This blog is for everyone who uses words.

The ordinary-sized words are for everyone, but the big ones are especially for children.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Nuts and Bolts: the rhetorical question mark.

I mean, what has punctuation ever done for us?

No, no, it's all right, that was a rhetorical question. I don't want you to answer it. I'm just bringing the matter to your attention.

As it happens I'm rather fond of punctuation. Having said that, I have to admit that the rhetorical question mark did very little for anybody. It was invented, by Henry Denham, in the 1580s but died in the 1600s. It was used at the end of  a rhetorical question to signal that no answer was required.

It often went by the off-putting name of percontation point.

It looked like a backwards question mark:

but it turned out no one needed it because we could tell quite easily when a question was rhetorical without it.
I mean, did Henry Denham think we were idiots?
Thing To Use Today: a rhetorical question. The word rhetoric has meant the same thing since Ancient Greek times. It was called after a rhetor, who was a teacher of rhetoric. Rhēma is the Greek for word.



  1. I've often wondered how I should properly end a rhetorical question.
    The preposterous percontation point was never an option, but other than that I guess it's up to each individual how to end it?!.

    1. Thanks very much for your question. I was going to answer it, but on reflection have decided I probably shouldn't.

    2. I like the double question (and exclamation) marks that you have in Spanish. In Spanish, unlike English, the word order and sentence construction doesn't necessarily change regardless of whether it's a statement or question. Therefore, when speaking (or reading in your head), it's done by intonation, so knowing whether or not it's going to be a question at the start is really useful.

      As for the rhetorical question mark, that just seems silly, as even in speech you don't have to spell out to someone that you've just asked a rhetorical question, unless you're talking to an idiot or, in fact, you don't want them to answer the question: "I'm a nice, easy-going, fun-to-be-around kind of person, right? Wait. Don't answer that."

      Plus it would be an ugly punctuation mark. I'm all for good aesthetics in writing.

    3. That's a very interesting point, Ed. In fact the word order doesn't necessarily change in English, either:
      'so you want to be a rock star',
      for example, could be either a statement or a question.
      I suppose that must mean we see the question mark before we start the sentence.
      That's really fascinating.