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Rhetorical Questions Revisited

Donka Farkas
University of California, Santa Cruz
Wed April 17th 2024, 2:00 - 3:30pm
Margaret Jacks Hall, Greenberg Room (Room 126)

This talk proposes a novel characterization of rhetorical questions (RhQs) and considers its implications for our understanding of assertions and questions in general. The core proposal is that there are two necessary conditions, which, together, are also sufficient, for a question to be understood as rhetorical: (i) the question must be closed, i.e., the input context must be maximally informative relative to it; (ii) the speaker's public immediate aim in performing the speech act must be to trigger a mandatory conversational implicature that connects the question to the previous context, which accounts for the reactive nature of RhQs. In establishing the first condition, I argue against the widely held assumption that in order for a question to be rhetorical the common ground of the input context must contain its answer. The argument is based on the existence of unresolvable rhetorical questions, noted already in Rhode (2006). Establishing the second condition explains when the answer to a rhetorical question is assertable in its input context and when it is not (cf. Biezma and Rawlins 2017). Finally, I argue that the approach adopted here allows us to capture the status of RhQs relative to assertions and non-rhetorical questions based on a distinction between pragmatic and semantic inquisitiveness.