Ides of March, 2007

I have a learned, nearly Pavlovian, hatred for the rhetorical question in prose.

Let me qualify this statement by saying that most questions that are posed as rhetorical aren't, thereby failing at their rhetorical purpose.

Because I teach freshman comp, I see seemingly rhetorical questions used repeatedly in nearly all of the first batch of papers. Most of the questions posed in these papers would have been much more powerful if phrased as direct statements.

The rhetorical question is good rheotorically only when you've set the question up so that the reader/audience could only agree with you. You are not in fact posing a question, but rather allowing the reader/audience to reach the same conclusion that you have made obvious.

Trial lawyers make good use of this device:

The FBI confirms it was his fingerprints on the knife. The crime lab says that it was his DNA underneath the victim's fingernails. An eye witness at the scene of the crime identified the defendent from a line up. The video tape shows the murder taking place and has a shot of the defendent's face. Knowing this, who else could have killed him?

This is a rhetorical queston, as the conclusion is obvious and leads the reader to agree with whatever argument you are making.

Unfortunately, most of the questions I read in papers are weak transitions disguised as questions.

. . . What would Marx say about this? . . .

In whatever paragraph that this question could appear in, the student is trying to get to Marx's ideas on the subject. It's a weak transition from point A to B, where B is Marx's ideas. It also opens up other ideas. The reader is given free reign to come up with what she thinks might be Marx's responses. If the conclusions don't match, then the writer has shot herself in the foot rhetorically. Making a direct statement in this case would be more direct, forceful, assertive (any other adjective for good writing here).

Ex. . . . Marx would counter . . .
. . . Marx argues . . .

These constructions are on target and offer no straying from the argument at hand. The reader follows seamlesslessly what the author has to say.

Sometimes a rhetorical queston is just an excuse to give a defintion to frame a discussion. The best/worst example of this that I have on hand is John Elmo's first sentence in All About Walls: "What is a wall?"

Elmo doesn't want us to ponder the political/social/economic/ideological implications of walls. He wants to talk about interior design. By opening up the defintion of walls to the reader, we may form ideas & expectations that aren't answered in his prose, which makes the prose deficient.

Elmo immediately responds to his own question, letting us know that it wasn't a real question: "A wall is a boundary."

Yep, Elmo is a great anti-read.


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