Basic Rhetorical Modes

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle had a huge impact on how Western culture approaches rhetoric. He defined rhetoric as “An ability, in each particular case, to see the available means of persuasion.”1 For a long time after this, the term rhetoric was essentially understood to mean the art of persuasion, but, in recent years in academia, the word has evolved to mean any situation where people intentionally communicate with each other. 

Basic Rhetorical Modes Basic Rhetorical Modes

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    Because, naturally, every person has a different perspective on the world, there are a number of ways to go about effectively communicating ideas with one another, known as basic rhetorical modes.

    Basic Rhetorical Modes: Definition

    It is important to understand the definition of rhetorical modes. Rhetorical modes are a way of organizing spoken and written communication so that the audience is impacted most effectively. Rhetorical modes are also known as patterns of organization because they often happen naturally during discourse as a way to create a natural pattern of discussion and/or argument.

    For example, if you were asked right now to explain your favorite movie, you might start by classifying it as an action-adventure movie. Then, you might give examples of some of the more action-packed scenes to make the point that it is a good action-adventure movie.

    You wouldn’t need a course on how to explain your favorite movie; you would just naturally know the most logical and impactful way to go about it. These tools of communication, or rhetorical modes, can also be used in a systematic way to craft essays and other academic writing.

    Basic rhetorical modes can be used together in a single piece of writing to develop an idea.

    As there is no one rhetorical mode to rule them all, there are multiple ways to correctly develop an argument or conversation.

    Types of Basic Rhetorical Modes

    The four most commonly used rhetorical modes are classification, illustration (or exemplification), comparison and contrast, and analogy.

    These are the basic rhetorical modes, and as they are a ready-made approach to an essay or argument, they are extremely useful tools to a writer and/or speaker. Once you master these basic rhetorical modes, you can use them to outline your discourse in any setting.


    This is a useful approach that groups like items together to show how they relate to each other within the group. Once you have grouped items together, you can then discuss how they interact with each other, even using comparison and contrast to further develop an idea.

    To help make your point about why the action-adventure movie you chose is your favorite, you might give some context on the action-adventure genre and explain how your movie stands out as different from (or better than) the rest.

    Comparison and Contrast

    Comparison is the process of finding similarities between two or more things, and contrast is simply the inverse, meaning it identifies the differences between things. This rhetorical mode is so useful that it is often used as a part of arguments using other rhetorical modes.

    You might use comparison to show the similarities between your favorite movie and another movie that is widely adored and has won a lot of awards. By showing how your favorite is similar to the movie that is already established as great, you can help your audience understand why you like it so much and maybe even get them to share your point of view.

    Illustration (or Exemplification)

    The rhetorical mode of illustration (also known as exemplification) uses detailed examples to make abstract ideas more concrete or general ideas more specific.

    This rhetorical tool does more than simply describe something or narrate a series of events; it can turn the object of discussion into a symbol or an idea. You could simply narrate a story of drug abuse, but you may like to make the point that it is representative of a societal problem.

    You might use this rhetorical mode by sharing a specific scene that you feel best represents why your favorite action-adventure movie is a great movie. This example becomes a symbol of your argument because it uses specific details to make your general argument.


    The last of the basic rhetorical modes is analogy, which is the process of comparing two seemingly unrelated things to highlight the characteristics they share. Analogy is best used in a situation where you’d like to explain something highly complex or unfamiliar to the audience.

    The analogy needs to be between the unknown term or idea and something that is more commonly known, so the audience can make the connection and come to understand the new thing better.

    Perhaps one of your favorite things about the movie you're championing is the complex storyline about time travel, but your audience doesn’t get it. You could try using the analogy of a typical public school schedule (for example, going to different classes throughout the day but beginning and ending in homeroom) to explain how time works in the movie.

    These two concepts (time travel and class schedules) appear to be completely unrelated. But, by using an example that your audience knows (how classes and homeroom work), you are able to help them understand the complex idea of time travel in the movie.

    More Basic Rhetorical Modes Examples

    Until now, you have seen a single example of explaining a favorite movie to illustrate the four basic rhetorical modes. Below are more in-depth examples to show how each mode truly operates.

    Basic Rhetorical Modes Classification StudySmarterClassification with notes.

    Classification Example

    Read the following example. Can you identify the classification?

    In a practical guide to transaction analysis titled I'm OK—You're OK, Thomas Anthony Harris explained that everyone assumes one of four psychological positions that will determine how we relate to one another:2

    • Type one is called “I’m OK, you’re OK." People of this type tend to engage in constructive relationships with others because they have high regard for themselves as well as other people: they feel that they are alright and everyone else is alright too.
    • Type two is called “I’m OK, you’re not OK.” People of this type tend to feel superiority as they think they are doing better than everyone else.
    • Type three is called “I’m not OK, you’re OK.” People of this type tend to think very lowly of themselves and highly of everyone else. This results in a person with a depressed outlook on life and relationships.
    • Type four is called “I’m not OK, you’re not OK.” People of this type tend to have a hopeless outlook on life and usually, therefore, give up on connecting with others.

