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Rhetorical Question

A rhetorical question is a question that’s asked for effect, not because someone is expecting a genuine answer to it.

A rhetorical question is usually used to emphasize a situation or a point of discussion. In some cases, a rhetorical question has a clear and obvious answer, meaning that everyone listening is going to know what it is. It’s only asked so that everyone is reminded of that fact and is forced to think about it. It is used as a rhetorical device, meaning that it’s employed in an effort to persuade the reader of something.

Rhetorical Question pronunciation: rhe-tor-eh-cuhl quest-shun
Rhetorical Question definition and examples


Definition of Rhetorical Question

A rhetorical question is asked when the speaker already knows the answer and is not expecting or needing any information from the listener/s. When someone uses this kind of question, they’re needlessly asking something in order to place emphasis on it. Someone might ask, “Are you stupid?” As a way of making sure the listener knows the speaker thinks they’re “stupid” and as a way of delivering this insult with added gusto. It can come across more cruelly and impactfully than if someone simply said, “I think you’re stupid.” 

Many examples of rhetorical questions come in the form of a statement and a tag question or a short question at the end of the sentence. It is “Tagged” onto the statement as a way of emphasizing it. The speaker does not really want an answer. For example, “It’s beautiful today, isn’t it?” or “You really don’t know what you’re doing, do you?” 

Common Examples of Rhetorical Questions 

  • Are you stupid? 
  • Did you really mean that? 
  • Are we there yet? 
  • Why not 
  • Okay?
  • Did you hear me?

Examples of Rhetorical Question 

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare 

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet provides readers with examples of a wide variety of interesting literary devices. There is a good rhetorical question in the following lines, found in Act II Scene 2. It reads: 

Tis but thy name that is my enemy.

Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.

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? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.

In these lines, the speaker, Juliet, suggests that someone’s name does not define who they are as a human being. She’s thinking about herself and about Romeo, whose relationship is made infinitely more difficult by the fact that they’re on opposite sides of the Capulet /Montague feud. She uses two different rhetorical questions in these lines, “What’s Montague?” And “What’s in a name?” This passage is so famous that it is often referred to by the name “What’s in a name?” monologue. 

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare 

Unsurprisingly, Romeo and Juliet is not the only Shakespeare play in which readers can find an example of a rhetorical question. In this literary work, there are four different questions grouped together in Act III Scene 1of The Merchant of Venice. Here are the lines: 

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?

Here, Shylock, one of the central characters, asks four rhetorical questions together. They do not need answers, nor does Shylock expect to receive any. In these lines, Shylock is attempting to prove how similar he, a Jew, is to those around him. He’s just as vengeful, liable to die and cause death, and human as everyone else. The passage is significantly longer than these four lines suggest and is in parts quite dark. 

Explore William Shakespeare’s poetry.

Ode to the West Wind by Percy Bysshe Shelley 

In this well-loved poem, Shelley uses a rhetorical question when he writes the following lines:

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

These two lines appear at the end of the poem and are left unanswered. They’re a perfect example of how rhetorical questions can be used in poetry.

Read more Percy Bysshe Shelley poems. 

Why Do Writers Use Rhetorical Questions? 

Writers use rhetorical questions when they want to challenge someone or something, emphasize their point, put out a piece of information, or bring into the forefront something that everyone is already thinking about. Rhetorical questions can be used o create humor, insult other people, address difficult topics, and more. In some cases, such as in political speeches, these questions are posed so that the audience will answer them in their minds. For example, if a politician poses a question about the opponent, phrasing it in such a way that the audience can’t help but come up with a negative answer. Not answering the question themselves puts the speaker in a more powerful position. 

Rhetorical Question, Hypophora, or Aporia

These literary devices are often confused due to their similarities. But, they are quite different from one another. Hypophora occurs when someone asks a question and then immediately follows it up with an answer. It’s often used in speeches to create a slightly different effect than a purely rhetorical question. Aporia is an expression of doubt that’s used, sometimes in the form of a question. When they take this form, they are rhetorical.

FAQs

Should you answer a rhetorical question?

No. Rhetorical questions are only asked for emphasis and shouldn’t be answered.

What is a rhetorical question?

A question that is asked to make a point, to draw attention to a topic, create a humorous situation, or even insult someone.

What is an example of a rhetorical question?

“Are you kidding me?” and “It’s hot outside, isn’t it?” are both examples of rhetorical questions.

Why would you use a rhetorical question?

To point out something important, make sure someone is listening to you or knows how serious you are, insult someone, make a joke, and many other reasons.

Why shouldn’t you use a rhetorical question?

They are not always appropriate for formal writing, can come across casually or even flippantly.


  • 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.

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