A hypothetical question deals with possible, rather than certain, scenarios. They depend on imaginary parameters that make the question possible. The person asking it will set out a possible situation, one that may be more or less likely, and then structures a question around it.
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Definition and Explanation of a Hypothetical Question
A hypothetical question can range in scope, absurdity, and reality depending on the situation and what the speaker is interested in. They are used to create interesting topics of discussion among friends, family members, and close colleagues, as well as writing topics and a source of inspiration for any other creative work. Some possible hypothetical questions are:
- What would you do if you found out you only had 24 hours to live?
- What would you wish for if you had one wish?
- What would you do if you lost all your possessions?
- What do you think the future is going to be like?
- Do you think we could live with dinosaurs?
- If you had to eat only one food for the rest of your life, what would you choose?
Examples of Hypothetical Questions
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
In Romeo and Juliet, there is a good example of a hypothetical question in the following passage:
It’s only your name that’s my enemy. You’d still be yourself even if you stopped being a Montague. What’s a Montague anyway? It isn’t a hand, a foot, an arm, a face, or any other part of a man. Oh, be some other name! What does a name mean? The thing we call a rose would smell just as sweet if we called it by any other name.
In these lines, Juliet is considering who Romeo is and what his family name means in regard to any possible relationship the two might have. She asks, “What’s a Montague anyway?” suggesting that both their names mean nothing. She states very clearly that he would still be who he is even if he “stopped being a Montague.” There is a second question further on where she asks, “What does a name mean?” There’s certainly an answer to this question, but it’s an unusual one. By posing it, she’s challenging readers to consider the possibility that names mean nothing.
Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
Waiting for Godot is a play in which Vladimir and Estragon, known as Didi and Gogo, engage in a series of discussions while waiting for Godot to arrive, something that never happens. The play is a “tragicomedy” and is one of the most important dramatic works of the 20th century. The following excerpts (in which stage directions have been removed) contain a series of questions based on assumptions:
ESTRAGON: But what Saturday? And is it Saturday? Is it not rather Sunday? Or Monday? Or Friday?
VLADIMIR: It’s not possible!
ESTRAGON: Or Thursday?
VLADIMIR: What’ll we do?
ESTRAGON: If he came yesterday and we weren’t here you may be sure he won’t come again today.
VLADIMIR: But you say we were here yesterday.
Here, they ask and answer generalized questions with generalized answers. There are no facts or truths presented, just random considerations.
A Modest Proposal by Johnathan Swift
In Swift’s well-known A Modest Proposal, he asks a long hypothetical question about what the British can do about starvation and the population of Ireland. His satire suggests that the British eat the children and right two problems at the same time. Here is an excerpt from the work:
There only remain an hundred and twenty thousand children of poor parents annually born: The question therefore is, How this number shall be reared, and provided for, which, as I have already said, under the present Situation of Affairs, is utterly impossible by all the methods hitherto proposed.
Hypothetical Question or Rhetorical Question
While these terms sound similar, and both deal with a question, they are quite different. A hypothetical question, as mentioned above, is something that’s posed in regard to an imagined scenario. It is not reality, but the speaker expects to get an answer to it, no matter how outrageous the question and answer might be. A rhetorical question is one that’s asked for effect. No real answer on the part of the listener is expected. It likely has an obvious answer, one that does not need stating. It is self-evident. Some basic rhetorical questions include the following:
- Are you stupid?
- Did you hear me?
- What in the world?
- Can you believe that happened?
Often, these short rhetorical questions appear at the end of sentences. For example:
- That was really a lot of fun, wasn’t it?
- We’re going to go out tonight, aren’t we?
These questions are also referred to as tag questions.
Why Do Writers Use Hypothetical Questions?
Writers use hypothetical questions in order to suggest outcomes. These outcomes may or may not be likely, but they are usually interesting and stimulating for the conversation. A writer might take a hypothetical question such as, what would I the like if robots took over the world? And use it to inspire a broader work. Another writer might take the same question and make their characters discuss and answer it. Sometimes in stories, a hypothetical question becomes a real question as the characters pursue the answer.
Related Literary Terms
- Hypophora: a figure of speech that occurs when writing asks a question and then immediately follows that question up with an answer.
- Aporia: a figure of speech where a speaker or writer poses a question. This question expresses doubt or confusion.
- Characterization: a literary device that is used to detail and explains the aspects of a specifically crafted character in a novel, play, or poem.
- Allegory: a narrative found in verse and prose in which a character or event is used to speak about a broader theme.
- Prose: a written and spoken language form that does not make use of a metrical pattern or rhyme scheme.
- Comedy: a humorous and entertaining genre of literature, film, and television.
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