Its Role in Popular Advocacy

Rhetoric – the new missing link

The speed and breadth of communications spurred by the internet and the 24/7  news cycle have more tightly coupled researchers and their writings with the lay public.

Heretofore, a scientific discovery would be first reported in a narrowly-circulated, peer-reviewed and edited technical journal. Then it would be picked up by professional journalists who would interpret the findings and place them into lay language for slightly more widely distributed popular science magazines. Finally, politicians, lawyers, and marketing professionals, skilled in the persuasive art of rhetoric, would craft their arguments using the new discovery to achieve their ends and further their agendas. These finely crafted rhetorical discourses would then appear in political speeches and legislative
debates, in jury trials as testimony or summations, and in advertising and promotional literature.

The 24/7 news cycle and the ability of the internet to directly place a discourse in front of
100,000,000 eyeballs (to use a popular phrase) for mere pennies has short-circuited the above transmission from scientist to editor to journalist to layman – whether the lay audience is a voter, a member of the jury, or a consumer.

A typical study may deal with the economic feasibility of government incentives, with the relative effectiveness of educational practices, or with the effects of certain taxation policies.  Regardless of the nature of the study, the investigator can now put his findings into lay language and publish the information on the internet at no cost, and it can be instantly viewed by millions of interested laymen.  The missing element in this new, faster mode of direct knowledge dissemination by the researcher is the polish provided by
the application of rhetorical rules and techniques.

For example, a researcher may discover a negative cost-benefit for government funded business incentives, but a dry recitation of the facts will not have the persuasive punch to penetrate a popular opinion that may erroneously believe such incentives are beneficial.  Similarly, research data showing that a widely-used educational practice is actually detrimental will lay fallow in a dry, barren internet article written by the researcher unschooled in rhetorical techniques.

Those whose agenda is counter to the data may employ skilled rhetoricians to deflect or neutralize any finding that is counter to their aims.

Rhetoric– not just fancy words

Rhetoric is the discipline of using written or spoken language to persuade or motivate an audience. (Corbett, 1)  As a discipline, the skillful practice of rhetoric consists of applying a number of rules and techniques that have been proven to be most effective over the ages.
Elements of rhetoric and its rules deal with:

  • content – what to include and what not to include; how to “invent” content; where one can find suitable content; what appeals should be used – emotional, logical, consensual, ethical
  • sequence – what is the most effective order for presenting the content;  the order for rebuttal versus the order for advocacy
  • rhythm – how to build and release tension for best effect
  • style – which sentence structures have the most effect in what parts of the discourse; choosing among tropes for maximal effect.

Knowledge of rhetorical rules is essential for lawyers, politicians, salesmen, and anyone whose livelihood depends upon their ability to persuade others of their point of view.
Every college has courses in rhetoric for these professions.  They are usually upper level junior or senior courses.

For example at NC State they offer;

  • “ENG 321 Principles of rhetorical theory from its classical origins through the modern period to the present time. Key concepts and theories that provide a critical understanding of the processes of persuasive symbol use;”
  • “ENG 323 This course is designed to enrich the education of English majors and other students by helping them to become more persuasive writers and to learn a set of concepts and principles for reflecting on and analyzing their own and others’ writing. Successful students will 1) become familiar with the basic rhetorical principles in the arts of invention, arrangement, style, and presentation, 2) apply those principles to the analysis of persuasive discourse, 3) apply those principles to their own writing for a variety of audiences and purposes.”

At UNC Chapel Hill:

  • Undergraduate: ENGL 131 – Rhetorical Theory and Practice: A study of rhetorical theories and practices from classical to modern times. Emphasis is on translating theories into practice in contemporary college rhetorics.
  • Graduate:  The Ph.D., building on the M.A., is a more specialized degree, with a major in one of the following areas of study: … Rhetoric and Composition.

And at Dook:

  • POLSCI 123: Introduction to Political Philosophy (C-N). EI, SS, W An intensive comparative examination of the nature and enduring problems of political philosophy through the confrontation, interpretation, and normative assessment of classic texts from the Greek polis to the present. Selected theorists and their arguments and beliefs within the Western political tradition concerning justice, the good life, freedom, community, power, authority, and others. Careful attention to the ways argument and rhetoric operate in texts of
    political philosophy
    , as well as diverse modes of interpretation. [Ed.
    Emphasis added.]
  • Foreign Languages: Four separate courses in the use of rhetoric in French, German, Italian, and Russian are also offered in those respective departments.

