2.F: Rhetoric & its Principles (a review)

Review of Rhetoric, the Rhetorical Situation, & Rhetorical Appeals

In the chapter about critical reading, one section discussed “reading as a rhetorical tool” which means that when people read texts, they open themselves up to the ideas that are being presented.  Readers form a relationship with the text in order to be persuaded by it.

In its simplest form, RHETORIC is the art of persuasion. Every time someone writes, she engages in argument. Through writing and speaking, she tries to persuade and influence her readers, either directly or indirectly. She works to get them to change their minds, to do something, or to begin thinking in new ways. Therefore, every writer needs to know and be able to use principles of rhetoric.

Writing is about making choices, and knowing the principles of rhetoric allows a writer to make informed choices about various aspects of the writing process. Every act of writing takes places in a specific RHETORICAL SITUATIONwhich is a situation or circumstance in which someone (a writer or speaker) must persuade an audience to do something, to change their minds, to influence them, etc.

The three most basic and important components of a rhetorical situations are

  • Purpose of writing or rhetorical aim (goal writer is trying to achieve or argument writer is trying to make)
  • Intended audience
  • Writer/Speaker

The three elements of the rhetorical situation are in a constant and dynamic interrelation. All three are also necessary for communication through writing to take place. For example, if the writer is taken out of this equation, the text will not be created. Similarly, eliminating the text itself will leave the reader and writer, but without any means of conveying ideas between them, and so on.

Other components of the rhetorical situation include

  • the medium (the form of communication)
  • time of message (how much time does writer have? appropriate time to persuade?)
  • political, social, or cultural implications, place, etc.

All writing (or speaking) that is persuasive comes from a source of urgency or EXIGENCE – – a need to communicate the message.

For example, let’s say Fred (the speaker) is hungry, but he doesn’t want to go to lunch alone. So due to his hunger (his exigence), he searches for Mildred (his audience). He tries to persuade Mildred by offering to pay. She accepts… His message is successful! YAY, FRED!

As we see in this example with Fred and Mildred, Fred offers to pay. This monetary offer is his RHETORICAL STRATEGY– his way or means to effectively and successfully appeal to Mildred.  RHETORICAL STRATEGIES are the means or devices that speakers/writers use to appeal to their audience.

These strategies, also known as devices or appeals, play a role Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric:  the art of persuasion and discovering of all the available means to persuade one’s audience


Rhetorical Appeals

As stated above, RHETORICAL STRATEGIES are used to persuade an audience; these strategies are linked directly to three types of proofs or rhetorical appeals. They are LOGOS, or logical appeal; PATHOS, or emotional appeal; and ETHOS, or ethical appeal, or appeal based on the character and credibility of the author. It is easy to notice that modern words “logical,” “pathetic,” and “ethical” are derived from those Greek words. In his work Rhetoric, Aristotle writes that the three appeals must be used together in every piece of persuasive discourse. An argument based on the appeal to logic or emotions alone will not be an effective one.

Understanding how logos, pathos, and ethos should work together is very important for writers who use research. Often, research writing assignments are written in a way that seem to emphasize logical proofs over emotional or ethical ones. Such logical proofs in research papers typically consist of factual information, statistics, examples, and other similar evidence. According to this view, writers of academic papers need to be unbiased and objective, and using logical proofs will help them to be that way.

Because of this emphasis on logical proofs, writers may be less familiar with the kinds of pathetic and ethical proofs available. Pathetic appeals, or appeals to emotions of the audience were considered by ancient rhetoricians as important as logical proofs. Yet, writers are sometimes not easily convinced to use pathetic appeals in their writing. As modern rhetoricians and authors of the influential book Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student (1998), Edward P.J. Corbett and Robert Connors said, “People are rather sheepish about acknowledging that their opinions can be affected by their emotions” (86). According to Corbett, many of us think that there may be something wrong about using emotions in argument. But pathetic proofs are not only admissible in argument, but necessary (86-89). The most basic way of evoking appropriate emotional responses in an audience, according to Corbett, is the use of vivid descriptions (94).

Using ethical appeals, or appeals based on the character of the writer, involves establishing and maintaining your credibility in the eyes of your readers. In other words, writers must think about how they are presenting themselves to their audience. Readers must trust the writer’s argument. (Consider all the times when your decision about the merits of a given argument was affected by the person or people making the argument. For example, when watching television news, are you predisposed against certain cable networks and more inclined towards others because you trust them more?)

