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What Is Rhetoric, and Why Is It Important?

February 19, 2022| Category: Writing Tips

Whenever you write a persuasive essay, talking points for a debate, or an argumentative essay, you use rhetoric. Even if you are not familiar with the term, you have used rhetoric to support the points you make in your writing. Rhetoric is the language you use to communicate your writing’s core message.

Academic writing is not the only kind of writing where rhetoric shows up. Rhetoric can appear in just about any kind of writing—but the type of rhetoric you use depends on the kind of writing you are doing and the message you are communicating.

What Is Rhetoric?

Rhetoric is language that is carefully constructed to persuade, motivate, or inform the reader or listener about the speaker or writer’s position. You might have heard the term used in discussions about politicians and political goals. That is because politicians, alongside people in other roles that involve public speaking, employ rhetoric regularly. In fact, the word “rhetoric” comes from the Greek “rhetorikos,” which means “oratory.”

You are probably familiar with the concept of a rhetorical question. A rhetorical question is a question that is often asked to a broad audience in an effort to get the audience thinking seriously about the question and its implications. The speaker or writer does not typically expect answers to the question; their goal is to facilitate a discussion. Here are a few examples of rhetorical questions:

  • Are we doing the right thing?
  • What is this, a joke?
  • Can you imagine that?

However, in academic writing, rhetorical questions are prohibited; they are used in informal writing mostly.

Why Is Rhetoric Important?

Rhetoric is important because it provides a framework for critical thinking. It demonstrates your thought processes as a writer and speaker. By doing this, it illustrates your arguments’ strengths.

To understand rhetoric, you need to understand the concept of heuristics. A heuristic is a practical approach to problem-solving or self-discovery. When you make an educated guess about something or use trial and error to reach a conclusion, you have used a heuristic. With heuristics, you do not necessarily have to reach a precise answer; the goal is to reach an approximate or otherwise “good enough” solution.

Examples of heuristics:

  • Drawing a diagram to work out a logistical or mathematical problem
  • Working out a solution to an obstacle by assuming you already have a solution, then working backward through the theoretical steps you would have taken to reach that solution
  • Using a concrete example to illustrate an abstract challenge

Here is a quick example of a heuristic in action: You throw a holiday party every December. Despite inviting about twenty people to the party, an average of six or seven people show up each year. This year, you have invited twenty people again, but while planning for the party, you decide to order food for a group of ten. You know, from experience, that all twenty people likely will not show up. But to err on the side of caution, you order slightly more food than you anticipate needing, so you have got enough in case this year has a higher-than-average turnout (and leftovers if it does not).

Heuristics play a key role in rhetoric because speakers and writers often use them to illustrate the points they are making. You might write a persuasive essay about the value an overnight campus shuttle service would provide by calculating its approximate cost and discussing the benefits it would provide in contrast to the percentage of the campus’ operating budget it would require. In this example, your rough monetary calculations and their value compared to the shuttle’s intangible benefits are heuristics.

The Rhetorical Triangle: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos

In his writing on rhetoric, Aristotle defined the three distinct modes of persuasion that we still recognize and use:

  • Pathos
  • Ethos
  • Logos

Logos is language crafted to appeal to logic and reasoning. When you appeal to logos in an argument, you support your position with facts and data. Here is an example of an argument that appeals to logos:

  • None of the kids were home when the cookie jar was raided, so the cookie thief could not have been one of them.

Ethos is language whose credibility comes from its speaker’s reputation or authority. This authority can come from their credentials, like a doctor discussing the most effective means of preventing pathogen transmission, or from their position within a narrative or situation, like a car accident witness describing the collision they saw. In your writing, you might appeal to ethos like this:

  • I started exercising twice per week because my doctor said it would help alleviate my pain.

Pathos is language that creates an emotional connection with the reader or listener. Pathos attempts to persuade, motivate, or inform the audience by making them empathize with the speaker. Here is an example of pathos:

  • Please donate to the animal shelter. We are desperately in need of funding to help our animals, and every dollar counts.

The rhetorical triangle is the graphical representation of the three modes of discourse as an equilateral triangle. By showing all three concepts as equally spaced-apart points, it demonstrates their equal importance to effective communication. This does not mean every piece of effective communication uses all three—pathos has no place in a lab report, for example—but that all three are equally effective when used appropriately.

Rhetorical devices

Rhetoric in types of writing like narrative writing and poetry often relies on linguistic tools like figurative language and well-known figures of speech. These tools are known as rhetorical devices. Through a rhetorical device, you can make your argument feel more pressing, make it stick in listeners’ and/or readers’ minds, enable them to empathize with you or your characters, and drive them to think differently about the issue you are presenting.

There are lots of different rhetorical devices you can employ in your writing. Here are a few common ones:

Hyperbole

Hyperbole is an extreme exaggeration meant to highlight the issue presented:

“I deal with thousands of angry customers every day.”

With hyperbole, both the speaker and the listener know it is an exaggeration. The goal is to demonstrate how an issue compares to the norm or to other issues by positioning it as wildly outside the norm.

Meiosis

The reverse of hyperbole, meiosis emphasizes how far outside the norm an issue is through extreme understatement:

“Compared to others in the area, our school was empty.”

Epistrophe

Epistrophe is the repetition of a word through successive phrases, clauses, or sentences for the purpose of emphasizing it as a concept. Typically, parallelism is employed to underscore this repetition and give the speech a poetic quality. Abraham Lincoln used epistrophe in this famous excerpt from the Gettysburg Address:

“. . . government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Metaphor

Metaphor is a type of figurative language that compares two topics by claiming that one literally is the other:

“My mother’s cooking is heaven on earth.”

Chiasmus

Chiasmus is the repetition of a sentence with the word order switched around. Perhaps the most famous example of chiasmus comes from President John F. Kennedy:

“Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

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