Learning poetry

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Writing- The Rhetorical Situation

Understanding the rhetorical situation can helps contribute to strong, audience-focused, and organized writing. The PowerPoint presentation in the Media box above is suitable for any classroom and any writing task. The resources below explain in more detail the idea of the rhetorical situation and can be used along with the PowerPoint saffecides.

The Rhetorical Situation

Writing instructors, and other professionals who study rhetoric, use the phrase “rhetorical situation” to refer to any set of circumstances that involve at least one person using some sort of communication to modify the perspective of at least one other person. In this context, “rhetoric” means any communication used to modify the perspectives of others.

Doesn’t “Rhetoric” Mean Something Like “Persuasion”?

Yes and no. Throughout much of history, “rhetoric” used to have a more narrow meaning like “the art of persuasion.” However, over the course of the 20th century, “rhetoric” came to be used as a descriptor for all use of communication (ancient Greeks known as the Sophists also had a broader view of the term "rhetoric"). The simplest explanation for this is that “rhetoric” in the persuasive sense implies an effort on the part of speakers to get what they want out of other people.

The newer sense of “rhetoric” implies that whenever humans communicate with other humans, they seek to elicit any number of responses ranging from understanding to emotional reaction to agreement to enlightenment or any one of almost limitless reactions. At its most basic, communication is the set of methods whereby humans attempt to identify with each other.

“The” Rhetorical Situation vs. “A” Rhetorical Situation

There is no one singular rhetorical situation that applies to all communication. Rather, all human efforts to communicate occur within innumerable individual rhetorical situations that are particular to those specific moments of communication. Even so, each individual rhetorical situation shares common elements with all other rhetorical situations.

Elements of a Rhetorical Situation

Every rhetorical situation has a four basic components: an author, an audience, a text of some sort, and a context in and through which each situation occurs. All these terms (author, audience, text, and context) are fairly loose in their definitions and all of them affect each other. Also, all these terms have a specific qualities that affect the ways that they interact with the other term. Below, you will find basic definitions of each term, a brief discussion of the qualities of each term, and then finally, a series of examples which illustrate various rhetorical situations.


“Author” is a fairly loose term used to refer to anyone who uses communication. An author could be one person or many people. An author could be someone who uses writing (like in a book), speech (like in a debate), visual elements (like in a TV commercial), audio elements (like in a radio broadcast), or even tactile elements (as is used in making Braille) to communicate.

Whatever authors create, authors are unavoidably human beings whose particular activities are affected by these general constraints: authors have specific purposes that guide their actions in communicating, authors have a specific attitudes which affect what and how they communicate, and authors have specific backgrounds that inform the nature of their communication.

Author’s Purpose

Authors’ purposes in communicating determines the basic rationale behind other decisions authors make (such as what to write or speak about, what medium to use, etc.). An author’s purpose in communicating could be to instruct, persuade, inform, entertain, educate, startle, excite, sadden, enlighten, punish, console . . . you get the idea. Authors’ purposes are only limited to what each author wants to accomplish in his or her communication. There are as many purposes for communicating as there are words to describe those purposes.

Author’s Attitude

Attitude is a much overlooked element of rhetorical situations, but it affects a great deal of how a rhetorical situation unfolds. Consider if an author communicates with a flippant attitude as opposed to a serious attitude, or with drama as opposed to comedy, or calmly as opposed to excitedly. Depending on authors’ purposes, audiences’ specific qualities, the nature of the context, and other factors, any of these attitudes could either help or hinder authors in their efforts to communicate depending on the other factors in any given rhetorical situation.

Author’s Background

Many factors affect authors’ backgrounds. These can include age, personal experience, gender, location, ethnicity, political beliefs, parents, peers, level of education, and others. Authors’ backgrounds affect the things that authors assume about the world, their audiences, what and how they communicate, and the context in which they communicate.

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