Introduction - 3 Rhetorical Aims - 16 Categories


A Working Definition of Rhetoric

Rhetoric 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.” Or, rhetoric can 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?” Rhetoric also refers to the way people use language to influence, persuade, or communicate with other people. 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. 

We study rhetoric for two reasons: 1) to understand the communication of others, and 2) to make our own communication as effective as possible.

Here are some videos which may be helpful (they are also listed in the schedule):





https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kWc8H_pAwOY  -- some of the information in this video (especially from 4:40 to 9:30) apply to the AP (Advanced Placement) test and can be skipped over.

I also suggest looking at the following: a Proctor & Gamble ad - a Taylor Swift video - a Coke ad - a Budweiser ad - a Macklemore & Ryan Lewis video 

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.

WRONG FOCUS: Summary of content: The writer shows how violent conflict in gender relationships comes from conflicting assumptions that escalate into violence.

RIGHT FOCUS: Rhetorical analysis of form: 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.

You shouldn’t simply explain where and that certain strategies are used.  Your job is to examine how and why they’re used. The following merely observes where strategies are located:

In the first paragraph Smith uses a conceit comparing a heroine dealer to a vampire. In the second paragraph she uses cause and effect …

The following tells where strategies are and explains why and how they’re used:

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. …

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.

Block and Splice Approaches

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.

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.

In a block analysis you examine how the teams played in each period, how the play changed from one period to the next, and what was the overall pattern of play:

Paragraph  Period          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 compare different aspects—such as goalie and defence performance—throughout the game:

Paragraph  Period          Analysis

1                      1-3          Goalie performance throughout game

2                      1-3          Defence performance throughout game

3                      1-3          Relation of goalie performance to defence performance



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.

16 Rhetorical Categories

If you look into classical or scholarly names for rhetoric, you’ll find tremendous detail and a rather alienating naming system -- that is if you don’t know Latin or Greek! Don’t worry about all this. Your job is to see what the author is doing and then describe it in your own terms. If the 16 categories help, great. If not, choose another term or category. Don’t, however, avoid helpful and well-known categories -- such as the 16 listed below -- in favour of obscure or idiosyncratic ones.

Once you have isolated appeals or strategies, you need to show how they tie into the author’s overall aim or point. You need to show how one appeal or strategy is linked to another. Writers and directors don’t think in lists; rather, they create pieces that are integrated and unified. When you are analyzing, you need to keep this integrity and unity in mind all the time. 

An essay that merely lists appeals or strategies and shows how each works in a piece -- without showing how they are linked -- won’t get higher than a B. I strongly suggest that instead of isolating appeals or strategies and then figuring out how they fit together, first think about how the whole piece works. Then isolate some of the strategies involved, and pick the most important strategy (or two or three of the most important strategies if you can see how they are related). Doing an analysis this way will allow you to arrive at a unified or integrated thesis more easily.

Remember that in rhetorical analysis your goal is not to determine whether the appeal is effective or not. That is what we’ll be doing in evaluation. You may indicate the effectiveness of rhetoric to some degree, but it is not the focus of your analysis. If you want to evaluate a little bit, do this in your introduction or conclusion.

Read the 16 categories very carefully, and see if you can recognize their operation in what you read and see in newspapers, on TV, in films, etc.

1. Space or Setting

From a practical point of view (rather than from a philosophical or theological point of view), the three dimensions of space, along with the fourth dimension of time, constitute the world that exists around us. One might argue that an author’s attempt to make us see space in a certain light is thus an attempt to make us see reality in a certain light.

Almost all types of narrative (16) need a setting—for example, “Last night in my apartment…”, “On a dark and stormy night,” etc. Setting tells the reader or listener where things take place, and often sets up the theme or argument. For example, if the author of an environmental argument sets the scene with a perfect clear blue lake, then he can shock us with the polluting of this lake. Or, if he begins by describing scenes of industrial carnage, he could go more directly into an argument against pollution.

In literature, film and TV, space and time are often seen in terms of setting and plot. Writers often arrange the structure of their narrative in flashbacks and flash-forwards, which in film can be accompanied by voice-overs.

