Rhetorical Foundations

18 Using Rhetorical Appeals

Erica M. Stone and Melanie Gagich & Emilie Zickel

Rhetoric, as the previous chapters have discussed, is the way that rhetors/authors/writers/composers use language in order to communicate with an audience. Once we understand the out of which a text is created (why it was written, for whom it was written, by whom it was written, how the medium in which it was written creates certain constraints, or perhaps freedoms of expression), we can look at how all of those contextual elements shape the author’s creation of the text.

Classical rhetorical appeals are one way of examining the ways that rhetors, or authors, craft arguments to appeal in particular ways to their audiences. Below we address three common rhetorical appeals—also known as : , , and . We offer a brief overview here, but it’s worth spending more time understanding the nuances of rhetorical appeals. In fact in the next section, Readings about Rhetorical Foundations, we do just that!

One other classical rhetorical concept to keep in mind as you consider appeals is , or timeliness. The Ancient Greek word for time itself is . Kairos is something different (and perhaps much cooler). Kairos is about the timeliness of an argument. We often think about timeliness when we’re designing arguments in our everyday lives. If I was going to ask a friend or family member for a favor, I might do it after I have done something they’ve asked of me. At the least, I wouldn’t ask my friend to wash the dinner dishes for me if I’m sitting with my feet on the couch, unless I was very ill. Outdoor entertainment is often timed such that it happens when the sun is going down and the light is particularly beautiful. As you read about ethos, pathos, and logos below, think about how kairos is also operating at all times to make these particular appeals more or less successful.


Rhetorical Appeals

Rhetorical appeals refer to ethos, pathos, and logos. These are classical Greek terms, dating back to Aristotle, who is traditionally seen as “the father of rhetoric.” To be rhetorically effective (and thus persuasive), an author must engage the audience in a variety of compelling ways, which involves carefully choosing how to craft an argument so that the outcome, audience agreement with the argument or point, is achieved. Aristotle defined these modes of engagement and gave them the terms that we still use today: logos, pathos, and ethos.


Defining Logos, Pathos, & Ethos


Logos: Appeal to Logic

Logic. Reason. Rationality. Logos is brainy and intellectual, cool, calm, collected, objective.

When authors rely on logos, it means that they are using logic, careful structure, and objective evidence to appeal to the audience. An author can appeal to an audience’s intellect by using information that can be fact-checked using multiple sources) and thorough explanations to support key points. Additionally, providing a solid and non-biased explanation of one’s argument is a great way for an author to invoke logos.

For example, if I were trying to convince my students to complete their homework, I might explain that I understand everyone is busy and they have other classes (non-biased), but the homework will help them get a better grade on their test (explanation). I could add to this explanation by providing statistics showing the number of students who failed and didn’t complete their homework versus the number of students who passed and did complete their homework (factual evidence).

Logical appeals rest on rational modes of thinking, such as those listed below:

  • Comparison: a comparison between one thing and another, similar thing to help support your claim (It is important that the comparison is fair and valid, and the things being compared must share significant traits of similarity.)
  • Cause/effect thinking: you argue that X has caused Y, or that X is likely to cause Y to help support your claim (Be careful with the latter; it can be difficult to predict that something “will” happen in the future.)
  • Deductive reasoning: starting with a broad, general claim/example and using it to support a more specific point or claim
  • Inductive reasoning: using several specific examples or cases to make a broad generalization
  • Exemplification: use of many examples or a variety of evidence to support a single point
  • Elaboration: moving beyond just including a fact, but explaining the significance or relevance of that fact
  • Coherent thought: maintaining a well-organized line of reasoning; not repeating ideas or jumping around


Pathos: Appeal to Emotions

When authors rely on pathos, it means that they are trying to tap into the audience’s emotions to get them to agree with the stated claim. This could involve making the audience feel empathy or disgust for the person/group/event being discussed, or perhaps connection to or rejection of the person/group/event being discussed. An author using pathetic appeals wants the audience to feel something: anger, pride, joy, rage, or happiness.  For example, many of us have seen the ASPCA commercials that use photographs of injured puppies, or sad-looking kittens, and slow, depressing music to emotionally persuade their audience to donate money.

