Rhetorical questions – are a linguistic figure that consists in posing a question that doesn’t represent an actual request for information, but implies a sort of predetermined response. A linguistic figure that isn’t lacking in any language and whose importance is unequivocal.
In fact, as Umberto Eco ironically asked: “is there really a need for rhetorical questions?”
It’s clearly a rhetorical questions since we absolutely need these to render our speech more colorful; in this way you can underscore what you say. No response is expected when asking a rhetorical question. Punctuation used at the end of a rhetorical question could be a question mark or also an exclamation point!
Obviously, Chinese too – a language of great richness – makes regular use of rhetorical questions which I’ll introduce in this article.
Basic rhetorical questions
Almost all question can be asked rhetorically. This depends on the context in which they are asked.
Li hushi: Tianna! Dou ji dian le? Zhang yisheng zenme hai bu lai? Ta zai ganma?
Nurse Li: Oh Heaven! What time is it? How come DOctor Zhang hasn’t arrived yet? What is he doing?
In this case, “what time is it?” is a rhetorical question that indicates that someone is late.
Tu Mengduo bingren: shei zhidao! Ni zai wen wo, wo wen shei? Lian ni bu zhidao, wo zenme neng zhidao?
Patient Tu Mengduo: Who knows! You’re asking me, and who would I ask? If you don’t even know, how could I?
In this case, both questions are rhetorical.
Forming positive or negative statements using rhetorical questions
From a rhetorical point of view, a negative question can be used to make a positive statement; a positive question, instead, can be used to form a negative statement. Let’s first create a context so that these type of questions work:
Context 1: One such, Mr. Mai, wants to buy a beautiful car but Mrs. Wang responds that she can’t allow it.
Wang nushi: shei bu xiang mai zhe liang che ne? Bu guo, zanmen you zhe ge qian ma?
Mrs. Wang: Who wouldn’t want to buy this car? But, do we have the money?
Context 2: Two friends are arguing over money found on the ground. One says that the money is his, the other uses a rhetorical question to say that the other can’t prove it.
Di er ge pengyou: ni shuo zhe xie qian shi ni de, shangmian xie zhe ni de mingzi ma?
The second friend: you say the money is yours, but is your name written on it?
Using “affirmative questions followed by negative” rhetorically
An “affirmative question followed by a negative” (for example, 你吃不吃 – ni chi bu chi – “will you eat it or not?”) made rhetorically indicates that the speaker wants the listener to share the same feelings and/or opinions. In this case, it’s not unusual to use 你说 (ni shuo) “you tell me” e 你想一想 (ni xiang yi xiang) “think about it”.
Mao laoshi: ni jintian wei shenme kan qi lai zheme shengqi?
Professor Mao: Why do you seem so angry today?
Tu Mengduo: zhongwen kaoshi you bu jige, zhe shi di san ci le, ni shuo, wo qi bu qi?
Tu Mengduo: I failed the Chinese test again, this is the third time. You tell me, shouldn’t I be angry?
Wo de yi ge xuesheng cai jiu sui jiu hui shuo yidian zhongwen, ni shuo, zhe ge xiao haizi congming bu congming?
My student is just 9 years old and already knows how to speak a little Chinese; tell me, isn’t this girl smart?
You might not believe it, but this example was taken from real life.
Using 不是…吗？(bu shi… ma?)
This expression is used when what is happening is not in line with what the speaker knows. The speaker, therefore, uses this expression to reaffirm what they know. It is usually followed or preceded by a real question that uses 为什么 (wei shenme) “why” and/or 怎么 (zenme) “how”.
Context: My little sister told me that she had to get up at 5 in the morning to catch the 6:30 bus for Catania, but at 6 she was still snoring away in bed. So I say to my mother:
Ma, meimei bu shi shuo yao wu dian qichuang ma? Xianzai yijing liu dian le, ta bu shi yao zuo liu dian ban de gonggongqiche ma?
Mamma, didn’t my sister say that she had to get up at 5? It’s already 6, doesn’t she have to take the bus at 6:30?
