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English

We make choices when deciding to write something, whether we’re aware of them or not. Everything you read and listen to – a novel, a news article, a podcast – is peppered with rhetoric. In all forms of communication, you have an underlying message to understand.

Picture the writing you consume each day. You’re probably seeing social media posts, scholastic material, books, articles, blogs, and the list goes on. Given how much we consume, it’s beneficial to understand the purpose behind that content and the rhetoric used.

Rhetoric [+] Rhetoric has Power [+] StudySmarterRhetoric has Power, Pixabay

What is Rhetoric?

Rhetoric is any word choice a communicator makes to persuade the intended audience.

Rhetoric is at the heart of effective communication. As a writer or speaker, you will be making choices -- using rhetoric -- that has an intended effect on your audience. Understanding rhetoric can help you know which choices will be best.

The concept of rhetoric dates back to the Greeks when Aristotle came up with three modes that can be used to convince someone to do something. These are known as Aristotle's Rhetorical Appeals -- they are pathos, logos, and ethos. We’ll go over these below, but first, picture your own experiences with writing.

Rhetoric [+] Aristotle and Rhetoric [+] StudySmarterAristotle's appeals help you to effectively persuade, Pixabay

What is your thought process before and while you are writing? What do you hope your audience will do with the information you give your audience? Do you want your audience to learn something, feel a certain way, or take action?

Rhetoric is about understanding your target audience. Knowing your audience is essential because it allows you to decide how to write something based on the particular audience and particular situation – this is what we call the rhetorical situation.

Rhetoric and Rhetorical Situations

A rhetorical situation is a circumstance, timing, or location that can influence a piece of writing. In other words, what is the background context of the rhetoric being given to the audience? To understand the rhetoric involved, you’ll need to identify the context first. Where is this situation between the writer and audience taking place? This doesn’t always mean the physical location, but it’s a helpful identifier. What is the event or issue at hand, and when and where will it be addressed? Also, notice how the writer might have to adjust their message depending on the situation.

Rhetoric and the Target Audience

Let’s look at some different situations you might encounter when you’re trying to understand the audience.

You are sending a private text to a friend

  • You have one audience member

  • You are close with them

  • You might not think about grammar

  • It’s a text about a personal life story

Rhetoric [+] Texting a Friend [+] StudySmarterThe message you send will be different based on who you send it to and your relationship to them, Pixabay

You are sending a private message to a boss

  • One audience member

  • Professional relationship

  • Messages are related to work

Rhetoric [+] Boss Reading Text [+] StudySmarterMost likely, you will use more professional wording when relaying a message to your boss than a message to your friend, Pixabay

Notice the potential differences between those two situations. When sending a text to a friend, you might feel like there is a low risk that an outside party will be reading your messages at some point -- this allows you to be unfiltered when speaking to a friend. However, in a work environment, your messages may need to be read by someone else, like your boss's boss, at some point. You would change your tone of voice and choose your words carefully when texting your boss because that’s what the target audience needs.

A key thing to remember is that the situation will influence your rhetorical choices and how you use them. Keep this in mind when figuring out how each rhetorical situation affects your own writing and rhetoric choices.

A rhetorical choice is what tools you, the writer or speaker, decide to use when composing something (an essay, speech, etc.). Your rhetorical choices will change based on what you decide is needed for the rhetorical situation -- what does your audience need, and what can you use to communicate with your audience more effectively?

Here are some questions you can ask yourself to identify the rhetorical situation before writing.

  • Who is in my audience?
    • Is it my teacher?
    • Is it a small or large crowd?
    • What are the needs of the crowd?
  • Where is this situation taking place?
    • Is it a speech in front of a group?
    • Is it in a classroom?
    • Will it be posted online?
  • What is the purpose of this paper/speech?
    • Am I trying to convince my audience to do something?
    • Am I trying to educate my audience?
    • Is it a paper for just one or for more people to read?

Here are some rhetorical choices you might question once you identify the rhetorical situation.

  • How should I start this text/speech?
    • Would using jokes work with my audience?
    • Would a quote work best?
  • What should my tone of voice be?
    • Should I be loud and assertive?
    • Should I present facts over emotion?

Rhetorical Analysis

After identifying the rhetorical situation and making some rhetorical choices, you could conduct a rhetorical analysis. A rhetorical analysis is an essay where you identify and break down each element of rhetoric within that writing and examine if those elements were useful in persuading the audience. A rhetorical analysis aims to explain the what, how, and why those rhetorical choices will affect the audience.

You will probably have to write or have already written a rhetorical analysis essay. An essay might be the standard for rhetorical analysis, but it isn’t the only method. A rhetorical analysis could be presented on a video, a podcast, or in some other writing format besides an essay. Whatever the mode being used in a rhetorical analysis, here’s how you can analyze it for any rhetoric that might be used:

  1. Identify the rhetorical situation. Remember to ask yourself where the situation is, the context behind the situation, and what the audience is looking for from the writer.

