Are there specific terms or grammatical structures that make a question including a statement rhetorical?

For example. The statement and question is

Ist das römische Reich an seiner eigenen Grösse zugrunde gegangen?

How would you formulate this using german terms/grammar to denote/imply to a non historian that the statement

  • is true
  • is wrong (simple negation to is true not allowed ;)
  • is highly uncertain (i take this case also as not everyone picks up a question immediately as rhetorical but as a real question)

I mean especially more subtly ways (single terms/grammar shifting the meaning completely, no use of subordinate clauses) as

Wir wissen doch alle, dass das röm. Reich ... gegangen ist, oder nicht?

Your questions should differ in as less terms/grammar as possible ;)

Can all rhetorical german questions literally be translated without loosing their meaning or are there examples bound in any way to german grammar/terms as in English?

3 Answers 3


Ist das römische Reich nicht an seiner eigenen Größe zugrunde gegangen?

communicates "is true".

Ist das römische Reich etwa an seiner eigenen Größe zugrunde gegangen?

communicates "is wrong". "Nicht" and "Etwa" can also be placed directly after "Ist".

With a different intonation, the first sentence could also be used by someone who speculates that the statement is true, but is not sure, and asks for confirmation.

  • 1
    Although the placement of "nicht"/"etwa" makes a difference in meaning: "Ist etwa das Römische Reich...?" takes the Roman Empire as an example in a discussion about any subject, introducing the topic of the Roman Empire's demise as an example to make a point. "Ist das Römische Reich etwa...?" would more often be invoked in a discussion about the Roman Empire itself (although it could also be used in the same fashion as its counterpart).
    – Jan
    Aug 3, 2011 at 10:29
  • 1
    +1 some side questoins: What does Ist das röm. Reich etwa nicht ... gegangen express then? :) ... Is there way to make the three cases without basing it on intonation/pronounciation for written language? Im not totally convinced by the etwa - is wrong, this would more state the uncertain/hypothetical case to me? Or is this clear cut in German? Imo your examples are prob. correct for native speaker. But maybe a bit too subtly to differ all 3 cases surely? ;)
    – Hauser
    Aug 4, 2011 at 19:06
  • Your side question: Ist das römische Reich etwa nicht an seiner eigenen Größe zugrunde gegangen? applies the "probably true" connotation to the negated statement, i.e., the statement The Roman empire did not perish because of its size is probably true.
    – Oguk
    Nov 18, 2014 at 1:58
  • @Oguk No, the "etwa" applies a "probably false" connotation. So, the question Ist das römische Reich etwa nicht an seiner eigenen Größe zugrunde gegangen? implies that the statement The Roman empire did not perish because of its size is probably false.
    – Georg
    Nov 25, 2014 at 10:52
  • @Hauser The "etwa nicht" is similar to the "nicht", but stronger. The "etwa" conveys a mood of surprise ("Nein, ich trinke heute keinen Alkohol." -- "Bist du etwa schwanger?!"). This is the same mood that is used in the rhetorical question, i.e., "I'd be surprised if the statement is true". The "etwa" is not used for the uncertain/hypothetical case, Wäre es vielleicht möglich, dass das römische Reich an seine Größe zugrunde gegangen ist?
    – Georg
    Nov 25, 2014 at 11:03

A common combination is question word + denn as in

Wozu mach' ich mir denn die Mühe?

Another possibility is question word + wohl

Weshalb bin ich wohl hierher gekommen?

But note, that it highly depends on the intonation and on what the actual question aims at.


Stefan Walter already gave quite adequate answers to your questions 1 and 2. So I will aim to answer your third one:

Ist das römische Reich wirklich an seiner Größe zugrunde gegangen?

This construction type of questions I stole from boring gonzo documentaries, where it is used to imply that something stunningly unlikely is about to be "revealed" to the audience. That's the moment I switch off the telly.

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