Pathos-based rhetorical strategies are any strategies that get the audience to “open up” to the topic, the argument, or to the author. Emotions can make us vulnerable, and an author can use this vulnerability to get the audience to believe that their argument is a compelling one. Good questions to ask when analyzing for pathos are provided below:

  • What is the author trying to make the audience feel?
  • How is the author doing that?

Pathetic appeals might include any of the following:

  • expressive descriptions of people, places, or events that help the reader to feel or experience those events
  • vivid imagery of people, places or events that help readers feel like they are seeing those events
  • sharing personal stories that make the reader feel a connection to, or empathy for, the person being described
  • using emotion-laden vocabulary as a way to put the reader into that specific emotional mindset
  • using any information that will evoke an emotional response from the audience

When reading a text, try to locate when the author is trying to convince the reader using emotions because, if used to excess, pathetic appeals can indicate a lack of substance or emotional manipulation of the audience.


Ethos: Appeal to Values/Trust

Ethical appeals have two facets: audience values and authorial credibility/character.

On the one hand, when authors make ethical appeals, they are attempting to tap into the values or ideologies that the audience holds; some examples of these values or ideologies are  patriotism, tradition, justice, equality, dignity for all humankind, and self-preservation, or other specific social, religious, or philosophical values. These values can sometimes feel very close to emotions, but they are felt on a social level rather than only on a personal level. When authors evoke the values that the audience cares about as a way to justify or support their argument, we classify that as ethos. The audience will feel that the author is making an argument that is “right”⸺in the sense of  “moral rightness”; for example, the author may be thinking “My argument rests upon those values that matter to you. Therefore, you should accept my argument.” This first part of the definition of ethos, then, is focused on the audience’s values.

On the other hand, this sense of referencing what is “right” in an ethical appeal connects to the other sense of ethos: the author. Ethos that is centered on the author revolves around two concepts: the credibility of authors and their character.

Credibility of authors is determined by their knowledge and expertise on the subject at hand. For example, if you are learning about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, would you rather learn from a professor of physics or a cousin who took two science classes in high school thirty years ago? It is fair to say that, in general, the professor of physics would have more credibility to discuss the topic of physics. To establish credibility, authors may draw attention in the text to who they are or what kinds of experience they have with the topic being discussed; this is an ethical appeal.  On the other hand, some authors do not have to establish their credibility because the audience already knows who they are and that they are credible.

Character is another aspect of ethos, and it is different from credibility because it involves personal history and even personality traits. A person can be credible but lack character or vice versa. For example, in politics, sometimes the most experienced candidates⸺those who might be the most credible candidates⸺fail to win elections because voters do not accept their character. Politicians take pains to shape their character as leaders who have the interests of the voters at heart. The candidates who successfully prove to voters (the audience) that they have the type of character that can be trusted are more likely to win.

Thus, ethos comes down to trust. How can authors get the audience to trust them? How can the author make themself appear as a credible speaker who embodies the character traits that the audience values?

In building ethical appeals, we see authors do one or more of the following:

  • referring either directly or indirectly to the values that matter to the intended audience (so that the audience will trust the speaker)
  • using language, phrasing, imagery, or other writing styles common to people who hold those values, thereby “talking the talk” of people with those values (again, so that the audience is inclined to trust the speaker)
  • referring to their experience and/or authority with the topic (and therefore demonstrating their credibility)
  • referring to their own character, or making an effort to build their character in the text

When reading, you should always think about author credibility regarding the subject as well as their character. When analyzing, you should consider how an author is directly or indirectly establishing ethos.



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Using Rhetorical Appeals by Erica M. Stone and Melanie Gagich & Emilie Zickel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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