Overview of Rhetorical Analysis
A RHETORICAL ANALYSIS REFERS TO THE PROCESS OF ANALYZING A TEXT, GIVEN SOURCE OR ARTIFACT. The text, source, or artifact may be in written form or in some different sort of communication. The goal of a rhetorical analysis is to take into consideration the purpose, audience, genre, stance, and media/design of the given rhetorical situation. In other words, the analysis explores not only what everything means in the given source (content), but also why the author wrote about it (the purpose), who the author is (background), how the piece was organized (structure), where and/or when it was published (forum), and the intended message conveyed to the audience (topic).
A rhetorical analysis is one of the more challenging assignments in any writing class. Students often confuse a rhetorical analysis with a review because both assignments work to analyze a text. However, a rhetorical analysis reserves judgment on whether they agree/disagree with the topic presented. A review, of course, invites the reviewer to critique how "good" or "bad" the content of the text is. The PROCESS of completing a rhetorical analysis requires the use of different rhetorical strategies. These strategies are: critical reading, strategies for effective communication, persuasive appeals, argumentation, and avoidance of logical fallacies. These specific strategies are discussed in depth throughout the remainder of this page.
The PURPOSE of a rhetorical analysis is to engage in critical thinking with the intention of effectively communicating an intended message to a predetermined audience. In order to successfully determine the intended message of a particular text a good question to guide your analysis is: how did the author craft his/her argument?
Rhetoric is a term that is widely used in many forms, and by itself can mean a great many things. Some use the term in association with political rhetoric, to name the voice and stance, as well as the language that becomes the nature of politics. Rhetoric can be thought of as the way in which you phrase what you are saying, and the forces that impact what you are saying. At its very core RHETORIC IS THE ABILITY TO EFFECTIVELY COMMUNICATE AN INTENDED MESSAGE, whether it is via argumentation, persuasion, or another form of communication.
Critical reading is the first step in a rhetorical analysis. In order to make a reasonable and logical analysis, you need to apply critical reading skills to a text, given source, or artifact that you intend on analyzing. For example, when reading, you can break the whole text down into several parts. Then, try to determine what the writer is attempting to achieve with the message they are conveying to a predetermined audience; then work to identify the writing strategies s/he is using. Once the text, artifact or given source has been thoroughly analyzed you can determine whether the intended message was effectively communicated.
Reading critically does not simply mean being moved, affected, informed, influenced, and persuaded by a piece of writing; it is much more than that. It refers to analyzing and understanding of how the writing has achieved its effect on the audience. Some specific questions can guide you in your critical reading process. You can use them in reading the text, and if asked to, you can use them in writing a formal analysis. In terms of engaging in critical reading, it is important to begin with broad questions and then work towards asking more specific questions, but in the end the purpose of engaging in critical reading is so that as an analyzer you are asking questions that work to develop the purpose of the artifact, text, or given source you are choosing to analyze.
The following is a list of suggested questions that you may find useful for when you engage in critical reading. However, you do not need to apply all of these questions to every text, artifact, or given source. Rather, you may use them selectively according to the specific reading at hand. The main questions listed below are considered to be broad in nature; with the questions listed via bullet points underneath the broad questions are meant to get at more the specific details of the intended message. Please remember that this is simply one method for getting you started on reading (and then writing) more critically.
POTENTIAL QUESTIONS TO ASK WHEN ENGAGING IN CRITICAL READING:
What is the subject?
- Does the subject bring up any personal associations? Is it a controversial one?
What is the thesis (the overall main point)?
- How does the thesis interpret the subject? If asked, could you summarize the main idea?
Who is the intended audience?
- What values and/or beliefs do they hold that the writer could appeal to?
What is the tone of the text?
- What is your reaction to the text, emotional or rational (think of pathos)? Does this reaction change at all throughout the text?
What is the writer's purpose?
- To explain? Inform? Anger? Persuade? Amuse? Motivate? Sadden? Ridicule? Attack? Defend?
- Is there more than one purpose? Does the purpose shift at all throughout the text?
