What Is Pathos? | Definition, Meaning & Examples

Rhetoric updated on  February 5, 2024 6 min read

Pathos is an emotional appeal employed to elicit a specific emotional response from an audience. This usually involves feelings of pity, sympathy, or sorrow. The intention is to make an audience feel the way the author or speaker wants them to feel.

Pathos example
Advertisements encouraging people to adopt a rescue often show heart-wrenching images of abandoned, injured, or malnourished dogs roaming the streets. These are often juxtaposed with stories of rescued dogs overcoming adversity, accompanied by uplifting music to evoke empathy and compassion from the audience.

“Pathos” is a term mostly used in persuasive speaking and writing, but we also encounter it in literature, film, and advertising.

What is pathos?

Pathos (or appeal to emotion) is a mode of persuasion that attempts to engage an audience’s emotions, values, or beliefs. The goal of pathos is to convince an audience of a particular viewpoint or prompt them to act by stirring up specific emotions (positive or negative). Pathos can be expressed in various ways, including words, images, music, or body language.

Emotions have a significant impact on the formation of judgment. When someone successfully taps into our feelings, we form a personal connection with their message because we feel we can relate personally to the subject matter. This emotional connection enhances the credibility of the message and makes us more receptive to what they have to say.

The downside of pathos is that it can also be used as a manipulative tactic. By appealing to our emotions, politicians, for example, may try to bypass our logic and manipulate us into supporting their agendas without thoroughly evaluating the merits of their arguments or proposals.

Ethos, pathos, logos

Pathos, ethos, and logos are the three basic modes of persuasion established by the philosopher Aristotle, and sometimes collectively called the rhetorical triangle. When in balance, they can build a well-rounded, persuasive argument that appeals to an audience on different levels. More specifically:

  • Ethos, or ethical appeal, refers to the character that the speaker or writer wishes to present. It is an attempt to convey their status or expertise, making the audience more likely to consider them credible and trust them. Toothpaste advertisements featuring dentists’ testimonials, for instance, leverage this type of appeal.
  • Pathos, or pathetic appeal, refers to the emotional state of the audience. In contemporary terms, appeals to pathos are psychological appeals that try to influence the audience on an emotional level. This also includes the audience’s values and beliefs. Patriotism, for instance, is an ideal, but it also has a strong emotional component.
  • Logos, or appeal to logic, refers to the argument itself. It is an attempt to engage an audience’s logic by presenting factual information and statistics, citing multiple sources, and making clear connections between ideas.

Although these rhetorical appeals work well together, we do not need to incorporate all three of them in every argument. It is important to consider which combination best fits the context of communication and the subject at hand.

Additionally, employing rhetorical appeals does not always lead to a solid argument. Writers sometimes overuse one appeal at the expense of another. For example, they may substitute evidence with emotions to hide their faulty logic or lack of knowledge on a subject. In this case, the argument is flawed and we call it an appeal to emotion fallacy.

Note
It is important to remember that rhetorical appeals may overlap. For example, using credible sources in academic writing falls under both ethos and logos: citing reliable sources shows that the writer adheres to academic standards of writing (ethos) but also that they can back up their writing with evidence (logos).

Pathos examples

Pathos is a rhetorical appeal speakers use to connect with their audience and inspire change.

President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (1863) exemplifies the use of pathos (and ethos) while reflecting upon the significance of the American Civil War. In this speech, the war is presented in terms of the Founding Fathers’ ideals (“a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”).

Pathos example
“We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”

In this passage, Lincoln uses emotionally charged language to appeal to the audience’s sense of shared purpose and reverence for those who have died in the battle (appeal to pathos).

At the same time, his focus on the fulfillment of moral duty (the dedication “is altogether fitting and proper”) and his references to the Founding Fathers contribute to his credibility (appeal to ethos).

Memoirs utilize pathos to create compelling narratives and establish an emotional connection with the reader.

Pathos example
In memoirs, authors share their memories about an important part of their life, recounting their struggles and triumphs. In Cheryl Strayed's memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, the author describes her 1,100-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail as a journey of self-discovery.

After suddenly losing her mother, a central figure in her life, Strayed spirals. Struggling with grief and personal problems, she sets out on a journey without any hiking experience. The emotional appeal lies in the raw and honest portrayal of grief, the emotional and physical challenges of her journey, as well as her realizations along the way. Using vivid and evocative language, Strayed captures the universal human experience of trying to navigate loss and grief.

How to identify pathos

When trying to identify pathos, you should look for the following:

  • Expressive descriptions: Detailed examples and vivid imagery make us feel like we have seen or experienced what is being described.
  • Storytelling: Stories can make us empathize with the speaker or those affected by the described problem. They can put a human face on abstract issues, like unemployment or war, by directing our attention to the way these affect a particular person.
  • Figurative language: Metaphors (e.g., “time is a thief”) and similes (e.g., “brave as a lion”) can evoke powerful images that prompt reflection and help the audience connect with the subject matter on a deeper level.
  • Charged language: Emotionally laden words evoke vivid images. The phrase “the heartbroken teenager sobbed uncontrollably after the devastating breakup” paints a very different picture than the neutral description “the teenager cried after the breakup.”Nonverbal communication: Facial expression, tone of voice, and body posture can all reinforce the emotional resonance of a message

Do you want to know more about common mistakes, commonly confused words, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.


Rhetoric

Commonly confused words

Fallacies

Symbolism

Possum vs opossum

Straw man fallacy

Play on words

Weather vs whether

Post hoc fallacy

Juxtaposition

Inter vs intra

Fallacy of composition

Paronomasia

To vs too

Tu quoque fallacy

Allusion

Subjective vs objective

Either-or fallacy


Frequently asked questions about pathos

What are logos, pathos, and ethos?

Logos, pathos, and ethos are the three modes of persuasion or ways to persuade people. More specifically:

  • Logos appeals to the audience’s reason. It involves presenting logical arguments, statistics, and facts.
  • Pathos appeals to the audience’s emotions. It involves influencing the audience’s emotions through storytelling or evocative language to accept the speaker’s viewpoint.
  • Ethos appeals to the speaker or writer’s credibility. It involves establishing the speaker's or writer's authority, trustworthiness, and moral character, making the audience trust them.

Why is pathos important in persuasive communication?

Pathos is important in persuasive communication because it helps speakers and writers:

  • Establish a strong emotional connection between the audience and themselves. By appealing to emotions like compassion or sorrow, communicators can build rapport and a sense of shared understanding with the audience. This, in turn, makes the audience more receptive to what they have to say.
  • Maintain the audience’s attention. When someone stirs up strong emotions in us, we are more likely to pay attention to what they have to say.
  • Humanize abstract issues. Pathos makes abstract or distant issues more relatable through the use of storytelling and personal anecdotes.

What is an example of pathos?

An example of pathos can be found in Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech. King employs vivid images to portray segregation (e.g., “chains of discrimination”) and appeals to shared values throughout his speech (e.g., relating the struggle for civil rights to America's founding principles).


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Kassiani

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex information into easily accessible articles to help others.

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