    Classification works well as a rhetorical mode because grouping the psychological dispositions helps the audience to understand how they interact with and differ from each other. It would be simple to expand the discussion here about the differences and similarities found in people of these psychological positions and how that information can be applied to a larger discussion about transactional analysis.

    Illustration / Exemplification Example

    Read the following example. Can you identify the illustration/exemplification?

    Many people living in Western society in the twenty-first century are proud of the technological advances of the last twenty years, but technology often comes at a cost. Consider cell phones. Nearly every adult has one, meaning they have the ability to contact just about anyone else and use it for other things like a camera, a computer, or even a tape measure (with the right apps). But, cell phones can also be used at inappropriate times, resulting in disengaged members of society at best and dangerously disconnected drivers and/or caretakers at worst.

    You can easily see the use of illustration as a rhetorical mode here with the use of the phrase “consider.” Cell phones are used as an example of how technology has advanced seemingly to our benefit, but also at the expense of our focus.

    Analogy Example

    Read the following example. Can you identify the analogy?

    Photosynthesis is the process of a plant or organism absorbing light and turning it into chemical energy. This process does for plants what the process of digesting food does for people; it lets them convert nutrients into fuel that is necessary for growth and development.

    The above analogy works because it takes the complex concept of photosynthesis and compares it to the more familiar process of people digesting food. These two are not scientifically the same process at all. But, the audience is more likely to understand how food is turned into fuel in the human body (because it happens to them every day) and will be able to use that knowledge to better understand photosynthesis.

    Basic Rhetorical Modes Comparison StudySmarterAn analogy can be like comparing apples and oranges.

    Why are Basic Rhetorical Modes Important?

    While there are other more complex rhetorical modes (narration, definition, and description, to name a few), the four basic rhetorical modes are arguably the most commonly used ways to develop an argument or make a point.

    You may be asked to write entire essays centered around one of these basic rhetorical modes.

    For example, with an understanding of how classification works to develop a line of reasoning, you’d be able to jump right into a complex essay assignment such as a classification essay explaining Freud’s concepts of Id, Ego, and Superego,

    Of course, this assignment is an exercise to test your understanding of the rhetorical modes, but more importantly, it helps you understand how to construct a thoughtful argument.

    Similarly, you may be asked to compose essays during timed exams, and having a knowledge of the basic rhetorical modes is like having a blueprint for a well-constructed essay. You are likely to breeze through the outlining stage if you use the concept of one of the rhetorical modes as a basis for your argument. It’s even likely that some multiple-choice questions could test your knowledge of how rhetorical modes operate, as well.

    Academic assignments aside, the four basic rhetorical modes will equip you with ready-made strategies to develop a solid line of thought. You can use them to discuss sensitive topics such as politics or simply to explain why The Terminator (1984) is the best movie of all time.

    Basic Rhetorical Modes - Key Takeaways

    • Rhetorical modes are a way of organizing spoken or written communication so the audience is impacted most effectively.
    • There are four basic rhetorical modes: classification, illustration/exemplification, comparison/contrast, and analogy.
    • Rhetorical modes are a ready-made way to develop an argument.
    • Many essays and exams require the use of basic rhetorical modes.
    • Rhetorical modes are also called patterns of organization.

    1 Aristotle. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. 2nd ed. Trans. George A. Kennedy. Oxford UP. 2007.

    2 Thomas Anthony, I'm OK—You're OK. 1967.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Basic Rhetorical Modes

    What is the meaning of basic rhetorical modes?

    The term "basic rhetorical mode" refers to one of the four most commonly used rhetorical modes, or ways to develop an argument or conversation. 

    What are the different types of basic rhetorical modes?

    The different types of rhetorical modes are: Classification, illustration/ exemplification, analogy, and comparison/ contrast.

    What do rhetorical modes do?

    Rhetorical modes organize communication so that the audience is impacted most effectively. 

    What is the classification rhetorical style?

    The classification rhetorical style is an approach that groups like items together to show how they relate to each other within the group.

    What is the illustration or exemplification rhetorical style?

    The illustration rhetorical style, also know as exemplification rhetorical style, uses detailed examples to make abstract ideas more concrete or general ideas more specific.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Is this an example of analogy, simile, or metaphor?"Time is money."

    Is this an example of analogy, simile, or metaphor?"Bye bye, Lil' Sebastian,you're 5,000 candles in the wind."- Parks and Recreation (2009)

    Is this an example of analogy, simile, or metaphor?"I'm just like my country,I'm young, scrappy, and hungry."- Hamilton (2015)

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