Rhetorical Appeals

The art of argumentation is not an easy skill to acquire. Many people might think that if one simply has an opinion, one can argue it effectively, and these folks are always surprised when others don’t agree with them because their logic seems so correct. Additionally, writers of argumentation often forget that their primary purpose in an argument is to sway the reader to accept their point of view. It is easy to name call, to ignore the point of view, or to accept one’s own opinion as gospel, even if the writer has not checked their premise in a couple of years. This is also true with many young writers who have not questioned the beliefs inherited from others.

Want to know what you think about something? Then, write an argumentative essay. Avoid writing about issues that cannot be won, no matter how strongly you may feel about them. Also, care should be taken that after thinking about one side of an issue, think through the other side as well. Far too many individuals only think about the side that they already believe in. This hurts the strength of the argument because they are not addressing the concerns of someone that does not agree with them or the people that they are trying to convince. As you write, think about how to convince someone with an opposing viewpoint throughout the writing process.

In order to argue or persuade effectively, it is recommended to use rhetorical appeals in your writing.

First, let’s look at ethos. To put it simply:

More specificallyEthos: The primary focus of a rhetorical appeal based on ethos is establishing credibility. Think about what factors or qualities make someone an expert or reliable.

The most important form of credibility in research papers is professional credentials. Does the person have a terminal degree in their field? (PhD, etc.). Have they been working in that field for a long period of time? Is their work in peer reviewed academic journals? For example, an article on weight loss written by a nutrition blogger without a terminal degree would be a lot less trustworthy than one written by a nutritionist who has a doctorate, been in the field for a decade, and has published in academic journals.

The type of writing also determines what best establishes ethos. For example, in a class that is focused on college level research papers, then the factors listed above would be best. For a less formal assignment, in a high school or non-research focused class, might accept evidence from someone with experience, yet does not have a terminal degree. An example of this might be a prize winning farmer who is writing about methods of raising cattle.

In general, when faced with any new information, ask ethos related questions. Who is providing this information? Are they reliable? How do you know? Also, keep in mind that strong ethos does not automatically mean that evidence is valid. There are disagreements within fields and many people who have terminal degrees make claims outside of their expertise.   

Common Appeals to Ethos: Author’s profession / background, Author’s publications, Appearing sincere and knowledgeable, Conceding to opposition when appropriate, Morally / Ethically believable, Appropriate language for audience and subject, Appropriate vocabulary, Correct grammar, and Professional format.

What is wrong with this use of ethos?

This is a false appeal to ethos. My Phd is in English, not astrophysics. Leaving out that information can lead to a misleading use of ethos. Often, when you look at the best seller list, there are a number of books that are using credentials like these for a false appeal to ethos.

Now, let’s look at Logos:

Logos: This rhetorical appeal is based in logic. A logical appeal uses facts and statistics to make a reasonable claim that can be confirmed by experts. For example, a research paper on climate change, might use statistics from a report on CO2 in the atmosphere. A strong research paper will use different kinds of evidence for strong logos (facts, data, analysis, etc.).

Avoid biased or untrustworthy sources to maintain a strong logos. Evaluate all evidence and data to determine trustworthiness. For example, a survey with a sample size of 2000 would be more reliable than a sample size of 4 in most cases. Also, try to find out methodology of the study; what methods did they use to gather data?

A logical argument must also be reasonable. The author’s claims need to be supported by facts and data to maintain a strong logos. For example, a paper could discuss cat and dog allergies by describing the symptoms of allergies and that thirty percent of people in the US have these allergies. If the author then concludes that all cats and dogs should be banned in the US, the claim is so extreme that it undermines the argument. Banning cats and dogs is highly unlikely, ignores the positive benefits of the animals, and is therefore an unreasonable claim that weakens logos.

Common appeals to Logos: Scientific facts or theories, Historical analogy, Data or statistics, Quotations, Citations from experts and authorities, Real life examples, Personal anecdotes, Definitions, Informed opinion, Indicated reasoning (Because of … This is true).

