Rhetoric and Composition/What is Rhetoric

Rhetoric is the art of persuasion to motivate and influence people. Rhetoric can be thought of as the language you use to phrase your thoughts and ideas, and the forces that impact your choices. If you think about the different groups of people that you communicate with, you will see that you use different forms of rhetoric with each of them. You talk to your friends differently than you talk to your parents, your teachers, or your employers. Each group you associate with calls for a different form of language, of voice, of rhetoric to be used.


To do:
Should this page be merged into the existing chapter on argumentative writing? See discussion tab for other concerns.

Rhetoric fits into three distinct categories:

  • Pathos (Emotion based persuasion)
  • Ethos (Credibility behind the persuasion)
  • Logos (Logic based persuasion)

Pathos edit

Pathos can best be described as the use of emotional appeal to sway another's opinion in a rhetorical argument. Emotion itself should require no definition, but it should be noted that effective pathetic appeal (the use of pathos) is often used in ways that cause anger or sorrow in the minds and hearts of the audience.

Pathos is often the rhetorical vehicle of public service announcements. A number of anti-smoking and second hand smoking related commercials use pathos heavily. One of the more memorable shows an elderly man rising from the couch to meet his young grandson who, followed by the child's mother, is taking his first steps toward the grandfather. As the old man coaxes the young child forward, the grandfather begins to disappear. As the child walks through him the mother says "I wish your grandpa could see you now." The audience is left to assume that the grandfather has died, and an announcer informs us that cigarette smoke kills so many people a year, with a closing statement to the effect of "be there for the ones you love." This commercial uses powerful words (like "love") and images to get at the emotions of the viewer, encouraging them to quit smoking. The goal is for the audience to become so "enlightened" and emotionally moved that the smoking viewers never touch another cigarette.

Ethos edit

Ethos can be seen as the credibility that authors, writers, and speakers own when they present themselves in front of an audience. If on the first day of class, your professor walked in with a baseball cap turned backward, pants sagged down to their knees, and was picking their nose, how would you perceive that instructor? What would your view of the class be? How confident would you be that this person knows what they are talking about?

Ethos encompasses a large number of different things which can include what a person wears, says, the words they use, their tone of voice, their credentials, their experience, their charge over the audience, verbal and nonverbal behavior, criminal records, etc. At times, it can be as important to know who the person presenting the material is, as what they are saying about a topic.

Many companies, especially those big enough to afford famous spokespersons, will use celebrities in their ad campaigns in attempts to sell their products. Certain soft drink companies have used the likes of Ray Charles, Madonna, and Britney Spears to sell their products, and been successful in doing so. The thing you need to ask yourself is: what do these celebrities add to the product other than their fame?

Often times ads for medical products or even chewing gums might say that four out of five doctors/dentists recommend a certain product. Some commercials may even show a doctor in a white lab coat approving whatever is for sale. Now, provided that the person you are viewing is an actual doctor, this might be an example of a good ethos argument. On the other hand, if an automotive company uses a famous sports figure to endorse a product, we might wonder what that person knows about this product. The campaign and celebrity are not being used to inform the consumer, but rather catch their attention with what is actually a faulty example of ethos.

Similarly, one can imagine that you would not use a bald person to promote a product claiming to regrow hair, or a male to sell feminine hygiene products.

How does this apply to writing? To begin, if you are going to cite an article of racial equality published by the Ku Klux Klan, or a Neo-Nazi organization, this might send up a red flag that this particular article might be written from a biased viewpoint. You may always want to research an author to see if they have a background to claim what they are writing as truth. Also, if you are trying to present a formal paper project, you may want to increase your positive ethos by using appropriate terminology. Writing that "abortions are all whack and stuff" is probably not the best way to convince your audience of the point of your article. It may happen that you as a writer adopt different voices for different assignments, but the word choice and your approach to the assignment should reflect what it is you want to say.

Logos edit

Logos is most easily defined as the logical appeal of an argument. Say that you are writing a paper on immigration and you say "55,000 illegal immigrants entered this country last year, of those, only 23,000 did it legally." There is obviously something wrong here. Although saying that 55,000 immigrants were "illegal" makes for an impressive statistic, it is apparently not correct if you admit that 23,000 of these people immigrated legally. The actual number of illegal immigrants would then be only 32,000, a significantly lower number.

False facts like this one are one example of faulty logos. To look into the matter further, one needs to take a look at the two different types of logos and how they function. These two types are known as "deductive" and "inductive."

Deductive Logic edit

A deductive logical argument is one that works from the top to the bottom. It begins with what is known as a "major premise," adds a "minor premise," and attempts to reach a conclusion. A major premise is a statement that names something about a large group, a minor premise takes a single member, and the conclusion attempts to prove that because this single member is a part of the larger group, they must also have the trait named in the original statement. For example:

MEN ARE TALL - a major premise as it works with a large group of people
BOB IS A MAN - a minor premise as we hear about only one individual of that group
BOB IS TALL - we attempt to make a conclusion based upon what we have already been told

Now, if it is true that men are tall, and that Bob is a man, then we can safely infer that Bob must be tall. However, beware the logical fallacy. Though it may be true that in certain cultures men are, on average, taller than women, certainly this is not always the case. Being that our major premise is not altogether true, we can now say that this argument is flawed. Furthermore, we might ask what our definition of "tall" is. Tall is different if we are talking about the average population, or basketball players. Also, what is a man? Do transgender individuals count? We see that the problem becomes far more complex the more we look into it.

Inductive Logic edit

As some would argue that a deductive argument works from the top down, toward a conclusion, some comment that an inductive argument works from the bottom up. This is mildly misleading. What is meant by this is that an inductive logical argument begins with a firm affirmation of truth, a conclusive statement. By getting the audience to agree with this statement, the argument moves to the next "logical" step. It proceeds in this manner until the argument has led you from one seemingly reasonable conclusion to another that you may not have originally agreed with. Take the following as an example. Move through the argument slowly, making sure you understand and agree with each step in the process (and please forgive the religious content, you'll come to see it is irrelevant anyway).

Having seen this, some might say that the argument defeats Catholicism from an atheist standpoint. Others might find that it argues for the secularization of religion. Still, there are ways in which it supports Catholicism at the same time.

Though the argument might seem as if it is disagreeing with the Catholic religion, and some would agree that it is, we must always be looking for the logical fallacy. Upon closer inspection, you may notice that all this argument truly does, in one reading of the text, is to explain the complexity of God through the mind of a human. Catholicism has argued since the beginning that God is impossible to fully explain using the conceptions of man. In that way, this argument only supports that conclusion.

Be aware that there will be logic fallacies hidden in almost every argument. If there is more than one side to an argument, such as in religious or political debates, it is most likely because the argument is impossible to prove. Hence, there will be a logical fallacy present.

Common Logical Fallacies edit

Non Sequiturs
Latin for "does not follow"
Example: Luke wears glasses, so he is intelligent. - Note that glasses do not reflect someone's intelligence.
Red Herring
The premise is not relevant to the conclusion
Example: Our teacher should be fired. A teacher should be nice and never give any homework, and give everyone A+'s. These are values that tutors cannot uphold. - Logically, the teacher should not be a tutor.
False-Cause Fallacy
Because A happened before B, does not mean that B happened because of A.
Example: Since Mrs. Smith took over the orchard, we've sold 20% more apples. - Certainly it could simply be that they are now in season.
Ad Hominem
Attacks the character of the debater rather than the argument.
Example: Don't believe this candidate. She/He is a dumb-dumb head.

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