What methods does the writer use to develop his/her ideas?
- Narration? Description? Definition? Comparison? Analogy? Cause and Effect? Example?
- Why does the writer use these methods? Do these methods help in his/her development of ideas?
What pattern does the author use for the arrangement of ideas?
- Particular to general, broad to specific, spatial, chronological, alternating, or block?
- Does the format enhance or detract from the content? Does it help the piece along or distract from it?
Does the writer use adequate transitions to make the text unified and coherent?
- Do you think the transitions work well? In what ways do they work well?
Are there any patterns in the sentence structure that make the writer's purpose clear to you?
- What are these patterns like if there are some? Does the writer use any fragments or run-on sentences?
Is there any dialog and/or quotations used in the text?
- To what effect? For what purpose is this dialog or quotations used?
In what way does the writer use diction?
- Is the language emotionally evocative? Does the language change throughout the piece? How does the language contribute to the writer's aim?
Is there anything unusual in the writer's use of punctuation?
- What punctuation or other techniques of emphasis (italics, capitals, underlining, ellipses, parentheses) does the writer use?
- Is punctuation over- or under-used? Which marks does the writer use where, and to what effect?
Are there any repetitions of important terms throughout the text?
- Are these repetitions effective, or do they detract from the text?
Does the writer present any particularly vivid images that stand out?
- What is the effect of these images on the writer's purpose?
Are there any tropes--similes, metaphors, personification, hyperbole, comparisons, contrasts, etc. that are employed by the writer?
- When does he/she use them? For what reason(s)? Are those devices used to convey or enhance meaning?
Are there any other devices such as humor, wordplay, irony, sarcasm, understatement, or parody that are used in the text?
- Is the effect comic relief? Pleasure? Hysteria? Ridicule?
Is there any information about the background of the writer?
- Is the writer an acceptable authority on the subject? How do you know?
Basic Rhetorical Strategies for Effective Communication
After engaging in a critical analysis or reading of your intended artifact, text, or given source, the next step in the process of completing an effective rhetorical analysis is to discuss your discoveries. For the purposes of writing, when we refer to rhetoric, we often talk about it as the art of persuasion or the ability to communicate effectively. There are many different strategies a communicator may employ to effectively communicate his/her message to his/her intended audience. While the rhetorical strategies for effective communication are discussed in terms of writing about your findings, pertaining to your rhetorical analysis, it should be noted that these rhetorical strategies can be employed during the critical analysis or reading portion of your rhetorical analysis project.
Below is a table that breaks down some rhetorical strategies, what they mean, and how to analyze them critically. This table can be used when rhetorically analyzing a text or artifact or when you begin the process of writing about your findings. The purpose of this table is to provide a breakdown of rhetorical strategies and how one can identify them in a message.
|STRATEGY||DEFINITION||QUESTIONS FOR CRITICAL THINKING|
|EXEMPLIFICATION||Provide examples or cases in point||Are there examples -- facts, statistics, cases in point, personal experiences, interview quotations -- added to the essay?|
|DESCRIPTION||Detail sensory perceptions of a person, place, or thing||Does a person, place, or object play a prominent role in the essay?|
|NARRATION||Recount an event||Are there any anecdotes, experiences, or stories in the essay? Process analysis: Explain how to do something or how something happens. Does any portion of the essay include concrete directions about a certain process?|
|COMPARISON AND CONTRAST||Discuss similarities and differences||Does the essay contain two or more related subjects? Does it evaluate or analyze two or more people, places, processes, events, or things? Are there any similarities and/or differences between two or more elements?|
|DIVISION AND CLASSIFICATION||Divide a whole into parts or sort related items into categories||Does the essay reduce the subject to more manageable parts or group parts?|
|DEFINITION||Provide the meaning of terms you use||Is there any important word in the essay with many meanings and is defined or clarified?|
|CAUSE AND EFFECT ANALYSIS||Analyze why something happens and describe the consequences of a string of events||Does the essay examine past events or their outcome? Does it explain why something happened?|
|REPETITION||The constant use of certain words||Why, with all words at her disposal, does the writer choose to repeat particular words?|
