Rhetorical Context and Style

Learning Objectives

  • Recognize rhetorical context in relation to style

Style is the way writing is dressed up (or down) to fit the specific context, purpose, or audience. Word choice, sentence variety, and the writer’s voice all contribute to the style of a piece of writing. How a writer chooses words and structures sentences to achieve a certain effect is also an element of style. When Thomas Paine wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls,” he arranged his words to convey a sense of urgency and desperation. Had he written, “These are bad times,” it’s likely he wouldn’t have made such an impact!

Not just right and wrong

Style is not a matter of right and wrong but of what is appropriate for a particular setting and audience.

When you first draft an essay, the sentences may sound informal or similar to the way that you speak. This is perfectly acceptable for the drafting process. It is important, however, to revise the style to match the rhetorical situation.

Consider these differences between conversational, spoken language and more formal, academic language:

Spoken Language Written Language
Shorter sentences More complex sentences with varying structures
Vague words (e.g., stuff, some) Precise word choice with quantifying terms
Contractions, interjections, and slang
(e.g., can’t even, wow!, keep it 100)
Non-colloquial, standard word choice




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