Rhetorical Appeals and Analysis

Jim Beatty

When the word “rhetoric” is used in everyday conversation and in the media, it often has a negative connotation. People will dismiss someone’s ideas as “just rhetoric” or even “empty rhetoric.” Additionally, people think of “rhetorical questions” as obvious conclusions. In composition and higher education, however, the concept has a different meaning: It gives us a systematic method for seeing how different writing choices work together to produce—or fail to produce—meaning. This sense of “rhetoric” is an important toolbox for students to use to develop critical reading and writing skills needed in college and beyond.

When college professors introduce this concept of rhetoric, they almost always start with Aristotle’s classic three appeals: Logos (logic and reasoning); Ethos (the author’s credibility and trustworthiness); and Pathos (appeals to readers’ emotions). There is a lot more to these categories than those quick definitions, however. There are many specific strategies writers use to establish these broad categories, and some are more effective than others. Furthermore, as with any system of classification, there can be significant overlap among these three appeals. For example, an effective use of pathos could also bolster the writer’s ethos and effective logos could bolster a sense of pathos. To become more effective critical readers and writers, we need to break down these categories into finer details. 


shows three overlapping circles labeled writer, subject and audience, the overlap between writer and subject labeled exigence, the overlap between writer and audience labeled purpose, the overlap between subject and audience labeled genre, and the ultimate overlap of all of them labeled text
Image from: Jory, Justin. “The Rhetorical Situation,” OpenEnglish@SLCC


Most people assume that logos is achieved by including or providing facts and statistics in your writing. While these certainly help, other strategies could contribute to—or deter from—a successful use of logos: 

  • Reasoning: The writer needs to help readers understand how their sources apply to the writer’s unique topic. This is where a writer explains how they got from the source material to their own conclusions. The “logic” of logos requires explaining how your evidence leads to your conclusions.
  • Facts and Statistics: These need to come from credible sources.  They should also be verifiable by looking at other sources. Just stating a fact is not enough, however. A successful writer needs to provide their own thoughts to show readers how the fact does what they claim it does.


Ethos is often explained by saying “ethics.”  That doesn’t quite capture what it means for rhetoric. There certainly is an ethical component to successful communication, but the way a writer demonstratesethics” depends on the credibility they establish in their writing, along with not trying to trick or manipulate readers (often by employing logical fallacies)Ways in which writers try to establish ethos include:

  • Borrowing Ethos:  Writers can make themselves seem trustworthy by citing the ideas of other credible experts in the field. They can hurt their ethos by citing inappropriate so-called “experts.” Note: Borrowing ethos can be a powerful strategy for student writers.
  • Credentials and Reputation: Some people are immediately trusted because of their reputation for being an expert in the field. No one would question the ethos of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It can also come from a person’s academic degrees and work experience. If information on bacteria is needed, consult a biologist. People may unethically present inappropriate or vague credentials, however, to sell a product or idea.


Effectively using Pathos can be tricky for most writers. After years of schools insisting they be “objective” on “non-biased,” some writers shy away from emotional appeals. But writing without a sense of passion can be rather boring. The ethical use of emotion can be a powerful part of effective writing. It is not sufficient evidence to prove anything, but it can help establish why something should matter to readers. Ways writers can do this include: 

  • Personal Stories: Writers can powerfully draw in an audience with true stories of how they have been personally impacted by their topic. A writer’s own experience can also bolster their ethos.
  • Others’ Experiences: If they don’t have their own relevant experience, sharing others’ experiences can be just as powerful. For any important issue, it is essential to show the human face of it. For example, immigration policy should not be discussed without hearing the story of a five-year-old boy with PTSD after being separated from his parents.
  • Imagery: Using visuals/pictures can further strengthen an emotional reaction. A picture of that boy would really reinforce the emotional appeal of the story. A writer can also create emotionally evocative images in the reader’s mind with vivid descriptions.

Remember, pathos is not sufficient evidence. It needs to correlate with other research based in logos and ethos. Some writers make the mistake of assuming their own experience is typical when it is not.

Keep in mind that all three of these significantly overlap: Solid logic and reasoning lead readers to trust writers and produce a positive emotional response. Using credible sources bolsters the logical appeal and also causes readers to feel comfortable with the information. Giving a sense of passion and a personal stake in the topic makes the writer seem more reasonable and trustworthy.


Effective Strategies

Let’s shift from the categories and definitions to specific strategies used to achieve their goals.

Tone/Word Choice

The specific language we use greatly influences how readers judge these rhetorical appeals. This is due, in part, to the lack of contextual clues that we would have when speaking (inflection, body language, etc.) but that are not present in writing. Writers must gauge the likely impression of the words they choose in order to convey their intended meaning.


For logos, consider if the tone is appropriate to the situation. Is it too informal or too formal for the intended audience? On the individual-word level: all words have a denotative (dictionary) definition and a connotative one, which includes all the assumptions, emotions, and associations most people have with a given way of describing thingsThink of the very different effects of using the term “terrorist” vs. “freedom fighter.” 


Tone and word choice can also lead readers to trust or distrust a writer. Informal language may not be best suited for consequential topicsOn the other hand, overly technical language will be off-putting to a more general audience.


The connotative meanings of certain words can carry a strong emotional response. Think of the difference between calling something a “problem” vs. an “epidemic.”  Writers need to carefully consider the emotional weight of their words and whether or not that will produce the desired effect in readers. 


Organization also plays a large role in readers perceptions of the rhetorical strategies. It can even have a subtle, psychological effect on perceptions of “readability.”


Writers need to show a clear logic behind moving from one point to the next. If the writer jumps from point to point with no discernible logic for doing so, readers will get lost. One great way to implement this is through the use of effective transitions. This displays the logical connection between individual paragraphs as well as a thoughtful approach to the order in which they occur.


Helping readers move easily from one point to the text will tend to make them implicitly trust the writers. Ideas that seem to occur in a random order seem like the author is unorganized. It can also suggest a lack of seriousness and attention to detail.


Writing that is difficult to follow logically causes feelings of frustration and impatience in readers. However, if the writer carefully leads their readers through their ideas—especially complex ones—readers feel more at ease trying to understand the material.

Other Considerations

A few other things to keep in mind when evaluating the effectiveness of a text:


The visual component of writing can have a big impact on rhetorical effectiveness. It can make a writer seem more reasonable, trustworthy, and relatable. This can include infographics, charts, and pictures. Clear grammar and diction also play a role here.

“So What?”

Successful writing needs to leave readers with a clear reason why they should care, even if they are not personally affected by the topic. Giving readers a personal stake clenches the logic, trustworthiness, and positive emotional reaction. Writers should connect their own area of interest to commonly held values.

Danger Zone

There is also an ethical component to deploying these strategies. Some writers misuse them to “trick” readers, whether intentionally or not.


The logic of an argument needs to be “valid.” The relationships between different ideas writers establish need to make sense. A common pitfall here is relying on logical fallacies. The media and politicians use this type of lazy thinking to persuade people all of the time. Logical fallacies often oversimplify complex ideas and/or bring up irrelevant concerns to detract from the real issue.


When borrowing ethos, writers need to make sure their own sources have the relevant expertise, credentials, and reputation to establish them as an expert. If there is ever a question concerning the reliability of sources, lateral research can help determine it. See Tiffany Rousculp’s article “Critically Thinking About Credibility.”


Writers need to be aware of how overly emotional appeals can be manipulative.  Writers who rely only on pathos may get a strong emotional reaction, but without logos and ethos, that reaction can be unfounded and even dangerous. Throughout history, unethical leaders have played on people’s ugliest emotions to justify persecution and suffering. 


Understanding how writers make these rhetorical effects and how they reach—or fail to reach—audiences is an important skill in all college classes. Considering these strategies is essential when it comes time to be a writer, especially when completing consequential writing tasks like scholarship and job applications.

Understanding these strategies can also make people more critical consumers of information. Mass media and politics frequently employ unethical strategies under these three categories. This has been accelerated through social media and emerging AI technologies. Everyone wants their writing to have the desired effect, and no one wants to be tricked into adopting ridiculous or even dangerous beliefs.

Understanding how to evaluate—and use—these rhetorical strategies is a powerful tool both for being a more informed, critical consumer of information and for producing texts that have the effects on readers we intend.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Open English @ SLCC Copyright © 2016 by Jim Beatty is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book