What Is the Rhetorical Triangle? | Definition & Examples

Rhetoric updated on  February 21, 2024 3 min read

The rhetorical triangle is a tool for organizing the three elements of rhetoric according to Aristotle. These elements, known as ethos, pathos, and logos, are often depicted as a triangle with logos at the top and ethos and pathos at the bottom corners.

The purpose of the triangle is to remind writers and speakers that a well-developed argument typically balances all three elements.


What is the rhetorical triangle?

The rhetorical triangle (or Aristotelian triangle) is a concept in persuasive communication based on ancient philosopher Aristotle’s ideas on what makes an argument persuasive. It is often represented by an equilateral triangle to show that each element is equally important in persuasion and that they all interact with and influence one another.

Aristotle taught that an effective argument must incorporate three types of rhetorical appeals, or ways to convince an audience: logos (or appeal to logic), pathos (or appeal to emotion), and ethos (or appeal to character). Although his teachings referred to persuasive speaking, they can also be extended to writing. Later rhetoricians collectively called these rhetorical appeals the “rhetorical triangle.”

According to this model, effective communication requires the speaker or writer to establish credibility (ethos), appeal to the emotions of the audience (pathos), and use logical reasoning and evidence (logos) to support their message. The rhetorical triangle is often used in the fields of rhetoric, communication studies, and composition to analyze and improve persuasive writing and speaking.

Rhetorical appeals

The three points of the triangle correspond to the three rhetorical appeals:

Ethos

Ethos, or ethical appeal, refers to the speaker or writer. It is about establishing your credibility and authority on the subject matter. Ethos helps the audience or reader understand why they should listen to your message and trust you. For example, adhering to email conventions when writing a work email shows professionalism and helps you establish ethos.

Ethos examples

  • Acknowledging the (credible) sources you have used to write a school paper. This shows that you did not plagiarize other people’s work and that your paper adheres to quality standards.
  • Advertisements where doctors or other experts recommend a product.
  • Political speeches where a candidate talks about their ongoing commitment to the local community.

Pathos

Pathos, or pathetic appeal, refers to the audience or reader. It is about establishing a bond with them by evoking specific emotions, like anger, empathy, or guilt. Pathos involves using language and examples that engage the audience’s feelings, values, desires, etc.

Pathos examples

  • An animal shelter trying to encourage the public to adopt a pet by tugging at their heartstrings with images of sad puppies.
  • A speech in which a trafficking victim shares her personal experience to make the audience empathize with those affected by trafficking.
  • An organization depicting its products alongside national symbols or themes, suggesting that buying its goods is a form of supporting the country.

Logos

Logos, or appeal to logic, refers to the message. It is about establishing the reasoning behind your claim through facts and evidence. Logos is also about how well you organize your argument. It is usually placed on the top of the triangle because if an argument does not make sense, it falls flat; there is no need for pathos or ethos.

Logos examples

  • A presentation about the importance of following the recommended child vaccination schedule citing the CDC and the WHO.
  • A car commercial highlighting the safety and fuel efficiency of its latest edition.
  • An essay about climate change presenting temperature data trends over the past century to support the argument that global temperatures are rising.

How to use the rhetorical triangle

You can use the rhetorical triangle to analyze the effectiveness of your own argument or that of others. The following points can help with this.

How to establish ethos

  • Demonstrate academic and professional qualifications or experiences that make you a trustworthy speaker or writer on the subject matter.
  • Adjust your vocabulary to the audience, e.g., use technical jargon when addressing experts and everyday words when addressing a general audience.
  • Use endorsements by experts or authorities in your field.
  • Show transparency by acknowledging alternative viewpoints or potential objections to your argument.

How to establish pathos

  • Use vivid descriptions and images to bring a distant experience or abstract ideas, like climate change, poverty, or war, to life.
  • Share stories or personal anecdotes that humanize situations and problems.
  • Use relatable examples that cater to the values or beliefs of the audience or reader.
  • Show empathy by acknowledging and validating the audience's emotions, concerns, and experiences.
  • Change your pacing and intonation to emphasize important parts of your speech or presentation.

How to establish logos

  • Use reliable, unbiased sources to back up a claim.
  • Use statistical data, scientific evidence, or analytical thinking to support your argument.
  • Consider any counterarguments and acknowledge their merits before refuting them.
  • Present your ideas in a logical order so the audience or reader can follow your argument as it develops.

Note
Keep in mind that the three appeals of the rhetorical triangle often overlap. For example, including counterarguments signals your professionalism and fair treatment of the subject (ethos), but it is also a logical way to present a subject.

Additionally, excessive use of any of the three appeals could weaken your argument.

  • Relying too heavily on emotions may lead to logical fallacies, such as the appeal to emotion fallacy, or cause the audience to feel manipulated.
  • Overly dry and factual presentations may fail to connect with an audience’s emotions, values, and beliefs, whereas too much appeal to ethos can lead to skepticism and distrust.


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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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