Chapter 1: Rhetoric and Writing with Purpose

by Mike Barret

Reading, Thinking, Writing is produced under the auspices of the LOGOS Project at Moberly Area Community College. The authors own the copyright to the written material. The editor is Mike Barrett,


The foundation of rhetoric lies in the social act of communication. Essentially, rhetoric is using available resources to enact a purpose (or “telos”) through spoken or written communication. Rhetoric is as old as language itself and people have attempted to codify it since the advent of writing.

During the time of Socrates (circa 5th century BCE) there were two schools of thought which argued for distinct purposes of rhetoric. The Sophists believed that the purpose of rhetoric was to persuade the audience and its effectiveness was to be measured by how well it persuaded. Socrates believed that the purpose of rhetoric was to reveal the truth about the issue under discussion. Socrates believed that rhetoric was not a stylistic exercise in order to persuade a gullible audience, but a means for discovering and expressing what “the good” is.

Both the Sophist and Socratic views of  rhetoric highlight its breadth—it    is as much process, a way of coming to a conclusion, as it is a way to express that conclusion. And although we will be utilizing more contemporary practices of rhetoric, the foundations of classical rhetoric will never be too far from our discussion.

The Rhetorical Situation

There are many factors that dictate how you approach a moment of communication. For example, if you are visiting a doctor’s office because of some malady, your primary purpose is to express, as specifically as you can, what your symptoms are—you want the doctor to know exactly what you are feeling. The doctor, on the other hand, is not only responding to the expression of your symptoms, but is comparing those symptoms to a possible diagnosis, leading to further questions. This rhetorical situation really doesn’t involve “persuasion,” but is focused on an exchange of information. When you find yourself in casual conversation with friends, a specific purpose might be absent. The easygoing banter reinforces the already-established social cohesion among friends.

Consider the language you would use in a text (RU  ready?) compared   to the language you would use if  testifying in a court case, or were confessing  to a clergy member. Every rhetorical situation we find ourselves in, every  speech act we make, is governed by assumptions (and sometimes rules) that dictate our expression and our response to the expression of others. Social or professional awkwardness results from not adhering to the assumptions and rules of a rhetorical situation. Indeed, the court would go silent if you answered in response to a question of the judge, “That’s right Daddio!”

Rhetoric and Writing with Purpose

This handbook explores the rules and assumptions for analyzing and expressing yourself in academic rhetorical situations, which are an essential, if narrow, group of speech acts that we use in higher education. In order to explore these assumptions and rules, we need to formalize the speech act, first using information theory, and then using contemporary rhetoric.

If  we  were  to  ask  ourselves,  “What  are  the  necessary  ingredients  for a successful speech act?” We would probably generate the components in information theory. We need a Sender, a Message, a Receiver, and a Channel. The Sender has a Message to send to the Receiver. The message is transmitted through a Channel. What do you think the channel is for a speech act? If you think it is language you would be right.

The rhetorician  James Kinneavy noted that all rhetorical situations can  be discussed in these terms if we define them by their purpose. Kinneavy’s organization of the speech act into purposes has defined instruction in composition for the last forty or so years. The easiest way to envision Kinneavy’s scheme is by using a visual aid.

Graphical Representation of Kinneavy’s scheme
Figure 1: Graphical representation of Kinneavy’s scheme

By organizing the rhetorical situation in terms of  its purpose, we have      an  all-inclusive  vocabulary  for  organizing  communication.  Unless  you  are an experimental writer and artist (see the OULIPO writers), every act of communication you engage in begins with a purpose (the ancient Greeks had a marvelous word for the end, purpose, or goal of human activity: telos).

We will use Kinneavy’s scheme to describe the kinds of writing you will be asked to complete in an academic setting.

Self-Expressive Writing

If the purpose of  the writing focuses on the Writer, that kind of  writing   is called Self-Expressive writing. The purpose of self-expressive writing is to reveal the writer to the audience, not to be judged, or in an attempt of persuasion, but to express the writer’s self. Examples of this kind of writing are the diary, personal letters, chatty emails, or informal texts.      

 Memoirs, in which a write writes about his or her life, are a kind of formal act of self-expression. You  may encounter this type of  writing early in a composition class or in   a creative writing class. Otherwise, it is very rare to encounter this kind of speech act in The Academy (we will use the term “The Academy” to designate any institution of higher education, in this case, MACC). Indeed, how something is unique to you is rarely pertinent in The Academy. The Academy is a place where what you think, what can be measured as objective, what can be proven, is most important. Indeed, you ought to avoid starting any statement with, “I feel…” in The Academy. It is your rigorous and considered thoughts that count the most, not your feelings.

