Purpose (Rhetoric)

  • Identify the primary reason for writing provides you with the focus you need to write an effective document in less time.

In Writing Studies the term purpose is used in two distinct ways: (1) the Global Perspective and (2) the Local Perspective.

  1. The Global Perspective (AKA Macro Level) concerns the rhetor’s overarching goals.
    • For instance, the primary purpose of the U.S. Constitution is to outline the basic rights of its citizens.
  2. The Local Perspective (AKA Micro level) refers to the rhetor’s purpose at the section, paragraph and sentence level.
    • For instance, the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution outlines the reasons the constitution was written and outlines the goals of the text. Next, Article 1 outlines the roles and powers of the three branches of government.

Purpose is also known as Agency, Aim

See Also:
Thesis, Research Question, Title
Purpose (Information Literacy > CRAAP Test)

Like an onion that is peeled, revealing multiple layers, a text may have multiple purposes. A persuasive essay, for example, may have paragraphs that inform, paragraphs that persuade, paragraphs that threaten, and paragraphs that request information.

Knowing your purpose is a bit like knowing your destination and plugging it into a GPS system. For rhetors, after considerations of audience, little is more important than purpose:

  • Purpose informs writing processes:
    Once you know your purpose, you can identify how you need to research, organize, revise, and edit information.
  • Purpose is an heuristic, a method of invention:
    Contemplating your purpose in relation to your audience inspires rhetors:
    • Once you know your purpose, you can articulate your thesis, research question, and organizational strategy
    • purpose stimulates critical thinking because it brings into focus what to say and what not to say.
  • Purpose determines genre:
    Genres reflect shared textual expectations between readers and writers. Genre reflects the histories, activities, and values of communities of practitioners. And the actions of these practitioners are determined by shared purposes.

Because life is complicated, so are purposes. People write documents for countless reasons, including

  1. Record: Keep a record of events or information.
  2. Reflect/Explore: Write in a journal, attempt to make sense of something or to shape a new idea.
  3. Inform: Objectively report an event.
  4. Demonstrate Knowledge: Prove, in school, that you’ve learned course content.
  5. Summarize: Report someone else’s words, theories, and research in your own words.
  6. Explain: Help readers understand a difficult concept, theory, or event.
  7. Analyze: Break down a problem into parts.
  8. Persuade: Change minds, invoke action.
  9. Theorize: Speculate on possible causes and effects.
  10. Entertain: Bring joy, amazement, and thrills.

Purpose has been a subject of significant academic study. Since antiquity, theorists have have speculated about ways purpose shapes content.

In the 1970s through the 1990s, this effort to analyze the effects of purpose on the shape of content endured. Building on the shoulders of Samuel Newman’s work, James L. Kinneavy (1971) postulated there are four primary aims, or purposes, for communication:

Expressive Discoursee.g, personal journals
Referential Discoursee.g., scientific, informative, and exploratory discourse
Literary Discoursee.g., novels, poems, short stories
Persuasive Discoursee.g., proposals, advertisements, recommendation reports

In 1975 James Moffett categorized the texts of eleven and eighteen old students in Great Britain. James Applebee and Judith Langer followed up that study with How Writing Shapes Thinking in 1987, replicating the methods of Britton’s study yet focusing on the writing of U.S. students. Applebee and Lander also extended this analysis by theorizing the effects of different discourse purposes on cognition.

Concepts Related to Purpose

Works Cited

Britton, James, Tony Burgess, Nancy Martin, Alex McLeod, and Harold Rosen. The Development of Writing Abilities (11-19). London: Scho0ls Council Publications, 1975.

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.

Kinneavy, James L. A Theory of Discourse. Englewood Cliffs , TV. J.: PrenticeHall1971.

Langer, Judith A., & Applebee, Arthur N. (2007). How Writing Shapes Thinking: A Study of Teaching and Learning. WAC Clearinghouse Landmark Publications in Writing Studies. The WAC Clearinghouse. https://wac.colostate.edu/books/landmarks/langer_applebee/ (Originally published in 1987 by National Council of Teachers of English)



Additional articles on Purpose:

  1. Classification

    Organize information into logical groups. As with describing, narrating, defining, and comparing, classifying is a component of all writing genres....

  2. The Thesis

    The main idea. The argument of an essay. The thesis. It’s a tricky thing to define “thesis” because theses come...