4 Rhetoric

Mel A. Topf, PhD JD

We commonly hear the word “rhetoric” used in a negative way, to indicate the empty, inflated or misleading language of someone who has an untrustworthy agenda. (“The governor’s speech was just a lot of rhetoric.”)  But in your study of how writing works, you’ve learned rhetoric has a more significant meaning—the techniques we use to communicate effectively and persuasively.   Even though many of us have developed our rhetorical knowledge, we still often make the mistake of thinking we are simply transferring information when we write or speak and, in essence, forget to consider those techniques that make our communication persuasive.  In fact, whether we are thinking about it or not, we are always using rhetoric because, as Aristotle wrote, “we cannot do without it.”  Our communicating is rarely effective, he said, “with no help beyond the bare facts,” because “the way in which a thing is said does affect its intelligibility.”

Consider a corporate project manager, wanting to be sure a project stays on schedule, who says to the employees responsible for the project: “Completing this project by June 15 is important.”   But she could also say, “It’s really, really important for all of us that we complete the project by June 15 at the very latest.”  The substance of both statements is the same, but the second version adds several distinct and common rhetorical devices to emphasize what is important.  One, it adds “really,” a word often used as an intensifier (without adding additional information).  Two, it repeats the word.  Redundancy is a common means of emphasis.  Three, it adds “for all of us” to focus on those responsible.  Fourth, it moves the point about importance from the end of the sentence to the beginning, that is, alters the “arrangement” of the sentence.  Note that none of these rhetorical differences adds any substantive information.  That’s rhetoric at work.


Some Concepts in Rhetoric

In English literature classes you probably encountered some rhetorical concepts that apply to specific language usage.  For example, metonymy is the name of one thing applied to another (like the crown standing for the Queen), or oxymoron (like “darkness visible”). Even metaphor, which we tend to think of as literary, comes out of the rhetorical tradition.  But when we think about how writing works, we need to consider an equally important set of rhetorical concepts that apply to the context or circumstances within which we communicate. Here are several important ones which inform the kinds of decisions we make as writers.

Rhetorical Situation.  The rhetorical situation involves the interplay among the speaker’s or writer’s purposes, text, audience, and academic, public, or professional context within which the communication occurs.

Framing.  A frame is a way of shaping or packaging a distinct perspective on a subject that leads the audience to accept the message.  Sustainability, for example, could be framed as a moral crisis or an economic opportunity.  Our evidence, reasoning, tone, and style all contribute to how we frame our text so that the audience gets the message:  for instance, as crisis or as opportunity.

Exigence.  Exigence, or exigency, is the set of circumstances that create the demand or felt pressure for writing or speaking. (It’s from the Latin word for “demand.”)  The circumstances create a need to fill a gap or overcome an obstacle, to meet a request, to resolve a dispute, to solve a problem, and so on.  In the example given above, let’s say the manager’s concern about deadlines arose from some employees having missed a recent deadline, or from the contract they are working under imposing harsh financial penalties for missing a deadline.  Both circumstances create an exigence that “demands” that the manager not simple notify employees of the deadline, but also emphasize how important it is.

Kairos.  Closely related to exigence is Kairos—good timing.  In school writing you may have little opportunity or need to make judgments about the timing of your writing or speaking, or have reason to mention it directly, since deadlines and syllabi often make the decision for you.  In many real-world contexts, however, judgements about timing are crucial.  Kairos is the rhetorical term for the right or opportune moment when something is best stated or done.  It also refers to the expressly stated recognition of the appropriate moment to drive home an argument.  As Martin Luther King asserted in his “I have a Dream Speech” of 1963, “Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy.”    

Audience.  Audience is the recipient of a communication.  There may be several audiences for a single communication, with varying or even conflicting interests.  As writers, we must make clear judgments about how to address varying audiences, guided by the need to achieve the writer’s purpose.  The project manager’s audience, for example, is a group whose members should have in common an interest in successful completion of the project.

Discourse community.  This is a group with interests in common, always involving shared language practices that help achieve shared goals. It is within a discourse community that we write and speak.  Students, professors, and staff at a university is one.  Red Sox fans, an introductory biology course, members of a corporation, and constitutional lawyers are others.  You may of course be members of many discourse communities, each using in different ways language, writing, and writing genres to achieve the community’s goals.


Rhetoric and Problems That Matter

Whether we are interrogating a problem from an academic perspective, posing a solution to a problem in a professional setting, or identifying a problem that needs attention in the public sphere—whenever we write to an audience—we are using rhetoric. The more we are aware of what these concepts are and how they function, the greater facility we gain with communicating persuasively—and the more likely we are to move people toward a new way of thinking and/or acting about problems that matter.


Works Cited

Aristotle, Rhetoric, 1404a.

King, Jr., Martin Luther, “I Have a Dream.” National Archives, www.archives.gov/files/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf. Accessed 8 June 2020.


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Introduction to Professional and Public Writing Copyright © 2020 by Mel A. Topf, PhD JD is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.