2. Time or Chronology

Time is (from a philosophical angle) a seamless sequence of spaces (1), and in most writing time is a fundamental element. You can always give the basic spatial and temporal setup in your introduction—as in The text was written in France in 2005, the year of the car-burnings. Then, if applicable, you could in the body of your essay go into more detail—about, for instance, how the author shifts backward in time, from Paris in 2005 to Paris in 1789, the year of the French Revolution, and then forward in time to the more recent Paris of 1968, when students took to the streets to change education and society. What would be the effect of this arrangement of time? Is the author using the issues of earlier times (peasant and bourgeois revolt in 1789, and student revolt in 1968) to imply parallels to a more recent time (immigrant unrest in 2005)? This example could also be analyzed in terms of three examples (11) of revolt, or in terms of comparison (12) of three revolts.

3. Ethos (moral character or authority)

Authors appeal to their own authority, reputation, fairness, reasonableness, status, or trustworthiness: “As a broker, I can tell you which stocks you ought to buy”; “Since I was a quarterback, let me sell you a bar of soap”; “In all my time in the U.S. Senate, I have never seen such a ridiculous plan”; “Having considered the plan very carefully, I suggest we invest two billion dollars in the Betamax video format”; “As a mother of three boys and three girls, I can tell you that boys are more difficult to control.” American directors often make use of ethos or authority when they show the status of politicians (a man walks up to the podium and is introduced as “The President of the United States”), mafia bosses (a man in a finely tailored suit is introduced as “Carlo Gambino”), technology wizards (such as “the Warlock” in Die Hard 4.0), powerful businessmen, scientists, priests, etc.

4. Pathos (emotion)

Authors appeal to your emotions—your fears, sympathies, compassion, frustrations, prejudices, etc. For example: “How can you refuse to help this poor baby dying of AIDS in a shantytown?”; “If you loved me you would do this for me”; “Are you really going to let homosexuals run in elections?”; “All people who love their country must hunt down all subversive or dissenting elements within it”; “Since the Calgary Flames are the best hockey team in Canadian history, the city of Calgary should be given a special sports grant from the federal government.”

5. Logos (logic and reasoning)

Authors appeal to your logic or reason: “Since expensive drugs are the problem, we must lower the cost of drugs”; “If we fund heroin use, then we are giving tacit approval to its use”; “The only rational solution to the AIDS problem is a combination of health and economic measures.” Logic in often the main element in courtroom scenes. For instance, in Good Night and Good Luck (2005) the director George Clooney uses all three appeals when he redefines the patriotism of the press during the McCarthy hearings in 1953.

Note: Ethos, pathos, and logos are very large categories that overlap with many of the other categories in this list. For instance, cause and effect (9) provides a logical structure to events in time (2). Categories overlap because we are a complex mix of thinking and emotion, and because we all have different ways of perceiving the complex world around and within us. Don't worry if you stray from one category to another; analyze the relation between the two categories, and then come back to your main category. The closer you get to explaining the intricate nature of rhetoric, the closer you get to explaining the complexity of communication and representation.

6. Definition

Is the author urging you to re-think the meaning of a term or idea—such as democracy, freedom, meaning, responsibility, honesty, corruption, peer pressure, self-image, addiction, or love? Does the definition predispose you to think about the topic in a certain way, or is it a standard dictionary definition? For example, if the author defines love as the spiritual communion between a man and a woman, how would this facilitate a discussion of celibacy? On the other hand, if love is defined as an irrepressible urge to be with a particular person, how might this facilitate a discussion of safe sex?

7. Categorization

Is the author dividing up the topic in a way that makes you include or exclude certain things? What are the relationships between the categories? Think of other possible ways the topic might be divided up. This will make you see more clearly the way the author has done it. For instance, if the author divides the topic of crime into 1) crime and 2) punishment, and then you think about the way you would add 3) rehabilitation, this helps you see more clearly the binary or dualistic approach the author takes. Remember that you aren’t evaluating the way the author divides the topic (that you’ll do in evaluation); you’re examining how and why the author constructs categories.

8. Process and sequence

Sequences often link categories (7) and often work chronologically (2), although you can also have an analysis that works backwards in time -- often from effect to cause. For example, an essay could give the history of Hastings and Main -- how it changed from being the centre of town to being a rougher area with many alcoholics and drug addicts (this would follow a chronological sequence). Or, an essay could start by describing Hasting and Main today, and then may go back to the causes of its present state (this would invert the chronological sequence).  

