Rhetoric

Some documents and speeches seem to capture the imagination of a nation or a culture. Their phrases are oft repeated, their logic invoked by entire political coalitions or social movements. You have almost certainly heard President Kennedy’s famous phrase, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” If you went to an American high school, you may have had to memorize Abraham Lincoln’s vow at Gettysburg that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”; and if you have paid attention to U.S. politics in the late 2010s, you certainly have heard the political mantra, “Make America great again,” though you may not know the 1980 Ronald Reagan speech it comes from.

Why are these acts of oratory so powerful? Can we explain what made them so effective? And how can we improve our own writing and speaking so that it will influence the people who read or hear it?

For more than two millennia, thinkers and writers have attempted to answer these questions. Their ideas and their concrete suggestions have come to make up what the ancient Greeks called “ritoriki”: the study of rhetoric, or what we might call the art of argument.

Rhetoric can be any kind of persuasive writing or speech. Its use is not confined to law or politics. In fact, in the age of mass media, persuasive messages surround us. The study of rhetoric allows us to both make and interpret arguments. Far from meaningless or merely academic, rhetoric has a real effect on people’s behavior. Words move us to action. They drive our decisions—from what to buy to whom to elect, to whether or not to go to war.

The Elements of Rhetoric

Substance

Thesis: Putting Your Idea into Words

The most important part of your argument is its substance—that is, the idea you are trying to communicate or the point you are trying to prove. This can usually be summed up in a thesis: the statement of your argument in a single declarative sentence. The first step in composing a piece of persuasive speech or writing is to compose this sentence. For example, you might wish to argue the following: Democracy is the ideal form of government. Once you can state your idea in its simplest terms, you are ready to build an argument around it.

Modes of Appeal

Since Aristotle, rhetoricians have identified three primary modes of appeal that we may use to persuade an audience. Aristotle called them the “artistic” proofs, because they require art or skill.

The first such appeal is logos, which is the “appeal to reason”; it uses logical reasoning to convince an audience. For example, you might say the following: Democracy always promotes the best interests of the majority of people in any decision because everyone in the group can advocate for their interests, and decisions are made by majority consensus. This kind of statement is an example of what we call deductive reasoning. It makes one or more propositions and then works through their logical implications. We can understand deductive reasoning by putting it in the form of a syllogism, which is a series of statements that make each proposition explicit:

  1. In a democracy, decisions are made by majority consensus.
  2. While a consensus is being worked out, each person will be able to advocate for his or her own interests.
  3. Therefore, decisions in a democracy will reflect the interests of the majority of the people.

By contrast, inductive reasoning makes probable conclusions from examples or pieces of evidence: Democracy is good for the overall success of a country; many of the most powerful and prosperous nations in the world are ruled by democratic governments. Such reasoning is always conclusive in proportion to how representative the example is. In this case, our statement would be much more compelling if we could say that all of the most powerful and prosperous nations in the world were democracies. If we only reason from the example of one particular country, or if we reason from many examples but must admit exceptions, then our argument is weaker.

The second artistic mode of appeal is ethos, the “ethical appeal,” which is based on establishing the credibility of the speaker or writer (to include both, we may speak of the “rhetor”). Ethos is often deployed indirectly: In fifty years of studying the governments of nations on every continent, I have found that the more democratic the government, the happier the people. At face value, this is an example of logos: an inductive claim about happiness based on examples from every continent. It also, however, serves subtly to remind the audience of the rhetor’s expertise. A rhetor may establish ethos through actions as simple as using technical terms from a particular field to imply his or her knowledge of it.

The third mode of appeal is pathos, the appeal to the audience’s emotions. These can be positive emotions, like pride or hope, or negative ones, like fear or hatred: What is the alternative to democracy? Every man, woman, and child cowering in terror under the brutal rule of another Hitler, another Stalin! Not one home will be safe from the power of the State!

