Asking Too Much? The Rhetorical Role of Questions in Political Discourse

Justine Zhang, Arthur Spirling, Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil

Proceedings of EMNLP 2017.


Talk slides and video prepared and presented by Justine Zhang

Data and Code

Related research:         

                                    Conversational Behavior

                                    Anti-Social Computing



Example question asked to the  Prime Minister’s in the British Parliament (video)

“The Prime Minister is rightly shocked by the revelations that many food products contain 100% horse. Does he share my concern that, if tested, many of his answers may contain 100% bull?”



Questions play a prominent role in social interactions, performing rhetorical functions that go beyond that of simple informational exchange.  The surface form of a question can signal the intention and background of the person asking it, as well as the nature of their relation with the interlocutor.  While the informational nature of questions has been extensively examined in the context of question-answering applications, their rhetorical aspects have been largely understudied.

In this work we introduce an unsupervised methodology for extracting surface motifs that recur in questions, and for grouping them according to their latent rhetorical role.  By applying this framework to the setting of question sessions in the UK parliament, we show that the resulting typology encodes key aspects of the political discourse---such as the bifurcation in questioning behavior between government and opposition parties---and reveals new insights into the effects of a legislator's tenure and political career ambitions.




  author={Justine Zhang, Arthur Spirling, Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil},

  title={Asking Too Much? The Rhetorical Role of Questions in Political Discourse},

  booktitle={Proceedings of EMNLP},