The Rhetorical Question

In discussing paragraphs (page 68) we saw that rhetorical questions can serve as topic sentences. They can also establish emphasis. Most emphatic rhetorical questions are, in effect, disguised assertions:

A desirable young man? Dust and ashes! What was there desirable in such a thing as that? Lylton Strachey

The question says, of course, that he was not desirable young man."

Some emphatic questions are more complicated in meaning, combining an implicit avowal with an actual query:

Yet this need not be. The means are at hand to fulfill the age-old dream: poverty can be abolished. How long shall we ignore this under-developed nation in our midst? How long shall we look the other way while our fellow human beings suffer? How long?

Michael Harrington

Even here, however, Harrington is trying not so much to elicit an answer as he is to convince us that allowing poverty to continue is indefensible. (Notice, incidentally, that each of those two examples also contains other kinds of emphatic statement: short sentences, fragments, repetitions.)

Negative-Positive Restatement

Here emphasis is achieved by stating an idea twice, first in negative terms, then in positive:

Color is not a human or personal reality; it is a political reality.

James Baldwin

This is more than poetic insight; it is hallucination. c.

The poor are not like everyone else. They are a different kind of people. They think and feel differently; they look upon a different America than the middle class looks upon. Michael Harrington

Generally the same sentence contains both the negative and the positive statements (as in the two examples here). In an extended passage, negative and positive may be expressed in separate sentences (the third example).

Less commonly the progression may be from positive to negative, as in this sentence by G. K. Chesterton about social conventions:

Conventions may be cruel, they may be unsuitable, they may even be grossly superstitious or obscene, but there is one thing they never are. Conventions are never dead.

All this could be put more briefly:

Although conventions may be cruel, unsuitable, or even grossly superstitious or obscene, they are never dead.

But not put so well. Rhythm and Rhyme

Rhythm—primarily a pattern of stressed and unstressed syl-an inevitable aspect of prose, though rarely as regular or as obvious as in poetry. Since rhythm of some sort is inescapable, good writers are aware of it and make it work for them. Later, in Chapter 22, we shall look at prose rhythm a bit more closely, considering how it is controlled and how it contributes to meaning. One contribution we touch upon here—emphasis. Probably the most common ways in which rhythm conveys emphasis are by clustered stresses and metrical runs.

A stressed syllable is spoken relatively loudly, an unstressed one more softly. Stressed syllables are marked by /, unstressed by x, as in above.

A metrical run consists of a number of stressed and unstressed syllables recurring in a more or less regular pattern. This, of course, is common in poetry, but much less so in prose.

Clustered Stresses

The Big Bull Market was dead. Frederick Lewis Allen X / X / / / / / / X

He speaks and thinks plain, broad, downright, English.

William Hazlitt

Clustering stresses simply means constructing a sentence so that three or four or more stressed syllables occur succes sively. Obviously such clustering cannot be extensive or frequent. Done skillfully, as in the examples above, it endows an idea with considerable importance. It can also contribute to meaning in subtle ways. For example, the rhythm of Allen's sentence reinforces the sense of unalterable finality conveyed by "dead."

Metrical Runs

For one brief moment the world was nothing but sea—the sight, the

sound, the smell, the touch, the taste of sea. Sheila Kaye-Smith

The rhythmic regularity of that sentence not only makes it memorable but also enhances the emotional intensity of the experience.

Like clustered stresses, metrical runs cannot be maintained for very long or employed very often. Otherwise prose begins to sound awkwardly poetic. It is a mistake, however, to suppose that such passages have no place in prose, that prose must avoid any rhythmic effects at all. As we suggested, rhythm is always there, but it should be unobtrusive, directing a reader's response, but without drawing attention to itself.


Rhyme, the repetition of identical or very similar sounds, is, like rhythm, a technique we associate more with poetry than with prose. When it does occur in prose it is usually a way of emphasizing particular words within the sentence (we shall see examples later in the chapter). Occasionally, however, rhyme serves to unify and emphasize an entire sentence, most commonly in the form of alliteration (the repetition of successive or near-successive initial sounds):

Reason will be replaced by Revelation. w. H. Auden

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  • samuel
    What does rhetorical questions emphasis?
    8 years ago

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