2 Rhetorical Analysis
For many people, particularly those in the media, the term “rhetoric” has a largely negative connotation. A political commentator, for example, may say that a politician is using “empty rhetoric” or that what that politician says is “just a bunch of rhetoric.” What the commentator means is that the politician’s words are lacking substance, that the purpose of those words is more about manipulation rather than meaningfulness. However, this flawed definition, though quite common these days, does not offer the entire picture or full understanding of a concept that is more about clearly expressing substance and meaning rather than avoiding them.
This chapter will clarify what rhetorical analysis means and will help you identify the basic elements of rhetorical analysis through explanation and example.
1. What is rhetorical analysis?
2. What is rhetorical situation?
3. What are the basic elements of rhetorical analysis?
1. What is rhetorical analysis?
Simply defined, rhetoric is the art or method of communicating effectively to an audience, usually with the intention to persuade; thus, rhetorical analysis means analyzing how effectively a writer or speaker communicates her message or argument to the audience.
The ancient Greeks, namely Aristotle, developed rhetoric into an art form, which explains why much of the terminology that we use for rhetoric comes from Greek. The three major parts of effective communication, also called the Rhetorical Triangle, are ethos, pathos, and logos, and they provide the foundation for a solid argument. As a reader and a listener, you must be able to recognize how writers and speakers depend upon these three rhetorical elements in their efforts to communicate. As a communicator yourself, you will benefit from the ability to see how others rely upon ethos, pathos, and logos so that you can apply what you learn from your observations to your own speaking and writing.
Rhetorical analysis can evaluate and analyze any type of communicator, whether that be a speaker, an artist, an advertiser, or a writer, but to simplify the language in this chapter, the term “writer” will represent the role of the communicator.
2. What is a rhetorical situation?
Essentially, understanding a rhetorical situation means understanding the context of that situation. A rhetorical situation comprises a handful of key elements, which should be identified before attempting to analyze and evaluate the use of rhetorical appeals. These elements consist of the communicator in the situation (such as the writer), the issue at hand (the topic or problem being addressed), the purpose for addressing the issue, the medium of delivery (e.g.–speech, written text, a commercial), and the audience being addressed.
Answering the following questions will help you identify a rhetorical situation:
- Who is the communicator or writer?
- What is the issue that the writer is addressing?
- What is the main argument that the writer is making?
- What is the writer’s purpose for addressing this issue?
- To provoke, to attack, or to defend?
- To push toward or dissuade from certain action?
- To praise or to blame?
- To teach, to delight, or to persuade?
- What is the form in which the writer conveys it?
- What is the structure of the communication; how is it arranged?
- What oral or literary genre is it?
- What figures of speech (schemes and tropes) are used?
- What kind of style and tone is used and for what purpose?
- Does the form complement the content?
- What effect could the form have, and does this aid or hinder the author’s intention?
- Who is the audience?
- Who is the intended audience?
- What values does the audience hold that the author or speaker appeals to?
- Who have been or might be secondary audiences?
- If this is a work of fiction, what is the nature of the audience within the fiction?
Figure 2.1 A Balanced Argument
3. What are the basic elements of rhetorical analysis?
3.1 The appeal to ethos
Literally translated, ethos means “character.” In this case, it refers to the character of the writer or speaker, or more specifically, his credibility. The writer needs to establish credibility so that the audience will trust him and, thus, be more willing to engage with the argument. If a writer fails to establish a sufficient ethical appeal, then the audience will not take the writer’s argument seriously.
For example, if someone writes an article that is published in an academic journal, in a reputable newspaper or magazine, or on a credible website, those places of publication already imply a certain level of credibility. If the article is about a scientific issue and the writer is a scientist or has certain academic or professional credentials that relate to the article’s subject, that also will lend credibility to the writer. Finally, if that writer shows that he is knowledgeable about the subject by providing clear explanations of points and by presenting information in an honest and straightforward way that also helps to establish a writer’s credibility.
When evaluating a writer’s ethical appeal, ask the following questions:
Does the writer come across as reliable?
- Viewpoint is logically consistent throughout the text
- Does not use hyperbolic (exaggerated) language
- Has an even, objective tone (not malicious but also not sycophantic)
- Does not come across as subversive or manipulative
Does the writer come across as authoritative and knowledgeable?
