Rhetorical Analysis Essay Example Ethos Pathos Logos Kairos


"Part 1" of the Norton Field Guide to Writing covers the concept of "Rhetorical Situations" (1-17).

Whenever we write, whether it's an email to a friend or a toast for a wedding, an English essay or a résumé, we face some kind of rhetorical situation. We have a purpose, a certain audience, a particular stance, a genre, and a medium to consider--and often as not a design. All are important elements that we need to think about carefully. (1)

This concept is usually covered in English 101, and you can review "Part 1" if you need to refresh your understanding. In what follows below, we're going to cover what are called the "three rhetorical appeals." 

What is Rhetoric?

Before we can understand the ways in which the rhetorical appeals work, we must first understand what rhetoric is.


There are many commonly-used definitions, but for our purposes "rhetoric" refers to all of the following:

  • The art of persuasion, and
  • The study of the art of persuasion, and
  • An individual act of persuasion.

In the work we'll do in our rhetorical analysis, there are 2 parties to be concerned with:

  1. The rhetor: the party that is attempting to persuade, and
  2. The audience: the party that is the target of persuasion.

We will consider ourselves to be a 3rd party: the observer. We're not being persuaded. We're not persuading. We're just observing the interaction between the rhetor and the audience.

Example A woman pulls her car up to the Starbucks drive-through, and before she can even order her large cup of coffee, the voice on the other end of the speaker says, "Thank you for choosing Starbucks! May I interest you in a low-fat apple-banana bran muffin this morning, paired with a tall skinny soy latte?" Who is the rhetor in this situation? It's the Starbucks employee, because that's the person trying to persuade someone. Who is the audience? It's the woman in the car, because she's the person the rhetor is trying to persuade. What is the act of persuasion taking place? The Starbucks employee is attempting to persuade the woman to buy a muffin and a pricey coffee drink. What would a rhetorical analysis of this situation be like? An observer--such as yourself--would consider the rhetor, the audience, and the rhetoric that is being used by the rhetor in an attempt to persuade the audience. The observer would analyze the rhetoric--in this case, using the framework of the three rhetorical appeals (explained below)--and then explain their analysis in an essay. Has the rhetor made effective use of rhetoric in trying to persuade the audience? Why or why not?

Mistakes to avoid It's important for you to remember that rhetorical analysis requires you, the observer, to refrain from being a part in what's going on between the rhetor and the audience. You are the silent third party. It is not your job to decide if you are persuaded by the rhetor. Instead, it's your job to decide if the audience would be persuaded by the rhetor. Sometimes you have a very specific idea of who the audience is, but sometimes you just have a very general idea.

Three Rhetorical Appeals

"Of the [modes of persuasion] provided through speech there are three species: for some are in the character of the speaker, and some are in disposing the listener in some way, and some in the argument itself, by showing or seeming to show something" --Aristotle, On Rhetoric, 1356b (trans. George A. Kennedy)

In other words, Aristotle argues that there are three elements to the art of persuasion:

  • ethos: The rhetor is perceived by the audience as credible (or not).
  • pathos: The rhetor attempts to persuade the audience by making them feel certain emotions.
  • logos: The rhetor attempts to persuade the audience by the use of arguments that they will perceive as logical.

We call these three elements rhetorical appeals. It's not necessary for every act of persuasion to make use of all three appeals. Often, however, there is some element of each. In academic writing, ethos and logos are given more respect than pathos. An essay that relies primarily on pathos, with little use of ethos or logos, is unlikely to be perceived by an academic audience as persuasive. Below, each of these appeals is explained in more detail.


The use of ethos is called an "ethical appeal." Note that this is very different from our usual understanding of the word "ethical." "Ethos" is used to describe the audience's perception of the rhetor's credibility or authority. The audience asks themselves, "What does this person know about this topic?" and "Why should I trust this person?" There are two kinds of ethos:

  • extrinsic (the character, expertise, education, and experience of the rhetor), and
  • instrinsic (how the rhetor writes or speaks).

