Introduction to Rhetoric

What Is Rhetoric?

Rhetoric is the art of testing ideas with people who share our questions. It involves not merely the language we use but all the decisions we make and how to communicate effectively with others.

Dictionary Definition:

From the American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000: (N) 1a. The art or study of using language effectively and persuasively. b. A treatise or book discussing this art. 2. Skill in using language effectively and persuasively. 3a. A style of speaking or writing, especially the language of a particular subject: fiery political rhetoric. b. Language that is elaborate, pretentious, insincere, or intellectually vacuous: His offers of compromise were mere rhetoric. 4. Verbal communication; discourse.

ETYMOLOGY: Middle English rethorik, from Old French rethorique, from Latin rhtoric, rhtorica, from Greek rhtorik (tekhne), rhetorical (art), feminine of rhtorikos, rhetorical, from rhtr, rhetor.

Rhetorical Strategy

An author’s rhetorical strategy is the series of decisions made to create the most effective, clear, and compelling text possible in a particular set of contexts. Authors, speakers, and artists make conscious and unconscious decisions to improve the effectiveness of communication. For example, in verbal communication we know there are tonal patterns that evoke sympathy from a friend or parent. Employing a vocal pattern might be a conscious or unconscious choice. When we write, we make similar choices to affect our readers, though they are often less obvious than in face-to-face communication.

The Rhetorical Triangle

We have seen various visual models for the rhetorical “event” ranging from a circular cycle to a multifaceted diamond. While we can always complicate an event with layers of analysis, starting with a basic triangle seems wise. Every written act of communication has a writer, reader, and the subject(s) that connects them via a text.

  • Rhetorical Triangle
    • Writer / Speaker
    • Reader / Listener
    • Subject via “The Text”

Rhetorical Situation

Everything we write exists in a series of situations. The moment we write is one situation, while the reading of a text might occur in a different situation. For example when you write a paper for school, things occur in a fairly limited context, constrained by time and place. But what if someone were to read the paper several decades into the future? The situation would be different because of changes in context.

When analyzing a work by its situation, we tend to shift the order in which elements of the communication act are analyzed. Generally, there is a topic that people are discussing in a broader context. A writer decides that this topic is important to him or her for a specific reason. The author wants some group of intended readers to act or think in a particular manner. In this model, the subject precedes the writer and the writer’s purpose precedes the selection of a specific set of readers.

  • Rhetorical Situation
    • Subject = Topic (thing or idea)
    • Writer/Speaker/Artist = Communicator
    • Communicator’s Purpose = Intent
    • Reader/Listener = Audience
    • Context
      • Occasion
      • Social / Institutional Forces
      • Conventions of style and form

Effective Rhetoric

For a work to be effective, does it need to result in the author’s desired action? Must the reader do or think what the author intended or can the work be considered successful regardless of the outcome? Some teachers insist that effective rhetoric possesses particular qualities, some of which are listed here:

  • Effective (Academic) Rhetorical Dialogue
    • Shared questions / Problem to resolve
    • Respectful
    • Logical
    • Consideration of different answers
    • Effective language

The problem with this theory is that being respectful and logical does not ensure successful activism. However, academic writing does adhere to these guidelines. An academic paper is a traditional work, following rules that students are expected to know and adhere to throughout their academic careers.

A Rhetorical Framework

There are several ways to evaluate the rhetorical choices of an author or artist. One of the methods is a simple five-part rhetorical framework. This framework is not definitive; it simplifies the analysis process for most students of writing.

Basic Framework

  • Subject: Topic or Theme
    • Usually an abstract concept in the humanities
      • Emotions: love, hate, compassion, etc.
      • Theories about human nature
    • A concrete, testable concept in the sciences
      • Changes in climate
      • Effectiveness of certain medicines
    • Questions you should answer:
      • Why is this subject important?
      • What is already known about the topic?
      • What doubts or prejudices exist?
  • Author: Writer, Speaker, Artist
    • A Persona
      • What is known about the writer?
      • What type of person seems to be writing this?
      • Why this persona?
    • Stance / Biases
      • What biases does the author express?
      • What position is the author taking? (pro/con/neutral)
  • Reader: Listener, Viewer, Audience, etc.
    • Who is the reader or audience?
    • Did the author select this audience?
      • Target audiences are common
      • Why choose this audience?
    • Predisposition of the audience
      • Receptive: Author giving reinforcement of biases
      • Resistant: Author attempting to change views
  • Purpose: Authorial Intent
    • Explore, Imagine, Question, Understand
    • Challenge, Criticize
    • Informative: Teach, Present a Discovery
    • Ceremonial: Introduce, Entertain
    • Persuasive: Sell, Support, Persuade, Prove
  • Context: The Writing “Situation”
    • Historical moment: what is/was happening?
    • Social situation: group, community, state, nation?
      • Can be political, social, or academic group
      • Group members may not exist at the same time or in the same place
    • Context can dictate form / genre
      • Personal
        • Subjective (opinionated)
        • Flexible format
        • Descriptive
        • Reflective
      • Public
        • Authoritative
        • Explicit purpose
        • Predictable format / familiar genre
        • Information based
      • Academic
        • Focus is on the subject, not the writer
        • Rigid, standardized formats
        • Answers specific questions
        • Facts and evidence dominate

Analysis Chart

  As a Writer Ask... As a Reader Ask...
Subject What is the concrete subject / topic that best matches my purpose? What new information / opinions can I contribute on this topic? Why did the author choose this subject? What other texts exist on this subject?
Author How can I best appeal to the readers? What image will the reader have of me? Who wrote this text? What do I know about this person? (Consider background, biases, and previous works.)
Reader Who is my primary target audience? Who else might encounter the text? Are they receptive or resistant to the subject, genre, and purpose? Am I the intended reader? Who might want to read this? Who would avoid this work? How can I explain any reactions to this text and its topic or form?
Purpose What do I want to accomplish with this work? What do I want the reader to do or think? What are the author’s intentions? Am I going to act or think differently than I did in the past?
Context What are the events resulting in this text? In what situations will the text be read? What social, political, and historical forces influenced the author? What are the forces affecting me?



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Writer: C. S. Wyatt
Updated: 08-Mar-2017
Editor: S. D. Schnelbach