People ask rhetorical questions without expecting an answer, usually to make a point. Writers use rhetorical questions to persuade someone or for literary effect — usually to get an audience to agree to an easy or unanswerable question. There are two main types of rhetorical questions: questions whose answers are so obvious that there's no need to say them or questions without any answer at all.
Some rhetorical question examples are very obvious, either because they’re discussing commonly known facts or because the answer is suggested in context clues. These rhetorical questions, also called rhetorical affirmations, are often asked to emphasize a point.
- Is the pope Catholic?
- Is rain wet?
- Do you want to be a failure for the rest of your life?
- Does a bear poop in the woods?
- Can fish swim?
- Can birds fly?
- Do dogs bark?
- Do cats meow?
- Is hell hot?
- Is the sky blue?
- Is water wet?
- Don't you care about me?
Some rhetorical questions don’t really have an answer, at least not a clear and concise one. Rather, they’re meant to start conversations, spur debate, prompt contemplation, or illustrate someone’s current state of mind. For example:
- Who knows?
- Why not?
- Why is this happening to me?
- Are you kidding?
- Who could blame me?
- Who's to say?
- Who's counting?
- How should I know?
- Why bother?
Writers love to prompt further thinking and reflection. Rhetorical questions are a great way to achieve that. Leaving a question lingering in the air will allow the reader to spend further time in contemplation. Here are some examples from literature:
- "If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” - "Ode to the West Wind" by Percy Bysshe Shelley
- “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?" - The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
- "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore — And then run?" - "Harlem" by Langston Hughes
- "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?" - Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
One of the best ways to include the audience in your speech is to ask a rhetorical question. It opens up the floor to them, without actually having to open up the floor and let everyone speak. It simply serves as an opportunity to pique their interest and then continue to emphasize your points. For example:
- "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'?' - Ronald Reagan
- "Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?" - Sojourner Truth
- "Are we a nation that tolerates the hypocrisy of a system where workers who pick our fruit and make our beds never have a chance to get right with the law? Are we a nation that accepts the cruelty of ripping children from their parents' arms? Or are we a nation that values families, and works to keep them together?” - Barack Obama
With all these what-if scenarios, you may be wondering when to ask a rhetorical question. Typically, they’re used in conversations where the speaker wants to drive an important point home. For example:
- Your girlfriend asks if you love her. You say "Is the pope Catholic?" to imply that it is as obvious you love her as it is that the leader of the Catholic Church is Catholic.
- A parent is arguing with a child about the importance of good grades. The parent says "Do you want to live here in the basement for the rest of your life?” hoping the child will realize that good grades lead to a better-paying job.
- Two men are having a disagreement in a bar. One says "Do you want me to punch you in the face?” The obvious answer to that is no.
- A woman tells her husband she is pregnant and shows him the pregnancy test. He says "Are you serious?” This emphasizes his surprise at the news.
- A child is asking for a very expensive toy. His parent says "Do you think that money just grows on trees?” This should make the child stop and think about how things are paid for.
The next time you’d like to push a point home or stir up an audience, consider opening or closing with a rhetorical question. It has the possibility to leave your opinions hanging in the air for further consideration. For more ways to heighten your writing, consider: