Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Identifying the Rhetorical Situation and Rhetorical Appeals

After Lysippos  from the Ludovisi Collection
Jastrow 2006 / Public domain
If you're currently in a composition or rhetoric course, you may be learning about the rhetorical situation or rhetorical appeals first identified and explained by Aristotle. 

There are five elements of the rhetorical situation, according to Aristotle: pathos, logos, ethos, telos, and kairos. All together, these relate to the audience's characteristics and sensibilities, the logic and structure of the work, the credibility of the author and content, the purpose or mode of the work, and the time and place of its presentation.

Writers use these elements in their attempts to convince or persuade readers to do something or believe something. These elements are like tools in a carpenter's toolbox: Just like a carpenter uses a hammer to drive in a nail, a writer might use one or more of the five elements to make a convincing argument.

Kairos and Telos

Although the elements of kairos and telos are not often taught by name, they are still used today. For example, the writer may wait for the opportune moment (kairos), time and place, to write a particular essay or make a particular argument  based on what's happening in the world. The writer may use a particular mode - narrative, descriptive, persuasive, or expository -  to present their main ideas in the most convincing way for a particular audience (telos).

Appeals to Ethos, Pathos, and  Logos

A writer might also use one of the three appeals most commonly taught today: ethos, logos, or pathos. The writer may emphasize their own credibility or the credibility of those from whom they borrow content (ethos).  The writer may persuade by providing facts and statistics, logic and reason, in an effective structural format, thereby appealing to the readers' sense of logic (logos). Lastly, the writer might convince the readers by telling a story that elicits a particular emotion in that particular intended audience, thereby appealing to their emotions (pathos).


When writers purposefully appeal to readers' emotions or sensibilities, we call it an appeal to pathos. The effectiveness of the appeal is partially determined by the characteristics of the intended audience.

Here are some examples of the use of pathos. Notice that the different examples are specifically meant to elicit specific emotions in a particular type of person. Think about whether or not these particular appeals to pathos would work on you or someone very like you, your friends, or specific members of your family.

  • Eagerness: Buying this red Corvette will make you the most popular and enviable man on the road.
  • Fear: Clean up the riverbank this Saturday or risk losing access to it forever. 
  • Pity: The homeless need your donations, and if you don't help, no one will. 
  • Guilt: Your grandparents won't be around much longer, so you better come home to visit this summer.
  • Relief: With this widget, you'll never forget a deadline.

Also notice that pathos is generally not found in academic or scholarly writing. With the exception of the use of description or narration in lead-ins or conclusions of essays, the use of pathos is generally frowned upon. On the other hand, appeals to logos and ethos are encouraged.

Logos and  Ethos


When writers use sound logic and reason, verifiable facts and ethically-gathered statistics to prove a point, they are well on their way to appealing to logos. However, writers must also clarify their content by using enough of the best kind of evidence, and they must apply the principles of unity and coherence to their writing. Only when a writer has checked their work for clear thesis statements and topic sentences and an effective order and flow have they truly appealed to readers' sense of logic.


When writers emphasize their own credibility, or the credibility of the source content they incorporate into their writing, they are appealing to ethos. They might use personal observation or testimony to try to prove a point. They may incorporate facts and statistics from reputable sources.

Take a look at the following examples of appeals to logos and ethos.

  • Ethos: As someone who's been a hairdresser for over 30 years, I can tell you that the classic French bob is always in style. 
  • Ethos and Logos: As someone who's been a hairdresser for over 30 years, I can tell you that the classic French bob is always in style. Seventy percent of the cuts requested by clients are the classic French bob or a very similar style. 
  • Logos: "Cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year in the United States, including more than 41,000 deaths resulting from secondhand smoke exposure. This is about one in five deaths annually, or 1,300 deaths every day. On average, smokers die 10 years earlier than nonsmokers."
  • Ethos and Logos: According to a fact sheet published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2018, "Cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year in the United States, including more than 41,000 deaths resulting from secondhand smoke exposure. This is about one in five deaths annually, or 1,300 deaths every day. On average, smokers die 10 years earlier than nonsmokers."
  • Logos: The lack of consistent forensic evidence leads us to believe the defendant did not commit the crime.
  • Logos and Ethos: The lack of consistent forensic evidence presented by the coroner, the forensic expert, and the police chief leads us to believe the defendant did not commit the crime.
The difference between the use of logos and the use of both ethos and logos is that the use of ethos includes a bit of bragging about the writer's or source's credibility or authority. 