Many manuals use process and sequence in order to describe the operation of machines, systems, and appliances. We won’t be going into these descriptions, as they’re the subject of technical writing. Scientific disciplines such as Physics and Chemistry also make great use of process and sequence, as the scientific method, experiments, and procedures require repeatable and verifiable steps that need to be clearly delineated in ordered sequences.

Directors often give sequences of events, as in a montage (see Team America for a funny take on the montage). Sequences can imply rather than state cause and effect (9)

 9. Cause and effect

This is a sequence (6) divided in two parts and connected by the linear flow of time (2). Sometimes there’s an implied cause and effect, as when an author describes a series of events so that you can’t help but infer that the earlier event caused the later one.

10. Description

This refers to giving details and using very specific language. It can include using comparative and stylistic devices such as analogy or tone (12, 14) and often delineates space and time (1, 2). Ask yourself if the description is designed to make you picture the subject mentally (if so, why?) or make your respond emotionally (if so, why?). In TV and film, description is basically done by the camera, but can also be done by voice-overs, lyrics in songs, and dialogue. In Gandhi, Attenborough gives detail of the massacre in Amritsar to make us see British control less as a matter of policy than of killing people, and to set up certain visual images that he’ll return to—the well where the baby and her mother are shot, and the field of shoes. The crying baby and the shoes are details that provide specificity so that we can see the way that the larger political landscape applies to the practical, physical lives of real people. 

11. Examples

Examples are indispensable, because if you want people to believe you when you say that something happens, you need to show where and when this thing happens. How many examples does the author use, and how do they help make the point? In TV and film, examples can be seen in the range of characters, personality traits, or scenarios the director explores.

12. Comparison and Contrast

This category is often an extension of examples (7), except that the writer is usually asking you to compare two related or differing examples. A comparison can also be made through analogies, metaphors (13), and other stylistic devices (14). In TV and film, comparison is often made by switching back and forth between scenes or settings. Imagine a shift from a quiet suburban home where everyone is happy to the van where the killers are approaching the happy home... 

13. Metaphor

This is a very specific type of comparison in which one sees a complex situation in terms of a simpler one. In this way it’s like an analogy. The difference is that with metaphor the comparison is implicit, that is, it’s not stressed or made openly. For this reason it’s a very powerful way of using language, since it’s often affecting the way we think without our necessarily being aware of it.

If we talk of ‘fields of study,’ we are using a metaphor based on space or geography, one which suggests discreet or separate domains, like a wheat field next to a rye field. If we said ‘overlapping spectra of study’ we would think more in terms of overlap, which is appropriate given that life doesn’t come to us in discreet zones. Chemistry overlaps with biology, which overlaps with ecology, which overlaps with politics, which overlaps with human geography, etc.

If the comparison is unusual, the writer may be trying to shock us into an awareness. If it’s common, the writer may be trying to make his or her point conform to an idea we’re already familiar with.

Metaphor is also discussed under “Stylistic Devices” (14).

14. Stylistic Devices

These include sound, tone, repetition, juxtaposition, image, symbol, etc. This category also includes comparative devices such as analogies, similes, metaphors, and conceits. Ask yourself, How does one device work with the other strategies? For example, a certain tone (foreboding, dark, gloomy) can lead to a certain image (a dead bird on a seashore spilled with oil), both of which can help the author make an elegiac point (about environmentalism). Because students often confuse basic stylistic terms, I’ll provide some definitions and examples.

Image and imagery. An image is a visual impression—as in E.J. Pratt’s seagulls “etched upon the horizon” (from his poem, “Seagulls”). Here we see seagulls against the sky in our mind. The images are of birds in flight—small, sharp living things against a wide inanimate space. 

Symbol and symbolism. An image can remain a simple description, or it can be developed into a symbol. For example, a dove could simply be a bird a character sees on a path, next to a blue jay, and this may interest the character because he is an ornithologist. Or, the dove could be seen next to a hawk, and come to represent peace as opposed to aggression, as in ‘hawks and doves.’ 

Generally, symbols have either a personal meaning (the seagull may symbolize freedom and beauty to E.J. Pratt) or a public meaning (the dove symbolizes peace to most people). In general, a symbol is an object, not a person. 