When we discuss the ethos of the rhetor, we decide whether it is strong or weak. We might use a phrase like, "His extrinsic ethos is strong because…" or "His intrinsic ethos is strong, but his extrinsic ethos is weak…"

Examples of extrinsic ethos:Sports: If you are a successful professional basketball player--like Michael Jordan, for example--talking about basketball to other pro athletes, then your ethos is strong with that particular audience even before you open your mouth or take pen to paper. Your audience assumes you are knowledgable about your subject because of your experience. Now, if you are instead a baseball player talking about basketball, then your extrinsic ethos is not as strong because you haven't been played pro basketball, but you're still a professional athlete and know something about that kind of life. However, if you are a college professor of English, then your extrinsic ethos is likely to be pretty weak with your audience. They might just assume that you know nothing about basketball or about professional sports. Change your audience around, however, and the ethos of each hypothetical rhetor might change. An audience of pre-school kids, for example, would have no idea who Michael Jordan is, and so his extrinsic ethos would be weaker with that audience than with the audience of other pro athletes.

Examples of intrinsic ethos:Sports: Let's say you're that professional basketball player mentioned above, and you start to address your audience when suddenly you stutter and mumble, you use the wrong sports terminology (or you mispronounce that terminology), and you stare at your shoes the entire time you're talking. Suddenly your overall ethos takes a nose-dive with your audience, and you become less persuasive. They conclude that regardless of your experience, the way you're expressing yourself reveals that you are not someone to be taken seriously. At the other extreme, let's say you're that hypothetical English professor, and you speak with confidence and use all of the correct sports-based terminology. You look around at the faces of your audience as you speak and project your voice to the back of the room. Your overall ethos, which was weak to begin with because the audience was skeptical of what an English professor would know about their sport, suddenly gets stronger. It gets stronger because your intrinsic ethos goes up in the eyes of your audience. The way that a rhetor speaks or writes will also affect ethos. Intrinsic ethos is strong when the rhetor expresses himself or herself confidently and intelligently, using language that is appropriate for the audience.

Mistakes to avoid First, you should always remember that when you are engaged in rhetorical analysis, it's not your job to decide if you perceive the rhetor as credible or authoritative. Instead, you must evaluate how the audience is likely to perceive the rhetor. Second, do not confuse the strategy of "Testimony and Authority" (see below, under "Logos") with ethos. When a rhetor uses information from someone else as a source to support their argument, that's an example of logos: it's the strategy of "Testimony and Authority." Students sometimes confuse the two because in both cases, the credibility and authority of the person speaking (or writing) is important. However, there's an important difference. When the rhetor is known by the audience to be experienced and an expert on the topic, their extrinsic ethos is strong. When the rhetor cites someone else who is experienced and an expert, that's an example of logos, because the rhetor is using the strategy of testimony and authority.


The use of pathos is called a "pathetic appeal." Note that this is very different from our usual understanding of the word "pathetic." "Pathos" is used to describe the rhetor's attempt to appeal to "an audience's sense of identity, their self-interest, and their emotions." If the rhetor can create a common sense of identity with their audience, then the rhetor is using a pathetic appeal. So if that college English professor above mentions having played basketball in high school and convinces the audience that she or he was pretty good, then not only does that fact strengthen the rhetor's ethos, it also makes a pathetic appeal. (This is also why so many politicans will open their speeches with "My fellow Americans..." This is why many of them use the phrase "My friends..." so much when speaking to audiences.) "Pathos" most often refers to an attempt to engage an audience's emotions. Think about the different emotions people are capable of feeling: they include love, pity, sorrow, affection, anger, fear, greed, lust, and hatred. If a rhetor tries to make an audience feel emotions in response to what is being said or written, then they are using pathos.

Example Let's say a rhetor is trying to convince an audience of middle-class Americans to donate money to a hurricane relief fund. The rhetor can make pathetic appeals to an audience's feelings of love, pity, fear, and perhaps anger. (The extent to which any of these emotions will be successfully engaged will vary from audience to audience.)

