GUIDE – What is rhetoric?


At its heart, rhetoric is the study of how knowledge is created and shared through communication practices that include reading, writing, and speaking. Rhetoric gives us the tools we need to study these communication practices so that we better understand how and why we respond to certain messages as well as how to design messages that our own readers will respond to. In other words, rhetoric is the study of persuasion: how we are persuaded to believe what we believe and how we can persuade others to share our beliefs.

One key concept in rhetoric is the rhetorical situation, which refers to the factors that influence the creation of a message. The rhetorical situation includes the author’s background and purpose for writing, the genre of the message, the nature of the publication the author was writing for, the intended audience, and the motivating occasion for writing the message at this particular time. Taking the time to study the rhetorical situation helps readers better understand a message in context.

Another key concept in rhetoric is that the persuasiveness of a message depends to a large extent on its use of the rhetorical appeals of ethos, pathos, and logos. Ethos refers to the author’s credibility, and an author can appeal to ethos by being fair to all sides and demonstrating knowledge of the subject. Pathos refers to the imagination and emotions, and shares the same root word as empathy. An author can appeal to pathos by encouraging readers to have empathy with a subject. Logos refers to logic and evidence, and an author can appeal to logos by being logical, using valid reasons to support a thesis, and offering sound evidence to support each reason.

When we study the rhetorical situation and the rhetorical appeals of a message, we are engaging in rhetorical analysis, which helps us to become more critical and careful readers of messages. Being a more critical and careful reader will help you avoid being taken in by faulty information or shady persuasive tactics, but it will also help you identify strategies you can use to strengthen the persuasive appeal of your own writing.