All that talk about question marks yesterday reminded me that I have yet to cover one of my favorite literary devices.
Put simply, rhetorical questions are inquiries that are made without expecting a response. They are meant to suggest an answer and not solicit one. Rhetorical questions do have their usefulness, and a well used one can be more powerful than directly stating something. The periphrastic nature (talking around) gives the audience more power in deciding to agree with you, even if they do not directly answer.
One common form of rhetorical questioning involves leading the audience to a negative conclusion from what they may already think or what has already been said. These questions purposefully leave no room for any other answer. This means that the one asking the question has to build up to it.
Sure, other sports are fine. But football is a sport like no other—no driving in circles or hours between scores. It’s art, science, and whatever else you want. Should we really watch anything else?
These rhetorical questions are somewhat similar to the negative ones above. As you might guess, the biggest difference is that the questioner wants to push you toward an agreement with them. Also, the question itself can be the main persuading factor. Let’s use a more serious example:
If you prick us, do we not bleed, if you tickle us, do we not laugh?
If you poison us, do we not die? [The Merchant of Venice]
Establishing a Comparison
Here is a famous example of what I mean:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Shakespeare asked the question to begin his 18th sonnet, but he certainly didn’t wait around for an answer. He just plods ahead whether you want to know or not. The question establishes the metaphor that drives the poem (technically, it’s a conceit, which is a metaphor that’s stretched out). From the first question, you know what he’s comparing his love interest to.
Now you know how to solve a problem like Maria.
The last kind I’ll mention is the ironic rhetorical question. With these, the point is to set up an unexpected punchline for comedic effect. I’m shamelessly borrowing an example from About.com.
If practice makes perfect, and no one’s perfect, then why practice? [Billy Corgan]
By the way, there are more technical names for all of these if you’re interested, but I think technical names can get in the way. Shouldn’t we make it easier?