When you write in the self-expressive mode, an honest, accurate approach works best. Remember the telos—you want to share with the audience something about yourself worth telling.

Informative Writing

If the purpose of the writing focuses on the Subject, that kind of writing is called Informative Writing. The purpose of informative writing is to describe, evaluate, measure, analyze, a subject. Examples of informative writing include lab reports, description, newspaper accounts, phone directories, graphs, indices, textbooks, etc.

Personal feelings about the subject are not germane in informative writing, nor is the purpose to persuade (though informative writing certainly can be marshaled in service of a persuasive intent).  The focus is on subject matter.

Informative writing is more difficult to accomplish than you may think. We live in a culture, through the digital media, of instant personal reactions to anything. Our culture focuses more on how something affects us than it does on what the thing is. Informative writing is only concerned with what the thing itself. In order to effectively write informatively, a few terms need to be defined.

First you need to know the difference between subjective and objective. Subjective means pertaining to you—how something affects you. For example, vanilla ice cream. If you say, “I don’t like vanilla ice cream.” That is a subjective response. Objective means the qualities of a thing that exist independent of any one observer. “Vanilla ice cream is given its flavor by vanilla beans.” That is an objective statement.

Let’s say that you refuse to believe vanilla beans exist—you are wrong on facts and your denial of vanilla beans does not make them go away, nor does it make vanilla ice cream any less delicious. Okay, you caught me! The deliciousness of  vanilla ice cream is a subjective response.  In The Academy, you need to   be diligent about not treating subjective responses as objective responses. “Vanilla ice cream is the worst,” is a subjective statement disguised as objective, unlike, “Vanilla ice cream is the best.” Okay, you caught me again, that is a subjective statement.

When you write informatively, you avoid subjective responses in the language that you use. One way you do so is by avoiding using words pejoratively. What does “pejorative” mean?” Let’s define a few other words first so we can firmly grasp  what “pejorative” means.  First denotative.  The denotative meaning   of a word is its dictionary definition—its technical and precise definition. But words can evoke all manner of feelings and thoughts. The connotative meaning of a word is the feelings that word evokes. For example “slim” and “slender” have relatively positive connotations whereas “skinny” can have a negative connotation—yet their denotative meaning is just about the same. You use a word in its pejorative sense when you use a word for its negative connotation. In politics, for example, the denotative meaning of “conservative” is someone wanting to conserve, or preserve the status quo. A “progressive” or “liberal” is someone who wants to improve the status quo.  Depending who the audience  is, both of those terms are often used as an insult; in other words, they are used pejoratively, even though their dictionary definition is value neutral. If someone screws up their face and gives a disgusted look while saying, “Oh, he’s such a liberal,” that’s using the term “liberal” pejoratively.

The key to most informative writing is a rigorous attention to the way things are—the particulars of the subject—not its effect on the perceiver. Informative writing is factual (a fact is an objective condition) and descriptive; it avoids judgment and opinion.

When your informative writing involves description, the old writer’s adage, “Show don’t tell,” applies. “The sunset was beautiful,” is telling. Why? Because the writer is telling the reader how to interpret the sunset. Do you recognize that statement as subjective? Now if the writer writes, “the evening was colored with roseate-streaked clouds moving across a pale blue sky,” the writer is showing  the reader what made the sky look “beautiful.” Let the reader make the esthetic judgment—the writer should present those details to the reader. What is the most effective way of providing details to the reader? By presenting sensory information—what you can feel, hear, see, smell, and taste.

The reader is always advised to have a bit of skepticism when interpreting any informative writing—you want to make sure the writer is not presenting information with an agenda hidden from you. Beware of persuasion in informative clothing!t

Persuasive Writing or The Argument

When the purpose of a piece of writing is to move the reader to a new position, it is called persuasive writing. This kind of essay, the essay of persuasion, or the argument, is where the subject matter gets complicated quickly. I will focus more on the Socratic purpose of persuasion than the Sophist purpose.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle, in his book The Rhetoric, highlights three ways to persuade an audience.    For  Aristotle the grounding for these modes of persuasion is in what Aristotle believed moved our souls. The three modes Aristotle highlights are

  • Pathos,
  • Ethos, and
  • Logos.

We will discuss each in turn.

