The concept of the rhetorical triangle has been in existence as far back as ancient Greece. The great philosopher and teacher, Aristotle, became fascinated with how rhetoric functions. How an individual says something, the emotions and sentiment used, conveys as much or more meaning as what one says, or the actual content of message. Aristotle defined 3 key elements of rhetoric: Logos, Ethos, and Pathos.
While many philosophers defined rhetoric in their own language, Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle is known and taught widely in modern-era composition classrooms. Studying the rhetorical triangle teaches writers whether or not they have created an effective argument. Over time, different scholars have conceived different models of rhetoric, so you may find the definitions vary slightly from text to text.
The Greek logos, means “word.” Originally, logos referred to the content of a speech and how it was organized, though today in speech or argument writing, a well-developed logos refers to a strong claim and reasoning, or the “message.” For effective logos, the argument must have
A Clear and Consistent Claim
The claim, or thesis, must be clear for the audience. The reasons are often referred to as “because clauses,” which is a simple way to define the argument in the early stages of drafting. For instance, the claim, “Rap music has a bad influence on teens,” can be completed with a logical reason: “Rap music has a bad influence on teens because it promotes disrespect for women.” Once a claim and reason are made, effective evidence must back up the claim for an effective argument.
Greek for “character,” ethos refers to the writer’s (or speaker’s) perspective and credibility. A paper with a strong ethos will utilize several strategies to communicate the message effectively. A writer can develop ethos by utilizing effective tone and style; incorporating strong evidence and support; and including fair treatment of opposing views.
The writer or speaker must always be mindful of the impression created by their delivery of a message. Understanding audience plays an important role in effective ethos. When writing an argument, consider how you, as the speaker, are coming across. For effective ethos, the writer (or speaker) must
Be knowledgeable. Present strong reasoning and support for your argument.
Be fair. The opposition may disagree with your argument, but they may have their own valid opinions.
Understand your audience by using audience-based reasons.
Pathos, Greek for “suffering” or “experience,” refers to the emotional appeal the writer makes to the audience. For effective pathos, the writer must first understand exactly who their audience is. Some texts refer to pathos as “audience.” Tone and style plays a large role in pathos.
One way to incorporate pathos into your argument is by telling a narrative story. For example, if you are arguing to legislate a one-strike law for drunk driving offenses, showing your audience the scene at a drunk driving accident will create sentiment and incite emotion that is more persuasive than reasoning alone. Storytelling, with vivid language and illustrations, can create a strong emotional reaction in an audience, moving them to your side.
Some instructors include other rhetorical elements, Telos, or “purpose,” and Kairos, or “setting.” All of these terms are interconnected, and each has qualities that affect how they interrelate. Each element in the rhetorical triangle, logos, ethos, and pathos, carries some responsibility for the success – or failure – of the argument.
(Some definitions from Writing Arguments: A Rhetoric with Readings)