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There has been a question on rhetorical questions before, but the question and answers don't reflect the situation that I have.

Someone sent me the following email:

https://sites.google.com/site/wateringburylocalhistory/topics/farming/wateringburytithesurvey1839

https://sites.google.com/site/wateringburylocalhistory/topics/other/map21797

If you look on Google maps, Old Road, Wateringbury, there’s a sort of circular road with houses in the middle. Do you reckon they might be Latter’s Buildings?

I should add at this point that this person had previously notified me of another building, but they had got the wrong one, and I had to correct them.

Having looked at the two links I replied that I did think they were Latter's buildings because of the relative positions on the maps.

The person who sent me the question then asked why I had replied because, according to them it was obviously a rhetorical question, and therefore clearly needed no answer.

I have always understood a rhetorical question to be one that needed no answer because it was to be expected that everybody would already know the answer and that answer would be the only possible answer, like the traditional "Is the Pope a Catholic?" or "Does the Queen live in Buckingham Palace?".

Also a rhetorical question would be used for emphasis, and when I put this to the person they said they were using a rhetorical question to emphasise that they were definitely Latter's buildings. In which case why not just say "Look at these, they are Latter's buildings." instead of asking my opinion?

Anyway, the question might have two possible answers because having looked at both sites I might have decided that they weren't Latter's buildings, in which case should I not say I think they aren't Latter's buildings, or should I not reply with that opinion because the questioner thinks it is a rhetorical question that needs no answer?

Clearly I cannot have known the answer to the email question until after looking at the sites, and the person sending the email obviously knew that I wouldn't know the answer which is why they sent the links for me to get an answer from.

Also the question starts "Do you reckon" which to me is a specific request for my opinion on the matter and allows for the fact that I might decide they aren't latter's buildings. Given that in a previous case they had indeed got the wrong building, I took this email as being an obvious request for confirmation that this time they had got the correct one.

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."

On that basis, in my opinion, the question does not imply its own answer because both "Yes they are." and "No they aren't" are possible and neither is implied as being the "correct" answer, there is definitely a good answer possible, and I can't see that they are making a statement indirectly by burying the question's premise, so it doesn't meet the requirements to be a rhetorical question.

Yet the person who sent the email insists that they are right that it was obviously a rhetorical question, and they know people with English degrees who say they are right.

So is the original email a rhetorical question or not?

My apologies for taking a number of edits to clarify my question. I promise to try harder next time!

  • Don’t worry about editing many times. So long as the question becomes clearer each time without invalidating existing answers, edit as much as you wish. – Lawrence Dec 22 '18 at 14:03
  • What you have is not a rhetorical question. It's just "Do you think these could be Latter's buildings" worded more colloquially. – Hot Licks Dec 23 '18 at 13:39
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A rhetorical question is a question that you're not expected to answer -- it's actually a statement that has been rephrased in the form of a question, usually to change the tone or emphassis. It's not necessarily the case that everyone knows the answer, but there's an implication that the person who asked the question does. Also, if it's obvious that the audience would not be expected to know the answer, it's likely to be rhetorical.

So let's consider the email you received. Is there some reason why you know more about whether these are Latter's Buildings than he would? If this is something he probably knows about, and it seems like the purpose of the email was to share this with you, then it's a rhetorical question.

To be fair to you, rhetorical questions are usually easier to recognize in speech than writing, because they're generally asked with a different tone of voice than real questions. There's also usually more context in the conversation than an email received out of the blue. It's not perfectly obvious that the email was rhetorical; of course, the sender is biased because he knew what he was thinking when he sent it, and it can be hard to put yourself in the other person's mindset.

Misunderstanding online communications is common -- I can't keep track of all the times I've misconstrued a joke in an online forum. When I take it seriously, there's an inevitable "whoosh!" response.

This was very subtle and easy to misunderstand, I suggest you just laugh it off with him.

EDIT to address the added context of your email exchange.

Sometimes when someone makes a mistake, then come to a new conclusion that they think corrects it, they will accompany this with a somewhat rhetorical question. But in many cases it's just a simple adjunct like "right?" or "isn't it". Your friend's second email could have been intended like this. Of course, the problem in situations like this is that sometimes they're still wrong, or perhaps incomplete, so you would have to answer the question if the answer is "no". However, it's not usually necessary to confirm when they're right.

  • Thanks for the reply. I have now qualified the situation surrounding the event in that this email was sent to me following a previous one in which the writer stated that they had found a particular (different) building, but had in fact got the wrong one. Given that they had previously been wrong it seemed to me this was a request for confirmation that they had got the right one this time. – Dissabled Dave Dec 22 '18 at 11:22
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There is no rule for how to form a rhetorical question.

The content of the question does not determine whether it's rhetorical or not; it's the asker's intention that counts. So, if someone says a question is rhetorical, it is.

But that doesn't mean it's effective speech. In this case, the asker intended for the question to be rhetorical, but did not communicate that intention clearly enough for you to understand.

Let's look at an example of a rhetorical sentence (which I'm borrowing from the Wikipedia page on rhetorical questions) that initially seems unrhetorical, but becomes obviously rhetorical:

She climbs a tree and scrapes her knee/
Her dress has got a tear/
She waltzes on her way to mass/
And whistles on the stair
...

How do you solve a problem like Maria?

This is a perfectly normal question. In all kinds of contexts, we would expect the asker to expect an answer like: when a nun acts irrepressibly, you should give her more chores. The first time this question is asked, there's no way of knowing for certain that this question is rhetorical. However, look at the next line:

How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?

The answer to that question is unarguably: you can't. And in case the point was not made, the song continues: "How do you keep a wave upon the sand?...How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?" So now, we see that all the questions, including "how do you solve a problem like Maria" are meant to have the same answer: you can't.

This is only clear because of the surrounding context. The one question, on its own, cannot be declared to be rhetorical or not.

  • Thanks for the reply, but all of your examples have a particular, obvious response (albeit that the response can be given in different words). However, I wasn't asked a factual question, I was asked for my opinion - "do you reckon?" - and my opinion could have been "Yes they are", "No they aren't", "Possibly.", or any of a variety of answers, of which the first two are completely opposite to each other. If the questioner didn't want an answer then what was the point of asking for my opinion? A rhetorical question needs a rhetorical point to it. Why not just say "These are Latter's buildings." – Dissabled Dave Dec 21 '18 at 21:39
  • OK, I'll think about editing my answer. My general point was that the content of a question does not determine whether it's rhetorical or not. A question like "Do you think ___?" can be rhetorical or literal. Ex: "Do you think this pizza is going to last the weekend?" This is totally context dependent. If there's one slice of pizza and ten hungry people, it's rhetorical. If there are ten people and six pizzas, it's probably an honest question. But I say that based on my expectations. To the person asking, the answer might obviously be no. – Juhasz Dec 21 '18 at 22:02
  • @DissabledDave I like this answer. Juhasz is saying that it’s the asker who decides whether it is a rhetorical question, but the listener might not know without further context. The conclusion is that your friend can call his question rhetorical, but that doesn’t mean you can be expected to know that it was rhetorical with so little context. – Lawrence Dec 22 '18 at 14:09

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