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You’re Using Rhetoric, Whether You Know It Or Not

All communication is a subtle form of persuasion. Here’s why understanding rhetoric can make you a better speaker, listener and language-learner.
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You’re Using Rhetoric, Whether You Know It Or Not

You’re studying Turkish, not delivering a speech to the United Nations. So what does knowing how to use rhetoric have to do with learning a new language?

As it turns out, rhetoric is at play in all forms of — well, rhetoric. Whenever we talk to each other, we’re generally doing one (or several) of these things: establishing the past, describing the present situation or imagining the future. These are all forms of rhetoric. Additionally, we often use rhetorical appeals like ethos, logos and/or pathos in our everyday communication, and usually without even realizing it.

Camille Langston, Department Chair of English and Communication Studies at St. Mary’s University, created a short lesson for TED-Ed on how to use rhetoric.


Camille Langston’s original TEDEd lesson on how to use rhetoric.

Here’s a quick review of the topics covered in the video. Forensics, or judicial rhetoric, focuses on establishing what already happened. Epideictic, or demonstrative rhetoric, has something to say about the present situation. And deliberative rhetoric, or symbouleutikon, imagines the future (this is what activists and politicians frequently use to defend their positions).

There are also three types of deliberative appeals: ethos, logos and pathos.

  • Ethos is about convincing the listener of your credibility or signaling your virtue.
  • Logos relies on logic and reason, using examples, research and statistics to back up your claim.
  • Pathos is an appeal to emotion, and this is used most frequently in mass media and advertising. Pathos is arguably the most effective of the three, says Langston. Humans are fundamentally emotional creatures.

In real life, however, it’s rarely this cut-and-dried. Langston believes most appeals do not fit neatly into one category. Additionally, this classical model leaves out what Langston believes is actually the most effective form of rhetoric: listening.

“People like to talk, especially about themselves,” she said. “And the more they talk about themselves, the more invested in their audience they become. Once that bond is created, it is difficult to break. Once the listener has adhered the speaker, he or she can use that bond to present an argument.”

Is Rhetoric Manipulative?

Does this mean that listening to someone else is necessarily an act of manipulation? That depends on how you look at it. More often than not, convincing someone of something requires an exchange of energy, as well as a fundamental willingness to compromise.

“Everything is an argument, to paraphrase [Stanford University Director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric] Andrea Lunsford,” Langston said. “With that premise, all communication is persuasive in one way or another. ‘Getting what you want,’ therefore, is inherent in any conversation. Better conversations and connections with people require a world of open-mindedness and critical and creative thinking. In that world, people would use ‘getting what they want’ through sacrifice and negotiation, where both parties win.”

How To Use Rhetoric In Language-Learning

From a language-learning perspective, rhetoric is present in all the subtle nuances of how we communicate in another tongue.

For instance, there’s the matter of body language, says Langston.

“We communicate with our bodies, our dress, our presence,” she said. “Body language is closely connected to pathos. Additionally, the tone with which one speaks can also evoke ethos. Logos is difficult to disconnect with spoken and written language, but one’s actions can exemplify a rational approach.”

By paying more attention to rhetoric, we just might be able to get what we want. And when you’re learning a new language, “getting what you want” is usually just the ability to connect with someone who’s not like you.

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Steph Koyfman
Steph is a writer, lindy hopper, and astrologer. She’s also a language enthusiast who grew up bilingual and had an early love affair with books. She has mostly proved herself as a New Yorker, and she can introduce herself in Swedish thanks to Babbel. She also speaks Russian and Spanish, but she’s a little rusty on those fronts.
Steph is a writer, lindy hopper, and astrologer. She’s also a language enthusiast who grew up bilingual and had an early love affair with books. She has mostly proved herself as a New Yorker, and she can introduce herself in Swedish thanks to Babbel. She also speaks Russian and Spanish, but she’s a little rusty on those fronts.

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