    • "Love" will be felt if the audience can be made to believe in their fundamental connections to other human beings.
    • "Pity" will be felt if the plight of the homeless hurricane victim can be made very vivid to the audience.
    • "Fear" will be felt if the audience can be made to imagine what they would feel like in that homeless victim's place.
    • "Anger" will be felt if the audience realizes how little has been done by those who are resonsible for helping.
    If the rhetor works all of these things together properly (and also doesn't screw up ethos and logos), then the audience is more likely to be persuaded.

Mistakes to avoid The emotions we're talking about here are emotions that might be felt by the audience, not emotions felt by the rhetor. If a rhetor is clearly angry about the topic being addressed, for example, that should not be taken as a pathetic. However, if the rhetor is clearly trying to make the audience feel angry, then that should, in fact, be considered a pathetic appeal. And whether or not the audience does, in fact, feel the emotions in question, the observer can still recognize when the rhetor is using a pathetic appeal. Sometimes, the pathetic appeal is weak (meaning it probably won't succeed). Sometimes, the pathetic appeal is strong (meaning it probably will succeed).


The use of logos is called a "logical appeal." A statement does not have to be considered logical to be a logical appeal. As an observer, you can recognize that the rhetor is attempting to use logos to persuade the audience, but that recognition doesn't mean the rhetor is succeeding. We use the term logos to describe what kind of rhetorical appeal is being made, not to evaluate whether or not an appeal makes sense to us (as observers) or to the audience being addressed. "Logos" is the use of the strategies of logic to persuade your audience. If an statement attempts to persuade the audience by making a reasonable claim and offering proof in support of that claim (rather than by trying to make them feel certain emotions, or by making them perceive the speaker as credible), then that statement is a logical argument.

Mistakes to avoid When you are engaged in rhetorical analysis, you are an observer of the interaction between the rhetor and the audience. So it's not your job to decide whether or not an argument is logical. Instead, it's your job to decide whether or not an argument will be perceived by the audience as logical.

There are many ways of making logical arguments. Here are a few common strategies:

Cause or consequence

A claim about one thing causing another, or one thing being caused by another.

Example:Global warming is caused by greenhouse gases being produced by humankind.

 Example:The current economic crisis was caused primarily by deregulation of the financial industry.

Example:If the government gets involved in providing health insurance to the American people, we will see a sharp decline in the quality of our medical care.


A claim about the qualities of one thing using a comparison about another thing.

Example:The ozone layer of the atmosphere is like the outer layer of skin on the human body, and if it goes away, planet Earth will be in a lot of pain.Going to that class is about as exciting as watching paint dry.

Example:"George Bush taking credit for the Berlin Wall coming down is like the rooster taking credit for the sunrise." (Al Gore,1992 Vice Presidential Debate)

Example:That candidate is what we call a post turtle. Imagine you're driving along a country road and you see a turtle up on top of a fence post. He doesn't know how he got there. He doesn't know what he's doing there. And he has no idea what to do next. (Seethis entryat Snopes.com)

Testimony and authority

A claim that involves citing the opinion of someone other than the rhetor, someone respected by the audience.

Example: 4 out of 5 Dentists surveyed would recommend sugarless gum to their patients who chew gum (Trident Gumadvertisement).

Example:The leading U.S. military commanders in Iraq say the surge strategy is working.

Example:How bad is the current financial mess? According to Alan Greenspan, U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman, it's "the type of wrenching financial crisis that comes along only once in a century"("Greenspan").


A claim about the meaning or nature of something.

Example: The president is a socialist.

Example: Marriage is a union between a man and a woman.

Example: Last year's Super Bowl game was extremely boring


A claim using deductive logic involving a major premise, a minor premise, and conclusion. This is a move from the general to the specific.

Example: Nuclear power plants generate dangerous nuclear waste, the new power plant they're planning to build in our community is a nuclear power plant. So the new power plant will be dangerous.

Example: Republicans favor deregulation. John McCain is a Republican, so he will pursue a policy of deregulation if elected.

Example: Democrats like to "tax and spend." Barack Obama is a Democrat, so he's going to raise our taxes if elected.