If you want to persuade an audience, appeal to their emotions. Pathos is  an appeal to the emotions of  an audience.  Advertisers and politicians do this  all the time—they scare the audience, make them feel insecure, or superior, in order to “sell” their viewpoint or product. “Give me your money or I’ll punch you in the eye,” is pathos argumentation.  When Marc Antony wants to raise  the rabble against Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, he plays to the emotion of the audience.  Many teachers of  writing would argue that the pathos appeal  is fine and that many great writers have used it. I take the Socratic approach in dismissing it. I believe that the pathos appeal should be limited and subordinate to ethos and logos, because pathos is not connected to “truth” or the “good.” 

In other words, its effectiveness at manipulating audiences has nothing to do with being right, truthful, or good. In politics, whenever you hear a politician argue that their position should be endorsed because it is for the “good of the children,” the alarm bells of the pathos appeal should ring in your ears. Of course, no one wants to hurt innocent children. Generating fear in your audience is also an emotional appeal. When a politician states, “the world is on fire! The world is on fire!” you should recognize the appeal to the emotion of fear and put out the fire with logic.

“Ethics” is the study of correct behavior or action. An Ethos appeal is one where the author’s integrity is on display. If someone has earned your trust, you are more likely to assent to what they propose. How do you set yourself up as an ethical writer? First, don’t lie! Give opposing views a fair hearing. If you are using other people’s ideas or words CITE THEM otherwise you are a plagiarist and plagiarists cannot make ethical appeals. If you sound honest in your work, if you treat those who disagree with you with fairness, if you properly cite the work of the sources you rely on to make your case, you will be establishing yourself as an ethical writer.

Logos and Reasoning

The appeal that carries the most weight in The Academy is the logos appeal. The logos argument must be soundly reasoned, punctuated with facts, arranged according to an internal logic that leads your reader to accept your proposition out of its rational inevitability. This arrangement of propositions or facts is the essence of reasoning. One way I like to think of reasoning is that it takes old “knowns”—facts that are fairly well-established, or premises that are credible— and derives new “knowns” from the old. That movement—from established knowledge to new knowledge—is the movement of reasoning.

The Academy recognizes two types of reasoning that help us derive a proposition from evidence—Inductive and Deductive reasoning.

Generally speaking, Inductive Reasoning takes us from specific cases and derives a general law from looking at the specific cases. Let’s say you met an alien from the planet Zork and the alien was purple. You then proceeded to a Cardinals game and in the box seats off  the third base line were a large group  of purple creatures. In the fifth inning the announcer states, “The St. Louis Cardinals would like to extend a welcome to our visitors from planet Zork” whereupon they stand up in their box seats and wave their tentacles to the crowd. What would you conclude about aliens from the planet Zork? Yes, that they may be Cardinals fans, but also that they are purple. You would reach that conclusion through inductive reasoning: every alien from Zork you have seen is purple; therefore aliens from Zork are generally purple. Your mind moves from the specific cases to derive a general law.

Can you be 100% sure? No you cannot. Your conclusion, “aliens from Zork are purple” is not guaranteed by your premise, “every alien from Zork I’ve seen is purple.” Imagine your surprise if you went to a Royals game and found that Zorks who are Royals fans are green! This gives us a more precise definition of inductive reasoning: If the premises are true, the conclusion may or may not be true.

This idea of “may or may not” deserves further discussion. The “may or may not” is established as a margin of error or probability of being correct. Inductive reasoning is not weak because it cannot lead to absolute certainty—it is effective because it applies to so much in our uncertain universe.

Indeed, inductive reasoning is at the heart of science. The beauty of science is that its premises are constantly being checked until we can be 99.999999% sure of the conclusions that science derives.  Another way that science is persuasive  is that if the premises eventually lead us into a dead end, we can get rid of the conclusion and discover one that leads us out of  the dead end.   The surety of inductive conclusions is probabilistic and, in that way, it is perfectly suited to generate conclusions about a probabilistic universe. Before we move on to deductive reasoning, we will discuss one more attribute of this “may or may not.” If you are identifying the native colors of Zorks, 99% would seem to be a pretty good percentage. How about if you were building a bridge over an interstate highway? Would 99% be a good margin of error? Nope. How about if you’re a baseball player looking for a fastball? I imagine a 50% accuracy rate would lead to a ton of home runs. What’s good in baseball for hitting, 30%, is terrible if it’s your free throw percentage.

Deductive Reasoning starts with a general law and then applies that law to specific cases. 

Law All humans have DNA
Specific Joe Pellopsi is a human.
Conclusion Joe Pellopsi has DNA.

