There Must Be a Term for This ... Or IS There?
May 15, 2018 12:34 PM   Subscribe

Recently, my 14-year-old son has been responding to statements (or orders) with a dramatically-pointed question. I'm curious if there is a term for this rhetorical (?) trope.

This is the standard format of the exchange:

Me: Son, it's time for dinner!
Him: Or is it?

Me: Son, eat your vegetables; they're good for you.
Him: Or are they?

Unlike most other things he's started to do as a proto-teenager, he's not doing this to be a jerk - just to be funny. And he does it infrequently enough that it's still somewhat unexpected and amusing when he does (i.e. he hasn't run it into the ground yet).

I got to thinking that there must be a term (rhetorical or otherwise) for this kind of rejoinder, but due to the nature of it I have found it to be quite Google-resistant. Can anyone name this sort of thing?
posted by majorsteel to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
TVTropes to the rescue with lots of examples of the thing he's imitating.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:38 PM on May 15, 2018

Gah, wait, no, that's faked endings in general, not just the cheesey "OR IS IT" thing. Sorry, false alarm.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:39 PM on May 15, 2018

This is like a possibly omniscient narrator coming in over the top to cast doubt in the mind of the audience on some fond, confident assertion by a character.

And since it's directed to the audience, and delivered by a character, I'd call it an aside or a dramatic aside.
posted by jamjam at 12:45 PM on May 15, 2018 [8 favorites]

Maxwell Smartmouth?
posted by InfidelZombie at 1:08 PM on May 15, 2018 [3 favorites]

Another common form is the expression of doubt by questioning a statement just made; for example by appending the following to a sentence: "or did he?", "or is it?", for as in, "The butler did it... or did he?"

From the Wiki page for rhetorical question, which, I know, seems so anti-climactic.
posted by xenization at 1:09 PM on May 15, 2018 [4 favorites]

Could it originate from this clip from Rushmore?
posted by blaneyphoto at 1:16 PM on May 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

I thought "rhetorical question" as well, but it's not intended to further an argument or position; it's an end unto itself.

It feels a little like a hybrid of paraprosdokian (a figure of speech featuring an unexpected reversal) and antithesis (in the dialectical sense of thesis, antithesis, synthesis). It has the surprise turn of the former, the exact logical reversal of the latter, but it's intended only to be funny, not advance a larger philosophical or rhetorical goal.

There's probably a more precise term - rhetoricians are an exacting bunch - but I can't come up with it.
posted by verschollen at 1:20 PM on May 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

TV Tropes has an entry on this under The End.... or is it? - specifically that it's a common thing to use at the end of a story (movie, show, etc) to suggest a possible twist or continuation. I think of this as a Twilight Zone era kind of thing (not just the show, but monster movies, sci-fi, etc from that era; also original tv Batman for another example) and then subsequent media have jokingly imitated it.

And in recent years we've seen a rise of clickbait counterintuitive hot takes -- like "Puppies are cute.... or are they??", which have led to jokes about that phenomenon, so it's a timely kind of thing to refer to, the cheap parlor-trick faux-iconoclastic way of thinking about any topic.

Urban dictionary has an entry for it, but it's not revealing of sources or anything especially useful.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:38 PM on May 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

Thanks, xenization. That's exactly the syntax; it's disappointing there isn't a better word for it.

blaneyphoto: He hasn't seen Rushmore (though I suspect he'd love it). I think it may originate from Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which he's been obsessing over recently.

I don't think it's quite paraprosdokian, verschollen, though I certainly enjoyed learning that term! Thank you!!
posted by majorsteel at 1:39 PM on May 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

I suspect there's a layer of self-aware irony thrown in when your son says it. He's probably not saying "...or is it?" the way Rod Serling would have said it in the Twilight Zone; he's parodying that style by applying it in obviously ridiculous situations: Actually, yes, it is time for dinner. Reminds me of this similar Simpsons usage.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 1:49 PM on May 15, 2018 [4 favorites]

I swear I saw an xkcd webcomic where this was basically the comic, but I can't find it so who knows.
posted by vegartanipla at 2:03 PM on May 15, 2018

I have an almost-14-year-old who does this, too! In his case it’s definitely as qxntpqbbbqxl has proposed: with a layer of self-aware irony. My son’s favorite is to highlight what he hears (often accurately) as a grammar or usage error, in the manner of an annoyed but snarky pedant. E.g., “Can you set the table?” “I don’t know... can I?” Charming enough when selectively deployed. I’ve always thought of it as a wry aside, in the sense jamjam has described.
posted by cheapskatebay at 2:43 PM on May 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

It would be cool if you could punch a button and play one of the variations of the dramatic look dun dun DUN!
posted by gregoreo at 2:52 PM on May 15, 2018 [6 favorites]

Came in to say you should hit him back with the dun dun DUUUNNN!!
posted by stinkfoot at 3:04 PM on May 15, 2018 [12 favorites]

I don't know if there's a name for it, but as a Mighty Boosh fan I propose we call it the Tommy.
posted by capricorn at 4:22 PM on May 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

These remind me a bit of the Wikipedia article on grammatical tag questions, which the original speaker of a sentence adds on at the end. In most languages where they're present they exist as single words: for example in French non? or in Russian nyet? but if Wikipedia is to be believed, in English and some Celtic languages tag questions get unusually complicated, requiring verb agreement and stuff. English examples:
  • He should read this book, shouldn't he?
  • This is a book, isn't it?
  • Do listen, will you?
  • Oh, I'm lazy, am I?
  • I'll make tea, shall I?
  • You don't remember my name, do you?
(Far from the same thing because your son is the one asking the question but perhaps it's related somehow.)

...and upon some googlings, it looks like—if your son's questions in the OP were rephrased as the much lengthier "Is it time for dinner, or is it not time for dinner?" and "Are my vegetables good for me, or are they not good for me?" then some grammarians would classify them as "alternative echo questions." Unfortunately the trail sort of dried up there but I'd bet that with the right keywords and enough clicking we could find an entire paper someone has written on the grammatical and linguistic aspects, at least, of exactly this shortened form of question.
posted by XMLicious at 9:44 PM on May 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

I've been re-watching the entire series of Seinfeld, and this is something Kramer did all the time. It was already ironic and silly then.
posted by Miko at 6:11 AM on May 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

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