Rhetorical Modes

Traditionally, Rhetorical Modes are a classification scheme for common forms or types of writing. Examples include Causes & Effects, Classification, Comparison and Contrast, Definition, Description, Exemplification, Exposition, and Narration.

At Writing Commons, we view the Rhetorical Modes as

  • foundational ways of reasoning and innovating.
    • The Modes are more than forms of discourse: they are ways of thinking about the world.
  • a rhetorical option
  • elements of discourse that are used in Genres.

The Modes have been a popular way of classifying discourse since the 1900s. In his influential essay, The Rise and Fall of the Modes of Discourse, Robert Connors (1981) traces the emergence of the Modes as a popular way to organize writing instruction since 1866 when Samuel Newman analyzed the textual features of Narration, Description, Exposition (didactic writing) and Argumentation:

Writings are distinguished from each other as didactic, persuasive, argumentative, descriptive, and narrative…. Didactic writing, as the name implies, is used in conveying instruction…. when it is designed to influence the will, the composition becomes the persuasive kind…. the various forms of argument, the statement of proofs, the assigning of causes are addressed to the reasoning faculties of the mind. Narrative and descriptive writings relate past occurrences, and place before the mind for its contemplation, various objects and scenes.2

Newman, Samuel P.  A Practical System of Rhetoric (New York: Mark H. Newman, 1827) pp. 28-29.

Following Newman, in 1866, Alexander Bain provided a thorough analysis of Narration, Description, Exposition, and Argumentation in English Composition and Rhetoric. Newman’s rhetoric became the dominant resource for teaching writing in the U.S. during the 1900s. Not only did his rhetoric sell well, it also led to many derivative works. By the 1930s, the Modes were commonly defined as “definition, analysis, partition, interpretation, reportage, evaluation by standards, comparison, contrast, classification, process analysis, device analysis, cause-and-effect, induction, deduction, examples, and illustration” (Connors 1981 p. 450).

The Rhetorical Modes were a popular way of organizing instruction in writing courses from the late 1900s to the 1950s. Focusing on the Modes in the classroom represented an important transition from the belletristic tradition, which had emphasized letters, essays, poetry and literature.

Ultimately, however, knowing how to categorize discourse didn’t prove to be helpful to aspiring writers. Plus, the idea that students would write an entire essay that focused on description or definition or some other Mode seemed a bit far fetched. Life, after all, is seldom so tidy.

The Rhetorical Modes have not been an important focus of writing instruction since the 1950s. Following McCrimmon’s Writing With A Purpose, textbook authors moved away from using Modes to organize their textbooks.

A variety of alternative approaches followed, including aims, cognitive problem solving, case study, and freewriting. The most dominant change over the last fifty years has been a focus on textual production rather than textual analysis. In other words, the Rhetorical Modes have been replaced in contemporary pedagogy with an emphasis on writing processes.

What is the process we should teach? It is the process of discovery through language. It is the process of exploration of what we know and what we feel about what we know through language. It is the process of using language to learn about our world, to evaluate what we learn about our world, to communicate what we learn about our world. Instead of teaching finished writing, we should teach unfinished writing, and glory in its unfinishedness.

Donald M. Murray, “Teach Writing as a Process Not Product” The Leaflet (November 1972), rpt. in Cross-Talk in Comp Theory, 2nd ed., ed. Victor Villanueva, Urbana: NCTE, 2003.

For instance, at Writing Commons, rather than modes, we discuss CollaborationEditingGenreInformation LiteracyInventionMindsetOrganizationResearchRevisionRhetoric, and Style).

The Modes @ Writing Commons

Since the 1950s, a great deal of theoretical and empirical work has been conducted regarding writing pedagogy. In the U.S., an academic field has emerged that is chiefly concerned with the study of writing: Writing Studies. And the Rhetorical Modes and Genres have been remixed and revolutionized as a result of the internet and communication technologies.

As a consequence of these developments, at least in our view at Writing Commons, we believe it it useful

  • to view Rhetorical Modes as foundational ways of thinking.
    • Description, e.g., is concerned with using concrete and sensory language that is used to describe something. Definition is concerned with naming something and distinguishing it from other things. And so on.

      Thus, by this view, the Rhetorical Modes are intellectual strategies. They are thoughts deployed by rhetors in response to particularly rhetorical situations.
  • to distinguish Rhetorical Modes from Genres.
    • Genres define the aims of an entire document whereas the Modes should be used to define the aims of a paragraph or section.

      For instance, a Rhetor who has been asked to recommend server software for a client might deploy multiple modes (e.g., description, definition, and comparison and contrast) in order to analyze Microsoft’s Cloud vs Amazon’s Cloud Services. In this example, the Purpose would be exposition and persuasion and the Genre would be the Recommendation Report.

In summary, at Writing Commons, we view the Rhetorical Modes to be more than common forms of writing: they are tools of thought.

  1. Causes & Effects
  2. Classification
  3. Comparison and Contrast
  4. Definition
  5. Description
  6. Exemplification
  7. Exposition
  8. Narration

Works Cited

Alexander Bain, English Composition and Rhetoric (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1866) p. 19

Connors, Robert J. The Rise and Fall of the Modes of Discourse, College Composition and Communication, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Dec., 1981), pp. 444-455.
[Note: Newman’s A Practical System of Rhetoric was influential between the 1820 and 1860s (Connors 1981). Students in school settings were taught to write essays in response to these forms of discours (Connors 1981).]

Murray, Donald M. “Teach Writing as a Process Not Product” The Leaflet (November 1972), rpt. in Cross-Talk in Comp Theory, 2nd ed., ed. Victor Villanueva, Urbana: NCTE, 2003.

Newman, Samuel P.  A Practical System of Rhetoric (New York: Mark H. Newman, 1827) pp. 28-2

Additional articles on Rhetorical-modes:

  1. Causes & Effects

    "Why are things like this? What is the effect, or result, of this?" and "What causes this?"--These questions guide authors...

  2. Chronological Narratives & Process Narratives

    Organize according to time. Reveal the logical or chronological steps one conducts to complete something or the cause-and-effect relationship between...

  3. Comparison and Contrast

    Define content by comparing and contrasting categories or classes of objects. Comparing and contrasting issues can be a powerful way...

  4. Definition

    Write sentence-long, paragraph-long, or extended definitions. We routinely define new concepts, terms, activities, research methods, and research findings. Our definitions...

  5. Description

    Enable readers to visualize your message by appealing to the five senses and using specific details. Description is an important...

  6. Employing Narrative in an Essay

    Mark Twain once wrote, “Don’t say the old lady screamed—bring her on and let her scream.”  What he was trying...

  7. Exemplification

    By Andrew Testa When authors provide examples or cases in point to support their claims, they employ the rhetorical strategy...