November 1, 2010

Can I Ask You a Question?

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What’s the deal with asking rhetorical questions in published writing? Or, for that matter, asking any questions of your reader in general? Is it some Seinfeldian convention that’s stuck around from mid-90s comedy? Does anyone expect an answer to these questions that writers pose to their audiences? Isn’t it, perhaps, just a cop out for actually making a definitive statement of your own, having some chutzpah, or structuring your writing in such a way that causes readers to ask themselves the questions you’d like them to ask you?

Has this issue been troubling anyone else besides me? Have you found that, as you’re reading a column about why people like to follow celebrity gossip, it’s a little redundant for the writer to say, “How come everyone follows celebrity gossip?” In theory, wouldn’t we already know that you’re exploring this topic without having to pose the question to us? This is a piece of writing, not a live debate you’re having with your readers, right? Isn’t it obvious that you’re not going to talk with them, and that you’re taking up real estate on a blank page in order to share your view, and not listen to theirs?

As rhetorical questions relate to opinion columnists, couldn’t you say that our writing is inherently selfish anyway? Isn’t it a little self-obsessive to think that other people would want to read our columns every two weeks? Why then, should we be posing questions to our readers? If the manner in which we present our opinions and the data that informs these opinions is structured well, then shouldn’t readers naturally raise questions in their own minds as they interpret our evidence and conclusions? For example, if I tell you that drug- and alcohol-related arrests have increased 75 percent at Cornell from 2007 to 2009, wouldn’t you ask yourself, “Why have these arrests gone up?” Therefore, do I need to take up your time and my space on the page by putting that question in writing?

Don’t rhetorical questions make the writer seem like kind of a jerk sometimes?

In regards to proving a point in pieces of academic writing, if you were writing an essay well then wouldn’t you include references to possible questions or counter-arguments that your readers might have? In writing about the Civil War and transitioning to a new topic, why ask, “But what was happening in regards to the economy of the South during this time period?” If you’re going to tell us what was happening to the economy of the South, why not just write a transition sentence and then tell us? And would a history professor look highly upon a student who introduced his conclusion with a phrase like, “How can we make sense of all these contradicting views on the Civil War?” Wouldn’t it be more efficient and more powerful to just say, “These conflicting opinions demonstrate the large disagreements over the causes of the American Civil War?”

Is this column going to be like a Family Guy joke where it just keeps going for so long that eventually it gets kind of funny again?

As you read newspapers and other publications, how often do you see rhetorical questions? Doesn’t the headline do enough to spark readers’ curiosity, to the point that you don’t need a rhetorical question to introduce the topic to them again? (Do you ever find that long questions with lots of lead up can sound kind of awkward? Oh crap, did I just ask you a rhetorical question?) And why, why does this week’s Economist use a rhetorical question on p. 11, paragraph five? Dear sir, couldn’t you support my opinions much like you supported neoliberal reforms in the Federated States of Micronesia last year? Or at least put the linguistic felony in the “Britain” section that no one reads anyway?

Will you permit me to go on a tangent here for a paragraph (Can you say no? Also, do I put the question mark before the parenthesis, or after it? Both?)? Is anyone else tired of journalists and columnists questioning everyday fads that most people seem to understand? What’s the deal with “What’s the deal with twitter?” columns? Not only has everyone and their roommate written on the subject, but can’t you just ask someone who understands it to explain it to you, or find the Internet tube with the right answer?

So what is the appropriate place for rhetorical questions? Is it in your own personal ramblings and explorations conducted alone or with friends? Where you privately and incessantly question everything around you in order to expand your understanding of the world and your place in it? And not in a published piece of writing that you present to the whole world?

Yes.

Ben Koffel is a first-year grad student in the College of Architecture, Art & Planning. He may be contacted at bkoffel@cornellsun.com. Come Again? appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Ben K.