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A rhetorical question is a question that doesn't expect an actual answer. It's said only to make a point, or to convey sarcasm, etc.

In English, a rhetorical question may be (inspired from the linked article):

A: we should vote for democrats this time

B: hah! what have democrats ever done for us?

Person B is clearly not expecting an actual answer. Their question is to be intended as "they never did anything for us". It is posed as a question to attain a rhetorical effect.

I'm honestly not sure about English, but in my native language a question in the form:

why would you do X

may be used rhetorically, and it would mean more or less "you shouldn't do X" or "please don't do X".

Does the same effect exist in Chinese with a 为什么 question? Can it be easily understood, given the proper context, or would it sound weird?

你为什么要浪费钱?(actually meaning "don't waste money")

I'm asking this because a native speaker pointed out to me that 为什么 questions primarily have a literal meaning and natives would hardly hear them as rhetorical. I realized I never actually paid attention to this.

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你为什么要浪费钱?standalone doesn't look it, whilst 你为什么浪费钱?does.

你为什么浪费钱?can be a blame or scolding, implying that there is no reason for you to waste money hence it's a rhetoric.

Also, Tone and context play important roles. Your original sentence might be a rhetorical question if the proper tone is applied in a proper context.

However, the native speaker you asked has some point there. 为什么 is kind of on the borderline. You can interpret both ways sometimes.

It's worth to mention that 为什么不xxx is a common rhetorical device. E. g.

A: 你要吃吗?

B: 为什么不呢?

A: 你会去吗?

B: 为什么不去呢?

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  • You mention that 为什么 is borderline. Would adding a particle, such as 啊 or 呢, make it clear that the question is rhetorical? Aug 28 '20 at 21:40
  • 1
    @2ndQuantized No, 呢 or 吗 would not help with that regard.
    – dan
    Aug 29 '20 at 0:03
  • Is 为什么不呢?really 地道? I find myself wanting to say that, but have hesitated as it feels like I am just directly translating "Why not?" I can't recall a native speaker using it. But obviously I could be wrong. Sep 4 '20 at 2:17
  • @The_Anomaly Yes, it's idiomatic. There is a book named 为什么不呢. See this: baike.baidu.com/item/…
    – dan
    Sep 4 '20 at 3:23
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Yes it can.

Imagine the following conversation:

Chinese

Son: 爸(Dad),我(I)又(again)沒通過(didn't pass)面試(the interview),面試官(the interviewer)說(said)我學歷(my educational background)不夠(insufficient)

Father: 唉(sign..),你(you)以為(think)你小的時候(when you were young)我(I)為什麼(why)叫(told)你(you)好好讀書(study hard)?

English Translation

Son: Dad, I failed the interview again. The interviewer said my degree is not enough (for the job)

Father: Well now, why do you think I told you to study hard when you were young?

Analysis

It is implied through the second sentence that 'I told you to study hard exactly because if you didn't you would not be able to find a job'

為什麼 can be used to emphasise a point in quite a few situations without requiring an answer. For example it can also be used to express an emotion of shock and anger.

Chinese

你的(your)身邊(around)還有(has)我們(us)這群(this group of)朋友(friend),你(you)為什麼(why)要自殺(suicide)啊

English Translation

You still have all of us (friends) around, why (did you/do you need to) resort to suicide

Analysis

Depending on the context of this sentence, the 為什麼 changes its intended meaning. If the said person merely got caught in planning the act, this could be a legit question from a concerned friend. If this sentence is said after the person already died from suicide, it is a way to express one's emotion. I believe this is identical to English.

In conclusion

As you can see, it depends on the context. But in certain combinations such as the aforementioned 你以為我為什麼, it is almost exclusively used as rhetorical.

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为什么 is indeed rarely used in a rhetorical question because most rhetorical questions are yes or no questions.

Example:

The answer to "我看來像個嬰兒嗎?" is either '像' or '不像'. The sentence structure is in question form, but the questioner can't be looked like a baby (he is 74 years old after all) and the person being asked knows that too, thus making it a rhetorical question

The answer to "你眼中還有尊長嗎? is either '有' or '沒有'. The questioner doesn't care how the child reply, the child disrespected the elder is the point he wants to make.

The question "為什麼你要浪費金錢?" does allow the one being asked the question to make a statement in respond

It is not a rhetorical question. it is a hash question, The questioner knew the person doesn't have a good reason to waste money, yet he asks the question to force that person to make up a poor excuse or rendered speechless, to humiliate him

The question "你知我為什麼要你用功讀書嗎?" is a leading statement, the questioner knows the answer. It is not a rhetorical question because if the child answered correctly, he will then go ahead and lecture him for not following his advice., If the child answered incorrectly, he will give him the answer and then a lecture.

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