Rhetorical Analysis

Learning Objectives

  • Describe rhetorical analysis
  • Analyze an argument using rhetorical analysis

Sometimes, the best way to learn how to write a good argument is to start by analyzing other arguments. When you do this, you get to see what works, what doesn’t, what strategies another author uses, what structures seem to work well and why, and more.

When we understand the decisions other writers make and why, it helps us make more informed decisions as writers. We can move from being the “accidental” writer, where we might do well but are not sure why, to being a “purposeful” writer, where we have an awareness of the impact our writing has on our audience at all levels.

The Importance of Rhetoric

Rhetoric is the art of effective and persuasive communication that is appropriate to a given situation. Although a thorough understanding of effective oral, written, and visual communication can take years of study, the foundation of such communication begins with rhetoric. With this foundation, even if you are just starting out, you can become a more powerful, more flexible writer. Rhetoric is key to being able to write effectively and persuasively in a variety of situations.

Every time you write or speak, you’re faced with a different rhetorical situation. Each rhetorical situation requires thoughtful consideration on your part if you want to be as effective and impactful as possible. Often, a successful essay or presentation is one that manages to persuade an audience to understand a question or issue in a particular way, or to respond to a question or issue by taking a particular action. Urging one’s reader to think or act in response to an important question or issue is one way of addressing the “so what?” element of analysis.

Many times, when students are given a writing assignment, they have an urge to skim the assignment instructions and then just start writing as soon as the ideas pop into their minds. But writing rhetorically and with intention requires that you thoroughly investigate your writing assignment (or rhetorical situation) before you begin to write the actual paper.

Thinking about concepts like purpose, audience, and voice will help you make good decisions as you begin your research and writing process.

Rhetorical Analysis

Take a look at the following definition of rhetorical analysis:

Rhetorical analysis shows how the words, phrases, images, gestures, performances, texts, films, etc. that people use to communicate work, how well they work, and how the artifacts, as discourse, inform and instruct, entertain and arouse, and convince and persuade the audience; as such, discourse includes the possibility of morally improving the reader, the viewer, and the listener.[1]

Basically, when you conduct a rhetorical analysis, you’re examining the way authors (or speakers) communicate their message. This means you can conduct a rhetorical analysis of any act of communication. Naturally, this makes rhetorical analysis one of the most common types of analysis you will perform at the college level.

Read the following short article by Richard Stallman about “open” educational resources (which, incidentally, you are using right now), and think about how Stallman makes his argument (not what he is arguing).

Online Education Is Using a Flawed Creative Commons License

By Richard Stallman

September 2012

Prominent universities are using a nonfree license for their digital educational works. That is bad already, but even worse, the license they are using has a serious inherent problem.

When a work is made for doing a practical job, the users must have control over the job, so they need to have control over the work. This applies to software, and to educational works too. For the users to have this control, they need certain freedoms (see gnu.org), and we say the work is “free” (or “libre,” to emphasize we are not talking about price). For works that might be useful in commercial contexts, the requisite freedom includes commercial use, redistribution and modification.

Creative Commons publishes six principal licenses. Two are free/libre licenses: the Sharealike license CC-BY-SA is a free/libre license with copyleft, and the Attribution license (CC-BY) is a free/libre license without copyleft. The other four are nonfree, either because they don’t allow modification (ND, Noderivs) or because they don’t allow commercial use (NC, Noncommercial).

In my view, nonfree licenses that permit sharing are OK for works of art/entertainment, or that present some party’s viewpoint (such as this article itself). Those works aren’t meant for doing a practical job, so the argument about the users’ control does not apply. Thus, I do not object if they are published with the CC-BY-NC-ND license, which allows only noncommercial redistribution of exact copies.

Use of this license for a work does not mean that you can’t possibly publish that work commercially or with modifications. The license doesn’t give permission for that, but you could ask the copyright holder for permission, perhaps offering a quid pro quo, and you might get it. It isn’t automatic, but it isn’t impossible.

However, two of the nonfree CC licenses lead to the creation of works that can’t in practice be published commercially, because there is no feasible way to ask for permission. These are CC-BY-NC and CC-BY-NC-SA, the two CC licenses that permit modification but not commercial use.

The problem arises because, with the internet, people can easily (and lawfully) pile one noncommercial modification on another. Over decades this will result in works with contributions from hundreds or even thousands of people.

