Guide to Literary Terms

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What is the definition of rhetorical question?

The definition of a rhetorical question is a question posed for poetic or argumentative effect rather than to elicit an answer.

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Rhetorical question

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Last Updated May 26, 2023.

A rhetorical question is a question asked to make a point or create an effect rather than to get a response. WTAs the answer to a rhetorical question is generally obvious, writers use rhetorical questions to communicate information in a more impactful way than simply stating the could be accomplished by a simple statement of that information, as the readers themselves are prompted to think of the answer, and by doing so acknowledge its obviousness.

Rhetorical comes from the Greek word rhētorike tekhnē, meaning “the art of an orator,” from rhētōr, meaning “orator.” Question comes from the Latin word quaestion, from quarere, meaning “to seek, to ask.”

Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem” asks the reader rhetorical questions about what happens when a person misses out on achieving their dreams:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over—

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

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