About Rhetoric

The meaning of "rhetoric" seems to differ depending on how the word is used and who's using it. You've probably heard politicians some time or another dismiss the positions of their opponents as "mere rhetoric." You're probably also familiar with the idea of a rhetorical question—a question that is meant to make a point and not meant to be answered.

But rhetoric, as we use it in this class, means something different. Rhetoric is simply the ways in which we try to communicate with and persuade a given audience, for a given purpose.

So what does that mean? It's a simple idea, but once you begin to see it, you can see rhetoric everywhere there is an audience, and a speaker trying to make a point with that audience. Here are some classic (and some would say disreputable) examples of rhetoric:

But rhetoric can be much subtler (and more positive) as well:

The Three Rhetorical Appeals: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos

Some ancient Greeks identified three major ways that we can go about communicating and persuading people:

Logos appeals (or logical arguments), which appeal to reason or logic. Logos appeals include appeals to statistics, math, logic, and "objectivity." For instance, when advertisements claim that their product is “37% more effective than the competition,” they are making a logical appeal.

Pathos appeals (or pathetic arguments), which appeal to human emotion, desire, or passion. For instance, home security companies appeal to our fears of violent crime, carbon monoxide, fire, etc. in order to convince us to buy their home monitoring systems. Many personal hygiene products appeal to our fears of social rejection and to our desire to fit in with others. Many charities appeal to our emotions by showing us images of people that we will feel empathy for. Gambling casinos appeal to our sense of greed when they try to convince us to gamble. And of course, countless advertisements use sex to convince us to buy their products.

Ethos appeals, which refer to the character or authority of the person who is speaking (or writing, or whatever). As an audience, our perception of the speaker or writer’s ethos is what leads us to believe that they are qualified to talk about the issue that they are addressing. In many cases this is pretty transparent: if Martha Stewart wanted to tell us how to make peach cobbler, we would probably just figure that she knew what she was talking about. After all, she has built her ethos (her authority) as a baker by demonstrating her abilities every day on nationwide television, in her magazine, and through other media. However, if a random person on the street wanted to tell us how to make peach cobbler, we would probably want to know what made them qualified to do so: did they bake a lot? Had they ever made peach cobbler before? Ultimately, do they have the ethos of a good cobbler maker?

Some Visual Examples

Of course, the rhetorical principles of ethos, pathos, and logos don't just apply to words. Here are some visual examples of each:

A pie chart.

The above is an example of a visual logos appeal.

A woman greiving over the bodies of children on the ground.

The above photograph of the victims from the recent tsunami conveys the pathos of the tragedy. (Gautam Singh/Associated Press)

Colonel Sanders, the Kentucky Fried Chicken logo.

The above image conveys the ethos of a man with sufficient character and authority to do chicken right.