Support a generalization with examples

A claim using inductive logic, where a general statement about something is backed up by specific examples.

Example: In thesecond presidential debateof 2008, Senator John McCain emphasized his own good judgment in this way: "And I am convinced that my record, going back to my opposition from sending the Marines to Lebanon, to supporting our efforts in Kosovo and Bosnia and the first Gulf War, and my judgment, I think, is something that ... I'm willing to stand on."

Example: In the second presidentail debate of 2008, Senator Barack Obama argued that the United States should maintain good relations with other nations in order to make the best use of our own military resources in a time of economic constraint. He then illustrated his general statement with this specific example: "Let's take the example of Darfur just for a moment. Right now there's a peacekeeping force that has been set up and we have African Union troops in Darfur to stop a genocide that has killed hundreds of thousands of people. We could be providing logistical support, setting up a no-fly zone at relatively little cost to us, but we can only do it if we can help mobilize the international community and lead."

Combining all 3 rhetorical appeals

Seldom is any one statement an example of only one appeal.

"I have to tell you that if you don't stop smoking, you're going to die, " said the doctor to her patient.

This statement combines all three appeals:

  • Extrinsic ethos: the rhetor--a doctor--is an expert on the subject
  • Pathos: attempting to make the audience feel fear
  • Logos: using the strategy of "Cause or Consequence"


Let's review what we covered above: Rhetoric is defined for our purposes as

  • The art of persuasion, and
  • The study of the art of persuasion, and
  • An individual act of persuasion.

In the work we'll do in our rhetorical analysis, there are 2 parties to be concerned with:

  1. The rhetor: the party that is attempting to persuade, and
  2. The audience: the party that is the target of persuasion.

We will consider ourselves to be a 3rd party: The observer. We're not being persuaded. We're not persuading. We're just observing the interaction between the rhetor and the audience. The rhetorical appeals are the three elements to the art of persuasion as defined by Aristotle

  • ethos: The rhetor is perceived by the audience as credible (or not).
  • pathos: The rhetor attempts to persuade the audience by making them feel certain emotions.
  • logos: The rhetor attempts to persuade the audience by the use of arguments that they will perceive as logical.

Remember, it's not necessary for every act of persuasion to make use of all three appeals. Often, however, there is some element of each. In academic writing, ethos and logos are given more respect than pathos. An essay that relies primarily on pathos, with little use of ethos or logos, is unlikely to be perceived by an academic audience as persuasive.


In life, we are often called upon to be persuasive. Sometimes we give formal presentations to propose new ideas to our boss; sometimes we create fliers to encourage people to come to a local concert; and sometimes we simply need to convince our neighbor that sharing the cost of a fence is worth the investment. Whatever the reason, being persuasive is a critical part of life if we want things to work out in our favor.

Since the time of Greek philosopher Aristotle, effective persuasion techniques have been a focus of higher education. You can’t graduate from college these days without having to take a course (actually, many courses) where you are required to make an argument and support that argument with evidence and examples. Because persuasion is such a critical component to survival in a very competitive world, it is worth taking the time to master persuasive techniques. In another post, I mention how important the five rhetorical canons are to developing good ideas and constructing arguments. In this article, I want to highlight five even more critical terms that lie at the foundation of all persuasive arguments: ethos, pathos, logos, kairos, and topos. If you can master these five concepts, you’ll be on your way to being incredibly convincing.

