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Dr. Karen Palmer

The Rhetorical Situation

Having a clear understanding of the purpose, audience, and authorial stance when writing is vital for effective communication. The art of effective communication is an ancient one. In fact, people have been studying how to communicate effectively since the time of the ancient Greeks! The study of the art of communication is called Rhetoric.

Aristotle writing decorative
Aristotle Image in the Public Domain
Aristotle, a Greek scholar, teacher, and philosopher, taught his students how to practice the art of speaking well. He believed that, in order to be effective, a speaker must carefully consider the situation–the audience and the purpose, as well as the presentation of the speaker!

When we talk about writing or communicating well in terms of rhetoric, what we mean is thinking carefully about not just what we are saying, but how we say it. Most people use rhetoric instinctively to communicate with different audiences. For example, imagine that you’re telling a story about something that happened over Spring Break. Without even thinking about it, you will likely tell the story differently to your mom and to your best friend. You might emphasize different people or events or leave out the things that you know might interest one party but not the other (or that might get you in trouble). Remembering that rhetoric is something that you already use all the time helps to alleviate any stress about how to use it.

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Communication Types” by zeeshan93 licensed CC-SA 4.0

Purpose is what an argument hopes to achieve. Most communication occurs because something needs to happen. Writers must think about what they want their readers to do once they’ve read the message. If a person purchases a t-shirt with a logo or slogan, the purpose might be to show support for that brand. It’s telling your audience—the people who look at your shirt—to think about you a certain way. If someone wears a Yavapai College T-shirt, they are telling their audience that they go to YC and are proud of it! So, whenever you write, think about the purpose. What is the end result you are hoping to achieve? What do you want the reader to do with what you’re telling them? The best writing will always have a clear purpose.

A writer’s purpose is very often related to the audience. The audience consists of the specific person or group or groups of people for whom the message is intended. Knowing and understanding the audience is vital for successful communication and accomplishing the purpose. In an academic setting, many students think of their instructor as their audience. However, while your instructor is grading your papers, the message or the purpose should not be related to your instructor. Your instructor is grading how effective you are at getting your message across to your intended audience–NOT necessarily to them. If you are not given a specific audience, or you aren’t sure, a good solution is to write for an audience of your peers. This allows you to define your audience, which will help you to craft papers that are more interesting, not only for you to write and your audience to read, but also for your secondary audience–your instructor!

The final element of our rhetorical situation is the author. The position and the persona of the author may seem unimportant. However, the writer is always in the text, and how an author portrays him/herself can be very important in getting the message across. How you portray yourself in a text is important! After all, most writers want to be taken seriously. When you’re writing an academic paper, you want to present yourself as a credible source of information. What does that mean? In part, it means using proper grammar and formatting and making sure your words are spelled correctly. Doing these things show the audience that you are serious about the topic and professional. Using good sources and citing them correctly, giving examples, and showing that you understand all sides of an issue tells readers that you are knowledgeable and that you can be trusted. If you don’t portray yourself well in your writing, your message may not be taken seriously–even worse, it may turn your audience against you.

When writing, it’s important to think about not just what you have to say, but how you say it. And how you say it should be determined by a careful examination of your purpose, audience, and the persona you want to project as a writer.

The Rhetorical Appeals

The rhetorical appeals of logos, pathos, and ethos go hand in hand with the Rhetorical Situation and make up what is called the Rhetorical Triangle. The ancient Greek scholar Aristotle believed that an argument would not be successful without the skillful use of all three rhetorical appeals.

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Image by ChloeGui licensed under CC SA 4.0.

The rhetorical appeals connect the purpose to the audience and are necessary in some fashion for a good argument. An argument that only appeals to logic but lacks emotion, for example, will not move readers to action. An argument that has great logic and emotion, but presents the author as a shady character is not going to be persuasive, either. It’s only when the three appeals work in harmony that the most effective arguments are created.

Appeal to Logic (logos)

Logos is the rhetorical appeal based on facts and reason. Evidence and statistics strengthen logical arguments, which can be based on hard evidence or on reason and common sense.

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Genomic Fun Facts” by Genomics Education Program licensed CC BY 2.0.

Every reason in the paper should be supported by at least one piece of hard evidence. If a reason listed in the paper cannot be supported by evidence, it is considered personal opinion. Personal opinion is valuable in many writing situations, but it is not helpful in argument, where the readers expect the author to offer proof, rather than assumption. Evidence includes facts, statistics, surveys, polls, studies, testimonies, narratives, and interviews.

Appeals to Emotion (Pathos)

While logos appeals may convince an audience, it is the pathos appeals that move the audience to action through emotions–anger, sadness, fear, joy, etc. A writer might appeal to a reader’s emotions by telling a story, painting a picture, or using loaded language. Pathos is powerful, but can be difficult to use.

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Emotions can be used to establish a bond between writer and reader. Arguments expressed in emotional terms that readers can relate to can create strong reactions. Using personal experience to communicate hardship, pain, joy, faith, or any other emotion often allows the reader to empathize more fully with the goals of an argument. Some emotions, however, may work in the opposite way. Emotions such as rage, pity, or aggression may turn readers away. Some tactics for incorporating pathos in your writing include telling a story, using vivid description, and choosing words carefully.

Appeal to Character (Ethos)

An appeal to ethos ( the author’s character) establishes a speaker’s credibility.  Ethical appeals convey honesty and authority. Appeals to character answer the questions, “What does this person know about the subject?” and “Why should I pay attention?” To seem credible sometimes means to admit limitations. Honesty and likeability are important characteristics used to persuade. Your character is established through your use of good support, through documenting your sources, through your tone, and through your background.

It will be almost impossible to convince all readers in all contexts. However, by paying careful attention to the ways you use the rhetorical appeals, you will be more likely to succeed in your goals.

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                                 Image created by Dr. Karen Palmer and licensed under CC BY NC SA.

Thinking Rhetorically

The habit of thinking rhetorically starts with being comfortable enough with the rhetorical triangle to see it in practically every form of communication you produce and consume—not only those you encounter in academic settings but also those you encounter in everyday life.

Exercise 1

1. Choose any piece of communication–a textbook, a newscast, an advertisement, an e-mail, a social media post. How do the rhetorical choices made in the communication increase/decrease its effectiveness?


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Basics of Rhetoric Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Karen Palmer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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