It is vital to note that rhetoric deals solely with persuasion and has nothing to do with the search for truth. The lawyer must persuade the jury and judge; the politician must persuade the voter; the salesman must persuade the customer.  These men’s livelihoods hinge on their ability to persuade, not necessarily upon conveying the whole truth. Certainly, assertions that happen to coincide with reality may make the rhetorician’s job easier, but often there will be no observable facts available that can sustain the assertion.  In fact, we might observe that the greatest rewards go to those practitioners of rhetoric who can persuade without the benefit of any facts.

About 325 B.C., the Greek philosopher Aristotle authored one of the most highly reproduced texts outlining these rules and techniques, and a number of translations of this text are available for students today. (Aristotle).

Aristotle’s classical text “On Rhetoric” divides the process of designing a persuasive discourse into three separate tasks:

  • discovering what arguments are available and how they will be used to appeal to the audience;
  • deciding upon the sequence or arrangement of material in the discourse; and
  • determining the best rhythm and style to use for the various sections of the discourse.

In the 2,300 years since Aristotle, little has changed in this process.  Furthermore, the details of accomplishing each of these tasks have changed little.  The fine honing of nuanced detail continues, however, as witnessed by the inexorable march of  translations of Aristotle’s work:

  • Cope of Cambridge University in 1877;
  • Freese of Harvard in 1959;
  • Cooper by Prentice-Hall in 1960;
  • Roberts by Random House in 1984;
  • Kennedy by Oxford Press in 1991

to name just a few.

Putting Aristotle’s translations aside, Corbett, a text used at NC State, lists 49 primary texts, 58 books on the history, 41 books on the theory, 47 collections of articles, and 57 books on style in the fourth edition of his popular text.  The overwhelming majority of these 256 reference books must be considered current as having been written after the 1950’s!  A search of Amazon for books on rhetoric returns an excess of 5,200 hits.  Googling “rhetoric” returns 35 million hits – respectable competition for topics such as “civil war” at 57 million hits or “Christ” at 52 million.

Consider the derisive comment of John Locke in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding of 1690 wherein he labels rhetoric as, “…rhetoric, that powerful instrument of error and deceit,…” and disparages its use.  The full context of Locke’s remarks makes clear his biased, limiting definition of rhetoric as that of “figurative speech” or “allusion” with a grudging acknowledgement of its abilities of producing “order and clearness.”  The following quote of Locke’s offers complete proof of his distain for the rules of rhetoric both in the abstract and in his avoidance for personal use.


“Seventhly, language is often abused by figurative speech. Since wit and fancy find easier entertainment in the world than dry truth and real knowledge, figurative speeches and allusion in language will hardly be admitted as an imperfection or abuse of it. I confess, in discourses where we seek rather pleasure and delight than information and improvement, such ornaments as are borrowed from them can scarce pass for faults. But yet if we
would speak of things as they are, we must allow that all the art of rhetoric, besides order and clearness; all the artificial and figurative application of words eloquence hath invented, are for nothing else but to insinuate wrong ideas, move the passions, and thereby mislead the judgment; and so indeed are perfect cheats: and therefore, however laudable or allowable oratory may render them in harangues and popular addresses, they are certainly, in all discourses that pretend to inform or instruct, wholly to be avoided; and where truth and knowledge are concerned, cannot but be thought a great fault, either of the language or person that makes use of them. What and how various they are, will
be superfluous here to take notice; the books of rhetoric which abound in the world, will instruct those who want to be informed: only I cannot but observe how little the preservation and improvement of truth and knowledge is the care and concern of mankind; since the arts of fallacy are endowed and preferred. It is evident how much men love to deceive and be deceived, since rhetoric, that powerful instrument of error and deceit, has its established professors, is publicly taught, and has always been had in great reputation: and I doubt not but it will be thought great boldness, if not brutality, in me to have said thus much against it. Eloquence, like the fair sex, has too prevailing beauties
in it to suffer itself ever to be spoken against. And it is in vain to find fault with those arts of deceiving, wherein men find pleasure to be deceived.” [zzzzzzzzz]

Locke sees the world drowning in a sea of texts on rhetoric with scarcely a single  text on truth as a life-saving splinter. Later in his essay Locke proposes a number of remedies for
avoiding misunderstandings which focus upon word choices and the careful definitions of one’s terms. Locke’s remedies, however, can apply only to an honest author whose focus is on the truth. He suggests no defense against the sword of rhetoric nor does he acknowledge that that this sword can be turned to offensive purposes by the truth seeker against the charlatan.  He readily admits that the attention shown to rhetoric is justified by its proven power and usefulness, but scorns its use to his own advantage.

We ignore the power of rhetoric at our peril.