|COUNTERPOINTS||Contrasting ideas such as black/white, darkness/light, good/bad||Does the writer acknowledge and respond to counterpoints to her position?|
|IMAGERY||Language that evokes one or all of the five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, smell||Does the essay use any provocative language that calls upon readers’ senses?|
|METAPHOR AND SIMILE||A figure of speech in which two essentially unlike things are compared, often in a phrase introduced by “like” or “as”||Does the essay make connections between things to make a point or elicit an idea?|
|STYLE, TONE, AND VOICE||The attitude a writer takes towards a subject or character: serious, humorous, sarcastic, ironic, satirical, tongue-in-cheek, solemn, objective||What tone does the essay have? How does the writer portray herself? What choices does she make that influence her position?|
|ANALOGY||The comparison of two pairs that have the same relationship||Are there any comparisons made by the writer to strengthen her message?|
|FLASHBACK||A memory of an event in the past|
|HYPERBOLE||Exaggeration or overstatement||Does the writer make any claims that seem extreme?|
|PERSONIFICATION||Giving human qualities to animals or objects||Is something without conscience thinking or talking?|
|IRONY||An expression or utterance marked by deliberate contrast between apparent and intended meaning, often humorous||Does the writer really support her own assertions? Does she seem to be claiming the opposite you expect her to claim?|
|OXYMORON||A contradiction in terms such as “faithless devotion,” “searing cold,” “deafening silence,” “virtual reality,” “act naturally,” “peacekeeper missile,” or “larger half”||Do any of the writer’s terms seem to obviously clash?|
|PARADOX||Reveals a kind of truth which at first seems contradictory; Red wine is both good and bad for us||Do any contradictions used in the essay contain some grain of truth?|
|SYMBOLISM||Using an object or action that means something more than its literal meaning; A skull and crossbones symbolize death.||Does the writer seem to assert that a thing has meaning outside of the obvious?|
|PARODY||An exaggerated imitation of a style, person, or genre for humorous effect.||Do any contradictions used in the essay contain some grain of truth?|
|SARCASM||Using an object or action that means something more than its literal meaning; A skull and crossbones symbolize death||Does the writer seem to assert that a thing has meaning outside of the obvious?|
|SATIRE||Literary tone used to ridicule or make fun of human vice or weakness, often with the intent of correcting, or changing, the subject of the satiric attack||Does the writer’s humor aim to fix its target?|
|DICTION||An author's choice of words||Why, with all words at her disposal, does the writer choose to use those particular words?|
|PARALLELISM||The use of identical or equivalent constructions in corresponding clauses||Are there any syntactic similarities between two parts of a sentence?|
The persuasive appeals, or what could also be known as the rhetorical triangle, were developed by Aristotle to ensure effective communication, and are a cornerstone within the field of Rhetoric and Writing. It is common to see the three persuasive appeals depicted as the points of a triangle because like the points of triangle they each play a role in the ability to hold the message together. Aristotle was a Greek philosopher that believed all three of these rhetorical appeals were needed to effectively communicate an intended message to a pre-determined audience. Aristotle's three rhetorical appeals are: Logos, Ethos, and Pathos; they are discussed in detail throughout the remainder of this section.
Logos is most easily defined as the logical appeal of an argument. It relies on logic or reason and depends on deductive and/or inductive reasoning. Deductive reasoning begins with a generalization and then applies it to a specific case. The generalization you start with must be based on a sufficient amount of reliable evidence. Inductive reasoning takes a specific representative case, or facts, and then draws generalizations or conclusions from them. Inductive reasoning must be based on a sufficient amount of reliable evidence. In other words, the facts you draw on must fairly represent the larger situation or population. Both deductive and inductive reasoning are discussed more in depth further down on this page.
Example of Logos: Say that you are writing a paper on immigration and you say "55,000 illegal immigrants entered this country last year, of those, only 23,000 did it legally." There is obviously something wrong here. Although saying 55,000 immigrants were "illegal" makes for an impressive statistic, it is apparently not correct if you admit that 23,000 of these people immigrated legally. The actual number of illegal immigrants would then be only 32,000, a significantly lower number. The purpose of this example is to demonstrate how having logical progression to an argument is essential in effectively communicating your intended message.