Ethos refers to your credibility. Whether you are creating a flier, giving a presentation, talking to your mom, applying for a job, or teaching a workshop, people won’t be persuaded by you unless they trust you. When it comes to communication, trust is built in a number of ways. It is your job to understand how, in each situation, to adapt your communication to the audience. What will make them believe you more? In written communication, you need to pay close attention to style, voice, organization, clarity, vocabulary, grammar, and punctuation. In oral communication, you need to pay close attention to confidence (and not over-confidence), movement, the way you dress, and the accompanying visuals you choose. In visual communication, you need to pay close attention to design details, functionality (if for a website, etc.), cultural awareness, and structural clarity. To improve your ethos, you always need to be cognizant of what you use as credible sources. Do you use a personal anecdote? Do you cite a celebrity? A scientist? In other words, who is the expert in the subject matter and why should the audience believe them? The more your audience trusts your sources (no matter who that source may be), the more they will trust you. A note of caution: ethos can be a difficult thing to acquire; sometimes it may take years to build a strong, credible reputation (think about your résumé or how your boss views your work) or several pages to develop a strong, credible argument. But ethos can be lost in an instant (think about all the companies that used Tiger Woods as a spokesperson for their products, then dumped him when the scandal broke out so that their own ethos wouldn’t be tainted; or think about how quickly you decide a website isn’t credible because it is designed so poorly). Make sure you don’t lose the respect of your audience for any reason or your persuasiveness may be lost entirely.

Pathos refers to emotional appeal. Think of the English words that use the root “path” (like pathology and psychopath and pathetic) and you’ll remember emotions. Reflect on a time when you were really moved by something. Did you hear a radio ad about children dying in Africa? Did you see a video about drunk driving where the driver told the story of how he killed someone? Or did you see a television commercial where a product just looked so cool that you knew you had to have it? When you use pathos to persuade somebody, you make them feel an emotion that moves them to action. How do you want people to feel? Angry? Excited? Passionate? Jealous? Cool? Needed? Scared? Recognize that feeling any of these emotions can cause people to act (sometimes in small ways, like being persuaded to clean a room because of being told that mice live in dirty places; and sometimes in big ways, like being persuaded to stop smoking because of seeing a woman who has lung cancer speaking through a hole her throat). Regardless of the method, pathos-based arguments can be very effective. As a word of caution, though: there are ethical considerations when causing people to feel and react, so be responsible about what you choose to use. Also, most people are savvy to when you are trying to touch their emotions and if you don’t do it right, you can look overbearing, silly, cheesy, or just plain obnoxious.

Logos refers to using reason. The English term that derives from logos is logic. Sometimes, we are persuaded simply by facts, like when our neighbor tells us that 75% of all lawns that die during the summer are from grubs, not lack of water. Such a statement causes us to reflect on our methods for caring for our lawn. Reason can be built into an argument through storytelling (like when you use an example of how your friend broke his arm skateboarding to convince your child that it is dangerous), through using statistics and other facts, or by listing a number of features (like when you by a smartphone because of all that it can do, rather than because how it looks). When using logos to persuade, be sure to find facts and information that matter to your audience and present them in a way that makes sense. For example, if you say that something is 15,840,000 feet long, that means little to most people because it is too large to comprehend. But if you say that something is twice the length of the entire United States from coast to coast, everything comes into perspective.


You may also be interested in: Giving Effective Presentations or How to Write a Proposal


Kairos refers to the opportune moment. People are often more persuaded at different moments in time than others. For example, people are often more likely to give to charitable organizations after they have seen firsthand or been involved in a disaster of their own. Think about when you were a child; did you ask your parents for things when you knew they were in a bad mood to begin with? Most likely, you waited for the right moment to ask. Kairos is all about finding the opportune time to persuade your audience. If you want to invite people to a party, but you invite them three months in advance, they may forget. If you invite them the day before, they may have other plans. As the saying goes, timing is everything.

Topos refers to a theme or convention. In literature, topoi (the plural form of the word) are used almost as metaphors for constructing a story (like if you were to say “James Joyce uses the topos of the Wandering Jew in his work Ulysses.”) When you present an argument, you might frame it in a way that will make clearer sense to your audience by using a trope, or metaphor, with which they are familiar. Another way to look at topos, though, is by following conventions or situating your communication within a certain theme or style. Do you need to change the way you talk with your friends versus the way you talk with your employer? Do you use traditional formatting on a résumé, or do you get creative? Topos is all about framing your communication within a situation that meets expectations or is more clearly understood because of how it is couched.

Recognize that as you use these five concepts to be more persuasive that you will likely use more than one of them at the same time and in some cases you will need to use all five. But as you pay close attention to how you are using these five concepts, you’ll become a much more persuasive communicator.


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