One of the important distinctions between inductive and deductive reasoning is that deductive reasoning is a closed system, as opposed to the  open, probabilistic system of inductive reasoning.  In deductive reasoning,  if  the premises are true, the conclusion must be true—that’s 100% guaranteed. Consider this formulation: A + B = B + A. Is this true for 3 + 2 = 2 + 3? Yes of course. How many cases does this apply to? That’s right, an infinite number of cases. Mathematics, computer programming, and philosophy often use deductive reasoning because they are axiomatic disciplines—their operations are conducted according to pre-set laws.

There are two other important things to mention about deductive reasoning.

First, it can be valid without being a true depiction of reality.

Law All aliens from planet Zork sing the blues.
Specific Joe Pellopi is from planet Zork.
Conclusion Joe Pellopi sings the blues.

Although this is a valid logical syllogism, its “truth” is mere fantasy. It does not apply to any world we recognize.

Secondly, it is important to mention the limit of deductive systems. The mathematician Kurt Gödel discovered that if a deductive system is large enough to account for natural numbers, it will generate a statement that is inconsistent with its laws or incomplete given those laws. If you want your mind blown, look up Gödel’s Proof.

When you write an essay in which you make an argument, you will likely  use both types of reasoning. You will develop your thesis from induction— looking at facts and sources of information and synthesizing your thesis from that material. Once you start writing though you will consider your thesis as a deductive law and work hard to ensure that all the material you include fits  into the logical system of your argument.

What Are Valid Arguments?

One of my favorite definitions of a thesis, or proposition (that which you are trying to prove in an argument), is given by the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein’s definition of a proposition is that it is a depiction  of reality. For the most part, arguments in The Academy concern (in a general sense) truth-value statements. A truth-value statement is a proposition that  can be shown to be either true or false according to an evidential proof. In  other words, it is a proposition that is supported by evidence that is arranged in  a logically coherent way. For most of the arguments you write in The Academy, though, the proof you offer is not the 100% guaranteed surety of a deductive proof (no matter how much you think it is!). Remember Wittgenstein, “depiction of reality.” If you think about it at all, what “reality” is can be a very difficult question. Remember also, your ethos as a writer will also contribute to the reception of your argument by the audience.

The Academy is concerned with truth-value statements because one of its roles is to test propositions. Whether it’s in a laboratory, or at a desk with a  stack of books, academics are interested in proposing and testing propositions. Statements of belief, “I believe the universe sits on the back of a tortoise,” are  of little use in The Academy because they cannot be tested. Nor are subjective judgments, “I hate President Calvin Coolidge.” Of course, belief statements and subjective judgments might be important to you, and certainly culture encourages us to shout out such statements, but if the statements cannot be tested by objective scholars seeking depictions of reality, then they have little worth being exchanged in The Academy. When we offer an opinion, we are offering a claim with no support or warrant.  Opinions have no place in The Academy as well.

One way to test whether or not your claim is arguable is to check if  there   is a possibility for the statement to be wrong. In science, this is called the null hypothesis. Take a subjective statement like, “Today I am happy.” No one  really has the standing to say, “No you’re not.” Or if you hold up a quarter and say, “This is a quarter.” No one has any standing to say, “No it’s not.” In both  of these cases, one a subjective statement and the other a statement of objective fact, there is no claim because there is no null hypothesis—those statements are not capable of being proven false. That is what makes a statement arguable— you can imagine it being proven false. Statements of belief are not arguable themselves for the same reason.

Of  course, some people make the claim that their position is fact, as in  “It is a fact that playing first person shooter games makes teenagers more prone to violence,” but we must remember that it is not a fact until it is proven. In other words, an arguable claim that a proposition is a fact, is not a fact. Facts are facts 100% of the time.


In argument, oftentimes the persuader will use a logical trick that has no  real logos value in order to persuade. When this happens, the persuader is using a fallacy. A logical fallacy is an error in logical thinking in service of persuasion. There are a huge number of fallacies listed in handbooks. We’ll illustrate a few below but always be on your guard, be ready to recognize fallacies in argument.

Begging the question – restating what the claim is without proving it: It is so hot because the temperature is so high. Note that what you are establishing  in the subject (it is so hot) is merely restated rather than proven (because the temperature is so high) in the predicate.

