Ask a Silly Question…

Does anyone enjoy reading rhetorical questions, ever? Don’t you think they make the author seem as if she doesn’t know what she is talking about? If I am reading something that has piles rhetorical questions one on top of the other, why should I believe what the author has to say about the topic? Shouldn’t someone with enough credibility on a topic be able to write in declarative sentences, rather than endless strings of rhetorical questions? Do authors really think readers will be fooled into believing that a rhetorical question is an invitation to a discussion in which she might be able to take part, rather than a sort of passive-aggressive statement?

I guess you probably have realized by now that I detest rhetorical questions in writing of just about any sort. I’m sure there is probably a situation in which a rhetorical question is useful and meaningful for the writer and the reader, but I have no idea of what that situation might be. A rhetorical question, by nature, is a question for which no answer is expected. That being the case, it is easy to argue that a simple, declarative statement, that is well-worded with the feelings of the reader in mind, would be clearer and less frustrating for the reader. For this reason, I counsel all of my clients to edit out all rhetorical questions from their writing.

This idea extends well beyond the written page and into other forms of communication. Several months ago, my husband went on a management training course that is offered by his company. When he returned, he asked me, “When you were teaching, what did you do when you had asked a question, looking for a specific response, and people were offering all kinds of answers except for the one you were looking for?” This, apparently, had been a common occurrence for one of the lecturers. My reply, “Don’t ask the question in the first place.”

Teachers often fall into that trap, asking a question with only one, specific answer, and waiting, as the class and teacher get increasingly frustrated, while students try desperately to read the teacher’s mind. Sometimes, teachers do this in an attempt to determine whether or not homework has been done, but if that is the goal, they would be better off giving a quiz. If teachers want to make sure certain points are clear, they would get better results by just stating those points outright. Teachers who want to see if anyone is confused would be better served by asking questions that students can answer truthfully, without trying to engage in mindreading. Like, “What part of the homework was most difficult for you?” Which can then be followed up with, “Why do you think that gave you trouble?” Or even better, other students can get involved by asking, “Did that give anyone else problems?” Or, “Can anyone help clear up the confusion here? Does anyone feel like they have a good handle on it and could explain that for us?”

Questions work best, in writing and in life, when they are things for which we truly don’t know the answer. They can help us facilitate discussion and are often the beginning point for learning. I often tell my kids, “Admitting that you don’t know something and asking questions about it are the first steps to learning anything.” Using rhetorical questions to set up arguments or as the beginning of providing your own answer, though, can turn off the audience, whether they are readers or students or just people you are chatting with. My advice – don’t send a question to do a statement’s job. Am I right, or am I right?