So, how can a writer establish a credible persona for his or her audience? One way to do that is through external research. Conducting research and using factual proofs (logos) is effective, but it also shows readers that the author has done homework and knows about the topic. This knowledge, the sense of authority, helps writers be more effective.

The logical, pathetic, and ethical appeals work in a dynamic combination with one another. It is sometimes hard to separate one kind of proof from another and the methods by which the writer achieved the desired rhetorical effect. For example, if a writer uses data, which are likely to cause readers to be emotional, the data can enhance the pathetic aspect of the argument. The key to using the three appeals, is to use them in combination with each other, and in moderation. It is impossible to construct a successful argument by relying too much on one or two appeals while neglecting the others.


How to Approach Writing Tasks Rhetorically

In his discussion of rhetoric, Aristotle states that writing’s primary purpose is persuasion. Other ancient rhetoricians’ theories expand the scope of rhetoric by adding new definitions, purposes, and methods. For example, another Greek philosopher and rhetorician Plato saw rhetoric as a means of discovering the truth, including personal truth, through dialog and discussion. According to Plato, rhetoric can be directed outward (at readers or listeners), or inward (at the writer him or herself). In the latter case, the purpose of rhetoric is to help the author discover something important about his or her own experience and life.

The third major rhetorical school of Ancient Greece whose views have profoundly influenced our understanding of rhetoric were the Sophists. The Sophists were teachers of rhetoric for hire. The primary goal of their activities was to teach skills and strategies for effective speaking and writing. Many Sophists claimed that they could make anyone into an effective rhetorician. In their most extreme variety, Sophistic rhetoric claims that virtually anything could be proven if the rhetorician has the right skills. The legacy of Sophistic rhetoric is controversial. Some scholars, including Plato himself, have accused the Sophists of bending ethical standards in order to achieve their goals, while others have praised them for promoting democracy and civic participation through argumentative discourse.

What do these various definitions of rhetoric have to do with research writing? Everything!  For example, if you have ever had trouble with a writing assignment, chances are it was because you could not figure out the assignment’s purpose. Or, perhaps you did not understand very well whom your writing was supposed to appeal to. It is hard to commit to purposeless writing done for no one in particular.


Good writing always serves a purpose. Texts are created to persuade, entertain, inform, instruct, and so on. In a real writing situation, these discrete purposes are often combined.

Application Exercise

Writing Activity: Analyzing Purpose

Recall any text you wrote, in or outside of school. Think not only of school papers, but also of letters to relatives and friends, e-mails, shopping lists, online postings, and so on. Consider the following questions & write a response to them for discussion.

  • Was the purpose of the writing well defined for you in the assignment, or did you have to define it yourself?
  • What did you have to do in order to understand or create your purpose?
  • Did you have trouble articulating and fulfilling your writing purpose?



The second key element of the rhetorical approach to writing is audience-awareness. Readers are an indispensable part of the rhetorical equation, and it is essential for every writer to understand their audience and tailor his or her message to the audience’s needs.

The key principles that every writer needs to follow in order to reach and affect his or her audience are as follows:

  • Have a clear idea about who the readers will be.
  • Understand the readers’ previous experiences, knowledge, biases, and expectations and how these factors can influence their reception of the argument.
  • When writing, keep in mind not only those readers who are physically present or whom you know AND all readers who would benefit from or be influenced by the argument
  • Choose a style, tone, and medium of presentation appropriate for the intended audience.

Application Exercise

Writing Activity: Analyzing Audience
Every writer needs to consider his or her audience carefully when writing. Otherwise, you writing will be directed at no one in particular. As a result, your purpose will become unclear and your work will lose its effectiveness.

Identify any recent writing task that you faced. (You may consider the writing task you applied in the first exercise.) As with all the exploration activities included in this chapter, do not limit yourself to school writing assignments. Include letters, e-mails, notes, and any other kinds of writing you may do. Consider the following questions & write a response to them for discussion.

  • Did you have a clearly defined audience?
  • If not, what measures did you take to define and understand your audience?
  • How did you know who your readers were?
  • Did your writing purpose fit what your intended audience needed or wanted to hear?
  • What were the best ways to appeal to your audience (both logical and emotional)?
  • How did your decision to use or not to use external research influence the reception of your argument by your audience?