The third rhetorical appeal is pathos:

Pathos: The third rhetorical appeal, pathos, is an appeal to emotion. This appeal is commonly used in advertisements and media in western individualistic cultures who often value emotions as an expression of individualism. One way that writers can appeal to ethos is through word choice. For example, if a student is devastated, it is much worse than a student feeling bad. So, always be careful and precise with word choice to develop a balanced pathos appeal.

Often, writers will use personal anecdotes rather than statistics to appeal to pathos as it makes an emotional connection with the reader. For example, if a person is asked to donate to people in need in Haiti, they are less likely to donate, then if they are given a photo of a child from Haiti and told their donation will benefit that child.

Appeals to pathos are powerful, but using too much pathos may turn the reader away from the argument. The reader may assume that the writer is using too much pathos to make up for a lack of strong evidence and credibility. It is best to use pathos to support your evidence rather than in place of it.

Common Appeals to Pathos: Emotionally loaded language or pictures, Vivid descriptions, Emotional examples, Anecdotes, testimonies, or narratives about emotional experiences or events, Figurative language, Emotional tone (humor, disappointment, excitement)

Now, let’s look for some examples in advertisements. What is the primary rhetorical appeal in this ad?

This advertisement is primarily an appeal to ethos (credibility). Superman is generally thought to be a character with tremendously positive character. So, if this strong person with great character is telling you to drink milk, then it can be an effective advertisement. What is wrong with this appeal to ethos?

In a similar manner as my writing a book on astrophysics, this is a false appeal to ethos. Superman is a fictional character, so he doesn’t have any real credibility or authority on this issue. However, because most people know that superman is fictional, this is less deceptive than many false appeals to ethos. Also, since people are often nostalgic for this fictional character, it could be argued that this is also an appeal to pathos.

Let’s look at another example. What is the primary rhetorical appeal in this advertisement?

This is clearly an appeal to pathos (emotion). This advertisement is trying to make the viewer think about the possible outcome of drunk driving. It may make the viewer think about themselves or someone they care about dying. They may even think about someone they have already lost. What do you think would happen if there is too much pathos in an advertisement?

Let’s look at another advertisement. What is the primary appeal used in these ads?

This is a bit of a harder question. Both advertisements focus on appeals to logos (logic) and pathos (emotions). There is clearly a strong emotional element to both advertisements as we think about harm coming to children or women. The half head, half skull is especially powerful in this regard. However, there is clearly logos present as well; there are statistics presented to back up the emotional appeal (pathos). Often the most effective approaches involve more than one of the appeals. If you had to guess, which appeals are more dominant in the culture of the United States? Pathos, logos, or ethos?

It is difficult to know for sure. However, given the fact that the US is a highly emotive society, it is reasonable to assume we are most persuaded by pathos. Most advertisements, and much of our media, are focused on pathos (if it bleeds, it leads as one example of how emotions often lead news coverage).

Now, let’s look at how this appears in writing. These introductions come from students in my non-western cultures research class. They are in the drafting stage, so they are good examples to discuss.

The student who wrote this introduction established ethos by: 1. Using terminology of the field correctly 2. Using citations and quotes from experts 3. In general, it seems clear that they know what they are writing about.

Therefore, the reader would have a high level of confidence that this writer is trustworthy. Of course, it would always be useful to check her sources and make sure they are used in a credible way.

Here is a second introduction:

This student is not using logos correctly. They are making some unsupported claims and hasty generalizations underlined below:

The student could improve this paper by inserting quotes or citations that prove the claims. They also could consider making smaller claims that are supported with evidence.

Let’s look at one final example:

This author attempts to connect with their reader through pathos by: 1. Writing about an emotional subject (death) 2. She appeals to Christians by quoting from the Bible:

In an appeal to pathos, it is important that this writer uses a reasonable tone. In an earlier draft, the author referred to Christians as “you people” and did not quote the Bible. So, we discussed how it is important to connect with the audience if the goal is to persuade, as it is in this argument paper.