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Rhetorical Terms


Aristotle: A Greek philosopher whose work Rhetoric, written between 360 and 334 BCE, has influenced many subsequent theories of persuasion. This work is best known for developing a psychology of audience.

Arrangement: the second canon of rhetoric

Atechnoi: without art or skill


Burke, Kenneth: A critic and theorist who understands persuasion as a process of identification. He allows us to think of any persuasion situation dramatistically as an interaction among an Act, Scene, Agent, Agency, and Purpose


Canon: ancient term for a division or part of the art of rhetoric

Cause to effect: any argument that reasons from causes to effects or vice versa; an ancient formal topic

Commonplace: any statement or bit of knowledge that is commonly shared among a given audience or a community; also, in invention, another term for common topic

Commonplace book: means of invention developed by Aristotle that are useful for developing arguments on any issue or in any field of discourse; many writers and students use these today to store ideas, important quotes, nagging questions, bibliographic references: all for use later when they write papers.

Community authority: any person who is judged as an expert or is qualified to offer testimony based on a good reputation in the relevant community

Context: the words and sentences that surround any part of a discourse and help to determine its meaning; also, the rhetorical situation and background of an issue that help to determine the meaning of any text


Delivery: the fifth canon of rhetoric; concerns use of voice and gesture in oral discourse or editing, formatting, and presentation in written discourse

Dialectic: a heuristic that proceeds by question and answer

Distance: a metaphor for the discursive relation obtaining between rhetor and audience

Dramatism: A theory of the relationship between language and human relations, developed by Kenneth Burke. In order to understand fully what any statement can mean, we must understand it as an Act produced in a Scene by an Agent using a certain means (Agency) for a Purpose. Working through this pentad of Act, Scene, Agent, Agency, and Purpose helps us understand the drama of communication and persuasion


Empirical proof: proof derived from the senses

Encomium: a discourse that praises someone or something

Epideictic: one of Aristotle’s major divisions of rhetorical oratory that praises or blames

Epistemology: any theory of how people know; any theory of knowledge

Ethical proof: proof that depends upon the good character or reputation of a rhetor

Ethics: any set of guides or standards for human conduct

Ethos: character or reputation of a rhetor. Aristotle associates ethos with practical wisdom, moral virtue, and goodwill towards the audience and advises speakers to exhibit these characteristics through the content of their speeches

Extrinsic proof: proof that is available within the circumstances of the case; does not have to be invented


Figure: generic term for artful uses of language


Grammatical person: a grammatical feature of English that indicates who is speaking or writing, and/or the relation of the user to hearers/readers and/or issues.


Heuristic: any system of investigation


Ideology: any body of beliefs, doctrines, values held by a single individual or by a group or culture. As used by Kenneth Burke, an “aggregate of beliefs” that includes “what the [audience] considers desirable.” Our ideology determines how we interpret and respond to what we read and hear. 

Intrinsic ethos:

Intrinsic proof: argument generated through use of the art of rhetoric; a.k.a invented proof

Invention: the first of the five canons of rhetoric; the art of finding available things to say or write in any situation

Invented ethos: proofs from character that are invented by a rhetor or are available by virtue of the rhetor’s position on an issue; a.k.a invented ethos. Example: President Bush may have a great deal of authority on political (domestic and international) matters, but if he were here teaching us how to bake the perfect peach cobbler, he would have to invent his ethos: he would have to tell stories of baking the cobbler with his mother and making it for visiting dignitaries; he would have to know the names of all of the utensils and pans he was using. Otherwise we might doubt his ability to teach us to make this cobbler.

Issue: matter about which there is dispute; point about which all parties agree to disagree



Kairos: Greek term meaning the right time, opportunity, occasion, or season. Timeliness. This concept stresses the importance of saying the right thing at the right time. In persuasion, kairos operates when a speaker or writer times a statement to coincide with the audience’s readiness to understand and accept it. President Bush was able to persuade the American people to go to war with Iraq because we had experienced 9/11 and were afraid of other groups (and I guess nations) attacking this country.


Logical proof: an argument found in the issue or the case

Logos: in archaic Greek, speech voice, breath, or even spirit; in Aristotle’s rhetoric, any arguments found in the issue or the case


Memory: the fourth canon of rhetoric. But memory is not just about memorizing a speech or a few facts so that you can win a debate: memory also operates as a means of invention, helping us to find the arguments we want to make and simultaneously giving us the proof we need to make that argument. Socrates argued that writing was bad because this "new" technology would destroy memory. He was right, and maybe there's an argument that we depend too much on textual (rather than social) memory to give us a picture of the world. He also believed writing would never work in a persuasive context because the rhetor and the audience must be in the same space (in hearing distance); otherwise the audience might mis-interpret the rhetor's meaning.


Network of interpretation: any interpretative framework used to make sense of an array of data or knowledge; ideology



Passive voice: a grammatical structure available in English wherein the grammatical subject of the sentence is not the actor. A politician who has messed up might rather say, "a mistake was made" than admit that, "I made a mistake."

Pathetic proof: proof that appeals to the emotions or passions

Pathos: Greek term for emotions or passions. The emotions or state of mind of an audience (which the rhetor can alter). According to Aristotle, the emotional response of any audience to a speaker or writer will depend on the audience’s beliefs, values, desires, and expectations.

Persona: Latin term used by Cicero for ethos

Power relation: the social, economic, or ethical relationship that obtains between a rhetor and an audience

Proof: any statement or statements used to persuade an audience to accept a proposition; also the section of a discourse where arguments are assembled; sometimes used interchangeably with argument



Representative theory of language: theory of language that assumes language is transparent—that it allows meaning to shine through it clearly and without distortion: most of your English professors do not subscribe to this theory because they recognize the ways that language constructs knowledge and believe that language cannot fully represent "reality," "truth," history, etc.

Rhetor: anyone who composes discourse that is intended to affect community thinking or events

Rhetoric: the art that helps people compose effective discourse

Rhetorical situation: the context of a rhetorical act; minimally made up of a rhetor, an issue, and an audience

Rhetorician: someone who studies or teaches the art of rhetoric; also someone who uses rhetorical theories to analyze texts to determine their cultural, social, political, or personal significance.


Sensus communis: Latin phrase for common knowledge shared among members of a community

Situated ethos: proof from character that depends on a rhetor’s reputation in the relevant community. President Bush addressing this class about how to make a peach cobbler probably would have very little situated ethos, but if he were to talk to us about political matters, he would have a great deal of situated ethos. His ethos is also supported by things like the secret service agents who surround him, the flag, the way that his words are carried around the world...these things are not merely the trappings of power: they reinforce his power, his authority, his ethos.

Sophist: in ancient times, name given to any rhetor who taught by example. When the word is capitalized, it refers to any group of rhetoric teachers who worked in and around Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE; in modern English, the term has perorated to a term for a rhetor who may use fallacious or tricky arguments (a MUCH less-than-accurate use of the term)

Sophistry: term applied to the rhetorical theory and practice of the Older Sophists, in modern times, names tricky or fallacious rhetorical practices ( see Lori’s explanation/definition of these terms )

Style: the fourth canon of rhetoric; has to do with sentence composition and the use of ornament


Techne: Greek term for an art; any set of productive principles or practices


Usage: customary ways of using language






*Some definitions "constructed" by your instructor. Others were taken (and/or adapted) from Crowley, Sharon and Debra Hawhee. Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students. 2nd ed. Boston : Allyn & Bacon, 1999. 367-378. and Covino, William A. The Elements of Persuasion. Boston : Allyn & Bacon, 1998.

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