Irony. Irony occurs when words and meaning are at odds, or when expectations are contradicted. For instance, if we expect a psychopathic serial killer to be punished, yet she is rewarded, then the situation is ironic. Dramatic irony occurs when the expectation or understanding of a character (or group of characters) is contradicted by the expectation or understanding of the reader or audience.   

Metaphor. While a simile compares two things explicitly (“Mike works like a horse”), a metaphor compares them implicitly (“Mike is a work horse”). Here is another way to think about the difference: similes are honest because they admit that a comparison is occurring, while a metaphor is a type of lie because it does not admit to being a comparison; rather, it equates two things that are not the same. Metaphor is a very important category, as it shapes our ideas in a great number of ways. See Postman’s essay CF ”Defending Against the Indefensible” for a look at the ways that metaphor shapes our thinking, even when we are not aware of it.

Conceit. A conceit extends or continues a metaphor, taking elements of it and exploring it in new ways.

Often people are confused by literary terms such as metaphor and conceit, as if these came from some obscure realm of academia, rather than from the way people explain their experience. Yet using a metaphor’s a very natural way of explaining—through analogy—things that are often quite difficult to explain. And using a conceit’s merely extending this metaphor so that people can see the way things connect. We can see how this works in “The One with the Sonogram at the End” (S1 E2) from Friends. Can you identify where simile shifts into metaphor, and metaphor shifts into conceit?

Monica: What you guys don’t understand is, for us, kissing is as important as any part of it.

Joey: Yeah, right!.......Y’serious?

Phoebe: Oh, yeah!

Rachel: Everything you need to know is in that first kiss.

Monica: Absolutely.

Chandler: Yeah, I think for us, kissing is pretty much like an opening act, y’know? I mean it’s like the stand-up comedian you have to sit through before Pink Floyd comes out.

Ross: Yeah, and-and it’s not that we don’t like the comedian, it’s that-that... that’s not why we bought the ticket.

Chandler: The problem is, though, after the concert’s over, no matter how great the show was, you girls are always looking for the comedian again, y’know? I mean, we’re in the car, we’re fighting traffic... basically just trying to stay awake.

Rachel: Yeah, well, word of advice: Bring back the comedian. Otherwise next time you’re gonna find yourself sitting at home, listening to that album alone.

Joey: (pause)....Are we still talking about sex?

15. Genre Devices

These include categories such as comedy, wit, sarcasm, irony, satire, parody, caricature, spoof, drama, tragedy, period piece, documentary, horror, action, thriller, novel, poem, pastoral, elegy, eulogy, utopia, dystopia, science fiction, cartoon, anime, etc.

Some genre devices—such as parody—are comparative in nature (12) and use a disrespectful or mocking tone (14). Is the author working within a recognizable tradition? For instance, is the author working within the tradition of satire or parody, in which an author is given a certain license to rail against the evils of society? Does the genre shift, and if so, why? For instance, a writer might start off with a humorous depiction of a historical figure, and then shift into a very serious discussion—in which case the humour might be used to draw the audience in to what might otherwise appear too heavy or serious.

TV shows and films are divided into genres yet within one genre you can switch genres momentarily.  For example in a very serious film you might have a comic moment to relieve the tension, or in a comic film you might deepen the impact with a serious moment.

16.  Narration

Is the text dominated by narrative (in which case the author is probably making a point rather than an argument) or is narrative used as an example?  Many writers who are not telling a story will use small stories or anecdotes to keep their readers interested (people have a natural fascination with the stories of other people’s lives, and with the way other people perceive the world).  Whose narrative is used, and why?  For instance, if the writer were to advance a point by telling a story about Abraham Lincoln, this would mean, first, that the writer’s appeal to ethos is working in conjunction with narrative, and second, that the writer may be targeting the emotions of an American audience.  Narrative is almost always rooted in space and time (1, 2), which in narration often takes the form of setting and plot, and narration is often accompanied by genre and stylistic devices (14, 15). 

Almost all TV shows and films rely on story-telling or narrative as the major mode of operating, as opposed to documentary which can use moments of narrative, yet is not guided by the need for character and conflict—the two crucial features of an engaging story. Narration is often analyzed according to schools of interpretation (historical, mythical, political, etc.) or according to character development, conflict between characters, theme, style (14), genre (15), space or setting (1), and time or plot (2).    


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