The Grammarphobia Blog

A rhetorical question

Q: Like any teenager, my 15-year-old daughter has a ravenous appetite and will invariably have a hot dog as a snack after school. When she got home the other day, I asked her if she wanted one and she replied in the emphatic affirmative. “Does this surprise me?” I said to her. “No, why should it?” she replied. “It was purely a rhetorical question,” I said. Now comes the crux. She said a proper rhetorical question would have been phrased with “should” rather than “does.” What is your take on this?

A: The form of the question doesn’t really matter. A rhetorical question, no matter how you phrase it, is one “to which no answer is expected, often used for rhetorical effect.”

That definition is from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), and it’s pretty much the same in other dictionaries.

The adjective “rhetorical” in the phrase is defined this way in the Oxford English Dictionary: “Designating a question asked only to produce an effect or make a statement, rather than to elicit an answer or information.”

In other words, when you ask a rhetorical question—like “How was I supposed to know it was loaded?” or “Am I supposed to eat this?”—you’re not asking for information. You’re using what sounds like a question in order to make a point.

Published references in the OED indicate that the phrase “rhetorical question” first showed up in English more than 300 years ago.

The dictionary’s earliest example, dating from sometime before 1686, is in a political pamphlet written by the First Earl of Anglesey: “To this Rhetorical Question the Commons pray they may Answer by another Question.”

A 1721 religious tract written by Robert Manning offers an illustration of the phrase as well as the question used for rhetorical effect:

“But, to turn your fine Rhetorical Question upon yourself, cannot you enjoy the Advantages you have over impenitent Sinners, and the Devils without Damning them all to the Pit of Hell for ever?”

Rhetorical questions themselves have been around a lot longer than the English phrase “rhetorical question,” since they were familiar to orators in ancient Athens and Rome. The Greek term for a rhetorical question was erotema, and the Latin term was interrogatio.

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