What happens if you would like to use one of those works commercially? How could you get permission? You’d have to ask all the substantial copyright holders. Some of them might have contributed years before and be impossible to find. Some might have contributed decades before, and might well be dead, but their copyrights won’t have died with them. You’d have to find and ask their heirs, supposing it is possible to identify those. In general, it will be impossible to clear copyright on the works that these licenses invite people to make.

This is a form of the well-known “orphan works” problem, except exponentially worse; when combining works that had many contributors, the resulting work can be orphaned many times over before it is born.

To eliminate this problem would require a mechanism that involves asking someone for permission (otherwise the NC condition turns into a nullity), but doesn’t require asking all the contributors for permission. It is easy to imagine such mechanisms; the hard part is to convince the community that one such mechanisms is fair and reach a consensus to accept it.

I hope that can be done, but the CC-BY-NC and CC-BY-NC-SA licenses, as they are today, should be avoided.

Unfortunately, one of them is used quite a lot. CC-BY-NC-SA, which allows noncommercial publication of modified versions under the same license, has become the fashion for online educational works. MIT’s “Open Courseware” got it stared, and many other schools followed MIT down the wrong path. Whereas in software “open source” means “probably free, but I don’t dare talk about it so you’ll have to check for yourself,” in many online education projects “open” means “nonfree for sure”.

Even if the problem with CC-BY-NC-SA and CC-BY-NC is fixed, they still won’t be the right way to release educational works meant for doing practical jobs. The users of these works, teachers and students, must have control over the works, and that requires making them free. I urge Creative Commons to state that works meant for practical jobs, including educational resources and reference works as well as software, should be released under free/libre licenses only.

Educators, and all those who wish to contribute to on-line educational works: please do not to let your work be made non-free. Offer your assistance and text to educational works that carry free/libre licenses, preferably copyleft licenses so that all versions of the work must respect teachers’ and students’ freedom. Then invite educational activities to use and redistribute these works on that freedom-respecting basis, if they will. Together we can make education a domain of freedom.


Copyright 2012 Richard Stallman, released under the Creative Commons Attribution Noderivs 3.0 license.

Try It

How to Write a Rhetorical Analysis

As a part of thinking rhetorically about an argument, your professor may ask you to write a formal or informal rhetorical analysis essay. Rhetorical analysis is about “digging in” and exploring the strategies and writing style of a particular piece. Rhetorical analysis can be tricky because, chances are, you haven’t done a lot of rhetorical analysis in the past.

To add to this trickiness, you can write a rhetorical analysis of any piece of information, not just an essay. You may be asked to write a rhetorical analysis of an ad, an image, or a commercial.

When you analyze a work rhetorically, you explore the following concepts in a piece:

  • Audience
  • Purpose
  • Style or Tone
  • Supporting Appeals and Claims: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos
    • Ethos – an appeal to ethical considerations. Is the author credible and knowledgeable? Are the actions or understandings that they are calling for ethical?
    • Pathos – an appeal to emotions. Is the author trying to evoke strong feelings for or against something?
    • Logos – an appeal to rational, logical understanding. Is the author using facts and “hard” research to present a case? Is the argument coherent and cohesive?
    • Note that these three rhetorical modes are closely interrelated. Consider that a strong logical appeal will often convince us that a writer is ethical and diligent in his analysis, whereas an emotional appeal that seems manipulative or a weak substitute for a substantive argument may undermine a writer’s ethos, that is, his credibility.

In a rhetorical analysis, you will think about the decisions that author has made regarding the supporting appeals, the styple, tone, purpose, and audience, considering whether these decisions are effective or ineffective.

Try It

Watch It

Part of understanding the rhetorical context of a situation includes understanding an author’s intent. This video walks you through the process of thinking critically about why, how, and to whom the author is speaking.

When analyzing an author’s intent, you will consider their point of view, their purpose in writing, the audience, and their tone. Taking all of this into consideration is part of understanding the broader context in which a person is writing.

You can view the transcript for “Evaluating an Author’s Intent” here (opens in new window).

Sample Rhetorical Analysis

Here you can see a sample rhetorical analysis with some notes to help you better understand your goals when writing a formal rhetorical analysis.


rhetoric: the art of effective and persuasive communication that is appropriate to a given situation

ethos: a rhetorical appeal to ethical considerations, whether regarding the author or the topic at hand

pathos: a rhetorical appeal to emotion

logos: a rhetorical appeal to logic, often utilizing facts and figures in a strong organizational structure