Whether you're a writer looking to use the rhetorical situation to effectively communicate with an  audience, or you are looking to better identify the use of rhetoric by others, gaining an understanding of kairos, telos, ethos, logos, and pathos will be of benefit.

Want to read more about Writing and Argumentation? Try

Syllogisms as Structure
What's a Research Narrative?
Adding Coherence to an Essay

Works Cited

Smoking and Tobacco Use. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2018,  https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/fast_facts/index.htm. Accessed February 18, 2020.

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Please contact the author for permission to republish.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Divergent Thinking and The Power of "What If?"

How many uses can you think of for a paperclip? 
What if that paperclip were 50 feet long and made of foam rubber?

Divergent Thinking

Divergent thinking is a skill related to creativity, and whether folks realize it or not, they often use this skill; or they “use it or lose it,” as the case may be. One very famous study, for example, asked that kindergarten students think divergently about uses for a paperclip. 

The findings of that study?

Our capacity for divergent thinking deteriorates with age. A longitudinal study of kindergarten children measured 98% of them at genius level in divergent thinking. Five years later, when they were aged 8 to 10 years, those at genius level had dropped to 50%. (Abbasi)

People use divergent thinking when they think up “novel ideas,” sometimes based on ideas that already exist (“Divergent Thinking”). A cook might change up an old recipe, for example, or a fashionista might incorporate a new item into a current wardrobe. A student might fix his glasses with a paperclip if they break during class. There are many ways to exercise creativity and an ability to think divergently.

The Bucket List

An exercise similar to the paperclip experiment is listed in Ed Bell’s book, The 30-Day Creativity Challenge. In an exercise he calls “The Bucket List,” he asks readers to take ten minutes to list all the uses they can imagine for a bucket (2). Even better, he reiterates the definition and importance of divergent thinking: “Creativity is about taking existing concepts and ideas and doing something new with them” (2).

Playing "What If?"

One commonality between the paperclip experiment and Bell’s “The Bucket List” exercise is that the practitioner asks the student or reader to work alone. However, what if after the lists are created as a solo activity, people then work together to share experiences and expand their understanding of the problem? In this version of brainstorming, the groups or teams might discuss how they envisioned the bucket as they created their original lists, what it was made of, how big it was, how much water it held, or its condition. It’s very likely that each person’s imagined bucket is slightly different: Some might be plastic beach buckets, and some might be feed buckets, and others might be galvanized garden buckets, while others still might be wooden pails.

To expand the experience even further, the groups or teams can be asked to think of new “What if” scenarios for their buckets and generate more ideas for uses of those buckets:

·         What if the bucket was cut in half? Cut in half the other way?
·         What if the bucket held 1000 gallons of water?
·         What if the bucket was made of bread?
·         What if there was a hole in the bucket? How big is the hole?

The “What If” exercise can be an excellent starting point for discussion about the abstract nature of language (as students realize their idea of bucket is based on their own experiences, not inherently linked to the word “bucket”). The exercise can also be used to demonstrate the power of brainstorming within groups, or be used to point out the different types of energy required to work either alone or together. Furthermore, it’s an effective way to practice divergent thinking, and if people don’t use that skill, they will lose it.

Works Cited

Abbasi, Kamran. “A Riot of Divergent Thinking.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, vol. 104, no. 10, Oct. 2011, pp. 391–391, doi:10.1258/jrsm.2011.11k038.

Bell, Ed. The 30-Day Creativity Challenge. The Song Foundry, Inc., 2019.

"Divergent thinking." Palgrave Key Concepts: Key Concepts in Innovation, Hamsa Thota, and Zunaira Munir, Macmillan Publishers Ltd, 1st edition, 2011. Credo Reference. Accessed 09 Jan. 2020.

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Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Please contact the author for permission to republish.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Syllogism as Structure in Essays and Speeches: Providing Clarity

The syllogism makes a great organizational strategy when writing
argumentative essays and speeches.

The form of a syllogism, a major premise followed by a minor premise and a conclusion, makes an excellent structural framework for short essays and speeches.

When using the syllogism as a structural framework, in addition to using a valid form, each of the premises must be true in order for the argument to be sound

In paragraph form, a writer has an opportunity to prove each premise is true using a variety of rhetorical strategies. In general, people should use the principle of charity and give the writer or speaker the benefit of the doubt when a premise or conclusion is stated in an unclear way. However, in some cases it’s extra important to clarify a statement. For example, vagueness, ambiguity, and refutability are three types of errors that require additional clarity, in the form of evidence or revision, in order to convince or persuade a reader that a premise is indeed true and the argument is sound. 

