Rhetorical analysis

The central question in a rhetorical analysis is: “What is the intention of the writer/speaker – and does the text help achieve this intention?” All the other parts of the analysis, are just ways to answer this question.

…the purpose of the text analysis [is] to find out whether the text is good or not. However, we can’t just say, >>I don’t like this text. It’s not good.<< We have to argue our case: >>This text is not very good because its purpose is to tell me what the Renaissance was, but it spends more time telling me how difficult it is to read Shakespeare.<< Thus, our criteria for saying what makes the text good or less good have to be clear and quite specific. (Quist 2009, p. 8)

Analysing the rhetorical situation

Before you can decide if a text is good, you have to understand the rhetorical situation surrounding the text.

  • What is the topic of the text?
  • Under what circumstances was the text written?
  • Who is the writer and who are their audience?
  • What genre of text is it and what style of language is used?
  • And finally – most importantly – What is the writer’s intention?

In order to figure this you you analyse the rhetorical situation with the rhetorical pentagon.


Analysing the text

Once you know the rhetorical situation of the text – and what the writer’s intention is, you can then analyse the text itself. In order to do this you look at three different levels.

  1. What features or rhetorical devices are there in the text?
  2. What qualities do the features give the text? E.g.:
    • clear (concise and focused)
    • vivid (a varied text that speaks to all senses)
    • funny
    • helpful
    • boring
    • pedagogical (easy to understand and nice to read)
    • persuasive (has good arguments)
    • difficult to understand
    • serious
    • beautiful
    • etc.
  3. What is the function or purpose of the features?
    • a good text has one purpose that is more important than all others. What is it? Or is a problem with the text that it is unfocused and thus doesn’t have one clear purpose? The three classical purposes are:
      • to inform
      • to delight (or entertain)
      • to persuade


Other useful terms for analysis

In order to know what kind of features to look for there are a number of terms that may be useful to know in your analysis.

  • Persona: the person you seem to be in a specific situation, speech or text
  • Primary/secondary audience: the audience that is addressed directly and indirectly
  • Sponsorship effect: the ethos gained from referencing a respected person and thus connecting yourself to them
  • Modes of appeal
    • Pathos: the appeals to the imaginative sympathies of a reader/listener – their capacity to feel and see what the writer feels and sees.
    • Logos: the internal consistency and clarity of the message and to the logic of its reasons and support. The impact of logos on an audience is referred to as its logical appeal. Facts, reason, and hard evidence are the elements of logos.
    • Ethos: the appeal from the credibility of the writer/speaker. Ethos is often conveyed through the tone and style of the message, through the care with which the writer considers alternative views, and through the writer’s use of other sources and investment in his or her claim.
  • Rhetorical devices (there are many different ones, more than listed here)
    • Direct address: The use of ‘you’, ‘your’, ‘we’, ‘our’, etc. draws the reader into the context.
    • Imperative form: this results in a personal appeal to the reader.
    • Repetition: Using a certain phrase or idea several times makes it stand out.
      • Rhyme repeating similar sounds
        • Alliteration: repeating the same consonant sound at the start of words
        • Assonance: repeating the same vowel sound
      • Tricolon: repeating three similar clauses or phrases
      • Polyptoton: using several words with the same root
      • Anaphora: repeating a word at the start of several sentences
      • Epiphora: repeating a word at the end of several sentences
    • Imagery: Conveying ideas with similes, metaphors, etc. makes the language more vivid and therefore memorable.
    • Rhetorical questions: asking a question that you don’t want the person to answer. This kind of question is meant to stress a point rather than elicit an answer.
    • Exemplification: Giving specific examples of something to make it more concrete
    • Anecdote: a story of a personal experience, used to illustrate a point
    • Comparison (simile): comparing two or more things to highlight similarities or differences
      • Contrast: the presentation of two opposites to highlight the difference.
      • Antithesis: Comparing two things that are complete opposites
    • Word play: playing with the choice of words, for example words with several meanings
      • Pun: a form of word play where words are used that sound similar to other words
    • Word choice: the choice of words can be loaded with history, refer to other texts
      or have negative or positive connotations
    • Metaphor: one thing that is said to be something else
    • Symbol: a concrete things that represents a greater idea or abstract concept
    • Idiom: a manner of speaking that means more than the individual words
    • Hyperbole: exaggeration
    • Irony: saying the opposite of what you mean
    • Logical fallacies: making arguments that are not logically valid. See examples at: https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/strawman

    Read more:

    – Quist, Nanna Flindt (2009). On Purpose – Rhetorical Analysis of Non-fiction. Gyldendal.

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