Rhetorical Foundations

16 Defining Rhetoric & Practicing Rhetorical Analysis

Jennifer Clary-Lemon; Derek Mueller; and Kate L. Pantelides

This text is an excerpt from Try This: Research Methods For Writers

Defining Rhetoric

Whereas discourse analysis examines patterns, often of language in interaction, and content analysis considers quantifiable, systemic patterns in discourse, rhetorical analysis considers the context, audience, and purpose for discourse. Rhetorical analysis helps demonstrate the significance of a text by carefully considering the rhetorical situation in which it develops and the ways that it supports its purpose. There are lots of definitions of rhetoric, and the definition that makes the most sense to you and your understanding of communication will impact how you deploy rhetorical analysis. The following are a few definitions of rhetoric:

  • The ancient Greek rhetor, Aristotle: “Rhetoric may be defined as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.”
  • British rhetorician, I. A. Richards: “Rhetoric…should be a study of misunderstanding and its remedies” (3).
  • Contemporary American rhetors, Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs: “Rhetoric is a field of study in which people examine how persuasion and communication work, and it is also the art of human interaction, communication, and persuasion” (366).
  • Contemporary American genre theorist, Charles Bazerman:“The study of how people use language and other symbols to realize human goals and carry out human activities. . . . ultimately a practical study offering people greater control over their symbolic activity” (6).


Try This: Defining Rhetoric (30 minutes) 

Find a few alternative definitions of rhetoric on your own, and see which one is most appealing to you. Now, mush them together, paraphrase, and come up with a definition that resonates with your understanding of rhetoric.


Practicing Rhetorical Analysis

Rhetorical analysis helps us understand the various components that make a communicative act/artifact successful or not. A key component to effective rhetorical analysis is careful, active attention to what the author and her text are trying to accomplish. Krista Ratcliffe calls such attention rhetorical listening.

Most people summarize rhetorical listening as an orientation of active openness toward communication, and Ratcliffe identifies multiple components for such a stance:

  • “acknowledging the existence” of the other, their self, and discourse;
  • listening for “(un)conscious presences, absences, and unknowns”;
  • and purposefully “integrating this information into our world views and decision making.” (29)

Rhetorical listening often draws our attention to absences. Jacqueline Jones Royster’s work on literacy practices, particularly of nineteenth century Black women, demonstrates how listening for and being curious about absences often leads us to understudied rhetors. Temptaous McCoy has coined the term amplification rhetorics (AR), a method of seeking out and amplifying rhetorical practices that may not have been effectively heard. She describes AR as a way of examining and celebrating the experiences and community rhetorics of Black and marginalized communities.


Try This: Analyzing Keywords (60 minutes) 

Working with something you have recently written, assign keywords (one or two-word phrases) you believe would do well to convey its significance (don’t count, just consider what you think is most important about the text). To do so, follow these steps:

  • Identify five to seven keywords based on your sense of the text.
  • Then, turn to a keyword generating tool, such as TagCrowd (tagcrowd.com) or the NGram Analyzer (guidetodatamining.com/ngramAnalyzer/). Copy and paste your writing into the platform and initiate the analysis with the aid of the keyword generating tool. Which words or phrases match (as in, you thought they were significant and they show up frequently in your text)? Which words or phrases appear in one list but not the other? What do you think explains the differences in the lists?
  • Next, identify two keywords or phrases you believe are not sufficiently represented in either list. What are these keywords or phrases, and how are they significant to the work you are doing? Develop a one-page revision memo that accounts for how you could go about expanding the presence of these underrepresented words or phrases in your writing.


Another way of thinking of rhetorical listening in the context of texts is Peter Elbow’s practice of “The Believing Game,” in which he encourages audience members to suspend potential disbelief or critique of a text. Instead of starting with critique, he works to step into the authors’ shoes and actually believe whatever they are suggesting. Complimentary to this practice is Sonja K. Foss and Cindy L. Griffin’s formulation of invitational rhetoric. They offer invitational rhetoric as counter to understandings of rhetoric as primarily about persuasion, like Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric. They see persuasion as ultimately about power, whereas invitational rhetoric instead works to develop equitable relationships. Like rhetorical listening, invitational rhetoric is a method for establishing understanding within relationships. They define such work as “an invitation to the audience to enter the rhetor’s world and see it as the rhetor does” (5). Although these approaches all differ, what they have in common is using rhetorical awareness to invite understanding rather than arguing for one’s own point of view or “winning” an argument.


Try This: Rhetorical Analysis (60 minutes) 

Practice rhetorical analysis. Select an article that interests you, perhaps one that you identified to work with in Chapter 3 or something you came across when you searched for potential corpora at the beginning of this chapter. Spend some time considering why this article is persuasive or appealing to you. The following questions may aid your consideration:

  • Who is the audience? What evidence suggests this audience?
  • What is the context in which it was written? What evidence suggests this?
  • What is its purpose? You might also identify the thesis or orienting principle and consider the larger relationship between the work’s purpose and its stated argument or principle. What evidence leads you to this finding?
  • Who is the author? Really—who is the author? Draw on your worknet findings (see Try This for a discussion of worknets) and consider the author’s relationship to this rhetorical situation. What is the exigency, or reason, for writing this work? Or, you might return to considering the Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How of this article.


There are many ways to practice rhetorical analysis, although it is often reduced to an equation rather than a tool for discovery of a text. Let rhetorical analysis be a method that opens up understanding and possibility rather than one that simply labels certain words or passages. Consider how identifying a particular rhetorical appeal adds depth and nuance to a text and connects you to it in complex ways. For instance, the previous “Try This” offered two approaches to rhetorical analysis. The next “Try This” offers two additional approaches. Consider which one resonates most with you. Which method helps you identify the significance and interest of a text?


Try This: More Rhetorical Analysis (60 minutes) 

Working with a text/genre/corpus of your choosing, develop responses to the following prompt. If you seek a text as the basis of your analysis, we recommend Captain Brett Crozier’s letter to shipmates aboard the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt during the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak.

In what ways does the author offer specific appeals to the audience? Consider particular instances of the following appeals in the text:

  • Kairos, which refers to timeliness—indications of why the text is contemporarily relevant
  • Ethos, which generally concerns the relative credibility of an author or argument
  • Logos, which means demonstrating specific pieces of evidence that support the text’s purpose
  • Pathos, which relates to engaging the emotions

Practice rhetorical listening. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is not here? Are there any notable absences? Things/people/ideas the author does not mention?
  • Are there ideas or appeals that potentially challenge your acceptance of the author’s work?

Although we have asked you to identify individual appeals, such rhetorical tools usually work together, and it can be hard to pull them apart. In identifying the various rhetorical components of a text, consider how they collaborate to make a text successful and persuasive . . . or not.






Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Defining Rhetoric & Practicing Rhetorical Analysis Copyright © 2021 by Jennifer Clary-Lemon; Derek Mueller; and Kate L. Pantelides is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book