What are Rhetorical Modes?

Rhetorical Modes refers to

  1. the four major different types of writing, as conceptualized by Samuel P. Newman in 1827 :
    1. argument
    2. description
    3. exposition
    4. narration
  2. a paragraph or section of a text that is composed to achieve a particular aim
  3. a popular way of organizing writing instruction from the late 1900s to the 1950s.

Synonymous Terms

For short, the rhetorical modes may be referenced as the modes or the modes of discourse. Other signifiers, a bit less exact, include

  • Modes of Rhetoric
  • Rhetorical Strategies
  • Types of Discourse
  • Rhetorical Devices

Related Concepts: Purpose – Aim of Discourse; Rhetorical Reasoning

The concept of modes of discourse was introduced by Samuel P. Newman in 1827. For Newman, the modes represented the four reasons people communicate–and the ways those four types of communication can be distinguished from one another:

“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” (Newman, 1827, pp. 28-29).

Later, in 1866, Alexander Bain’s best selling textbook — English Composition and Rhetoric — provided additional resources for teachers and students on argument, description, exposition, and narration. At that time, the in-class emphasis on the modes in the classroom represented an important transition from the belletristic tradition, which had focused on using class time to discuss essays, poetry and literature.

<a href=httpswellcomecollectionorgworkss32z8hud target= blank rel=noreferrer noopener>Alexander Bain Photogravure by Synnberg Photo gravure Co 1898<a> is licensed under <a href=httpscreativecommonsorglicensesby40ref=openverse target= blank rel=noreferrer noopener>CC BY 40<a>

According to Robert Connors, “The Rise and Fall of the Modes of Discourse,” Bain’s rhetoric was wildly popular for teaching writing in the U.S. during the 1900s to the 1950s. 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).

Modes in the Modern Writing Classroom

Contemporary pedagogy no longer favors declarative knowledge in the rhetorical modes as the main focus for a writing course. The rhetorical modes have not been an important focus of writing instruction since the 1950s for multiple reasons:

  1. Following McCrimmon’s Writing With A Purpose, textbook authors moved away from using modes to organize their textbooks.
  2. The Writing Studies community judged assignments that treated the modes of discourse as full blown genres to be arhetorical, as Engfish (meaningless assignments written without an audience for English classes). Instead, it became more commonplace to view modes as textual patterns represented at the paragraph level.
    • For instance, a rhetor who has been asked to recommend 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.
  3. The focus in the writing classroom shifted away from textual analysis toward textual production thanks to the process revolution.


Connors, R. (Dec 1981). The Rise and Fall of the Modes of Discourse, College Composition and Communication, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Dec., 1981), pp. 444-455.

Murray, D. (1972).  “Teach Writing as a Process Not Product” The Leaflet 71 (3), 11-14.

Samuel, N. (1827). A Practical System of Rhetoric. Mark H. Newman.

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