  2. Identify the choices made by the writer. You can start by asking yourself how the writer is addressing the audience. Is the writer giving lots of emotions, or are they relying on facts and data to present information? What is the writer's tone of voice?

  3. Identify what the effects of those choices are. If the writer relies heavily on emotion, is that useful given the context of the situation? For example, would it be useful to write with a lot of emotion when explaining mathematical theories to mathematicians?

After you’ve looked at these three things, you can determine if the communication from the writer was effective. For example, if you listen to a politician giving a speech, you’ll know that the rhetorical situation will be them in front of a large crowd with the intention to persuade people to vote for them. Pay attention to various choices they make, such as the types of words used or the tone of voice. Then you can ask yourself if those choices are going to be effective for the target audience.

Rhetoric [+] Rhetoric in Politics [+] StudySmarterHow might the rhetoric change if a politician is speaker to voters versus to other politicians? Pixabay

Types of Rhetoric

When you're looking at what choices the writer is making when addressing their audience, you will look for the rhetorical devices they use. A rhetorical device is a language that is used to affect the audience. A writer can use figurative or metaphorical speech, repetitions, or tone of voice -- among other things -- to influence the audience one way or another.

A rhetorical device will come in several different forms. Three common types of rhetoric used are pathos, logos, and ethos, but there are others. These are all deliberate techniques used to get a specific message to the audience. Each device used evokes some response from the audience. They also aim to make the writer’s point compelling enough for the audience to change their mind or act on something.

Pathos

Pathos appeals to the empathy of a reader. By using pathos, you might get a reader to feel certain emotions like fear, anger, or sadness. Stories that utilize pathos can be personal experiences such as memoirs or testimonials. Using photos is a rhetorical device that is effective for evoking empathy. These devices are meant to appeal to the human side of a story. Stories about refugees or animal shelters often rely heavily on this tactic. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s possible that this tactic can be used as a negative form of rhetoric.

Rhetoric [+] Pathos Rhetoric Animal Shelter [+] StudySmarterAlways be aware of how you use rhetorical devices in your writing, Pixabay

Logos

This type of rhetoric is used for logical arguments and appeals to an audience’s reason. In this scenario, you’re trying to persuade someone with statistics and data. Logos might include charts and graphs to display information. Providing a heavily fact-based article is used to persuade people that their argument is strong. This type of rhetoric also tries to appeal to common sense or prove a point.

Rhetoric [+] Logos Rhetoric Charts [+] StudySmarterLogos will help the audience see the logic in your argument, Pixabay

Ethos

Ethos shows the credibility of the writer. For example, a writer might show their area of expertise by mentioning their degrees, employment history, any publications they’ve written, or hands-on experience. This information helps convey that they are qualified to talk about a topic.

After finishing my master’s degree in Environmental Science, I became more and more passionate about water rights and activism. After working on a toxic spill site for five years, I’ve realized that it’s not just a contamination problem; it’s a human rights problem and we all have a responsibility to do something about it.

The writer is using their degree in Environmental Science to show that they have the credentials to give an opinion about this issue. Presenting information that makes you more credible is a form of rhetoric that convinces people to trust you more easily.1

Think about ways you use this in everyday life. Say you need to write a resume for a job. You might list classes you’ve taken or any experience you’ve had to convince the employer that your credentials fit the bill. You can find ways to use each type of rhetoric daily.

Other Types of Rhetoric and Rhetorical Devices

There are many other types of rhetoric, but kairos, simile, and hyperbole are some of the popular ones that can be used.

Kairos

This type of rhetoric means that the writer must consider the timing. A writer should take into account when and in what context they will deliver information. A writer should also consider the appropriateness of the information being given. Is it the right time to deliver that particular message? For example, you could save a juicy tidbit of a story for the end of an article or use appropriate comedic timing in your speech.

Rhetoric [+] Kairos Timing Rhetoric [+] StudySmarterWhen you give information is just as important as what information you give, Pixabay

Simile

A simile is extremely common rhetorical device, and for a good reason. It draws a simple comparison between two unrelated things using “like” or “as”. Using a simile emphasizes something, making a subject interesting and descriptive.

His excitement was like a dog wanting to go for a walk.

Hyperbole

Hyperbole is a figure of speech that uses an exaggerated claim or story to get a reaction from the audience.

This rhetoric device is another popular one because it puts a strong emphasis on something. Hyperbole can add a shock factor to a piece of writing that draws in the audience, but it is not meant to be taken literally.

My computer is older than a dinosaur.

Different types of rhetoric motivate everyone differently. It’s important to understand what kind of rhetoric will inspire your audience.

Rhetoric and the Rhetorical Question

Another popular rhetorical device is the rhetorical question. A rhetorical question is a type of question that is usually a persuasive tool to get a reaction, but not an answer, from the audience.

