The Rhetorical Triangle: Identifying Ethos, Pathos, and Logos

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The great philosopher, Aristotle, was fascinated with how rhetoric functions. How an individual says something, the emotion, tone, and sentiment used, conveys as much or more meaning than the actual content of the message. Aristotle defined the three key persuasive appeals of logos, ethos, and pathos, and the theory of rhetoric was born.

The concept of the rhetorical triangle is often foreign to most beginning writers; however, the components that make up the rhetorical triangle— logos, ethos, and pathos—are crucial elements to most forms of academic writing. Most casual readers, however, do not always recognize these elements of persuasive argument. However, to be a critical reader and informed audience (as well as a successful writer), it’s essential a reader and writer keep a keen eye toward the elements of these persuasive techniques.

How do we come to understand these appeals as we, writers and readers, construct our own persuasive writing? Let’s break each down to its simplest form, and consider how each are used.

Logos

The Greek logos, means word or reason.  Logos is often referred to as the idea, message, reason, or text. Logos relates to the premise, or foundation, of an argument. When an appeal of logos is in the text of an argument, the writer is appealing to reason. As we deconstruct (or construct) an argument, consider if the writer or author has presented an argument with a strong claim (thesis), and reasoning (support).

For logos to be effective, an argument must contain the following:

  • a clear and consistent claim
  • logical reasons
  • effective evidence

For a claim, or thesis, to be effective, it should be specific:

The U.S. should increase funding to prevent underage drinking, as youth are at higher risk of death due to excessive drinking, are more likely to binge drink, and related economic costs are skyrocketing.

In this example, the thesis is clearly stated, and the reasons are clear. But what kind of facts will back up this claim?

Including reliable facts, such as statistics, testimony, surveys, experiments, and even personal experience, is essential for a successful logical appeal (logos). Look at the following statistic. Would a reader interpret this as strong support for the previous claim?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), excessive drinking is responsible for more than 4,300 deaths among underage youth each year, and cost the U.S. $24 billion in economic costs in 2010.
(https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/underage-drinking.htm)

The audience, or reader, must determine if this stat is from a trustworthy source. The CDC is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, a government agency, and is highly respected. Most readers would probably consider the source quite trustworthy, and not question the data.

Are the facts clearly defined?

An inquisitive reader might wonder what exactly the data means by economic costs, and how they measure those costs. This would need clarification and explanation. But the data source that is used here would most likely be considered credible, as it comes from a government agency with a strong reputation for reliable research.

Ethos

Greek for “character,” ethos refers to the writer’s (or speaker’s) perspective and credibility. A writer can develop ethos by utilizing effective tone and style; incorporating strong evidence and support; and including fair treatment of opposing views.

When constructing an argument, consider how you, as the writer/speaker, are communicating your message. Questions to consider when determining if ethos is successful include

  • Is the writer knowledgeable on the subject?
  • What are his or her qualifications?
  • Does the writer sound credible?
  • Has the writer presented strong reasoning and support?
  • Is the writer’s tone suitable for the purpose, such as the word choices?
  • Has the writer demonstrated respect for the opposition, or merely declared it invalid?

Television personalities, politicians, and athletes are often used in advertising to promote a product. While the public often admires famous individuals, does that mean we should automatically believe what they say—or sell? Would you put all of your money in an investment solely because an Olympic athlete has promoted the product? Would you follow a trendy diet because a famous TV personality says it’s the best diet ever invented? The writer’s credibility and how he or she has presented the facts weighs heavily if an argument is to be successful.

Pathos

Ethos-Logos-Pathos

Pathos, Greek for “suffering” or “experience,” refers to an appeal based on emotions. Many (if not most) politicians use emotional appeals in their arguments: the story of a family who is struggling to make ends meet to push for tax cuts; the image of a glacier breaking away in the arctic to enact tougher environmental measures; the story of a homeless family to push for more affordable housing.

Another common situation pathos is used is fundraising campaigns. Direct mail solicitations almost always rely on pathos to play on the readers’ compassion, whether it be fundraising for polar bears, rain forests, or orphanages.

These types of emotional appeals have been highly criticized, as they are in many ways a form of manipulation, and are often used to mislead the audience. However, effective arguments almost always use appeals to emotions such as fear, sadness, fury, distress, or hope. It’s up to the audience to be well-informed and critical, taking an active approach to analyzing each part of an argument to confirm its validity.

For an effective emotional appeal, the writer must first understand exactly who their audience is and what motivates them. What are their values and beliefs?

Final Thoughts

Keep in mind that often one aspect of a text could include all of the rhetorical appeals. They work together, overlapping to strengthen the argument. Remember that as you analyze other writing or are building your own argument, each appeal in the rhetorical triangle—logos, ethos, and pathos—carries some responsibility for the success—or failure—of the argument.

 

 

Works Consulted

Lunsford, Andrea A. The Everyday Writer. Sixth ed., Boston, Bedford St. Martin’s, 2016.

“Underage Drinking.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  Aug.  2018, Atlanta, GA., https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/underage-drinking.htm. Accessed 15, Apr., 2019.