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When I speak or teach, I often use rhetorical questions to prompt people to think. I find it helps frame my arguments and clarify how I am setting up the points I am making.

I recently tried this in my writing however and a friend of my indicated this strategy wasn't always appropriate when writing.

How do you know when or when not to use rhetorical questions while writing?

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Like lots of style questions, I don't think there's an absolute rule. It's not like you can say, Use rhetorical questions when discussing questions of type 147-B subparagraph 4.

In general, I'd say don't overuse them. I read an editorial not long ago that consisted almost entirely of rhetorical questions, one after the other. "Is it acceptable for a politician to do X? What is the effect on the country if the government does X? Is X a violation of the Constitution?" Etc. I thought it quickly got tedious. It sounded like he didn't have the courage to come out and state his opinions, and so phrased everything as a question. One or two rhetorical questions in an article to make a point can be effective. Fifty gets tedious and annoying.

Second, I'd say be careful if you're trying to use rhetorical questions to sound profound. Being profound is very difficult. If you try to be dramatic and don't quite make it, you might still be somewhat dramatic. If you try to be bold and don't quite make it, you might still be somewhat bold. But if you try to be profound and don't quite make it, you rarely end up being "somewhat profound". You usually end up being laughable.

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  • 1
    I don't think the number is really relevant. Two can be too many if not handled correctly. Paul probably used fifty in the Epistle to the Romans and that's a brilliant work of writing. But then, how do you explain when the answer is really "just enough but no more?"--Anyway, best possible answer to this question, I think. – Thom Nov 2 '15 at 14:01
  • @TheThom Sure, I didn't mean that 49 is fine but 50 is too many. It depends on many factors. Just saying, don't overdo it. I probably should have said "Fifty can be ...". – Jay Nov 2 '15 at 15:57
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You can often indicate in context that the question is rhetorical, ensuring the reader will accept it as such and not seek an answer to the question in the next sentence. For instance, the words "ask yourself", prefacing the question, are a common trigger phrase indicating that the asker isn't expecting to receive an answer.

I agree with Jay that this shouldn't be overused. You can generally get away with more of it in a narrative, especially when a character is introspecting in the first person:

Why am I doing this, she thought. What's the point if it's all going to come crumbling down eventually?

In the context of the sentence, the reader can understand that the question isn't meant for them specifically, or for anyone else in or out of the story. The question is meant for the character asking it. The purpose in writing this introspection, however, is to make the reader place themselves in the character's shoes and ask themselves why she would do [whatever the character's doing] even though it would all come crumbling down eventually.

The answer may be helpful to further the story, or in the reader's actual life, or maybe not, but it's an invitation by the author to the reader to get more engaged with the character and the story by thinking about what the character's doing and why.

However, too much, and there really isn't any specific dividing line, you should just know when you've crossed it, will sound preachy, or it will sound like the author doesn't really know why his characters are doing what they're doing and is asking you to fill in the blanks of his story.

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