Writing 101: What Is Rhetoric? Learn About Rhetorical Devices in Writing and 3 Modes of Persuasion in Rhetoric

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 22, 2019 • 4 min read

Politicians deliver rallying cries to inspire people to act. Advertisers create catchy slogans to get people to buy products. Lawyers present emotional arguments to sway a jury. These are all examples of rhetoric—language designed to motivate, persuade, or inform.



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What Is Rhetoric?

Rhetoric is the art of persuasion through communication. It is a form of discourse that appeals to people’s emotions and logic in order to motivate or inform. The word “rhetoric” comes from the Greek “rhetorikos,” meaning “oratory.”

Although rhetoric was originally used exclusively in public speaking, both writers and speakers use it today to deliver inspirational and motivational messages.

Where Did Rhetoric Originate?

The study of rhetoric developed alongside democracy in fifth-century Athens.

  • As ancient Greeks began to run for office, they used rhetoric in their speeches to win votes.
  • As the court system grew, so did the need for lawyers, and persuasive speech. In the fourth century B.C., Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote The Art of Rhetoric, in which he defined rhetoric as the “ability to discover the available means of persuasion.”
  • Plato, Aristotle’s mentor, took a more philosophical approach to rhetoric. He was skeptical of his protege’s practical, real-world application of rhetoric, viewing it as a superficial, deceptive method of communication.
  • In the first century B.C., Cicero, a Roman lawyer and philosopher, expanded on the definition of rhetoric, interpreting it as a form of dramatic performance.
  • These early philosophers laid the foundation of rhetorical tradition still used today.
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3 Modes of Persuasion in Rhetoric

In order to shape words into effective rhetoric, Aristotle outlined three “modes of persuasion.” Each appeals to a different part of the human psyche in order to influence.

  1. Logos: This argument appeals to logic and reason. It relies on the content of the message, including data and facts, to support its claims. Harper Lee uses logos in the courtroom scenes in To Kill a Mockingbird. To persuade a jury that the right-handed Tom Robinson is innocent, Atticus Finch shows evidence that proves the culprit had to be left-handed, excluding Robinson as a suspect. Learn more about logos here.
  2. Ethos: This element of rhetoric relies on the reputation of the person delivering the message. The writer or speaker must be a notable person or known authority on the subject matter. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the narrator, Nick Carraway, establishes his credibility as an objective insider to gain the reader’s trust. Learn more about ethos here.
  3. Pathos: This mode establishes an emotional connection with the audience. Advertisements often tug on heartstrings to influence people to buy a product or service. Pathos is also used in literature to encourage readers to invest in a story. Learn more about pathos here.


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What Is a Rhetorical Device?

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There are a number of stylistic techniques and literary devices writers use to create a rhetorical effect and convey a point of view. Rhetorical devices are the tools used to manipulate language to construct arguments. Examples include:

  • Rhetorical questions. This emphasizes a point by posing a question without expectation of an answer. For example, “Do birds fly?” is a rhetorical question that means: “Isn’t it obvious?”
  • Hyperbole. This exaggerates claims to prove a point and make an impression on an audience. Former U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used hyperbole when he declared, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
  • Chiasmus. This is a figure of speech that rearranges the normal order of words. A good example is former U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s famous line, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Learn more about chiasmus here.
  • Eutrepismus. This commands authority and clarity by presenting an argument through a numbered list of facts or points.

3 Examples of Rhetoric in Literature and Speeches

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A rhetorical situation is a scenario in which someone presents a persuasive argument, taking into consideration the purpose of the message, the medium (print or spoken words,) and the audience. Popular examples include:

  1. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream.” On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., gave an impassioned speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. He implored people to end racial discrimination using figurative language and the rhetorical device anaphora, which emphasizes a point through repetition.
  2. Abraham Lincoln, “The Gettysburg Address.” In 1863, Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States, delivered the Gettysburg Address during the Civil War. Lincoln’s goal was to boost the country’s morale, honor fallen soldiers, and reinvigorate their mission to abolish slavery by declaring “that all men are created equal.” Incorporating ethos, logo, and pathos to make his case, the Gettysburg Address became one of the most powerful speeches in history.
  3. William Shakespeare, Richard III. Military commanders often use rhetoric to motivate troops. In Shakespeare’s Richard III, the king gives his soldiers a speech on the eve of battle in which he calls his enemies “vagabonds” and their leader, Henry Tudor, a “bloody tyrant.” In this speech, Richard uses rhetorical devices like hyperbole to excite his men for war.

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