To confine ourselves to careful definitions and eschew the lessons of persuasive techniques taught by the 2,000 years of the study of rhetoric is to bring a rather dull knife to a gunfight.

Locke ignores the admonition of his predecessor Francis Bacon (1561-1626) who describes paths to achieve wisdom, wit, morality, and depth but states that rhetorical skill is required if one is to gain the ability “to contend.”

Rhetoric – an empirically grounded science

Rhetoric is universally described as an “art” by its practitioners and teachers. Such an adjective as “art” serves to elevate it above the mundane necessities of grubbing up empirical evidence of its effectiveness should one wish to consider it a “science.”  For a “powerful instrument of error and deceit,” a veneer of refinement and an intellectual positioning alongside poetry and the visual arts is certainly in tune with Locke’s characterization.  The “art of rhetoric” is a phrase intended to mentally position it with the “language arts” or the “visual arts” or even the “culinary arts.”  How nice and
refined!  How could an “art” possibly be the weapon of choice for the sinister evil doer?  Likewise, the factually-minded seeker of truth will undoubtedly eschew the use of a mere art form to further his aims.

What clever marketing by the rhetoricians!  Elevate the image of rhetoric to one of
esteem and ascetic purposes to promote the acceptability of its issue by the gullible, while simultaneously cloaking it under a robe suggestive of uselessness to discourage its application by one’s empirically-minded opponents.

Be not fooled.  Experimental psychology and behavior analysis have empirically proven Aristotle’s laws of rhetoric for persuasive discourse to be as firmly grounded as are Newton’s laws in mechanics and gravitational physics.

Far from an “art,” rhetoric is an empirically grounded science with an experimental evidentiary base as solid as nuclear physics and with the possibility of as much, if not more, power to bring about change.

“The pen is mightier than the sword” should carry one caveat –as long as you pay attention to the laws of rhetoric.

Locke ignores the fact that rhetoric itself is a neutral tool of persuasion – that it is the wielder of this tool – like the author wielding the pen – who governs its use as to good or evil, to truth or deceit.

 Rhetoric – a few example rules.

It is not the purpose of this paper to try and summarize the 562 pages of rhetorical rules and techniques in Corbett or even the 206 pages on the subtopic of style by Williams.  Rather its purpose is to promote more study of this tool by those not presently versed in its power.

Hopefully a few examples may prompt more study by those of you with backgrounds in the hard sciences that left you totally unarmed against those “men who love to deceive” and who use this “powerful instrument of deceit.”

The following examples are presented in no particular order, and for each rule an example of its infraction is given for illustrative purposes.  These counterexamples are not meant to embarrass or ridicule their authors (who shall remain unnamed), and it should be noted that they have a mob of accompanying writers who trample the techniques of rhetoric just as effectively. The fault lies not with these writers but with their colleges who did
not require a course in rhetoric for the biologist, the engineer, the economist, or the statistician. Heretofore, it has been the sole province of the lawyers, the political
scientists, and the marketing programs.  Catch-up by would-be bloggers is hereby urged.

A Rule – avoid stating the opponent’s POINT

A Rule – appeal to authority

A Rule – readers expect your POINT early in the document

A Rule – the last words of a paragraph stick

The trusting academician often feels obliged to fully state the opponent’s POINT before making his counter arguments.  He feels that this is only “fair” and will help convince the objective, unbiased reader of his honesty and forthrightness and will engender trust in the reader for his up-coming rebuttal based on his findings which, he will claim, disprove the assertions of his opponent.

But not even the Marques of Queensbury suggested that we allow our opponent to land the first blow. Or any blow, for that matter.  Much less that we land a blow for him upon ourselves!

Why begin your discourse with something similar to the following?

“Prof. Al Mighty of Hallowed University has recently published his extensive study of ABC which he claims conclusively proves that MNOP. In it, the professor (more description of the study by XYZ.)

In independent work by this author, Instructor at Sweat State U, an investigation into both Prof. Mighty’s methods and into the phenomena itself shows, to the contrary, that…”

First of all, your reader may never have heard of Prof. Mighty and his erroneous work.  Why enlighten your audience to the existence of fallacious work?  Why heap laurels upon him if he is wrong? If you have independently repeated the study and come to a different conclusion you should advocate your own work.

Secondly, a long introduction summarizing some erroneous work, particularly without qualification, may give the audience the impression you are verifying the work. The reader may put down the article thinking he has understood your POINT before ever seeing that you have a counter-point.

Third, an adjunct to the rule is that if you absolutely have to state your opponent’s POINT, never state it first in the discourse. The beginning statements should carry the weight of your POINT – frequently, the ending phrase of the ending sentence of the opening paragraph.