- Explains concepts and ideas thoroughly
- Addresses any counter-arguments and successfully rebuts them
- Uses a sufficient number of relevant sources
- Shows an understanding of sources used
What kind of credentials or experience does the writer have?
- Look at byline or biographical info
- Identify any personal or professional experience mentioned in the text
- Where has this writer’s text been published?
Recognizing a Manipulative Appeal to Ethos:
In a perfect world, everyone would tell the truth, and we could depend upon the credibility of speakers and authors. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. You would expect that news reporters would be objective and tell news stories based upon the facts; however, Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, and Brian Williams all lost their jobs for plagiarizing or fabricating part of their news stories. Janet Cooke’s Pulitzer Prize was revoked after it was discovered that she made up “Jimmy,” an eight-year old heroin addict (Prince, 2010). Brian Williams was fired as anchor of the NBC Nightly News for exaggerating his role in the Iraq War.
Others have become infamous for claiming academic degrees that they didn’t earn as in the case of Marilee Jones. At the time of discovery, she was Dean of Admissions at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). After 28 years of employment, it was determined that she never graduated from college (Lewin, 2007). However, on her website (http://www.marileejones.com/blog/) she is still promoting herself as “a sought after speaker, consultant and author” and “one of the nation’s most experienced College Admissions Deans.”
Beyond lying about their own credentials, authors may employ a number of tricks or fallacies to lure you to their point of view. Some of the more common techniques are described in the next chapter. When you recognize these fallacies, you should question the credibility of the speaker and the legitimacy of the argument. If you use these when making your own arguments, be aware that they may undermine or even destroy your credibility.
Exercise 1: Analyzing Ethos
Choose an article from the links provided below. Preview your chosen text, and then read through it, paying special attention to how the writer tries to establish an ethical appeal. Once you have finished reading, use the bullet points above to guide you in analyzing how effective the writer’s appeal to ethos is.
“Why cancer is not a war, fight, or battle” by Xeni Jordan (https://tinyurl.com/y7m7bnnm)
“Relax and Let Your Kids Indulge in TV” by Lisa Pryor (https://tinyurl.com/y88epytu)
“Why are we OK with disability drag in Hollywood?” by Danny Woodburn and Jay Ruderman (https://tinyurl.com/y964525k)
3.2 The appeal to pathos
Literally translated, pathos means “suffering.” In this case, it refers to emotion, or more specifically, the writer’s appeal to the audience’s emotions. When a writer establishes an effective pathetic appeal, she makes the audience care about what she is saying. If the audience does not care about the message, then they will not engage with the argument being made.
For example, consider this: A writer is crafting a speech for a politician who is running for office, and in it, the writer raises a point about Social Security benefits. In order to make this point more appealing to the audience so that they will feel more emotionally connected to what the politician says, the writer inserts a story about Mary, an 80-year-old widow who relies on her Social Security benefits to supplement her income. While visiting Mary the other day, sitting at her kitchen table and eating a piece of her delicious homemade apple pie, the writer recounts how the politician held Mary’s delicate hand and promised that her benefits would be safe if he were elected. Ideally, the writer wants the audience to feel sympathy or compassion for Mary because then they will feel more open to considering the politician’s views on Social Security (and maybe even other issues).
When evaluating a writer’s pathetic appeal, ask the following questions:
Does the writer try to engage or connect with the audience by making the subject matter relatable in some way?
- Does the writer have an interesting writing style?
- Does the writer use humor at any point?
- Does the writer use narration, such as storytelling or anecdotes, to add interest or to help humanize a certain issue within the text?
- Does the writer use descriptive or attention-grabbing details?
- Are there hypothetical examples that help the audience to imagine themselves in certain scenarios?
- Does the writer use any other examples in the text that might emotionally appeal to the audience?
- Are there any visual appeals to pathos, such as photographs or illustrations?
Recognizing a Manipulative Appeal to Pathos:
Up to a certain point, an appeal to pathos can be a legitimate part of an argument. For example, a writer or speaker may begin with an anecdote showing the effect of a law on an individual. This anecdote is a way to gain an audience’s attention for an argument in which evidence and reason are used to present a case as to why the law should or should not be repealed or amended. In such a context, engaging the emotions, values, or beliefs of the audience is a legitimate and effective tool that makes the argument stronger.
