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I'm a huge Pulp Fiction fan, and the following is one of my favorite scenes, but it also irks me. (source: IMDB)

Jules: [Jules shoots the man on the couch] I'm sorry, did I break your concentration? I didn't mean to do that. Please, continue, you were saying something about best intentions. What's the matter? Oh, you were finished! Well, allow me to retort. What does Marsellus Wallace look like?

Can a question be a retort to something? I see retort defined as (dictionary.reference.com):

  1. to reply to, usually in a sharp or retaliatory way; reply in kind to.
  2. to return (an accusation, epithet, etc.) upon the person uttering it.
  3. to answer (an argument or the like) by another to the contrary.

All the above suggest some sort of a reply. But can a retort be a question, or even a counter-question ?

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closed as off topic by StoneyB, FumbleFingers, MετάEd, Matt E. Эллен, Kris Oct 3 '12 at 13:54

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I'm guessing the question about Marsellus Wallace is completely unrelated to what he was saying about "best intentions" -- correct? – JAM Oct 1 '12 at 17:39
Pretty much. Marsellus Wallce's looks were never brought up until now. – 0xff0000 Oct 1 '12 at 17:49
It's a sarcastic understatement, just like apologizing for "breaking his concentration" by shooting him. Both are insanely disproportionate to the actions they characterize, and therefore make the situation even more threatening by suggesting that Jules is unconstrained by rationality and is actually enjoying what he's doing. – StoneyB Oct 1 '12 at 17:51
You're asking about the "correctness" of using "retort." Since the definitions you give suggest some kind of a response in kind (whether a question or not), his "retort," being completely unrelated to what passed before, isn't really a retort at all. So I'd side with you on its not being a retort, although not because it's a question, but because it's completely unrelated. – JAM Oct 1 '12 at 17:58
This is a totally pointless question. The fact that Jules's retort/response happens to be framed as a question is incidental. He could just as well have framed it as a command - "Tell me what Marsellus Wallace looks like!". In fact, Jules frames a lot of utterances as "questions" in this scene - his next line is "What country are you from?", to which he obviously doesn't expect an "answer". It's a moviedom-enhanced gangster shakedown, not a formal debate. – FumbleFingers Oct 1 '12 at 21:54

Why can't a reply be a question? I am replying to your question with my own question, so isn't that an example of a reply that is a question? Cannot a question be given as a reply "in a sharp and retaliatory way"?

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The OED says that the intransitive use of retort, meaning “To reply by retaliation”, is rare. They have only one citation, and that’s with to:

  • 1883 C. Reade Tit for Tat vi, ― He threatened violence. They prepared to retort to it.
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I'm sorry if I'm being stupid and missing something really obvious here, but how does this support the claim for a retort as a question ? – 0xff0000 Oct 1 '12 at 17:53
@HardikRuparel it seems to me that the sentence "Well allow me to retort" is making intransitive use of retort, which is another interesting aspect of the quote. You are right that this answer is not addressing the notion of a retort as a question. – zooone9243 Oct 1 '12 at 21:35

To me this use of "retort" falls cleanly under your definition 1. Jules is treating Brett's talk of "best intentions" as a challenge or maybe even a threat, and is responding in kind. His choice to use a question as his riposte isn't as important as the fact that he is riposting.

Note also that the question itself is rhetorical, and designed to shut his opponent down rather than to get a meaningful answer. The aggressive nature of the question makes it qualify as a retort where a question of honest intent might not.

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I see no reason why a retort can't be a question. Especially a rhetorical question. Like in the play Fiddler on the Roof:

Yente (the matchmaker): Avram, I have a perfect match for your son. A wonderful girl. ... Ruchel, the shoemaker's daughter.

Avram: Ruchel? But she can hardly see. She's almost blind.

Yente: Tell the truth, Avram, is your son so much to look at? The way she sees and the way he looks, it's a perfect match.

Yente's question "is your son ..." is an excellent retort to the complaint that Ruchel is blind.

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