These modes appeal are artistic in the sense that they involve an art that can be learned; “non-artistic” means of persuasion, by contrast, include things that do not rely on the skill of the rhetor, like cited sources, statistics, testimony, and proverbial wisdom. Of course, you’ll probably need to mix in a little of the artistic modes in the process of using these, too; you’ll need a little logos in framing and interpreting facts, and maybe a little pathos in how you present moving testimony from a witness. The nature of the thesis will suggest the nature of your composition and the kinds of persuasion it should employ.

Structure

The old Latin term “dispositio,” or “arrangement,” refers to the division of a piece of speech or writing into its components. Classical rhetoric divided a composition into five parts: (1) exordium, the introduction; (2) narratio, the statement of the context or situation; (3) confirmatio, the presentation of arguments and facts; (4) refutatio, the presentation and refuting of counterarguments; and (5) peroratio, the conclusion.

Of course, a given composition might have only some of these, and it might have them in any order, but there are some predictable patterns. An essay responding to another piece of writing, for example, might be mostly refutatio; a speech that had to give a lot of context for its point might need a lot of narratio.

Style

Almost every single twist of syntax (word order) and diction (word choice) that might make prose more compelling has been described and classified by scholars of rhetoric over the past two and a half millennia. We won’t get too far into those technical details here; for now, we’ll touch on some of the most basic elements of style.

These include diction, which involves precise word choice, as well as the use of different kinds of vocabulary or “register” (e.g., poetic, technical, casual, or slang); and patterns of sound, like repeated consonants or vowels. Various sentence lengths and syntax help develop a distinct stylistic pattern, as does the design of paragraphs. Then there are schemes, or deviations from the ordinary arrangements of words. Two common schemes are repetition and omission. Finally, there are tropes, or turns/twists/play on meanings, from metaphors to puns.

Diction

What do the words we choose say about us? How do they impact the style and tone of our message? Diction can have a powerful effect on both ethos and pathos but presents dangers as well as benefits. Ornate prose can make you sound highly educated and intelligent; it can also make you sound pretentious, or even pompous. Technical terms and jargon can establish you as someone familiar with your topic, as long as you use them correctly; they can also brand you as obscure and out of touch, and make your prose seem dry or lifeless. And elaborate metaphors and “poetic” language can sound beautiful, and move your audience; it can also be perceived as too “flowery,” and actually obscure your message.

Syntax

Depending on the length or structure of your sentences, your prose can drag laboriously or speed along; it can seem bare and simple, or complex and difficult.

Schemes

How might you vary your syntax for effect? Let’s look at one example in which we may see variations on ordinary sentence structure: lists of things. Normally, when you list two or more items, you start the final item on the list with a conjunction, usually either “and” or “or”: I went to the hardware store and bought a hammer, some nails, and a bottle of glue. By contrast, the scheme of asyndeton omits the conjunction: Are all thy conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils, shrunk to this little measure? (William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar). Here the omission of the conjunction causes the list to rush through in a single breath, making the list items seem to quickly pile up in a way that impresses upon us the enormity of Caesar’s loss.

The scheme of polysyndeton achieves the opposite effect, slowing down the list with multiple conjunctions: And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the cattle according to their kinds and everything that creeps upon the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:24, 1611 King James Version). Here, the repeated conjunctions slow down the text, helping to create the solemn, sonorous intonation that we associate with the King James Version of the Bible.

Tropes

A trope can be as simple as a simile, which explicitly compares one thing to another: “He is as thin as a rail!” Similes will often use the words “as” or “like” to make a comparison. If the comparison is implicit, we have a metaphor: “I’ve been using this truck for ten years now—it’s a real workhorse!”

You may also have heard the word “trope” used to mean a comparison, situation, or concept that is overused, or a cliché. While this definition is related, we are using the term in a broader sense. It is worth remembering, however, that common tropes can be a tool in writing. But they can also dilute your message, if you have nothing original to say. Try to strike a balance between being creative and helping your audience understand new ideas by referencing the familiar.

mental models

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