An appropriate appeal to pathos is different from trying to unfairly play upon the audience’s feelings and emotions through fallacious, misleading, or excessively emotional appeals. Such a manipulative use of pathos may alienate the audience or cause them to “tune out.” An example would be the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) commercials (https://youtu.be/6eXfvRcllV8, transcript here) featuring the song “In the Arms of an Angel” and footage of abused animals. Even Sarah McLachlan, the singer and spokesperson featured in the commercials, admits that she changes the channel because they are too depressing (Brekke).
Even if an appeal to pathos is not manipulative, such an appeal should complement rather than replace reason and evidence-based argument. In addition to making use of pathos, the author must establish her credibility (ethos) and must supply reasons and evidence (logos) in support of her position. An author who essentially replaces logos and ethos with pathos alone does not present a strong argument.
Exercise 2: Analyzing Pathos
In the movie Braveheart, the Scottish military leader, William Wallace, played by Mel Gibson, gives a speech to his troops just before they get ready to go into battle against the English army of King Edward I.
See clip here (https://youtu.be/h2vW-rr9ibE, transcript here). See clip with closed captioning here.
Step 1: When you watch the movie clip, try to gauge the general emotional atmosphere. Do the men seem calm or nervous? Confident or skeptical? Are they eager to go into battle, or are they ready to retreat? Assessing the situation from the start will make it easier to answer more specific, probing rhetorical questions after watching it.
Step 2: Consider these questions:
- What issues does Wallace address?
- Who is his audience?
- How does the audience view the issues at hand?
Step 3: Next, analyze Wallace’s use of pathos in his speech.
- How does he try to connect with his audience emotionally? Because this is a speech, and he’s appealing to the audience in person, consider his overall look as well as what he says.
- How would you describe his manner or attitude?
- Does he use any humor, and if so, to what effect?
- How would you describe his tone?
- Identify some examples of language that show an appeal to pathos: words, phrases, imagery, collective pronouns (we, us, our).
- How do all of these factors help him establish a pathetic appeal?
Step 4: Once you’ve identified the various ways that Wallace tries to establish his appeal to pathos, the final step is to evaluate the effectiveness of that appeal.
- Do you think he has successfully established a pathetic appeal? Why or why not?
- What does he do well in establishing pathos?
- What could he improve, or what could he do differently to make his pathetic appeal even stronger?
3.3 The appeal to logos
Literally translated, logos means “word.” In this case, it refers to information, or more specifically, the writer’s appeal to logic and reason. A successful logical appeal provides clearly organized information as well as evidence to support the overall argument. If one fails to establish a logical appeal, then the argument will lack both sense and substance.
For example, refer to the previous example of the politician’s speech writer to understand the importance of having a solid logical appeal. What if the writer had only included the story about 80-year-old Mary without providing any statistics, data, or concrete plans for how the politician proposed to protect Social Security benefits? Without any factual evidence for the proposed plan, the audience would not have been as likely to accept his proposal, and rightly so.
When evaluating a writer’s logical appeal, ask the following questions:
Does the writer organize his information clearly?
- Ideas are connected by transition words and phrases
- Choose the link for examples of common transitions (https://tinyurl.com/oftaj5g).
- Ideas have a clear and purposeful order
Does the writer provide evidence to back his claims?
- Specific examples
- Relevant source material
Does the writer use sources and data to back his claims rather than base the argument purely on emotion or opinion?
- Does the writer use concrete facts and figures, statistics, dates/times, specific names/titles, graphs/charts/tables?
- Are the sources that the writer uses credible?
- Where do the sources come from? (Who wrote/published them?)
- When were the sources published?
- Are the sources well-known, respected, and/or peer-reviewed (if applicable) publications?
Recognizing a Manipulative Appeal to Logos:
Pay particular attention to numbers, statistics, findings, and quotes used to support an argument. Be critical of the source and do your own investigation of the facts. Remember: What initially looks like a fact may not actually be one. Maybe you’ve heard or read that half of all marriages in America will end in divorce. It is so often discussed that we assume it must be true. Careful research will show that the original marriage study was flawed, and divorce rates in America have steadily declined since 1985 (Peck, 1993). If there is no scientific evidence, why do we continue to believe it? Part of the reason might be that it supports the common worry of the dissolution of the American family.