Only after building your case and presenting your evidence might you causally mention the opposing views qualified with your counter points.  And if he outranks you, you are under no obligation to point that out.

Lastly studies show that readers recall the final phrase of a paragraph more frequently than any other.


Breaking the Rules – an illustration

Actual infractions of these important rules are illustrated by the opening paragraphs of this article:

Charter Schools Judged Unfairly, Experts Say


Two 2004 reports cast a disparaging light on charter schools in North Carolina, but critiques of those reports say they are riddled with error and fail to factor in the fact that charter schools intentionally target students who are failing to perform in traditional classrooms.    

University of Connecticut Professor  Robert Bifulco and Duke UniversityProfessor Helen Ladd for the Terry Sanford Institute authored one of those reports, finding that state charter schools are “lacking.” 

“Parents often expect charter schools to provide a stronger academic experience for their children than traditional  public schools, but that is typically not the case,” Ladd, a professor of public policy studies and economics told her campus newspaper. “Our study finds that charter school students perform less well on average in charter schools than they would have in traditional public schools and the negative effects of attending a charter school are large.”

Another study, conducted by Caroline Hoxby, on behalf of the American Federation of Teachers, rendered similar findings.


The blue highlights show the opponents’ POINTS while the red highlights show phrases in key positions that will be remembered.

Finally, after 162 words in four opening paragraphs that  trumpet the adversarial POINTS and which each end in a negative statement, and after extolling the authority of the adversaries by citing their august professorial positions at UConn and Duke, this article’s author finally begins to cite the contradictory study.

But the reader has now been subjected to very fine advertisements for the opposing point and has had the author even vouch for the  creditability of Ladd, Bifulco, and Hoxby. Thank goodness the author restrained his urge to reveal Hoxby’s position at Harvard as a full professor.

The author erroneously credits Bifulco as a “Professor” at “University of Connecticut;”  he is two steps down as an assistant professor. The author credits Ladd as a “Professor” at “Duke University” in an “Institute;” she actually holds two professorships. The author credits Hoxby as conducting a study for the “American Federation of Teachers;” she is also a full professor.

Finally, the author introduces the opponent, Craig Newmark, as merely an NCSU “Economist” perhaps not wanting to draw the comparison that Dr. Newmark is only an Associate Professor (a notch higher than Bifulco!). The author resoundingly looses the appeal to authority. As if the opposition had not been given enough ink, the author later devotes an entire paragraph quoting another of Ladd’s claims.

“In a study that followed NorthCarolina students for several years, professors Robert Bifulco and Helen Ladd found that students in charter schools actually made considerably smaller achievement gains in charter schools than they would have in traditional public schools,” the NEA website states.

While the author later rebuts this claim, it has, no doubt, been absorbed by the reader, along with the honorifics repeated for the investigators.

Firstly, Aristotle would have asked why even bother constructing the article as a rebuttal and thereby advertising the opposition.  Newmark got his own data and did his own analysis and came to his own conclusions.  Write about that.  The POINT should have been Newmark’s findings that support charter schools.  Chances are good that the reader may never have heard of Ladd, et al.

Remember, the author’s intended POINT was that Ladd, et. al, did a lousy job and were wrong.  But the opening four paragraphs, instead, make Ladd’s POINTS, appeal to Ladd’s authority, and stick negatives about charter schools in the readers’ minds. How much more effective would have been an article entitled“Latest Study Shows Students in Charter Schools Excel” that opens the issue with the fact that now sufficient data is available about charter school performance and shows that their students are doing better than those of traditional schools.

If the Ladd article had gotten a great deal of press and a specific rebuttal was felt absolutely necessary, a third party could have written an “objective” comparison of the Ladd study and the later Newmark study.  Newmark’s criticisms of Ladd are tainted by the fact that he has his own contradictory study and is obligated to find error with Ladd – else his study must be flawed.

Breaking The Rules – another illustration

Aristotle and Corbett would have given a D- to another article that sought to challenge the UNC-Chapel Hill diversity movement.

The author opens with two-and-one-half paragraphs that lay out UNC’s POINTS in their quest for diversity. These opening 138 words include quotes from the Chancellor and recommendations from the Task Force on Diversity.  A nice advertisement for diversity, indeed.

The author then speculates about well UNC is doing toward accomplishing its diversity goal and wonders how much students at non-diverse schools are really handicapped by their experiences.

At last, 438 words into his 663 word article, the author finally states his POINT.

