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Confusion about Rhetorical Questions

Ross at Play
Updated:

I have just discovered my ideas about rhetorical questions were completely WRONG. Perhaps others have been under the same misconception.

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I found this in The Oxford Essential Guide to Writing by Thomas S. Kane. This Guide is almost the same as an earlier work published by Oxford University Press (that was aimed at students in England). This one has been adapted to be suitable for students in America and is published there by Penguin books.

Rhetorical Questions

A rhetorical question is a variety of direct question and must be closed by a question mark, no matter whether the writer intends to answer it—or to receive an answer—or not. (The notion that a rhetorical question does not require an answer is inaccurate. Rhetorical questions are often asked precisely so that the writer can compose the answer. And even when the writer does not state the answer, he or she expects the reader to supply it.)


There are things that look like questions but should not have question marks. I have found these examples and explanations for those.

1. He asked if you were going downtown." That is an indirect question. It requires an answer, but it is expressed as a statement and so is closed by a period, not a query.

2. A request disguised as a question does not require a question mark. Such formulations can usually be reduced to the imperative. (For example,) 'Would you kindly respond by March 1' (could be written as) 'Please respond by March 1'.

Replies:   awnlee jawking
awnlee jawking

@Ross at Play

I have just discovered my ideas about rhetorical questions were completely WRONG.


I've been down this path many times. There are many different opinions as to how rhetorical questions should be punctuated. Whichever option you choose, provided it's not completely barking mad, there is bound to be a set of experts agreeing with you.

IIRC, requiring a question mark every time is not the option that would top a poll of experts.

AJ

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
Ernest Bywater
Updated:

@awnlee jawking


Whichever option you choose, provided it's not completely barking mad, there is bound to be a set of experts agreeing with you.


I was taught in both high school and college there are a number of forms of rhetorical questions. The three most common being:

1. A question the speaker asks with the intent of answering it themselves, and it should end with a question mark. Example: political candidate says, "Why should you vote for me? Because I stand for ..."

2. A clear statement worded like a question, but isn't meant to be answered, and it should end with an exclamation mark. This is often meant to be said in an emphatic manner. (note: this is the most common you one you see in stories.)

3. The indirect question that doesn't sound like a question, and ends in a full stop.

usual typo edit.

Replies:   Ross at Play
Crumbly Writer

I agree, the punctuation used often depends on the circumstances, meaning that, rather than a hard and fast rule, it's often a matter of personal choice depending on context--which makes it difficult for readers to decipher. :(

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
Ernest Bywater

@Crumbly Writer

t's often a matter of personal choice depending on context--which makes it difficult for readers to decipher.


Which is a good reason to be uniform in how you use the punctuation for it. With what i was taught, and use, if what sounds like a question ends in an exclamation mark it makes it clear it's a rhetorical question. However, the key point is to use the same method for the situation throughout the story.

Switch Blayde

I personally believe rhetorical questions should not have a question mark. But they unfortunately do.

But when someone exclaims "What!" I use an exclamation point rather than a question mark. I wish the interbang (?!) had been accepted.

And I don't put a question mark when a question is not really a question, as in your boss saying, "Got a minute" when he's telling you to come to his office.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

And I don't put a question mark when a question is not really a question, as in your boss saying, "Got a minute" when he's telling you to come to his office.

See, here's how easy it is to generate a disagreement on the topic. In my case, I'd add a question mark to it, but it's asked as a question, not expressed as a demand. Your relationship to your boss, and his power over your career, is immaterial to the punctuation. Even assuming he's not expecting a question, I'd still add it. In essence, he's saying "We're having this meeting NOW, unless you've got an objection", in which case it's still a question (i.e. "Is there any reason you can't meet right this second?).

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde

@Crumbly Writer

In my case, I'd add a question mark to it, but it's asked as a question, not expressed as a demand. Your relationship to your boss, and his power over your career, is immaterial to the punctuation.


LOL You've had different kinds of bosses than I.

This is from Grammar Girl at http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/do-rhetorical-questions-need-a-question-mark

It's called a rhetorical question, and it can end in either a question mark or an exclamation point, and in dialogue you can sometimes even have a speaker's rhetorical question end in a period.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

LOL You've had different kinds of bosses than I.

Again, at least in my opinion, the punctuation depends upon the delivery. If it's asked as a question, it receives a question mark. If it's delivered as a statement, it gets a period. If it's an order, or an exclamation, it gets a, you guessed it, an exclamation mark. But if the question doesn't end in a question mark, you'd better make it obvious why in the text, otherwise readers won't know how to process the sentence (sometimes rhetoric isn't obvious to those reading).

Replies:   Ross at Play
Ross at Play

@Ernest Bywater

2. A clear statement worded like a question, but isn't meant to be answered, and it should end with an exclamation mark. This is often meant to be said in an emphatic manner. (note: this is the most common you one you see in stories.)

What is this load of nonsense! :-)
Got it. That makes sense to me. Thanks.

Ross at Play

@Crumbly Writer

But if the question doesn't end in a question mark, you'd better make it obvious why in the text

My new rule about rhetorical questions is that there is no rule. :-)
* * *
For something worded as a question, it is irrelevant whether an answer is expected or not (rhetorical), or whether the answer is known, what matters is the intention of the speaker or writer.
* * *
Something worded as a question could actually be a statement or an order/request. They will often be delivered emphatically and should have an exclamation point, but just a period may be more appropriate.
* * *
My NEW GENERAL RULE for something worded as a question is the quote above from CW, but would welcome any further comments about tricky situations.
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May I confirm others agree with this. I have seen in a number a places that tag questions tacked onto the end of statements should always have a question mark. Does anyone think that may not always be "correct"?

