RHETORIC:  (noun) the art of convincing and persuading people by language through public speaking  or writing .  the art of persuasion used by orators, writers, media

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The term rhetoric isn’t used much anymore, today mostly in a pejorative way. When someone says that what another person is saying “is mere rhetoric,” it is meant to  dismiss what is being said as just empty  talk, no substance.  However, rhetoric has a respected past, originating with Aristotle and trickling down to modern English.  Perhaps the reason for the slippage in the word’s standing  is related to the decline in an emphasis on quality speech. There was a time when  what was called “correct” or “proper” speech was highly prized. One’s speech was taken into account in a job interview. Sometimes it’s hard to believe it still is. A person who wanted to be a radio announcer, for example, didn’t just stumble into the job. He or she had to pronounce words clearly,  enunciate elegantly,  and have an accent that was easy on the ear.  Nowadays it seems that anybody who can talk fast and denigrate others can be the host of his or her own radio show.

One of the definitions of  rhetoric is “the art of speaking or writing effectively, such as the study of principles  and rules of composition.” Actually, this is the purpose of the first year of English study in college. It used to be that you didn’t get out of English 101, or Comp 1, until you passed the rigors of being able to communicate convincingly in writing and in speaking. I remember that it was in rhetoric class that I  learned where to place the proper accent in the words “harass” and “harassment.” Now I hear the words mispronounced all the time, even  by journalists, and I become a little peeved.

The goal of rhetoric is to convince or persuade.  We have examples of persuasion in speeches on television and on the radio, in newspapers, in online publications, and in advertising that comes to us through various means. Persuasion sometimes confronts us in large groups, often in churches in the form of sermons. All of these modes of communication are aimed at us with the purpose of  influencing us to change our minds even in some small way.

According to rhetoricians,  there are three main elements of persuasive language: ethos, pathos, and logos.  Of course, originating with Aristotle, these words had to be in Greek,  but they are not hard to understand, and we should know a little about them to help us evaluate whom and what we are being exposed to in communication.  Ethos refers to the  personal ethics of the individual writing or speaking, what his or her character is like, whether he or she is trustworthy.  Today people don’t seem to mind whether this criterion is met by a speaker or writer. The person’s character doesn’t seem to matter much anymore. The message is what people are swayed–or persuaded–by.

Pathos refers to the emotional appeal that a speaker or writer uses to make an argument.  Sometimes the emotions dominate the presentation, whether in writing or speaking,   “playing on” the reader’s or listener’s emotions. Of course, feelings matter. We like to connect with a speaker or a writer, but we should be aware of when we are being emotionally manipulated.

Logos gives itself away. It means logic. The speaker’s or writer’s argument should follow a logical, reasoned pattern.  No “non sequitur” (it doesn’t follow) line of thinking should be tolerated. No resort to “ad hominem ” remarks that attack  one’s opponent instead of sticking to the point under discussion. No evidence of band-wagoning, attempting to bolster an argument with  a viewpoint that says if “everybody’s doing it,”  it must be right.

Modern scholars of rhetoric have given us a useful guideline for judging communication. It is  “the open hand” and “the  closed fist” concept, two observable ways of communicating.  The open hand depicts an approach that is conciliatory, reasonable, and willing to listen to the other person’s point of view.  The closed fist, on the other hand, is demanding, opinionated, intolerant of others’ ideas, aggressive, and impolite, thus making worthwhile conversation difficult.

In all of the daily communication that bombards us, we should test the persuasive approach of  speakers and writers so that we can determine how we are being persuaded.  Also, in our own one-on-one communication, we should endeavor to persuade  with a spirit that is “pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits” (James 3:7).





“We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.”
William Butler Yeats


  • Diane Rosier Miles

    I enjoyed Judith’s thoughtful and learned post about rhetoric. I read it with my morning coffee.

    One observation that I have as a creative writer is that fiction can be used to inform and persuade an audience. That is the great tradition of literature.

    I wish that people of all professions would abide by the “open-hand” and not the “closed-fist” communication style that Judith discusses. Unfortunately, for most people the “open-hand” approach requires too much hard work in common courtesy, self-discipline, and education.

    • Judith Nembhard

      Thank you for reading my post. Your observation about fiction being used to persuade is right on target. Actually, I daresay that most, if not all, fiction writers have something they want to persuade their readers about. That can be good, but it can also be negative, depending on their point of view. I am persuaded that you will use the “open hand” approach to persuasion.
      I appreciate your good comment. JN