…people don’t have to learn about all the details of other people’s lives and background— something that is impossible, no matter how devoted we are to “diversity” — in order to interact positively with them…

The author does ask the question that is most on point:

“… is [there] any evidence or reason to believe that students who attend highly diverse institutions are better equipped to deal with the world than are students who attend colleges…”

but fails to follow up with any counter evidence.  Instead there is an appeal to his personal authority by the statement “The better approach, both in economic and social policy, is to allow things to happen spontaneously, based on individual action” for which assertion he relies on an appeal to popular opinion, “Freedom works remarkably well.”  However the popularity of this appeal seems to be waning, else he would not have felt bound to write his article.

Thus the author tramples the rules that require making your POINT early, avoiding  stating the opposition’s point, and making as many appeals as are appropriate.

A Rule – persuasion requires an appeal

Aristotle discusses a number of appeals by which one can seek to persuade his audience.  Among these are appeals to logic and reason, appeals to popular opinion, appeals to vanity, appeals to authority, appeals to experience, appeals to emotion, and appeals to ethical considerations.

For example, Aristotle’s appeal to reason persuaded everyone that heavy objects fell to earth faster than light objects because there was a greater downward force on the heavy object. This assertion of Aristotle’s held sway until actual experiments in the 1500’s proved that all objects fell at the same speed.  Experience should trump reason and logic, but
most people place over-reliance on reason and logic.

If we look at an advertisement for a kid’s basketball shoe, we will see a number of these appeals at work. A famous basketball star (an authority) tells us that everyone knows (popular opinion) that XYZ shoes will make you a better player (vanity).  Be the first on your block (vanity) to rush out and get a pair while they are on sale (emotion) because they will cost more later (logic).

A simple appeal to emotion in an attorney’s closing argument where he pretended to speak for a little dead girl calling down from heaven was worth $14 million in a medical malpractice suit that had no basis whatsoever in fact.

Watch an ad for a Ronco Bass-O-Matic or any other item and list the variety of appeals being used.  Read a skilled politician’s speech and note the appeals.

If Jay and Madison had authored the Federalist Blogs ignoring their skilled use of rhetorical rules, we would probably still be playing “Rule Britannia!”  Read Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence with an eye towards identifying the various rhetorical devices –  once you know your points and the accepted rules, it almost writes itself.

Aristotle, On Rhetoric, Trans. George Kennedy. New York: Oxford UP, 1991

Corbett, Edward, Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, Fourth Edition, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999

Williams, Joseph M. Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.


Survey of Rhetorical Theory 3(3-0-0) F
Preq: COM 201 or permission of instructor
Principles of rhetorical theory from its classical origins
through the modern period to the present time. Key concepts and theories that
provide a critical understanding of the processes of persuasive symbol use.

Spring 2006

ENG 323.001: Writing in the Rhetorical Tradition

Tuesdays & Thursdays, 11.45 – 1.00PM Tompkins Hall G118


This course is designed to enrich the education of English majors and other
students by helping them to become more persuasive writers and to learn a set of concepts and principles for reflecting on and analyzing their own and
others’ writing. Successful students will 1) become familiar with the basic
rhetorical principles in the arts of invention, arrangement, style, and
presentation, 2) apply those principles to the analysis of persuasive
discourse, 3) apply those principles to their own writing for a variety of
audiences and purposes

In addition, this course is an opportunity to develop personal and professional skills that are useful for any writer. Students should show 1) willingness to take initiative and go beyond minimum requirements, 2) ability to work both independently and in small groups, 3) willingness to contribute to the success of your colleagues, 4) commitment to professionalism, including producing polished work, meeting deadlines consistently, and adhering to requirements and guidelines.


University of North Carolina at Wilmington

Spring 2014

ENG 389 – Rhetorical Theory since 1900 Rhetorical Theory since 1900. Prerequisite or corequisite: ENG 204 or ENG 205 or consent of instructor. Survey of major theories in rhetoric as they apply to written discourse from the start of the twentieth century to the present.

ENG 496 – Senior Sem Writing/Rhetoric Senior Seminar in Writing/Rhetoric. Prerequisite: ENG 204 or ENG 205 and junior or senior standing, or consent of instructor. Intensive study of a theme, issue, or genre in writing/rhetoric. Provides significant student engagement. Required of English majors in Professional Writing Option; fulfills seminar requirement for Teacher Licensure. Satisfies University Studies III: Common Requirements/Capstone Course. Partially satisfies University Studies III: Building Competencies/Writing Intensive.

ENG 316 – Analyzing Style Analyzing Style. Analysis of written style, emphasizing rhetorical principles and textual features. Application of stylistic principles in the creation of written texts

ENG 303 – Reading and Writing Arguments Reading and Writing Arguments. Instruction in rhetorical principles and their use in both analyzing and constructing persuasive texts


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