Fallacies that misuse appeals to logos or attempt to manipulate the logic of an argument are discussed in the next chapter.
Exercise 3: Analyzing Logos
The debate about whether college athletes, namely male football and basketball players, should be paid salaries instead of awarded scholarships is one that regularly comes up when these players are in the throes of their respective athletic seasons, whether that’s football bowl games or March Madness. While proponents on each side of this issue have solid reasons, you are going to look at an article that is against the idea of college athletes being paid.
Take note: Your aim in this rhetorical exercise is not to figure out where you stand on this issue; rather, your aim is to evaluate how effectively the writer establishes a logical appeal to support his position, whether you agree with him or not.
See the article here (https://time.com/5558498/ncaa-march-madness-pay-athletes/).
Step 1: Before reading the article, take a minute to preview the text, a critical reading skill explained in Chapter 1.
Step 2: Once you have a general idea of the article, read through it and pay attention to how the author organizes information and uses evidence, annotating or marking these instances when you see them.
Step 3: After reviewing your annotations, evaluate the organization of the article as well as the amount and types of evidence that you have identified by answering the following questions:
- Does the information progress logically throughout the article?
- Does the writer use transitions to link ideas?
- Do ideas in the article have a clear sense of order, or do they appear scattered and unfocused?
- Was the amount of evidence in the article proportionate to the size of the article?
- Was there too little of it, was there just enough, or was there an overload of evidence?
- Were the examples of evidence relevant to the writer’s argument?
- Were the examples clearly explained?
- Were sources cited or clearly referenced?
- Were the sources credible? How could you tell?
3.4 The Appeal to Kairos
Literally translated, Kairos means the “supreme moment.” In this case, it refers to appropriate timing, meaning when the writer presents certain parts of her argument as well as the overall timing of the subject matter itself. While not technically part of the Rhetorical Triangle, it is still an important principle for constructing an effective argument. If the writer fails to establish a strong Kairotic appeal, then the audience may become polarized, hostile, or may simply just lose interest.
If appropriate timing is not taken into consideration and a writer introduces a sensitive or important point too early or too late in a text, the impact of that point could be lost on the audience. For example, if the writer’s audience is strongly opposed to her view, and she begins the argument with a forceful thesis of why she is right and the opposition is wrong, how do you think that audience might respond?
In this instance, the writer may have just lost the ability to make any further appeals to her audience in two ways: first, by polarizing them, and second, by possibly elevating what was at first merely strong opposition to what would now be hostile opposition. A polarized or hostile audience will not be inclined to listen to the writer’s argument with an open mind or even to listen at all. On the other hand, the writer could have established a stronger appeal to Kairos by building up to that forceful thesis, maybe by providing some neutral points such as background information or by addressing some of the opposition’s views, rather than leading with why she is right and the audience is wrong.
Additionally, if a writer covers a topic or puts forth an argument about a subject that is currently a non-issue or has no relevance for the audience, then the audience will fail to engage because whatever the writer’s message happens to be, it won’t matter to anyone. For example, if a writer were to put forth the argument that women in the United States should have the right to vote, no one would care; that is a non-issue because women in the United States already have that right.
When evaluating a writer’s Kairotic appeal, ask the following questions:
- Where does the writer establish her thesis of the argument in the text? Is it near the beginning, the middle, or the end? Is this placement of the thesis effective? Why or why not?
- Where in the text does the writer provide her strongest points of evidence? Does that location provide the most impact for those points?
- Is the issue that the writer raises relevant at this time, or is it something no one really cares about anymore or needs to know about anymore?
Exercise 4: Analyzing Kairos
In this exercise, you will analyze a visual representation of the appeal to Kairos. On the 26th of February 2015, a photo of a dress was posted to Twitter along with a question as to whether people thought it was one combination of colors versus another. Internet chaos ensued on social media because while some people saw the dress as black and blue, others saw it as white and gold. As the color debate surrounding the dress raged on, an ad agency in South Africa saw an opportunity to raise awareness about a far more serious subject: domestic abuse.
