Language and Rhetoric


Classical Rhetoric

The word ‘rhetoric’ was born in Ancient Greece and is closely associated with a  group called the ‘Sophists’ who  were pre-Socratic philosophers of 5th Century BCE that taught rhetoric as means of persuading or convincing others to agree with you, regardless of the validity or moral worth of your argument. This was opposed by Plato and Socrates, among others, who that that this kind of skill with words in the absence of moral virtue or a logical position could be very dangerous if it fell into the wrong hands.


The real advances in rhetoric, however, came with Aristotle who examined persuasive speeches in his treatise ‘The Art of Rhetoric’ to see how they managed to convince people so effectively. He identified three key elements of a good speech:

  • Logos - the use of reasoning, either inductive or deductive, to construct an argument, this includes appeals to statistics, math, logic, and objectivity. For instance, when advertisements claim that their product is 37% more effective than the competition, are making a logical appeal. The term logic evolved from logos and so inductive and deductive reasoning would also be seen as appeals to logos


  • Pathos – the use of emotional appeals to alter the audience's judgment. This can be done through metaphor, amplification, storytelling, or presenting the topic in a way that evokes strong emotions in the audience.


  • Ethos – how the character and credibility of a speaker can influence an audience to consider him/her to be believable. Today, this is still an effective means of persuading an audience; for instance, when a magazine claims that An MIT professor predicts that the robotic era is coming in 2050, the use of big-name "MIT" (a world-renowned American university for the advanced research in math, science, and technology) establishes the "strong" credibility. In many ways this is the politician’s curse because we have more access to information than ever before it is increasingly hard for public figures to hide any aspect of their life that may have an impact (or just be of interest) to the general public and so it is very easy for politicians to be discredited in the eyes of the public if their private behaviour does not live up to the ideals that they espouse when they speak and as more stories of impropriety are discovered and disclosed, so all members of the political class become tainted by associative impressions of self-interest, greed, dishonesty, fraud or even corruption. One thing we need to be wary of then is not just trusting people just because of who they are but also distrusting them because of who they are: it is possible for a perfectly corrupt politician to have a great idea that should be voted for regardless of the fact that in general he is corrupt.



Quintillian was a Roman rhetorician (43-100 CE) who held the Chair of Rhetoric in Rome. He dategorized rhetorical training into 5 areas which formed the basis of rhetorical teaching in Rome:

  • Inventio - the process that leads to the development and refinement of the ideas for an argument
  • Dispositio - once arguments are developed, dispositio (disposition, or arrangement) is used to determine how it should be organized for greatest effect, usually beginning with the exordium.
  • Elocutio - once the speech content is known and the structure is determined, the next steps involve elocutio (style) and pronuntiatio (presentation).
  • Memoria - comes into play as the speaker recalls each of these elements during the speech.
  • Actio - the final step as the speech is presented in a gracious and pleasing way to the audience



The Exordium

This is the opening of the speech, wherein the speaker outlines the substance and purpose of their argument (logos), and should provide reasons for the audience to believe in the speaker (their ethos).

  • For this reason, strong language, clear and evocative images, and a pleasant and attractive style are required
  • Remember, the first impression is often the most important. Audiences will decide very quickly whether to pay attention to what follows (some studies suggest that the decision within thirty seconds or so)
  • It is certainly true that every speech or address begins with an attempt to gain attention, and is then a battle to hold it – the exordium needs to provide the audience with reason to pay attention further.
  • Use language that is simple, clear, unambiguous (unless ambiguity is your aim) and readily understood by the average person of reasonable intelligence – that way you will reach most people, and in a way that does not confuse, or bore into not listening
  • Remember also that less can be more. Forcing yourself to say something succinctly by giving yourself a time or word limit can give your speech more power. Consider, for example, the Haiku or the 140 character limit on Twitter.
  • You can also choose your register / language to include or appeal to a certain group of listeners – using MSN slang (LOL for example) might help engage a younger audience and let them know that your speech is designed for them



Some Examples:

Brutus and Marc Antony’s speeches in Act III Sc ii, ‘The Tragedy of Julius Caesar’


Brutus: Romans, countrymen, and lovers! hear me for my cause, and be silent, that you may hear: believe me for mine honour, and have respect to mine honour, that you may believe: censure me in your wisdom, and awake your senses, that you may the better judge. If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of Caesar's, to him I say, that Brutus' love to Caesar was no less than his. If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: --Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men? As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I slew him. There is tears for his love; joy for his fortune; honour for his valour; and death for his ambition. Who is here so base that would be a bondman? If any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman? If any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so vile that will not love his country? If any, speak; for him have I offended. I pause for a reply.



Marc Anthony: Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones; So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus Hath told you Caesar was ambitious: If it were so, it was a grievous fault, And grievously hath Caesar answer'd it. Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest-- For Brutus is an honourable man; So are they all, all honourable men-- Come I to speak in Caesar's funeral. He was my friend, faithful and just to me: But Brutus says he was ambitious; And Brutus is an honourable man. He hath brought many captives home to Rome Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill: Did this in Caesar seem ambitious? When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept: Ambition should be made of sterner stuff: Yet Brutus says he was ambitious; And Brutus is an honourable man. You all did see that on the Lupercal I thrice presented him a kingly crown, Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition? Yet Brutus says he was ambitious; And, sure, he is an honourable man. I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke, But here I am to speak what I do know. You all did love him once, not without cause: What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him? O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts, And men have lost their reason. Bear with me; My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar, And I must pause till it come back to me.