Vagueness and Ambiguity

When writing an essay, a writer has only one chance to make himself or herself clear to the reader.  That means the writer has to watch out for the pitfalls of vagueness and ambiguity in each and every sentence.

Examples of Vague Language

Some examples of vague language include words like “some,” "good," “very,” “soon,” and even “etcetera” or “that sort of thing.” Even the use of "you" and other second person pronouns can be vague in writing unless the writer is addressing only one specific person, like in a letter or email. Vague language is imprecise and makes it difficult for a reader to understand a writer's ideas.

Think about the following sentence: “Some people will be here soon for the thing.” This sentence is extremely vague. It could mean that 150 guests will be arriving for the wedding in twenty minutes, or it could mean that two movers are arriving in six hours to pick up a piano, or it could mean a delegation of ten faculty members from China are arriving in a month for a conference.

In order to eliminate vagueness and better persuade readers that an argument is sound, be sure to avoid vague language and use terminology that helps specify and clarify a premise. If necessary, include definitions in order to make a point as clearly as possible.

Examples of Ambiguous Language

Ambiguity can be caused by poor grammatical construction, oftentimes in the use of antecedents and pronouns or because of misplaced or dangling modifiers.

Think about the following sentence: “The assistant took the cats out of the carriers and placed them on the floor.” Because of the construction of that sentence, the reader may be unsure about what’s being placed on the floor: the cats, the carriers, or the cats and the carriers. Although it may seem unimportant within the context of reading this blog post, it would be imperative that an attorney ask for clarification if this information were part of a murder trial.

Misplaced and dangling modifiers can also cause confusion. Think about this sentence: “After biting the woman, the police officer took the dog to the shelter.” This sentence needs revision because it reads as though the police officer bit the woman. The officer certainly may have bitten the woman, but because it’s not a common occurrence, the point should be clarified.

In order to eliminate ambiguity in writing, check all pronouns to be sure the antecedents are clearly identifiable, and reword sentences that may contain ambiguous antecedents or modifiers that do not modify the words they are supposed to modify. Unclear premises within a syllogism are not entirely true and leave room for refutation.


The “Syllogism and Enthymeme” page of the AP Language and Literature course Web site offers an excellent explanation of refutability in the context of the syllogism. The writers offer a definition of “syllogism” and follow it with an example that uses an irrefutable generalization as the major premise. 

Syllogism – Logical reasoning from inarguable premises; the conclusion is unarguable if the syllogism is structured correctly.

Example: Socrates is human, so he is mortal.

·         Major Premise: All humans are mortal (irrefutable generalization)
·         Minor Premise: Socrates is a human
·         Conclusion: Therefore, Socrates is mortal

The writers go on to define “enthymeme” and offer an example of a syllogism that leaves room for refutation within the major premise. In this example, the premise makes the reader wonder what is meant by “strong.” The goal when writing an essay or speech with a refutable premise is to anticipate the opposition's refutation and offer evidence to prove your point.

Enthymeme – Logical reasoning with one premise left unstated; instead of having irrefutable general truth for major premise, it is an assumption, statement, or proposition that the writer presumes and the audience accepts.

Example: Because John is a man, he is strong.

·         Major Premise: Men are strong (refutable, begs the question)
·         Minor Premise: John is a man.
·         Conclusion: Therefore, John is strong.

The responsibility of a writer, especially when arguing for an enthymeme or using a refutable premise, is to be sure to find evidence that convinces or persuades the audience to accept the premises and each subsequent conclusion. It may take a few sentences or even a full paragraph, for example, to prove that “Men are strong.” It may require that a writer define the words “men” and “strong” in context of the argument. The writer may have to provide not only definitions, but examples and descriptions or even narratives that help readers understand what is meant by “Men are strong.”

The goal is clarity.

When a writer uses the syllogism form to construct an essay or speech, that writer must carefully consider each and every statement to be sure each premise is true, each word used is the most specific word, and any refutable statements are proven with strong evidence.

Works Cited

“Syllogism and Enthymeme.” AP Language and Literature,

Want to read more about critical thinking and writing? Try

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Please contact the author for permission to republish.