Note: When the main verb is 是 (shi) “to be”, this is used only once:
Wei shenme ni zhe yang? Nimen lia bus hi hao pengyou ma?
Why are you like this? Weren’t you two good friends?
At times you’ll also find 都 (dou) “all” and 也 (ye) “also” within one of the rhetorical questions that involve the use of 是. In this case, 都 and 也 are positioned as found in the following examples:
Ni zenme mei you yaoqing ta? Ta bu ye shi ni de pengyou ma?
How come you didn’t invite him? Isn’t he also your friend?
Ni zenme mei you yaoqing tamen? Tamen bu dou shi ni de pengyou ma?
How come you didn’t invite him? Aren’t they (all) your friends?
And if there’s also 就 (jiu) “really/actually”? where do you put it?
Ni shou li de bu jiu shi qiche de yaoshi ma?
Aren’t you those actually your car keys in your hand?
可不是吗 (Ke bu shi ma)
可不是吗 is an expression used for expressing agreement with what a third person says:
Zhe ji tian tianqi zhen bucuo a!
These days the weather isn’t bad at all!
Ke bu shi ma!
It really is!
The use of 何必 (hebi) and 何苦 (heku)
何必 can be trnslated as “why one must (do)” or “there’s no need to”. At the end of a rhetorical question with 何必 you could find the particle 呢 (ne).
Zhe ge xiao wenti, hebi hua qian qing ren lai chuli? Wo ziji lai chuli ba!
Do we need to spend money to have someone come take care of this little problem? I’ll take care of it!
何苦 can be translated as “why worry?” or “it’s not worth it”.
Ta zhishi yi ge xiao haizi, hai bu dong shi, heku wei le ta sheng zheme da de qi?
He’s just a little boy and doesn’t know an better, is it worth getting so upset because of him?
The use of 哪里 (nali) “where”
The use of 哪里 to ask rhetorical questions is very interesting because it is very close to a similar use in the Italian language.
Zuijin wo mang de yaosi, nali you shijian kan dianshiju? Wo hai yao xie lunwen!
Lately I’m ridiculously busy, where would I get the time to watch TV series? I also have to write my thesis!
Jintian tianqi zheme hao, nali xuyao daishang yusan?
Today the weather is so good, why should I bring an umbrella? (literally it would be “where’s the need to bring the umbrella?”)
Even when you want to respond modestly to a compliment we can respond with 哪里, such as:
Ni de zhongwen shuo de he zhongguo ren yi yang liuli!
You speak Chinese like a Chinese person!
It’s not true! (literally it would be “but where?” used to indicate modesty)
The use of 难道 (nandao)… [吗 (ma)]
难道 can be translated as “is it possible that?”:
Ni zhen cunzai a!
Does it really exisit!
Nandao shi jia de ma?
Is it even possible that it might not be authentic?
Zheme mingxian de shiqing, nandao ni hai bu dong ma?
Is it even possible that you still don’t understand something so obvious?
怎么 (zenme) “how” in rhetorical questions
Even 怎么 can be used in rhetorical questions:
Wo zenme hui pian ni?
How could I trick you?
什么 (shenme) “what” in rhetorical questions
There are different contexts in which to use 什么 for rhetorical questions:
Adjective + 什么 (Indicates a disagreement)
Ni de gongzuo zhen hao!
Your work is truly good!
Hao shenme? Yinwei gongzi tai di, suoyi bu zhide zuo.
What good is it? Since the salary is too low, it’s not worth the trouble of doing it.
Ni jinzhang shenme? Gan bu shang, jiu zuo xia ban.
What are you worried about? If we don’t get on, we’ll take the next one!
Verb + 什么 (indicates that there’s no need to do anything)
Zoulu shi fenzhong jiu dao le, zuo shenme gonggongqiche!
It takes ten minutes on foot, why do we need to take the bus!
Ni ku shenme? Hui you yi tian ni hui tongguo kaoshi!
Why cry? One day you’ll manage to pass the test!
The use of 关你什么事 (guan ni shenme shi) “what does it have to do with you?”
This expression explains itself:
Wo gen shei liaotian, guan ni shenme shi?
What I’m talking about is none of your business.