Saturday, 15 January 2011

Rhetorical questions

What is a rhetorical question?

(Public domain jpeg from

A rhetorical question is a question asked for effect, with no answer expected. The answer may be clear (if it's an easy question), or the person asking the question may go on to give the answer.

Rhetorical questions are used a lot by candidates in writing exams. Sometimes this is good, sometimes bad.

When is it good to use rhetorical questions?

It's good to use them in articles. For example, in an FCE Writing paper, let's say you're asked to answer a question like this:

Do many people eat in fast food restaurants in your country? Why do you think this is?

Many candidates often start articles with a few questions, like this:

Why are fast food restaurants so popular in my country? What attracts so many people to eat in them so often? Is this a good thing or not? In this article, I'm going to consider these questions.

This is an attractive way to begin your text. The questions catch your reader's attention and make him or her interested in the subject. The reader wants to know the answers and, as a result, is motivated to read the rest of the article. Rhetorical questions work, too, in informal letters (Hi Jon, how are you? I've got so much news for you. Do you remember my brother, who you met last year? Do you want to know what he's been doing recently? I'll tell you ...).

When is it not good to use rhetorical questions?

Rhetorical questions do not, in any way, work in formal texts. Recently I marked the Cambridge Advanced exam. I can't reveal too many details because I'd be breaking confidentiality clauses in my contract, but I will say this: the first question required candidates to write a formal proposal (a proposal is like a report) to a person in authority. A number of candidates used rhetorical questions, and the rhetorical questions created a very bad impression.

Here's an example. Let's say Question 1 of the FCE Writing exam asks you to write a letter of complaint to a shop about a faulty laptop, and a candidate writes this in one of the middle paragraphs:

When I got home, I was surprised to find that the laptop didn't work. The screen was blank, and I couldn't get the laptop to work. Why do you sell equipment that doesn't work in your shop? Why don't you check everything before you sell it?

Please believe me when I write that the recipient of a report, proposal or letter of complaint, doesn't wish to be asked rhetorical questions. The recipient of such a text only wants to read facts stated clearly. Questions don't help. In fact, they have a very negative impact on the reader.

Before you use a rhetorical question, be very sure in your mind that the type of text is suitable for one.


  1. Yes, Simon. I think rethorical questions are very useful in informal writing because you can introduce the topic you are going to explain.

    Thanks for these tips!!

  2. And what about essays? Now the new FCE requites An essay un part 1 anda I was told yo use rethorical questions in the intro. Is that wrong?

    1. It's not wrong, but I prefer to see rhetorical questions in informal writing, and Part 1 requires formal register.