Ethos is the appeal to ethics, the use of authority to persuade an audience to believe in their character. And while ethos is called an ethical appeal, be careful not to confuse it solely with ethics; it encompasses a large number of different things which can include what a person wears, says, the words they use, their tone, their credentials, their experience, their charge over the audience, verbal and nonverbal behavior, criminal records, etc. Ethos gives the author credibility. It is important to build credibility with your audience because without it, readers are less inclined to trust you or accept the argument presented to them. Using credible sources is one method of building credibility. A certain amount of ethos may be implied solely from the author's reputation, but a writer should not rely only on reputation to prop up his/her work. A sure way to damage your ethos is by attacking or insulting an opponent or opposing viewpoint. The most effective ethos should develop from what is said, whether it is in spoken or written form. The most persuasive rhetoricians are the ones that understand this concept.
Example of Ethos: To elaborate, the construction of authority is reflected in how the rhetorician presents herself, what diction she uses, how she phrases her ideas, what other authorities she refers to, how she composes herself under stress, her experience within the context of her message, her personal or academic background, and more. In academia, ethos can be constructed not only by diction, tone, phrasing, and the like, but by what the rhetorician knows. A works cited page reflects this. It says: this author has read these sources, and knows their contents. And if those sources are relevant, reputable, and well regarded, the author has just benefited from that association. At the same time, authors want to make sure they properly introduce their sources within their writing to establish the authority they are drawing from.
Pathos is the appeal to passion, the use of emotion to persuade readers’ or listeners’ opinions in a rhetorical argument. Pathetic appeals (the use of pathos) are characterized by evocative imagery, description, visuals, and the like to create within the reader or listener a sense of emotion: outrage, sorrow, excitement, etc. Pathos is often easily recognizable because audiences tend to know when what they hear or read swells emotion within their hearts and minds. Be careful to distinguish between pathos as a rhetorical vehicle to persuade using emotion and the logical fallacy “appeal to pity” (discussed more in depth further down the page). Both use emotion to make their point, but the fallacy diverts the audience from the issue to the self while the appeal emphasizes the impact of the issue.
Although argument emphasizes reason, there is usually a place for emotion as well. Emotional appeals can use sources such as interviews and individual stories to paint a moving picture of reality, or to illuminate the truth. For example, telling the story of a specific child who has been abused may make for a more persuasive argument than simply stating the number of children abused each year. The story provides the numbers with a human face. However, a writer must be careful not to employ emotional appeals which distract from the crux of the debate, argument, or point trying to be made.
Example of Pathos: A good example of pathos is in public services announcements. Some of the most popular include drug warnings: A woman is at the stove in the kitchen with a skillet. She holds up an egg and says, “This is your brain.” She cracks the egg into the skillet where it immediately begins to cook. “This is your brain on drugs.” Or the more recent billboards cautioning against (meth)amphetamines which show an attractive young person juxtaposed against a mug-shot of the same person at a later date but with pustules, open sores, missing teeth, unkempt hair, acne, running makeup, and any other assortment of detrimental and hideous signs of the drug’s ruinous capabilities. Audiences are not meant to pity these individuals; rather, the audience is meant to reel in horror at the destruction meth can cause to a person in a short amount of time. In this case, horror or shock is the emotional tool rhetoric wields to persuade. It should be noted that people with acne, unkempt hair, or other traits listed are not necessarily uncommon—in fact, these traits can be found in vast numbers of high school students; the traits are merely shown in conjunction with the normative “before” picture to elicit the desired emotion. Either of the pictures alone would not be rhetorically effective, it is only by placing them together that the audience is passionately moved.
