Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Rhetorical questions: who needs 'em?

I just skimmed a painfully dull book (an experience made all the worse by the fact that I paid money for it and made a separate, dedicated trip to the MLA book exhibit as they were closing up shop on the last day). It's a perfectly readable work that nevertheless has a number of stylistic problems, chief among them the author's overuse of rhetorical questions:
Why does he declare himself to be a royalist, but seem to side with the parliamentarians?

Is this really a work that fits within the ars moriendi tradition?

How do we understand this publication strategy?

What accounts for the shift in tone in the third section of the book?*
People! Rhetorical questions are lazy. They're not provocative. They're weak placeholders or bits of throat clearing that signal your unwillingness to make a straightforward claim. They're fine for first drafts. But please replace them when you believe yourself to be advancing an actual argument.

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*Fake examples, but representative.

15 comments:

Dave said...

Yes. Thank you. I hate the stupid things.

Anthea said...

Mmmmm...I think that rhetorical questions are a good idea but they shouldn't be splattered everywhere. They should be used carefully and I think that they only realy truely work if they're use in a presentation rather than a publication.

Flavia said...

Anthea: I think they do work much better in oral presentations (though even then they should be used judiciously). I'm also a fan of using them in abstracts for yet-to-be-written papers (I don't know what the answers are yet, but boy: aren't these interesting questions!).

But they're very rarely necessary in written work, unless as a deliberate stylistic effect: "Why don't I shut the hell up? I'll tell you why I don't shut up!".

Phoebe said...

Good point. My dissertation is now filled with those as place-holders for which questions I'll be answering where. In a few months I'd better edit them out...

Shane in Utah said...

I'm in the middle of a book whose author has a deep love of chiasmus. Every chapter has eight or ten sentences like this: "It was a moment of arrest, and an arrested moment." I don't even know what that means, and the verbal tic gets very old very quickly.

Renaissance Girl said...

I hate them too. In student writing I point them out to be exactly what you describe here: lazy substitutes for actual argumentation. From the writing perspective, I would avoid them because they make you look less authoritative, rather than more (which is, I think what the gesture is supposed to suggest)...

Doctor Cleveland said...

Is there something wrong with a direct statement? Is there?u

Historiann said...

Excellent advice. Although now that I read it, I realize that I've just sent off a precirculated conference paper that's full of 'em.

Stupid me! But, they're indicative of my as-yet-not-made-up-mind, and I wouldn't write a book like that.

Susan said...

Is there a problem with rhetorical questions?

Flavia said...

Shane: okay, you win. Or lose. Whichever.

Dr. Koshary said...

Well, what exactly qualifies a question as rhetorical in nature?

scr said...

War: What is it good for?

Veralinda said...

Crap. Well now I feel rather lame. As a reader, I actually *enjoy* the occasional rhetorical question--it draws me in and can be generative (hmm! is it x or y?). As long as the author makes their claims clear, I don't have a problem with it, and if nothing else, a little syntactical variety is refreshing. But now that I know how others feel, I'll be very judicious in using them in my own writing! Or should I?

Flavia said...

Veralinda:

Well, all verbal tics are annoying. I'm sure I don't notice the very occasional rhetorical question, especially when well-done (and/or I may just have a personal antipathy toward them, based on the fact that when I use them, they're always bullshitty.)

But this book had a rhetorical question--pretty much invariably as a paragraph opener--every few pages. It was hard to read the book without hearing the sentences in a young, uncertain female voice ("I'm going to the store? After school? To buy stuff for this weekend?")

Liza Blake said...

I actually like rhetorical questions, IF used lightly and not in place of an actual claim. I find them more a useful way of varying transitions in an argument that requires many steps that build on one another: instead of, "next you need to know x, next you need to know y," the reader gets an occasional, "at this point, we've got to ask: what about z?" (Then proceed to talk about z). It sounds like that is what your book was doing, if they were at the start of paragraphs.

But then, maybe this is why so many people find my prose annoying.