Contrast the way in which each speaker addresses the crowd and tries to convince them of his points: where Antony is gentle, respectful, even humble before the crowd, Brutus demands silence to be heard. Brutus boasts about his honour, allowing Antony to use this boast against him later. Brutus asserts Caesar’s ambition, and uses this assertion to justify the murder. But Antony gives examples of Caesar’s lack of ambition and invites the crowd to form their own conclusion. Brutus accepts that his own love for Caesar causes him to weep, and it is this that Antony seizes upon later to whip up the fury of the crowd. He agrees that Caesar should be mourned and skilfully manipulates the crowd into believing that mourning gives rise to a desire for revenge.


Antony develops his rhetoric through the scene and the speech provides excellent examples of the use of different elements of rhetoric, from the opening appeals to listen (made on three ‘levels’ – ‘friends’ who should listen to another friend, ‘Romans’ who as citizens of that state should hear what another citizen has to say, ‘countrymen’ who can trust the word of a compatriot) through the sarcastic descriptions of Brutus and the conspirators as ‘noble’ and ‘honourable’, inviting the later disagreements from the crowd, to the three rhetorical questions designed to attack the substance of Brutus’ speech at the beginning of the scene.


By the end, the crowd is a mob bent on avenging Caesar, whilst Antony has maintained his promise not to criticise Brutus and the conspirators directly, or to speak ‘against them’. He ends with the exhortation to the crowd to take ‘what course thou wilt’, having again humbled himself (and cast doubt on Brutus’ sincerity in return) as no great orator (suggesting that Brutus’ address was full of device of trickery, while he was a plain-speaking man. In fact, the reverse is true.)


Although the speech is a famous example of the use of emotionally charged rhetoric, it does not just rely on the pathos of arguments to convince. Antony’s use of specific examples to rebut the contentions of Brutus, and his adoption of a humble, almost apologetic tone show strong logos and ethos too. For the best analysis on this, see the 1935 essay by Kenneth Burke titled "Antony in Behalf of the Play,"



Henry V’s speech before Harfleur in Act III Sc i

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our English dead. In peace there's nothing so becomes a man As modest stillness and humility: But when the blast of war blows in our ears, Then imitate the action of the tiger; Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage; Then lend the eye a terrible aspect; Let pry through the portage of the head Like the brass cannon; let the brow o'erwhelm it As fearfully as doth a galled rock O'erhang and jutty his confounded base, Swill'd with the wild and wasteful ocean. Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide, Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit To his full height. On, on, you noblest English. Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof! Fathers that, like so many Alexanders, Have in these parts from morn till even fought And sheathed their swords for lack of argument: Dishonour not your mothers; now attest That those whom you call'd fathers did beget you. Be copy now to men of grosser blood, And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman, Whose limbs were made in England, show us here The mettle of your pasture; let us swear That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not; For there is none of you so mean and base, That hath not noble lustre in your eyes. I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips, Straining upon the start. The game's afoot: Follow your spirit, and upon this charge Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'


Again, we can see in the speech the appeals to emotion and position common to these types of speeches. From the opening rally cry to fight on or be reduced to using the corpses of their fallen comrades to repair the battlements, the stirring description of the warrior readying for battle, and the appeals to honour family, country, king and god, the entire speech is shot through with strong examples of the elements of rhetoric.



Dr Martin Luther King – I have a dream

… And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.


The repetitive nature of the structure of each of Dr King’s points lend the speech a sermon-like quality (he was a preacher and church minister) while the powerful images created form a strong emotional appeal. In a similar way, the campaign speeches of in 2008 of then presidential candidate Barack Obama (of which numerous examples are available online from various sources) appealed to hope and aspiration in a way that prioritises the rhetorical flourish of the speaker.



The Dangers of Rhetoric

Everyone needs to be aware of rhetoric, not just so that we can use it but so that we can be aware of how it may be used against us. One common political tool that we all need to be aware of is the use of stereotyping to create false oppositions between ‘them’ and ‘us’.


A binary opposition occurs when people are divided into two mutually exclusive groups, for example ‘rich and poor’ or ‘black and white’. This splits society along clear lines and allows the other side to be blamed for all of our problems. Extremist groups or those seeking to advance extremist positions are most likely to create these binary divisions for obvious reasons


A good example of this is in Bush’s 2001 address to the joint session of Congress: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” Statements like this create false binaries – the idea that there are only two sides in an argument and these must be in direct opposition, and mutually exclusive. This is a ‘false’ binary because it is often untrue: there is often more than one group that can exist in between the polarised extremes.


The identification of the ‘other’ as a specific group who are easily identified, means that the cause of the misfortune can be addressed directly at them. This means we can avoid having to deal with the more uncomfortable idea that sometimes, things just happen, or the cause might be outside our control or even understanding




The ideas of rhetoric formed thousands of years ago still have great relevance for argumentation and communication theory today. As societies grow, develop and change, the emphasis placed on various rhetorical elements also shifts, as it does when considering discourse in different arena. The student of language and rhetoric, and communication needs to be able to identify what is appropriate rhetoric when, and to be able to critically analyse this approach in others, and awareness of the continuing relevance of these ideas is crucial to that understanding.