Step 1: Read this article (https://tinyurl.com/yctl8o5g) from CNN about how and why the photo of the dress went viral so that you will be better informed for the next step in this exercise:
Step 2: Watch the video (https://youtu.be/SLv0ZRPssTI, transcript here)from CNN that explains how, in partnership with The Salvation Army, the South African marketing agency created an ad that went viral.
Step 3: After watching the video, answer the following questions:
- Once the photo of the dress went viral, approximately how long after did the Salvation Army’s ad appear? Look at the dates on both the article and the video to get an idea of a time frame.
- How does the ad take advantage of the publicity surrounding the dress?
- Would the ad’s overall effectiveness change if it had come out later than it did?
- How late would have been too late to make an impact? Why?
4. Striking a Balance:
Figure 2.3 An Unbalanced Argument
The foundations of rhetoric are interconnected in such a way that a writer needs to establish all of the rhetorical appeals to put forth an effective argument. If a writer lacks a pathetic appeal and only tries to establish a logical appeal, the audience will be unable to connect emotionally with the writer and, therefore, will care less about the overall argument. Likewise, if a writer lacks a logical appeal and tries to rely solely on subjective or emotionally driven examples, then the audience will not take the writer seriously because an argument based purely on opinion and emotion cannot hold up without facts and evidence to support it. If a writer lacks either the pathetic or logical appeal, not to mention the kairotic appeal, then the writer’s ethical appeal will suffer. All of the appeals must be sufficiently established for a writer to communicate effectively with his audience.
For a visual example, watch (https://tinyurl.com/yct5zryn, transcript here) violinist Joshua Bell show how the rhetorical situation determines the effectiveness of all types of communication, even music.
Exercise 5: Rhetorical Analysis
Step 1: Choose one of the articles linked below.
Step 2: Preview your chosen text, and then read and annotate it.
Step 3: Next, using the information and steps outlined in this chapter, identify the rhetorical situation in the text based off of the following components: the communicator, the issue at hand, the purpose, the medium of delivery, and the intended audience.
Step 4: Then, identify and analyze how the writer tries to establish the rhetorical appeals of ethos, pathos, logos, and Kairos throughout that text.
Step 5: Finally, evaluate how effectively you think the writer establishes the rhetorical appeals, and defend your evaluation by noting specific examples that you’ve annotated.
BBC News, “Taylor Swift Sexual Assault Case: Why is it significant?” (https://tinyurl.com/ybopmmdu)
NPR, “Does Cash Aid Help the Poor–Or Encourage Laziness?” (https://tinyurl.com/y8ho2fhw)
Understanding the Rhetorical Situation:
- Identify who the communicator is.
- Identify the issue at hand.
- Identify the communicator’s purpose.
- Identify the medium or method of communication.
- Identify who the audience is.
Identifying the Rhetorical Appeals:
- Ethos = the writer’s credibility
- Pathos = the writer’s emotional appeal to the audience
- Logos = the writer’s logical appeal to the audience
- Kairos = appropriate and relevant timing of subject matter
- In sum, effective communication is based on an understanding of the rhetorical situation and on a balance of the rhetorical appeals.
CC Licensed Content, Shared Previously
English Composition I, Lumen Learning, CC-BY 4.0.
English Composition II, Lumen Learning, CC-BY 4.0.
Figure 2.1 “A Balanced Argument,” Kalyca Schultz, Virginia Western Community College, CC-0.
Figure 2.2, “Brian Williams at the 2011 Time 100 Gala,” David Shankbone, Wikimedia, CC-BY 3.0.
Figure 2.3 “An Unbalanced Argument,” Kalyca Schultz, Virginia Western Community College, CC-0.
Brekke, Kira. “Sarah McLachlan: ‘I Change The Channel’ When My ASPCA Commercials Come On.” Huffington Post. 5 May 2014.
Lewin, Tamar. “Dean at M.I.T. Resigns, Ending a 28-Year Lie.” New York Times. 27 April 2007, p. A1,
Peck, Dennis, L. “The Fifty Percent Divorce Rate: Deconstructing a Myth.” The Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare. Vol. 20, no.3, 1993, pp. 135-144.
Prince, Richard. “Janet Cooke’s Hoax Still Resonates After 30 Years.” The Root. October 2010.