October 29, 2006

Embedded rhetorical questions

Ivano Caponigro gave an excellent talk to my university's Department of Linguistics last Friday (abstract available here). The subject was rhetorical questions. Ivano was concerned to explicate the view that the hallmark of a rhetorical question is (roughly) that its answer is not just known (or believed) but mutually known (or believed) by the participants (the utterer and the addressee). The lively discussion that followed developed a case that this needs to be rendered a little more subtly to allow for situations like (for example) a disingenuous speaker among a group of hypocrites uttering "Would any of us here today ever tell a lie?" can be a rhetorical question, inviting the answer "No, of course we wouldn't", even if the speaker knows darned well he told a lie just this morning; what is important is not that utterer and addressee should actually believe (let alone know) that the answer is in the negative, but that the intent of the question is to provoke an admission of general agreement (even if insincere) to the effect that the answer is in the negative.

That sort of stuff was the main drift of the talk and the question period. But one other point that came up briefly was Ivano's claim that you can embed rhetorical questions — an important point for his thesis that rhetorical questions are absolutely not to be understood as "really" expressing statements (a wrong-headed view that some have advanced). There was some demurral at the embedding claim; not everyone seemed to be in full agreement. I think Ivano is exactly right, though. An embedded interrogative clause (an interrogative content clause in the terminology of The Cambridge Grammar) can have the force of a rhetorical question. I mention the point here so that readers who think they can find good attested examples of this can send them to me (mail pullum at gmail.com). In what follows I will show the flavor of what I think is possible by citing a couple of constructed examples.

Imagine someone addressing a city council meeting in Santa Cruz, arguing that the city is being unfair in its enforcement of the ordinance forbidding people to sleep in a motor vehicle (along with other kinds of illicit camping within the city limits: the target is of course homeless people):

I feel I want to ask how many rich people this law has ever been applied to.

The point is that the speaker's aim, pragmatically, might not be in any sense be to ask the question that the underlined part expresses, or to wonder about what the answer to it might be, or to express the feeling of wanting to ask it. The speaker knows full well that the city has never once hauled a millionaire into court for dozing in his Lincoln Town Car while parked on West Cliff Drive after a nice dinner at Casablanca, and they know the speaker knows that, and they know the speaker knows they know, and so on. It's got the characteristics of rhetorical questions in the strongest form. The pragmatic point is to draw attention to the fact that everyone knows what the answer is, and to bring out a comforting chorus of "Hear, hear!" in agreement among the general public in the audience.

During the discussion Ivano admitted that it was hard to imagine an interrogative content clause that was the complement of a verb like wonder having rhetorical force; but I don't think he needed to make that concession. I think we can contextualize that too. Imagine a Republican candidate for Congress making a stump speech and saying this:

I'm wondering what the Democrats think Iraq would be like a month from now if we brought all our troops home today.

Everybody knows what Iraq would be like a month from now if all American troops were home by tonight. It would be the scene of a bitter and massively violent civil war between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, probably also involving the Kurds. And you can imagine the candidate knowing that everyone agrees on that point. The force of the underlined clause can be that of a rhetorical question — the intent being not to raise the question for discussion but to put out on the table the fact of the general agreement concerning what the answer is.

So that's my view: the Caponigro claim that there can be rhetorical embedded interrogative clauses is correct, possibly even more so than he thought on Friday. Do send me good, clear, attested examples if you happen to spot them in texts or hear them viva voce.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at October 29, 2006 06:15 PM