Task and goals of the rhetorical question
Externally, the rhetorical question is comparable to a quite conventional question – a questioning sentence with question marks. In terms of content, she is rather a wolf in sheep’s clothing because she does not fulfill the purpose of a question (“fake question”). The motives of a rhetorical question are completely different.
The aim of the rhetorical question is not the acquisition of information, but an intentional agreement with statements made (“Will we please that?”) Or an influence on the other person (“Do you really believe that?”). The questioner does not expect a sound answer. While a conventional question serves to obtain information, the rhetorical question may already contain the relevant information (directly or indirectly).
Rhetorical questions also serve to provoke, to increase attention and to reach certain conclusions. Furthermore, rhetorical questions are a popular tool to manipulate listeners, to suggest certain facts, to substantiate similarities or to control the course of the conversation. That is why, above all, politics and advertising are strongly influenced by rhetorical questions. In terms of content, such questions make more of a statement and only the question mark at the end of the sentence make them a question.
Construction and typing of rhetorical questions
Basically, a distinction is made between several types of rhetorical questions. For example, the Rostock linguist Schmidt-Radefeldt divided the rhetorical question into its answer content.
Auto-Responsive Rhetorical Question
The question, “Who would break up an apartment, if not a burglar?” Already contains the intended answer. This is therefore a so-called ARQ question (Auto-Responsive Rhetorical Question).
Implicit Rhetorical Question
In the IRQ question (Implicative Rhetorical Question), the question is linked to the desired or possible answer. So “Who would break up a flat?” Would be answered with “burglar.”
The rhetorical question in proud tradition
The use of rhetorical questions runs through the entire history of literature. Already the Roman speaker and writer Marcus Tullius Cicero used the effect of the special question and wrote several rhetorical writings. For example, his four “Speeches Against Catiline” (63 BC) begin with the words “How long do you, Catilina, still abuse our patience?”. This question is aimed at confirmation and approval.
The theologian Martin Luther also knew the importance of the rhetorical question. In his Gesampten teutschen Schrifften we read: “Christ and his apostles were repudiated, should they not also speak my word to me?”
Friedrich Schiller uses the rhetorical question, for example, in his ballad »The Cranes of Ibykus«. It reads: “Who counts the peoples, names the names that came here hospitably?” Here the question is to emphasize the importance of many peoples involved.
In a letter from the writer Georg Büchner, he laments the negative qualities of humanity by saying, “What is that which lies in us, hurt, steals and murders?” This rhetorical question does not expect an answer. Rather, it results from the hopelessness of attempts to change.
The rhetorical question in the present
Like other stylistic devices, so has the rhetorical question over the centuries asserted itself and was always deliberately used to influence or manipulate the listener or the audience. This makes the rhetorical question the perfect tool for politics and marketing.
Politicians (and their speechwriters) have developed the helpful stylistic device into a craft. Especially political debates or election campaign speeches are interspersed with rhetorical questions. Thus, “how long will Germany still be able to afford this?” May suggest dislike and disapproval to the audience. Also, “Is that still normal?” Causes in the context of political opponents to diminish their political achievements or strategies.
Another prime discipline for the rhetorical question is the advertising industry. In campaigns, clips, commercials and infomercials, rhetorical questions are regularly asked to convince consumers. This works so well that many viewers – even though they know the dubious truth of the ad language – buy the advertised products.
Advertising strategists use different issues. For example, the self-evident desire for good looks is compounded with “Do not you have enough of that too?” Or “Why do not you put an end to it?”. Even the unconscious emphasis on alleged disadvantages can be achieved with a rhetorical question. For example, it says, “Are not you doing your banking business at home?”. And finally, the stylistic device can also be used to bring the consumer into action. Questions such as “Can you really afford to miss this?” Imply the supposed importance of the product and suggest a non-existent urgency.
Rhetorical questions from marketing can even make it into everyday life because of their originality and stay there for many years. A few years ago, for example, Boris Becker made the following statement: “Am I already in it?” From the recent past, it is possible to say here “Are you still living or are you already living?”
A quick look through newspapers, leaflets, the web, or in commercials quickly brings forth many other examples of the rhetorical question.