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To Answer or Not To Answer: That Is the Question

Parents use rhetorical questions regularly to emphasize their points especially as children grow older. Many people use them daily to express strong emotions such as incredulity and frustration. Literary devices contain a variety of components to enhance and enrich the written and spoken word. Other common devices include oxymorons, metaphors, and alliteration. The more tools the student learns to use in their writing, the more effective their ideas are communicated to their intended audience.


The purpose of a rhetorical question is to create the desired effect. As no answer is expected of the phrased question, the literary device is used to be persuasive or add drama to a situation. They are commonly found in dialogue in many famous novels. Speechwriters commonly use the literary device to finish a long speech for future thought and for effective pauses before continuing.


Some common examples found in daily life may imply agreement such as “Isn’t it a beautiful day?” No one expects you to comment but they do imply that you agree with them. An example of an unanswerable question used to get the reader or audience thinking would be What is the meaning of life? Some have obvious answers such as Is rain wet? Are you kidding me? is a popular question that requires no answer in return.


Rhetorical questions have been around for many centuries. Shakespeare used them to illustrate important points such as his stance on anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice. Henry Denham was a 16th century printer who created a backward question mark but unfortunately, the punctuation mark never came into regular practice. Poets, writers and politicians have wielded the literary device to effective use throughout the centuries.


When you are ready to drive a specific point home, rhetorical questions may fire up the listener or reader more effectively than a flat statement. The literary device helps create this expectation of further thought or to absurdly answer an obvious question. Emotions can range from subtle to strong. Sometimes simply writing the word angry doesn’t convey the same meaning as well-placed rhetorical questions and body language.


Understanding your audience can help you decide if the literary device is a good choice or not. Sometimes a younger audience may struggle more with rhetorical questions than an older audience. Those with cultural differences or not on the same level intellectually may struggle with the idea that the question is not meant to be answered. Ensuring you have the right audience to use the literary device with can help you mitigate any confusion among them.


How you use literary devices in your writing and speech can impact the clarity of the language. Get your point across more effectively or illicit a thought response in your audience with rhetorical questions. Using them sparingly and only for specific purposes can ensure that the meaning is not lost in translation. Creating prose that is effective and clearly communicates the intended message is a powerful tool in the hands of a writer. These tools can elevate your communication in business, fiction and school.

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