DEDUCTIVE LOGICAL ARGUMENT
A deductive logical argument is one that works from the top to the bottom. It begins with what is known as a "major premise," adds a "minor premise," and attempts to reach a conclusion. A major premise is a statement that names something about a large group, a minor premise takes a single member, and the conclusion attempts to prove that because this single member is a part of the larger group, they must also have the trait named in the original statement. For example:
- MEN ARE TALL - a major premise as it works with a large group of people
- BOB IS A MAN - a minor premise as we hear about only one individual of that group
- BOB IS TALL - we attempt to make a conclusion based upon what we have already been told
Now, if it is true that men are tall, and that Bob is a man, then we can safely infer that Bob must be tall. However, beware the logical fallacy. Though it may be true that in certain cultures men are, on average, taller than women, certainly this is not always the case. Being that our major premise is not altogether true, we can now say that this argument is flawed. Furthermore, we might ask what our definition of "tall" is. Tall is different if we are talking about the average population, or basketball players. Also, what is a man? Do transgendered individuals count? We see that the problem becomes far more complex the more we look into it.
INDUCTIVE LOGICAL ARGUMENT
As some would argue that a deductive argument works from the top down, toward a conclusion, some comment that an inductive argument works from the bottom up. This is mildly misleading. What is meant by this is that an inductive logical argument begins with a firm affirmation of truth, a conclusive statement. By getting the audience to agree with this statement, the argument moves to the next "logical" step. It proceeds in this manner until the argument has led you from one seemingly reasonable conclusion to another that you may not have originally agreed with. Take the following as an example. Move through the argument slowly, making sure you understand and agree with each step in the process (and please forgive the religious content, you'll come to see it is irrelevant anyway).
The human soul is inherently free. This is its very nature. We are confined to our mortal, earthly bodies, but our souls must be kept free, or the nature of the soul is entirely negated. If one chooses to believe in a soul, they can only believe that it embraces this (vague idea of ) freedom.
At conception, a child is given a soul. Some may argue that it is not until birth, but if those very same persons are pro-life, they confuse their arguments. Thus, if someone is pro-life, and believes in a soul, they must believe in the freedom of that soul, and also accept that the soul is granted upon conception.
A soul cannot die. By the same means by which it is free over the body, a soul claims immortality while the body decomposes and is ruined. To deny that a soul is immortal is again to deny the very essence of a soul. Thus, if someone is pro-life, and believes in a soul, they must believe in the freedom of that soul, the immortality of the soul, and also accept that the soul is granted upon conception.
A soul cannot be born. It is immortal and cannot die, it is not earthly, it forever exists, and cannot be born. There are tales in Greek mythology of Athena’s birth, yet she bounds from her father’s head a fully decorated woman. She was not born. She existed previously, as Milton writes the Son in Paradise Lost. If one accepts the Bible’s teachings, there can be no reincarnation, another form of birth, a rebirth. Thus, if someone is pro-life, and believes in a soul, and does not accept reincarnation, they must believe in the freedom of that soul, the immortality of the soul that is always and forever (which cannot be born and cannot die), and also accept that the soul is granted upon conception.
A soul being always an essence, and not being able to be reincarnated, can only exist outside of the body, somewhere, until the act of conception occurs. That soul must then be placed in the body that was forever intended to receive it, as it belongs nowhere else. The soul is fated to that one body. Thus, if someone is pro-life, and believes in a soul, and does not accept reincarnation, namely a practicing Catholic, they must also believe in the freedom of the soul, and in the concept of fate. Fate, however, completely opposes the idea of freedom. One cannot then believe in a soul, for it immediately enforces a belief if fate which directly negates the belief in the soul. If our actions are written in a Divine plan, we are not free to make our own choices. Every action has been scripted.
Do not worry, it must be that you were meant to read this.
A sample inductive argument by Ben Doberstein.
Having seen this, some might say that the argument defeats Catholicism from an atheist standpoint. Others might find that it argues for the secularization of religion. Still, there are ways in which it supports Catholicism at the same time. Though the argument might seem as if it is disagreeing with the Catholic religion, and some would agree that it is, we must always be looking for the logical fallacy. Upon closer inspection, you may notice that all this argument truly does, in one reading of the text, is to explain the complexity of God through the mind of a human. Catholicism has argued since the beginning that God is impossible to fully explain using the conceptions of man. In that way, this argument only supports that conclusion. Be aware that there will be logic fallacies hidden in almost every argument. If there is more than one side to an argument, such as in religious or political debates, it is most likely because the argument is impossible to prove. Hence, there will be a logical fallacy present.
