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Rhetorical Appeals

"Let's not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives, and we obey them without realizing it."
– Vincent Van Gogh

Remember those after-school specials that aired on TV when you were a kid? They always had some obvious moral (like "don't drink and drive"). And they were often really emotionally driven. 

At the end of the show, the camera would pan out, showing the protagonist alone and suffering for the poor decisions that he or she had made.

"Logic is the anatomy of thought."
– John Locke

"Logos" is the appeal to logic. Logos isn't logic like the formal logic in math, philosophy, or even computer science; it is the consistency and clarity of an argument as well as the logic of evidence and reasons.

In formal logic, in abstraction, the following is the case: if A is true and B is true and A is an instance of B, then the repercussions of B will always be true.

"This is the right time, and this is the right thing."
– Sir Thomas Moore

"Kairos" is an ancient rhetorical concept that has gained importance in different disciplines over the centuries. So what is it? Kairos is knowing what is most appropriate in a given situation; for our purposes, let's think of it as saying (or writing) the right thing at the right time.

Appeals to kairos in written form try to make use of the particular moment—attempting to capture in words what will be immediately applicable, appropriate, and engaging for a particular audience.

By now you know that all arguments operate according to an internal logic. No matter which of the four rhetorical appeals the author uses, her thesis will succeed or fail based on the soundness of her argument. In classical logic, an argument is sound only if all of its premises are true and the argument is valid. And an argument is valid only if its conclusion follows logically from the combination of its premises. For example, Plato’s classic syllogism, “All men are mortal; Socrates is a man: therefore, Socrates is mortal” is both valid and sound. Its premises are true, and the conclusion is undeniable given an understanding of the definitions of the terms.

I've always wondered why candidates have to "approve this message"; I mean, if President Obama is on camera talking about himself, then can't I assume he approves the message? Why does he have to state that he approves it at the end?

There's certainly a law that governs what must be said at the end of a political advertisement, or else President Obama wouldn't say exactly the same thing as every other politician at the end of an ad, but there's also an element of persuasion at work here. 

  • Ad Hominem (Argument to the Person): Attacking the person instead of the argument. For example, "You say I shouldn't drink so much, but you drink every day." The validity of the argument (drink less) can't be based on the behavior of the person making the argument. Instead, the validity of the argument should be evaluated on its own terms—separate from the person making the claim.

  • Argument by Dismissal: Rejecting an idea without providing a reason or explanation for its dismissal. For instance, there is a tendency to cry "socialism" when faced with calls for a single-payer system in the ongoing health care debate. Such a dismissal of the single-payer system may include the observations, "This is America!," or, "You are free to live elsewhere if you prefer."

To view the Rhetorical Appeals table, please open the full article.

  • Appeal to Nature: Suggesting a certain behavior or action is normal/right because it is "natural." This is a fallacious argument for two reasons: first, there are multiple, and often competing, ways to define "nature" and "natural." Because there is no one way to define these terms, a writer cannot assume his or her reader thinks of "nature" in the same way he or she does. Second, we cannot assume that "unnatural" is the same as wrong or evil. We (humans) have made lots of amendments to how we live (e.g., wearing clothes, living indoors, farming) with great benefit.

  • Red Herring: Introducing irrelevant facts or claims to detract from the actual argument. For instance, our invasion of Iraq was predicated, in part, upon the connection between the attacks of 9/11 and Saddam Hussein. The war was described by some as an appropriate response to the terrorist attacks on 9/11, but in reality, the connection between Iraq and Saddam Hussein was a red herring. Hussein was not connected to Al Qaeda, the terrorist network that perpetrated the attacks, or 9/11.

Successful writers write to win. Whether a writer wants to achieve a particular grade on a paper, persuade a specific audience to adopt an argument, or obtain an interview with a company, a writer writes with a purpose that he or she aims to fulfill. Using rhetorical appeals, particularly in persuasive writing, is a powerful way to persuade an audience.

Moreover, rhetorical appeals work. For example, in “Reductions in smoking prevalence and cigarette consumption associated with mass-media campaigns,” authors Karen Friend and David T. Levy examine state and local mass-media anti-tobacco campaigns that endeavor to change social norms, knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs regarding smoking.

Why use rhetorical appeals in persuasive writing? Using rhetorical appeals in persuasive writing increases a writer’s chances of achieving his or her purpose. Any rhetorical purpose must be connected to an audience, and rhetorical appeals have been proven to successfully reach and persuade audiences.

Incorporating appeals to pathos into persuasive writing increases a writer’s chances of achieving his or her purpose. Read “Pathos” to define and understand pathos and methods for appealing to it. The following brief article discusses examples of these appeals in persuasive writing.

An important key to incorporating pathos into your persuasive writing effectively is appealing to your audience’s commonly held emotions. To do this, one must be able to identify common emotions, as well as understand what situations typically evoke such emotions.

No better time to use appeals to kairos in your persuasive writing exists. If this term and/or topic are completely new, read “Kairos.” Every day, writers who understand and effectively incorporate kairos into their writing have an advantage: they can creditably connect their message to the audience’s sense of place and time.

An effective writer appeals to kairos by considering, and taking advantage of, the moment into which one’s writing will enter. Ask these questions:

  • Where will my writing be read?
  • When will my writing be read?