Problem

As Caroline’s reading in her room, she hears her phone vibrate. Her grandparents have a house rule of no electronics after dinner, and she should be getting ready for bed soon. Still, she decides to check her phone: it’s a notification that the art blog she follows has updated. It’ll just be a minute, Caroline thinks to herself, opening up the app.

Before she can react, her grandmother is standing in her doorway, already frowning. In a stern voice, she says, “What do you think you’re doing?”

The Explanation

When Caroline’s grandmother asks her what she’s doing, she doesn’t actually want the girl to explain herself. She’s asking a rhetorical question, or erotema, to make a point – that Caroline is breaking a rule. 

Erotema

An erotema is a rhetorical device where a question is proposed without expecting an answer. Rather, its purpose is to make a strong statement. The answer to the rhetorical question can be obvious or open-ended, but the speaker doesn’t actually want their audience to state it: they want to firmly oppose or support a previously made statement or position.

The History

The word “erotema” comes from the modern Latin erōtain, which heavily drew upon the Greek language. Erōtain means “to question or ask.” Erotema was first used in the 16th century. However, in the proceeding centuries, the word was far exceeded by the phrase “rhetorical question” in usage. Nowadays, the term erotema is rarely used outside of academic circles.

Using It

Rhetorical questions are used in everyday language. They’re used in any sphere involving communication or the persuasion of others. Erotemata are so persuasive because they have an emotional dimension to them. They can be tinged with wonder, indignation, or sarcasm. They can be used to effectively end a debate or start an argument.

It’s important to remember that while the answer to the rhetorical question may be obvious, that doesn’t mean the speaker’s point is clearly correct. Erotemata can help enhance poor arguments just as easily as strong ones. Before jumping at the immediate answer, sometimes it’s better to think over how it relates to the debate as a whole. Don’t be afraid to defend your position and beliefs. 

Still, sometimes the best way to show people the answer is to ask a question.

    Learn More

    1. Blankenship, Kevin L. & Traci Y. Craig. “Rhetorical Question Use and Resistance to Persuasion: An Attitude Strength Analysis.” Journal of Language and Social Psychology, vol 25, issue 2, June 2006, pp 111-128. Doi: 10.1177/0261927X06286380.
    2. Frank, Jane. “You call that a rhetorical question?: Forms and functions of rhetorical questions in conversation.” Journal of Pragmatics, vol 14, issue 5, Oct 1990, pp 723-738. Doi: 10.1016/0378-2166(90)90003-V.
    3. Howard, Daniel J. “Rhetorical question effects on message processing and persuasion: The role of information availability and the elicitation of judgment.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol 26, issue 3, May 1990, pp 217-239. Doi: 10.1016/0022-1031(90)90036-L.
    4. Munch, James M & John L. Swasy. “Rhetorical Question, Summarization Frequency, and Argument Strength Effects on Recall.” Journal of Consumer Research, vol 15, issue 1, June 1988, pp 69-76. Doi: 10.1086/209146.
    5. Swasy, John L. & James M. Munch. “Examining the Target of Receiver Elaborations: Rhetorical Question Effects on Source Processing and Persuasion.” Journal of Consumer Research, vol 11, issue 4, Mar 1985, pp 877-886. Doi: 10.1086/209023.

    Think Further

    1. What are some common examples of erotema that you normally encounter?
    2. How effective are these common erotemata at making their point? 
    3. When might it be most effective to use an erotema?