English 1130: Academic Writing

Rhetoric: Introduction & 3 Aims

A Working Definition of Rhetoric - 3 Rhetorical Aims - Block & Splice

Analyzing Form Rather Than Repeating Content - Think Like a Lawyer

A Working Definition of Rhetoric

We study rhetoric for at least two reasons: 1) to understand the communication of others, and 2) to make our own communication as effective as possible. The term itself has several many meanings. It can mean empty or manipulative words, as in “Oh, that’s just rhetoric; he’s saying he’ll provide free tuition because he wants to get elected.” Rhetoric can also refer to an assertion in the form of a question, as in the following rhetorical question: “Do you really want to crash your car into that guardrail while arguing with your girlfriend on your cellphone?” Finally, rhetoric can refer to the way people use communication strategies to influence, affect, or persuade. This is the sense in which we’ll be using the word. 

In Rhetoric, the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) defines his subject as the art of “discovering all the available means of persuasion in any given case.” This definition can be applied to fiction and non-fiction: in Wayne Booth’s Rhetoric of Fiction (1961) he writes about “the rhetorical resources available to the writer of epic, novel, or short story as he tries, consciously or unconsciously, to impose his fictional world upon the reader.” It can also be applied to text and other media, such as film and documentary. For our purposes, rhetoric means the manner in which writers (or directors) try to make their audiences see, think, feel, or believe something. 

3 Rhetorical Aims

Traditionally, people refer to three rhetorical aims or purposes:

1. Argument: to argue a particular case or point; to persuade; e.g. an editorial in a newspaper or magazine; a book or documentary that argues a particular case, an M.A. or Ph.D. thesis; a post-secondary essay in the Humanities

2. Exposition: to explain, inform, or educate; e.g. a news article, memo, bulletin, newsletter, textbook, manual, news program, documentary, Wikipedia article, how-to video on Youtube, etc.

3. Expression: to explore and to provoke thought and feeling; this can be creative or personal, and includes narrative; often a writer tries to make you see into a situation by showing what it's like experiencing it; e.g. an interview in a newspaper, a poem, short story, play, film, TV show, or novel

It isn't always easy to assign one rhetorical aim to any given piece, whether it's a written text or an audio-visual product. For instance, what are ads? Like an argument, they aim to persuade you that a product is good enough to buy, yet they often use explanations and expressive scenarios. The aim here isn't to identify a strict rhetorical aim for any given piece, but to keep in mind that each piece has a rhetorical aim (and in some cases more than one aim) that you must keep in mind as you are analyzing it. For instance, a trailer tends toward persuasion (it aims to persuade you that you should see the piece) while an opening credit sequence tends toward expression (it aims to put you in the right frame of mind or in the right mood to see what follows, and it often introduces key themes, characters, settings, etc.).  

When we get to evaluative analysis, rhetorical aim will become more important. Here, note the aim as you see it, and then focus on the rhetorical strategies — that is, on the techniques and structures used to reach the aim.

Please note that some instructors combine rhetorical analysis with evaluation. There's nothing wrong with this. Remember, however, that in this class your first essay is on rhetoric and your second essay is on evaluation. In general, keep the two separate.

Block & Splice

There are two main methods of approaching a text in terms of its arrangement on the page. The first is the block method, where you deal sequentially with the text — block by block, or section by section (making sure to highlight the relation between the blocks). The other is the slice method, where you analyze one aspect (or slice) as it appears throughout the text, and then relate this to another aspect (or slice) as it appears throughout the text. These two methods can be used to analyze many things — texts, films, parties, etc. In audio-visual media, blocks are usually blocks of time. The following sees a hockey game in terms of block and splice approaches.

Hockey Night at the College

In examining a hockey game, you start off with the overall structure or facts of the case: three periods of twenty minutes, plus goals scored. So far this is an observation. To analyze a game rigorously, you need to go into how the teams played, how the coaching strategies worked, etc.

Period   Paragraph      Analysis

1            1               Goals, strengths, weaknesses, offence and defence, strategy, etc.

2            2               Goals, etc., plus how play compared to 1st period

3            3               Goals, etc., plus how play compared to 1st and 2nd periods

In a splice analysis, you’d compare different aspects — such as A) goalie performance throughout the game and B) defence performance throughout the game:

Period    Paragraph    Analysis 

1-3         1               Goalie performance throughout game

1-3         2               Defence performance throughout game

1-3         3               Relation of goalie performance to defence performance

Analyzing Form Rather Than Repeating Content

The point a writer makes isn’t the rhetorical strategy. If you re-state the point in depth, you’re paraphrasing or summarizing the content. If you show how the point’s made, that is, if you explain the form in which it’s delivered, then you’re analyzing rhetoric. You shouldn’t simply explain where and that certain strategies are used.  Your job is to examine how and why they’re used.


✗ Summary of content; what: The writer shows that violent conflict in gender relationships comes from conflicting assumptions that escalate into violence.

✔ Analysis of form; how: The writer starts with an analogy, likening our interaction with the other sex to a walk through a minefield. He then expands on this analogy, using examples of conflict situations that blow up into full-out war.

〰️ Analysis of how but not why: In the first paragraph Smith uses a conceit comparing a heroine dealer to a vampire. In the second paragraph she uses cause and effect …

✔ Analysis of how and why: In the opening paragraph Smith grabs the reader’s attention by comparing a drug dealer to a vampire. She implies that a dealer keeps an addict alive so that the dealer can drain the addict of his life-blood, his will to be independent and healthy. In the process, the dealer turns the addict into a dark vampire-figure, who, like himself, operates outside the norms of society. Smith then switches from this pop culture vampire comparison to a more down-to-earth instance of cause and effect, which appeals more to the rational side of the reader. …

For examples of rhetorical analysis, see Rhetorical Analysis Samples and take a look at the following analyses of a Proctor & Gamble ad, a Taylor Swift video, a Coke ad, a Budweiser ad, and a Macklemore & Ryan Lewis video. The following videos on rhetoric may also be helpful: rhetorical analysis - strategies - 7 strategies - devices - analysis.

Think Like a Lawyer

In analyzing rhetorical strategy, try not to get bothered by the idea that there is only one strategy and that you may have picked the wrong one. Rather, pick the strategy that seems most important to you, and then show how it works throughout the text (or other media). Rhetorical analysis is not like doing a math equation or a science experiment; it is more like making a legal argument, one that aims at the most convincing case. Try to think less like a lab scientist with a specific methodology to follow, and more like a lawyer with a variety of strategies to choose from. Each lawyer will emphasize different aspects of the situation and will play to his or her own perceptual, interpretive, and rhetorical skills. 

This does not mean, however, that you can make any argument you want. Just as a lawyer has to keep in mind the basic facts of a case (the police report, the time line of the crime, etc.), so you need to take into account the basic rhetorical situation—for instance, the simplicity or complexity of the communication, the tone, the historical context, etc. You don’t want to make an argument that leaves out or contradicts key aspects. Again, you are trying to make the most convincing case you can.


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