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Wordsmithing (2) "Erotema"


You haven't heard of "erotema" - but you know what it is. The Romans defined it as asking a question not for the purpose of eliciting an answer, but for the purpose of asserting or denying something obliquely. This is what we know as the rhetorical question.


Some examples of rhetorical questions:


"Weren't you the one who tried to hurt me with goodbye? Did you think I'd crumble? Did you think I'd lay down and die? No, not I, I will survive." - Gloria Gaynor's famous lyrics


"How can the poor feel they have a stake in a system which says that the rich may have due process but the poor may not? How can the uneducated have faith in a system which says that it will take advantage of them in every possible way? How can people have hope when we tell them that they have no recourse if they run afoul of the state justice system?" - Senator Edward Kennedy during a Senate debate on the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act in 1968:


"Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!" (Isaiah 49:15)


"Why do we mortals hold ourselves so high in our own conceits?" (Hesiod - Works and Days, line 40)


The rhetorical question is commonly used in speeches, news, and the growing ranks of the YouTube opinionariate, but it can also be effective in business prose. It can be a persuasive device, subtly influencing the kind of response one wants to get from an audience. The way the question is phrased—its tone, pitch, and tenor—can create the expectation of either a negative or an affirmative response. For example, if we say, "Do you want your people to leave you?" the audience will respond, in the proper context, with a negative answer. By inducing the audience to make the appropriate response, the rhetorical question can often be more effective as a persuasive device than a direct assertion would be.


Rhetorical questions rely on a forceful assumption—that the speaker, and everyone else for that matter, will share the view embedded in the question's appeal. This makes them an effective device for business exchanges. So, I ask you, do rhetorical questions have no place in your pitch?


- special thanks to "Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student"

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