2 Introduction to Rhetoric

Every single type of writing has three things in common. Can you guess what they are? It might help to think of an example.

Shopping list includes milk, beer, bread, onions, salad, tomatoes, eggs, cheese, apples
Shopping List” licensed under CC-BY 4.0

Take a look at this shopping list. Think about these questions:

Why was the list written? Who wrote it? Who is going shopping? What might make the list successful or unsuccessful?

Our answer to the first question is very simple–the list was written because it’s time to replenish the groceries in this refrigerator! That is the purpose of the list. The second question is a little more difficult to answer because we are not privy to that information. However, we can assume the author is the person who noticed that the items on the list were running low and decided that they needed to be replenished. The third question is where things get interesting. Is the person who wrote the list the person who will be doing the shopping? How does that audience impact the answer to the last question on our list?

Let’s imagine that a mother is the author of this list and take just one item on this list–cheese–as an example. Imagine the mother knows that she needs cheese slices to make sandwiches this week–that is her purpose is including cheese on this list. But it’s the audience that will determine if the list in this form will accomplish its purpose! If she is the one shopping, all she has to write on the shopping list is cheese because she knows exactly what kind of cheese she needs. But, what if she’s sending her teenage daughter or her husband to the store for her? She will need to be a lot more specific than just cheese. Her daughter, who loves quesadillas, might come home with shredded cheese. Or her husband, who loves specialty cheeses might come home with a hunk of Gouda. As we look at the items on this list, it’s easy to see that the audience matters! If the audience doesn’t understand the message of the list, the purpose will not be accomplished. The poor mother will have to go back to the store…or her children will have some really interesting sandwiches this week!

In fact, although all writing includes these three elements of purpose, author, and audience, effective writing must take all three carefully into consideration.


Rhetorical Triangle” by Ted Major licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0

Having a clear understanding of their purpose, audience, and even their own presence in their writing, is vital for effective communication. The art of effective communication is an ancient one. In fact, people have been studying how to communicate effectively since the time of the ancient Greeks! The study of the art of communication is called Rhetoric.

Aristotle taught his students how to practice the art of speaking well. He believed that, in order to be effective, a speaker must carefully consider the situation–the audience and the purpose, as well as the presentation of the speaker!

Many people have a negative connotation of rhetoric. They might think of smarmy politicians or false advertisements. Even though rhetoric has a bad reputation, it is just a tool. It depends on whose hands are using that tool whether it’s something that’s good. For example, imagine that you have a baseball bat. That baseball bat by itself is just a tool; it’s just a piece of wood. If you put this tool in the hands of someone like Babe Ruth, and you have a legendary home run hitter. But if you put the exact same tool in the hands of a criminal, you have the potential to do harm. The baseball bat in itself is not good or evil; it’s just a piece of wood.

Rhetoric is the same way. If a writer and uses rhetoric to make a point more clear to the audience, then it’s being used for good. If a politician or a company uses rhetoric to confuse the audience and to convince them to believe a lie, then it’s not being used for good. One example of a man who used rhetoric for immense good is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Over his lifetime, he fought injustice using his words and made a lasting difference in our world. On the other hand, a man who used rhetoric for immense evil is Adolf Hitler. With his words, he murdered millions of innocent people and caused the deaths of many, soldiers and civilians alike, in World War II.

“Rhetoric” content created by Dr. Karen Palmer and licensed under CC BY NC.


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Introduction to Rhetoric Copyright © 2020 by Dr. Karen Palmer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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