according to Wikipedia:

A rhetorical question is a figure of speech in the form of a question posed for its persuasive effect without the expectation of a reply.

Example: "How much longer must our people endure this injustice?"

So would any question for which an answer is not expected be considered rhetorical?

On SE, users are presented the following question.

Have you considered accepting an answer or starting a bounty for this question?

There is no mechanism for responding to the question but it is more reminding than persuasive. Is it a rhetorical question?

according to reference.com

rhetorical - used for, belonging to, or concerned with mere style or effect.

By this definition, a question that was crafted (expected) to receive a certain response (such as a loaded question) might also be rhetorical if used merely for it's style or effect.

In my experience, people often say a question is rhetorical if they do not expect (or usually want) an answer but it has little to do with the question being persuasive or not.

Is there an exact set of criteria that can be used to evaluate the context of a question in order to determine if it is in fact rhetorical?

5 Answers 5


Is there a term for questions which are really instructions?

Those of us who are married will be familiar with the less than rhetorical - "are you planning on going out looking like that?" or "do you want a plate?" as we drop crumbs everywhere.

I'm not sure the "have you considered accepting an answer" is really an instruction, but more a request posed as a question.


As defined by the NOAD, a question is rhetorical when it is "asked in order to produce an effect or to make a statement rather than to elicit information." (See also the Oxford Living Dictionaries.)

Have you considered accepting an answer or starting a bounty for this question?

The question is rhetoric because it is not asked to get an answer ("yes, I did consider both options"), but to remind the users they should accept an answer, or to offer a bounty if none of the given answers satisfy them.

Have you decided where you are going on vacation?

The question is rhetoric if, for example, the purpose of the question is to remind those who read/listen that they are supposed to report in which days they will be away on vacation.

In both cases, whoever asks the question is not interested in an answer, but wants to remind somebody else of something they should, or could do.


I rely on "Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric" for all rhetorical matters, and he writes that "Usually a rhetorical question implies its own answer. In other cases the speaker expects that no good answer is possible, or wants to make a statement indirectly by burying the question's premise." He covers 14 pages with explanation and examples of the various types of rhetorical questions, formally called erotema.

https://mannerofspeaking.org/2012/03/28/rhetorical-devices-erotema/ gives the definition of erotema as "A question that is asked without expecting an answer because the answer is strongly implied; a rhetorical question."

Rhetorical questions are used for rhetorical effect. So if someone is asked if they would like a new car free of charge they might reply "Is the Pope a Catholic?" and that question is rhetorical because it needs no answer because both people know the Pope is Catholic, so the implied answer "Yes" doesn't need to be spoken, and the implied "Yes" is more emphatic than the spoken "Yes" would have been, because it makes the other person think of the answer themselves, rather than just hearing it.

I was taught that to be a rhetorical question the answer must be something that most people would be expected to know, so the "Is the Pope Catholic?" reply, as given above, would be a rhetorical question because it implies the answer "Yes" and everyone would be aware of that, but, even if the questioner didn't want an answer, had the person above replied with the question "Is my Aunt Gemima's birthday on the third of January?" that would not be a rhetorical question because most people would not know the answer, and neither "Yes" nor "No" is implied.

To sum up, a rhetorical question needs to have a rhetorical purpose, normally to make a person automatically think of a particular answer, rather than telling them the answer.


I would say the distinction is whether there is an audience and you are trying to persuade that audience...rhetorical being "by use of rhetoric". The system is not trying to use rhetoric to persuade you to accept an answer, it is only suggesting it.

  • 1
    Your saying the question ask by SE is not rhetorical based on "The system is not trying to use rhetoric to persuade you..." right? That was my thinking as well. But than I read that second definition (in my question), summarized: "used for effect". It is in fact a question being used for its effect on the reader rather than to solicit an actual answer. Even if the effect is only to remind you of your options. But, by your definition, a question is only rhetorical if it is meant to persuade. So if a colleague say's: "Will this day ever end!" Then that is not a rhetorical question?
    – logicbird
    May 27, 2011 at 22:21
  • @logicbird, I think the confusion here is about the meaning of "effect". You are using it as "result" (definition 1 at dictionary.reference.com/browse/effect), but the usage in the definition for "rhetorical" is definition 2, "influence"...more like "affect". Now, if the prompt had been "Can't you step up to the plate and accept one of the answers here? And if this question is so important to you, wouldn't it be worth the sacrifice of 50 rep to get an answer?"...that would be rhetorical.
    – JeffSahol
    May 28, 2011 at 0:39

I don't think an instruction or a suggestion couched as a question would be considered rhetorical. The idea is to make a point. Something like:

Did you really expect you'd get the definitive answer in the first response?


What did you think would happen when you pressed the big red button labelled, "Danger"?

would count as rhetorical. Both have question marks, but they're really commentary, not questions at all.

  • I think, on the contrary, an instruction or a suggestion couched as a question is precisely rhetorical. Rhetoric is the art of using language to persuade and instructions and suggestions are (loosely) forms of persuasion.
    – Dancrumb
    Jun 3, 2011 at 18:44

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.