 3, scene 1, 148
- The speaker is Caesar's good friend, Mark Antony.)
- Sometimes a speaker poses a question and then answers it himself/herself.