Since rhetoric is used to persuade someone to do something, what can you persuade someone to do by asking a rhetorical question? This type of question is asked to prove a point, not to get an answer; asking a rhetorical question might spark a discussion. The critical point here is that the answer to the question is already in the question. It was merely asked for the effect of drawing attention to something.

Don’t you love when everyone is late for your party you spent hours planning?

The opposite is true in this case, but it was asked to point out that it’s annoying when people show up late.

Examples of Rhetoric

Rhetoric surrounds every day. When you open a book, click on a news article, or turn on the TV, rhetoric is there.

Every day, dozens of people become homeless. They are people just like you and me, and they need your help. Submit your donations online to help make a difference for even just one person!

What types of rhetoric do you see in this ad? Does it make you sad or make you want to help someone? Notice the phrasing. Saying that they are just like you appeals to that human connection and empathy. This is Pathos rhetoric.

Rhetoric [+] Rhetoric Example [+] StudySmarterRhetoric is more easily identifiable in political speeches, Pixabay

"I would never ruin this country, but your other candidate will! Trust me!"

This type of quote from a politician is designed to convince people that they should be scared of something happening. This is an example of how pathos can be used another way – invoking fear to get people to act.

Understanding rhetoric isn’t just important for things you may write in the future. It’s also important because it allows you to recognize when rhetoric is being used on you. Next time you’re reading a book or article online, see if you can notice some of the rhetoric used for you, the target audience. Did they achieve their goal?

Rhetoric - Key takeaways

  • Rhetoric is the choice a communicator makes to persuade the intended audience.
  • Types of rhetoric include pathos, logos, and ethos. These are rhetorical devices.
  • A rhetorical question isn’t asked to get an answer; it’s asked to prove a point.
  • A rhetorical situation is the circumstances surrounding an event, issue, and audience.
  • A rhetorical analysis identifies the rhetorical situation, the choices made by the writer, and the effects of those choices.

1. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Aristotle's Rhetoric, 2002

Frequently Asked Questions about Rhetoric

Rhetoric is any choice a communicator makes in an attempt to persuade the intended audience. 

A rhetorical analysis is where you identify the rhetorical situation, the choices made by the writer, and the effects of those choices.

An example of rhetoric is when a politician invokes certain emotions like fear in order to get their supporters to take action. Another example is when an ad about pets for adoption uses sad photos to make people want to care for or adopt the animals. 

Rhetorical devices are tools that are used to persuade an audience. Types of devices include pathos, logos, and ethos.

Rhetorical devices are important because they are useful tools that can persuade an audience to take some type of action.

Final Rhetoric Quiz

Question

What is rhetoric?

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Answer

Rhetoric is any choice a communicator makes in an attempt to persuade the intended audience.

Show question

Question

Name three common rhetorical devices.

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Answer

Pathos, logos, and ethos.

Show question

Question

Explain what a rhetorical situation is.

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Answer

A rhetorical situation identifies the audience and context of a situation.

Show question

Question

True or False

A rhetorical situation refers only to the location of the audience.

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Answer

False -- a rhetorical situation can refer to the context of a situation. This means who is in the audience is taken into consideration.

Show question

Question

True of False

A writer will have to adjust the message based on the target audience. 

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Answer

True -- a message should always be adjusted in order to effectively communicate with a target audience. 

Show question

Question

The rhetorical situation will influence your ____ 

Show answer

Answer

Rhetorical choices

Show question

Question

Which of these is not part of a rhetorical analysis?

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Answer

Ignoring rhetorical choices made by the writer because they they won't affect the analysis

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Question

What is the purpose of conducting a rhetorical analysis?

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Answer

A rhetorical analysis helps determine if communication has been effective.

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Question

Are tone of voice and word choice considered rhetorical choices?

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Answer

Yes -- these are some of the many rhetorical choices that can be used.

Show question

Question

What is pathos used for?

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Answer

Pathos appeals to the empathy of the reader.

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Question

What is ethos used for?

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Answer

Ethos appeals to the credibility of the writer.

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Question

What is logos used for?

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Answer

Logos appeals to reason. Factual information is presented using charts and data. 

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Question

Why is understanding rhetorical devices important?

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Answer

Different rhetorical devices appeal to different people. It's important to understand which devices could be used in any given situation. 

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Question

What is a rhetorical question?

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Answer

It is a question that serves only the purpose to prove a point, not get an answer.

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Question

What are some other rhetorical devices used besides pathos, logos, and ethos?

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Answer

Kairos is another one, which takes the timing of a situation into account. Similes and hyperbole are popular too because they place emphasis on something. 

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Question

What is denotation?

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Answer

the dictionary definition of a word

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What is connotation?

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Answer

The underlying meaning of a word and the emotional message behind it

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What is tone?

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Answer

Tone is an author's attitude toward a subject

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What is word choice?

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Answer

Word choice is the specific language and words chosen by they author to create meaning and convey attitude.

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