Logical fallacies, often referred to by their Latin name “non sequitur” (which translates to “it does not follow”), are powerful tools in logic and rhetoric. When an arguer is able to identify her opponent’s fallacious positions, she can point them out and expose a weakness. She undermines her opponent’s position. Arguers comfortable with fallacies have an easier time avoiding them, thus making their positions more tenable. Missteps in logic can be confusing for students: sometimes a fallacy will be called by its Latin name, other times they will be referred to by a synonym; some are clumped together, and others are overly specific. For example: “Argument against the person” is often called an “Ad hominem” argument; a “Complex question” can be referred to as a “Loaded question”; “Appeal to the people” occasionally loses its distinction between direct and indirect (referred to only as “Bandwagon fallacy”); and “Begging the question” many times implies only its aspect of circular reasoning and not the other aspects. However, more important than agreeing on a name is the recognition of these non sequiturs. While a logician might dedicate her life to this topic, as a student you are expected only to avoid fallacies in your own writing and identify them in others’.
The following is a fairly comprehensive table of fallacies, and its purpose if for you to use a reference to ensure that you do not create a logical fallacy as your are writing about your discoveries throughout your rhetorical analysis. Having said that, this table can be used for more than just the completion of a rhetorical analysis; rather this table could be used as a reference for any argument or persuasion you are attempting to effectively communicate to an intended audience.
|APPEAL TO FORCE||Arguer threatens reader/listener||If you don't agree with me, I will beat you up.|
|APPEAL TO PITY||Arguer elicits pity from reader/listener||If you don't pass me in this course, I will get kicked out of school and have to flip burgers the rest of my life.|
|DIRECT APPEAL TO THE PEOPLE||Arguer arouses mob mentality||The terrorists came from the middle east. Our only course of action is to turn it into a parking lot.|
|INDIRECT APPEAL TO THE PEOPLE||Arguer appeals to the reader/listener's desire for security, love, respect, etc.||Of course you want to read my book, it's what all the intellectuals read.|
|ABUSIVE ARGUMENT AGAINST THE PERSON (AD HOMINEM)||Arguer verbally abuses the other arguer||You're a moron; therefore your point is invalid.|
|CIRCUMSTANTIAL ARGUMENT AGAINST THE PERSON (AD HOMINEM)||Arguer presents the other arguer as predisposed to argue in this way||Of course you'd say I need braces; you're a dentist. (Anyone may be able to note I need braces.)|
|CONSISTENCY ARGUMENT AGAINST THE PERSON (TU QUOQUE)||Arguer presents other arguer as a hypocrite||How can you tell me not to drink and drive when you did it last weekend? (Note: don't drink and drive.)|
|ACCIDENT||General rule is applied to a specific case it was not intended to cover||Americans are entitled to freedom of speech, so you cannot arrest him for yelling "fire" in the theater. (Note: don't yell "fire" in the theater.)|
|STRAW MAN||Arguer distorts opponent's argument and then attacks the distorted argument||Our campus is "dry" and doesn't allow alcohol. Obviously the administration is composed of a bunch of puritans who don't speak for the majority and can be ignored.|
|MISSING THE POINT||Arguer draws conclusion different from that supported by the premises||College education costs are rising exponentially; therefore we should reduce the number of years needed to obtain a degree.|
|RED HERRING||Arguer leads reader/listener off track||People continually talk about the negative effects of tobacco, but did you know that the Native Americans used to smoke tobacco? Many Native American folk remedies are still used today in holistic medicine.|
|APPEAL TO UNQUALIFIED AUTHORITY||Arguer cites untrustworthy authority||My sixteen year old cousin Billy said that there was no moon landing, and he wants to be an astronaut, so it must be true.|
|APPEAL TO IGNORANCE||Premises report that nothing is known or proved, and then a conclusion is drawn||There is no way of disproving the existence of God, therefore he exists. Or, conversely: There is no way of proving the existence of God, therefore he doesn't exist.|
