Why? Or, the one which all parents dread, Are we there, yet? (as asked not 2 minutes after the engine has been turned on in anticipation of a 10-hour trip). There is, then, the question posed by Bertrand Russell, as to the meaning of language, its correspondence to the physical world around us, and whether a truth value can attach itself to statements which fail to reflect the reality surrounding: Is the present king of France bald? Or does he have a full head of hair? As the country is currently a republic, sans a recognized king, there can be no identifiable royal head, with or without a scalp’s landscape of cover crops.
Then, of course, there is the underlying motive hidden beneath or behind. Is a rhetorical question a question at all? For, if the proposed query is merely to emphasize a point, but never intended to elicit an answer, and yet asked in an accented manner and an enunciated tone such that there can be no doubt as to the grammatical form posited, is it the convention of usage which negates the form, or merely the self-evident proposition betrayed by the obviousness of the context asked?
And, what if the audience is predominantly of foreigners who speak the language with minimal proficiency? Does lack of comprehending the nuances of what native speakers of the language would easily identify as a “rhetorical” question, nullify the nature of such a characterization merely by such failure of understanding, by one’s status as a foreigner, or is it completely and fully determined by the insular and unrevealed motive of the one who asks? And if, of that person, we ask, “Did you mean the question to be one of a rhetorical nature?” — and the only response is a mysterious, unrecognizable smile, interpreted as either noncommittal or perhaps revealing vestiges of the insane — does it still make it so?
And what of the convoluted question, if there is no judge on the bench to direct the inquisitor to “rephrase the question”, as in: What time did you enter the victim’s home when you left your wet footprints on the white rug before you stepped on the tail of the poodle and waited before the dog yelped just as you plunged the knife for which you never said you were sorry, huh? “Huh” would be the correct response, of course, before the bench would ask for a rephrasing, or in anticipation of an objection to a “leading” question — but is not a “rhetorical” question one which is “leading”, also, and do the circumstances surrounding the query matter? Does the fact that a leading question posed in a courtroom differ from one presented by a reporter during an interview, or by a parent to a child?
Often, questions tell more about the source than of the elicited destination. When personal choices and private timings confer the greater influences upon the manner of the answer, the mere asking of the question may be an answer unto itself.
Thus, for Federal employees and U.S. Postal workers who are contemplating filing for Federal Disability Retirement benefits from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, the question posed is often: Is it time for me to file for Federal Disability Retirement benefits? Or, should I wait until the Agency or the U.S. Postal Service completely destroys any quality in my life? This latter question, of course, is what can be deemed a “rhetorical” question, whether English is a second-language or a first.
As for the one preceding — well, of that unanswerable question that only the questioner can know, the mere asking of the question is telling as to the questioning nature of the answer left unanswered, like the baldness of the present king of France and the fact that there is no judge in the courtroom of common sense to direct the questioner to rephrase a question which is quite obvious by the mere asking of that question.
Robert R. McGill, Esquire