Ad Hominem – attacking the speaker of the claim instead of the claim itself: Joe Pellopi is a stinky crude man in my math class. Therefore, when he says he has the right answer on a math test, he can’t be right. Note that a judgment is being made about a claim–Joe’s answer–based on Joe rather than his reasoning. The classical example of this was during the impeachment trial when Clinton was thought to be a bad president because he was an unethical fellow. Of course, you could make an argument about the fitness of such a fellow to be president without resorting to this fallacy.

Appeal to authority – relying on an authority’s gravity to persuade. We see this all the time with athletes and celebrities shilling everything in ads. Just because Jordan was a great basketball player doesn’t mean that the Ballpark Franks he represents are really good hot dogs. Do you remember, “I’m not a doctor but I play one on TV,” being used in an ad? This is a pretty egregious example of such a fallacy.

Straw Man – in this fallacy you make a complex argument into a simple argument by focusing on what’s easiest to claim. During the whole debate about welfare reform this fallacy was often in use. Someone would frequently bring   up “The Welfare Queen,” a woman who got a number of checks and drove a Cadillac. To be sure, everyone thinks that a Welfare Queen is a bad thing but that doesn’t necessarily settle the welfare reform question. It was later discovered the Welfare Queen was a fictional creation.

Post Hoc Ergo Propter – this is Latin for, “after this therefore because of this ": Every time I wear my blue hat it rains. Today I will wear my blue hat; therefore, it will rain. Just because these events happen next to one another doesn’t mean that one event is causing the other.

Hasty Generalization – when you reach a conclusion based on too little evidence: Joe Pellopi is an Irishman and he’s sloppy; therefore, all Irishmen are slobs. Obviously, this is much too little evidence to base a conclusion on.

Either/Or – this fallacy indicates that there are only two mutually exclusive positions relative to an issue when in reality the issue is much more complicate: America–love it or leave it. To be sure, if we don’t like something about America, we can stay and work to change it for the better, but this fallacy would have us believe that if we are not unquestioningly patriotic we ought to leave the country.

Components of Arguments

A valid argument has three components: the Claim, Support, and the Warrant. The claim is the proposition you are trying to prove. The support is the evidence you marshal to prove your claim (we will discuss what constitutes valid support in the chapter on critical thinking). The warrant connects your support to your claim. The warrant is often an underlying assumption, unmentioned, that leads the reader to accept the thesis based on the support.  For example.

Claim Joe Pellopi has no manners.
Support He is eating his dinner with his hands.

What is the warrant in this case? The warrant is the assumption that people with manners use utensils when they are eating. Since Mr. Pellopi uses no utensils, he has no manners. Do you see a problem with this warrant? Of course, he could be eating ribs or Ethiopian food which requires you to use your hands. When constructing your own arguments or reading the arguments of others, pay attention to the warrants. The assumptions that we make in connecting support to claims must be, themselves, valid.

Wittgenstein and Arrangement in Argument

Remember that Wittgenstein asserted that a proposition was a “depiction of reality”? He also believed that the elements of an argument were akin to counters (game pieces) in a game. The game was successful only if the counters were arranged properly. Let me explain what that means using Wittgenstein’s analogy.

Let’s say that you wanted to make a claim about an essay written by a journalist, Joe Pellpopi, claiming that the effectiveness of community colleges ought to be measured in the same way that the effectiveness of businesses is measured. The title of the essay is, “What Is a College’s Bottom Line?” You recognize this line of thinking as the claim of Neoliberalism (look it up). How would you arrange your counters (ideas) to make that claim?

First you would need to define Neoliberalism, then present its attributes. Next you would need to show how Pellopi’s claim about community colleges follows the Neoliberal way of thinking. Of course, if you want to argue that a Neoliberal approach to community colleges is a positive or negative thing would require other counters (ideas) to arrange, such as, what are the consequences of organizing community colleges according to Neoliberal ideals?

Another way to look at Wittgenstein’s insight is to think of a depiction of reality as an accurate picture, resemblance, of reality constructed as a puzzle. Only if all the pieces (ideas) are in the right places will that accurate picture emerge.

A Final Word about Purpose

Whenever possible when writing in response to an assignment, apply  a principle I have used from the time I was a student to the present time when I teach: make the process work for you. Writing is an act of discovery and exploration. When you are given assignments, approach them as opportunities to explore ideas and subjects that excite you intellectually. Writing is difficult work—make that work work for you. Make sure that every time you write, the ultimate purpose is personal and intellectual growth.

Now that we have an idea of the purposes of writing and the kind of writing you’ll be asked to do in The Academy, let’s discover an efficient and effective way to construct essays.