Rhetorical Questions Explained - Definition and Examples

What Is A Rhetorical Question?

A rhetorical question is one that is asked without the expectation of an answer. Rhetorical questions are generally either questions that don't have an answer, or they have very obvious and easy answers. Like most types of figurative language, a rhetorical question has multiple uses, but usually, it is a tool to help persuade an audience, to emphasize a point, or for humor.

Rhetorical questions are common in everyday conversation, but they are also used in more formal situations, particularly in speeches and persuasive essays. They are less common in formal academic writing, although you may sometimes encounter them there as well. In addition, you will see them in poems, fiction, and plays.

rhetorical question example

Examples of Rhetorical Questions in Conversation

There are many different reasons you might use rhetorical questions in casual conversation.

  • To express surprise
    Someone stole all the money from the petty cash box.
    Are you kidding me?
  • To make a point
    Do you want to get us in trouble? or
    Do you want to be a failure in life?
  • To point out that the answer to something is obvious
    Are you excited about your vacation?
    Is rain wet?

Here are a few more rhetorical question examples that are common in everyday usage:

  • Who cares?
  • What am I going to do?
  • Who knows?
  • How could you not see this coming?

Rhetorical questions can also be a way of introducing a subject. You might use this in casual conversation. It's also a format you may have heard comedians use to start a joke. These are usually cues for agreement, but the main purpose is to set up the topic you want to talk about. Usually, the person asking it goes straight into the story after asking the question, although there might be nods or other signs of agreement from the audience.

  • Don't you hate when your car is making a weird noise, and then you take it to a mechanic, and it stops making it?
  • You know when you go to the doctor, and they ask you to wait even though you have an appointment?
  • Have you ever had one of those veggie burgers that costs twice as much as anything else on the menu and has half as much flavor?

Rhetorical Question Examples in Speeches and Essays

  • A politician or a speaker trying to persuade an audience to turn away from a certain course of action:
    Is this the kind of people we are?
    The purpose of the rhetorical question here is to turn the audience's attention upon themselves and make them search their consciences.
  • In a similar situation, the speaker might ask a more open-ended question:
    Who do we want to be as a people and a nation?
    This invites listeners to reflect on the question and the nature of how they see themselves and their country.
  • An essay writer trying persuade readers that something currently happening is wrong:
    Can we allow this to continue?

Here are a few more examples of rhetorical questions you might encounter in a speech or essay that have similar persuasive functions to the ones above:

  • Will we be the first ones to tell the next generation of children that we failed them?
  • Why has this injustice been allowed to flourish?
  • Are we prepared to be the next generation of leaders?
  • Why are we pursuing this course of action? Is it just because it's the way we've always done things? What do we actually hope to achieve?

Rhetorical Question Examples in Literature

Rhetorical questions are not just for conversation, speeches and essays. You encounter them in poems and stories as well.

  • A love poem might include a line like this:
    Has there ever been a face so lovely as yours?
  • You might encounter a rhetorical question in a story with a first person narrator, in dialogue or in a character's thoughts:
    Wasn't I just as important as everyone else in the family? Didn't I deserve the same consideration? Was I not just as vulnerable to despair as the rest of them?
  • Here's a rhetorical question that might be posed by the story's narrator or a character. Note that the question is not really asking for exact numbers but invites the reader to reflect on the question without expecting an answer:
    How many had already died in pursuit of this ideal, and how many more would follow them?

A rhetorical question can be a powerful literary device when you are trying to persuade your audience of something. It can be combined with other literary devices, such as hyperbole or irony, to drive your point home even more effectively. Recognizing and understanding its function can make your own writing stronger.

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