III. Rhetorical Situation

3.2 What is Rhetoric?

Melanie Gagich and Terri Pantuso

The definition of rhetoric commonly used is “the art of persuasion.” Rhetoric is everywhere and can involve any kind of text including speech, written words, images, movies, documentaries, the news, etc. So it is important to understand how to navigate the murky waters of persuasion and rhetoric.

According to the section titled “Classical Argument: A (Very) Brief History of Rhetoric” from the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) website:

In ancient Greece and Rome, rhetoric was most often considered to be the art of persuasion and was primarily described as a spoken skill. In these societies, discourse occurred almost exclusively in the public sphere, so learning the art of effective, convincing speaking was essential for public orators, legal experts, politicians, philosophers, generals, and educators. To prepare for the speeches they would need to make in these roles, students engaged in written exercises called progymnasmata. Today, rhetorical scholars still use strategies from the classical era to conceptualize argument. However, whereas oral discourse was the main focus of the classical rhetoricians, modern scholars also study the peculiarities of written argument.[1]

Why Do I Need to Think Rhetorically?

A rhetorical analysis asks you to examine the interactions between a text, an author, and an audience. However, before you can begin the analysis you must first understand the historical context of the text and the rhetorical situation.

To locate a text’s historical context, you must determine where in history the text is situated—was it written in the past five years? Ten? One hundred? You should think about how that might affect the information being delivered. Once you determine the background of the text, you should determine the rhetorical situation (i.e. who, what, when, where, why). The following questions may help:

  • What is the topic of the text?
  • Who is the author? What are the author’s credentials, what sort of experiences have they had? How do their credentials, or lack of, connect (or not) with the topic of the text?
  • Who is the target audience? Who did the author have in mind when they created the text?
  • Who is the unintended audience? Are they related in any way to the target audience?
  • What was the occasion, historical context, or setting? What was happening during the time period when the text was produced? Where was the text distributed or published?
  • How does the topic relate to the author, audience, and occasion?
  • What is the author’s purpose? Why did they create the text?
  • In what medium was the text originally produced?

Meaning can change based on when, where, and why a text was produced and meaning can change depending on who reads the text. Rhetorical situations affect the meaning of a text because it may have been written for a specific audience, in a specific place, and during a specific time (often referred to as kairos). An important part of the rhetorical situation is the audience and since many of the articles were not written with you, a college student in a college writing class, in mind, the meaning you interpret or recognize might be different from the author’s original target audience. For example, if you read an article about higher education written in 2016, then you, the reader, are connected with and understand the context of the topic. However, if you were asked to read a text about higher education written in 1876, you would probably have a hard time understanding and connecting to it because you are not the target audience and the text’s context (or rhetorical situation) has changed.

Further, the occasion for writing might be very different, too. Articles or scholarly works that are at least five years old or older may include out of date references and may not represent relevant or accurate information (e.g. think of the change regarding online learning in the past few years). Older works require that you investigate significant historical moments or changes that have occurred since the writing of a given text.

Targeted audience and occasion will all affect the way you, the reader, read a text as well as the date, site, and medium of publication. Therefore, it is your duty as a thoughtful reader to research these aspects in order to fully understand and conceptualize the text’s rhetorical situation. Furthermore, even though you might not be a member of the targeted audience, or perhaps might not have even been alive during the production of a text, that does not mean that you cannot recognize rhetorical moves within it. We will examine the aspects of the rhetorical situation in a later section but first, let’s review a few of the characteristics of classical rhetoric.

Practice Activity

This section contains material from:

Gagich, Melanie. “What is Rhetoric?” In A Guide to Rhetoric, Genre, and Success in First-Year Writing, by Melanie Gagich and Emilie Zickel. Cleveland: MSL Academic Endeavors. Accessed July 2019. https://pressbooks.ulib.csuohio.edu/csu-fyw-rhetoric/chapter/6-1-what-is-rhetoric/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Archival link: https://web.archive.org/web/20230208110008/https://pressbooks.ulib.csuohio.edu/csu-fyw-rhetoric/chapter/6-1-what-is-rhetoric/

  1. “Classical Argument: A (Very) Brief History of Rhetoric,” Purdue Online Writing Lab, accessed August 8, 2019, https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/academic_writing/historical_perspectives_on_argumentation/classical_argument.html.


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3.2 What is Rhetoric? Copyright © 2023 by Melanie Gagich and Terri Pantuso is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.