Exigence, or the need to convey a message, is an important part of the rhetorical situation. It is a part of the writing context that was mentioned earlier in the chapter. Writers do not work in a vacuum. Instead, the content, form and reception of their work by readers are heavily influenced by the conditions in society as well as by personal situations of their readers. These conditions in which texts are created and read affect every aspect of writing and every stage of the writing process, from topic selection, to decisions about what kinds of arguments used and their arrangement, to the writing style, voice, and persona which the writer wishes to project in his or her writing.

Exigence plays a role when student writers develop a topic or research question for an essay. Any topic can be good or bad.  In order to understand whether a particular topic is suitable for a composition, it is useful to analyze whether the composition would address an issue or a rhetorical exigency when created. The writing activity below can help you select topics and issues for written arguments.

Application Exercise

Writing Activity: Analyzing Rhetorical Exigency

Consider the following questions & write a response to them for discussion.

  • If you are considering a topic for a paper, think whether the paper would address a specific problem or issue. In other words, will it address a real exigency, something that needs to be solved or discussed?
  • Who are the people with interests and stakes in the problem?
  • What are your limitations? Can you hope to solve the problem once and for all, or should your goals be more modest? Why or why not?



To understand how writers can study and use exigence in order to make effective arguments, let us examine another ancient rhetorical concept. Kairos is one of the most fascinating terms from classical rhetoric. It signifies the right or opportune moment for an argument to be made. It is such a moment or time when the subject of the argument is particularly urgent or important and when audiences are more likely to be persuaded by it. Ancient rhetoricians believed that if the moment for the argument is right, for instance if there are conditions in society which would make the audience more receptive to the argument, the rhetorician would have more success persuading such an audience.

For example, the war on terrorism has been an important issue over last several years, and this issue was one of the many topics of discussion during the presidential election. Both candidates presented different options to defeat terrorism. This topic continues to be of high public interest, with members of print media, television, radio, and the Internet constantly discussing them. Because there is an enormous public interest in the topic of terrorism, well-written articles and reports on the subject will not fall on deaf ears. Simply put, the moment, or occasion, for the discussion is right, and it will continue until public interest in the subject weakens or disappears.



In this section, we have learned the definition of rhetoric and the basic differences between several important rhetorical schools. We have also discussed how to key elements of the rhetorical situation: purpose, audience, and context. The information provided in this section is applicable to all research writing projects: those assigned in school and those completed for a business. Most school writing assignments provide direct instructions about purpose, intended audience, and rhetorical occasion. Truly proficient and independent writers, however, learn to define their purpose, audiences, and contexts of their writing, on their own. The material in this chapter is designed to enable to become better at those tasks.

The material of this chapter as well as the writing projects assigned for this course are designed to help students think of writing as a persuasive, rhetorical activity. Conducting research and incorporating its results into papers are a part of this rhetorical process.


Aristotle. “Rhetoric.” Aristotle’s Rhetoric. June 21, 2004. http://www.public.iastate.edu/~honeyl/Rhetoric/. April 21, 2008.

Clinton, Hillary. “Scranton.” Youtube. April 7, 2008. http://youtube.com/watch?v=uCQBYsoo_mc. April 21, 2008.

CNN. “N. Korea Talks On Despite Rhetoric.” CNN.com. August 3, 2003. http://www.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/asiapcf/east/08/03/nkorea.talks/index.html…. April 21, 2008.

Corbett, Edward, P.J and Connors, Robert. Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. Oxford University Press, USA; 4 edition, 1998.

Fritz, Ben et al. “About Spinsanity.” Spinsanity. 2001-2005. http://www.spinsanity.org. April 21, 2008.

Obama, Barack. “One Voice.” Youtube. April 8, 2008. http://youtube.com/watch?v=AO_TfQ6hiXk. April 21, 2008.

Papakyriakou/Anagnostou, Ellen. Kairos. Ancient Greek Cities. 1998. http://www.sikyon.com/sicyon/Lysippos/lysip_kairos.jpg. April 21, 2008.

Rouzie, Albert. “The Rhetorical Triangle.” Rhetoric Resources. 1998. http://www-as.phy.ohiou.edu/~rouzie/fall151/rhetriang.gif. April 21, 2008.

wafer157. “Obama Rhetoric.” Youtube. February 27, 2008. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O6hdQtVGV_A. April 21, 2008.