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde

@Ross at Play

Keep in mind, we're only talking about dialogue. In the narrative a question always has a question mark at the end.

awnlee jawking

@Switch Blayde

Keep in mind, we're only talking about dialogue. In the narrative a question always has a question mark at the end.


If that's the convention you personally follow, fine. But the mileage of others, including me, may differ.

AJ

Switch Blayde

@awnlee jawking

But the mileage of others, including me, may differ.


Can you give an example when you wouldn't put a question mark after a sentence worded as a question in the narrative?

Crumbly Writer

@awnlee jawking

If that's the convention you personally follow, fine. But the mileage of others, including me, may differ.

Could you expand? Does that mean you don't put question marks on rhetorical questions in your narrative, or you don't follow the convention in the dialogue? If not, then which conventions do you follow.

Ernest Bywater

@Switch Blayde

Keep in mind, we're only talking about dialogue. In the narrative a question always has a question mark at the end.


I'm actually having a hard time trying to think of any time I have , or may use, a rhetorical question in narrative. Basically, rhetorical questions are rhetoric, that is, spoken word or dialogue. Thus I can't see you using them in narrative. As dialogue, yes, as thoughts (which are a from of dialogue) yes, but not as straight narrative. I can see some narrative added to the dialogue with the rhetorical question too, but not a rhetorical question.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Ernest Bywater

I'm actually having a hard time trying to think of any time I have , or may use, a rhetorical question in narrative. Basically, rhetorical questions are rhetoric, that is, spoken word or dialogue. Thus I can't see you using them in narrative. As dialogue, yes, as thoughts (which are a from of dialogue) yes, but not as straight narrative. I can see some narrative added to the dialogue with the rhetorical question too, but not a rhetorical question.

I can see it, given the variety of narrators authors use when writing a story. If someone uses a specific person, or a specific persona, as a story's narrator, then they (the narrator) could easily pose rhetorical questions as they process the story. But again, that's a mixture of narrative as internal dialogue.

As an example, consider the main character interviewing a suspect, who gives them a fallacious defense. After he concludes, the narrator might summarize the exchange as: "Need I say more concerning his mental stage?"

Ernest Bywater

@Crumbly Writer

As an example, consider the main character interviewing a suspect, who gives them a fallacious defense. After he concludes, the narrator might summarize the exchange as: "Need I say more concerning his mental stage?"


In this case I'd see that as a thought by the person, be it a first or second person narrator, the item is a thought, which is basically the same as dialogue, but not spoken aloud by the character.

Once you take spoken dialogue and character thoughts out of the equation, I can't see a rhetorical question fitting into the narrative. But someone else might.

Switch Blayde

@Crumbly Writer

As an example, consider the main character interviewing a suspect, who gives them a fallacious defense. After he concludes, the narrator might summarize the exchange as: "Need I say more concerning his mental stage?"


Aha, but that would be in a story written in 1st-person. The narrative in 1st-person is actually dialogue — the 1st-person narrator talking to the reader.

Ross at Play
Updated:

@Switch Blayde


Keep in mind, we're only talking about dialogue. In the narrative a question always has a question mark at the end.


Excellent point, that I WILL keep in mind.

There are ways an author can include thoughts of characters in narrative, but I would classify those as some kind of pseudo- or internal dialogue.

Your point remains valid to me.

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The guiding principle (I dare not call anything a "rule" here) is to use a question mark for everything framed as a question - UNLESS the intention of the character (whether they are speaking or just thinking) means it is actually a disguised statement or imperative. Then often use an exclamation point but otherwise just a period.
Also, whenever a question mark is not used, make sure the reader will understand from the text why it is not a question.

Thanks to all.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Ross at Play

The guiding principle (I dare not call anything a "rule" here) is to use a question mark for everything framed as a question - UNLESS the intention of the character (whether they are speaking or just thinking) means it is actually a disguised statement or imperative. Then often use an exclamation point but otherwise just a period.
Also, whenever a question mark is not used, make sure the reader will understand from the text why it is not a question.

"Are you serious? Is that what you actually intend to do. What kind of lunatic are you!" said the author, wondering whether anyone took anything he said seriously.

Replies:   Ross at Play
Ross at Play

@Crumbly Writer

"Are you serious? Is that what you actually intend to do. What kind of lunatic are you!" said the author, wondering whether anyone took anything he said seriously.

My answer to your question is, "Yes!"
My responses to your statements are:
* Yes, I actually do intend to do that.
* I am a unique and very unusual kind of of lunatic, and proud of it too.
My response to your wondering is to reassure you that at least one person (moi) does take most, but not all, things you say seriously.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde

@Ross at Play

My response to your wondering is to reassure you that at least one person (moi) does take most, but not all, things you say seriously.


What he said was a joke, and a very good one too

Replies:   Ross at Play
Ross at Play

@Switch Blayde

What he said was a joke, and a very good one too

I got his joke, and enjoyed it too. I thought it was obvious my response was 'tongue in cheek' too.

sejintenej

I agree with EB's three classes. In each case the other party could answer though this is not intended but therefore a question mark should be there. Often the words are used thus to make the second party mentally consider / reconsider his/her opinion. The context should indicate whether the question is rhetorical - perhaps the questioner continues by answering him/herself

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@sejintenej

The context should indicate whether the question is rhetorical - perhaps the questioner continues by answering him/herself

THis is probably the most effective technique, as it's the one most often used in plays and movies, and requires no internal thoughts to formulate. In that case, since the character answers it himself, the reader automatically knows it's a purely rhetorical question, instead of having to guess based upon the context.

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