November 07, 2006

Attested subordinate rhetorical interrogatives

Almost as soon as I mentioned that it would be interesting to find actual examples confirming Ivano Caponigro's suggestion that interrogative subordinate clauses could have rhetorical-question interpretations, Mark Liberman noticed one in something he was reading. Well, further overwhelmingly convincing evidence has been coming in of actual examples showing that interrogative content clauses can indeed express rhetorical questions.

Bruce Rusk, of Cornell University's Department of Asian Studies, contributed one from the early 18th century:

The new prophesying Sect, I made mention of above, pretend, it seems, among many other Miracles, to have had a most signal one, acted premeditately, and with warning, before many hundreds of People, who actually give Testimony to the Truth of it. But I wou'd only ask, Whether there were present, among those hundreds, any one Person, who having never been of their Sect, or addicted to their Way, will give the same Testimony with them?

[From: Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury, 1671-1713: Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711-1714), Volume I, Treatise I, Section VI; link here

He also points out that rhetorical questions can be embedded in rhetorical questions. One structure that often shows this is the rhetorical "Dare I ask...":

And, dare I ask who could not benefit from reading certain experienced Illinois trial lawyer's tips and tactics. ;^>

Says Bruce: "The writer knows that everyone would benefit from reading these tips (and of course dares to ask). And doesn't even bother with the question mark."

Bruce offers another similar expression favoring rhetorical interpretation: "Should I even ask...":

Should I even ASK how the field trip was? :)

Bruce says: "The commenter assumes it was bad and that he/she should not ask. I think (tone can be hard to judge)."

A similar structure that Bruce points out is "Do I have to ask...":

LMAO at the fools that take up politics. Do I have to ask what party is doing this??? and like the previous post said, the union mafia (dimwit votes) is probably going to get P.O.'d about this.   [Comment at]

He notes that the continuation with "and" heightens the rhetorical force of the question, and adds:

Actually, in the last case I think the rhetorical nature of the question is only apparent if it's so framed. In the first case ("who could not benefit..."), the rhetorical force is apparent even without the framing. In the second, it's less clear, though it could be read into "And how was the field trip? :)" In this last case, however, I don't think it would be apparent to a reader (though it might be, to a speaker, from tone) that the question was rhetorical: "What party is doing this???" just sounds (again, in writing) like a "real question."

Can a question be rhetorical precisely because it's embedded in another?

Ora Matushansky wrote from Paris with another pair of attested examples, found by looking for "makes me wonder" + "could possibly" on Google:

which kind of makes me wonder how you could possibly find less funny videos

which is definitely an improvement, but makes me wonder what exactly was the point in adding the RFID chip in the first place?

Let us agree, then, that Ivano Caponigro's intuition is correct: the device of the rhetorical question should perhaps be referred to more broadly as the rhetorical interrogative, since interrogative clauses that do not directly ask questions can indeed have the flavor that independent-clause rhetorical questions have.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at November 7, 2006 01:05 PM