|HASTY GENERALIZATION||Conclusion is drawn from atypical sample||Mrs. Dobson's Rottweiler bit a neighbor boy; therefore all Rottweilers are violent dogs.|
|FALSE CAUSE||Conclusion depends on nonexistent or minor causal connection||Every time I change the channel, my sports team scores. Therefore, any time I want my team to score, I need only change the channel|
|SLIPPERY SLOPE||Conclusion depends on unlikely chain reaction||If Americans' rights to bear arms is taken away, foreigners will view the country as weak and disarmed and attack, easily crushing our crippled defenses and enslaving our nation to submit to their will and whim.|
|WEAK ANALOGY||Conclusion depends on defective analogy||My cousin Billy is just like Yao Ming, he is tall and loves basketball; therefore he will be a pro ball player just like Yao Ming.|
|BEGGING THE QUESTION||Arguer creates the illusion that inadequate premises are adequate by leaving out key premises, by restating the conclusion as a premise, or by reasoning in a circle||Of course animals have rights, just look at how they're being treated.|
|COMPLEX QUESTION||Multiple questions are concealed in a single question||Have you stopped sleeping with your secretary?|
|FALSE DICHOTOMY||"Either/or" statement that hides additional alternatives||Either you buy Axe body spray or you risk not attracting the ladies. Obviously you want to attract the ladies, so you will buy Axe body spray.|
|SUPPRESSED EVIDENCE||Arguer ignores important evidence that requires a different conclusion||Of course that child can't practice medicine, he is only a boy. (If said child is Doogie Howser.)|
|EQUIVOCATION||Conclusion depends on a shift in meaning of a word of phrase||A squirrel is a mammal; therefore a large squirrel is a large mammal.|
|AMPHIBOLY||Conclusion depends on the wrong interpretation of a syntactically ambiguous statement||John rode his bike past the tree with a helmet. (The tree has a helmet?)|
|COMPOSITION||Attribute is wrongly transferred from parts to whole||Bleach and ammonia individually are strong chemical cleaners; therefore if I mix them I will have a stronger chemical cleaner. (This produces various lethal gases, which would be foolish to do)|
|DIVISION||Attribute is wrongly transferred from whole to parts||Our campus is over one hundred years old; therefore every building on campus is over one hundred years old.|
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Writing the personal statement is one of the most important, yet difficult aspects of the college application process. The elusive perfect personal statement is deeply moving, expertly written, rich with details of accomplishments or inspiring life stories, and fits neatly into a 650-word limit. These constraints can leave many struggling to fit what they want to say in so few words. But what many fail to realize when writing the personal statement is that admissions officers are evaluating more than just the story you have to tell. They’re also examining your writing style and ability to convey the abstract qualities that make you the perfect candidate in an eloquent, clear way. Therefore, you should be focused on not only what you’re saying, but also how you’re saying it.
It’s crucial to acknowledge that a personal statement should contain, at its core, an argument. We don’t mean an argument in the same way you might write a debate or an SAT essay – there’s no need for a rigid evidence and analysis structure here. However, you are setting forth a case to the office of undergraduate admissions at your school of choice that you’ll contribute substantially to their community; by telling your story, highlighting your personal strengths, and displaying how you’ve grown into the person you are today, you are essentially arguing that you’re a great candidate for admission. Like any great argument, your personal statement should contain the same rhetorical strategies you would employ when trying to write a persuasive essay or speech. The difference is that the subject matter isn’t some topic your teacher assigned – it’s you!
An exceptionally written personal statement that successfully employs rhetorical strategies can elevate your application enormously; it’s an opportunity to display creativity, strong writing skills, and personal depth that can’t be conveyed through a stellar GPA or strong test scores. Additionally, a personal statement is not a piece of academic writing. It’s meant to be personal – it should give the reader as clear an idea of who you are as possible in 650 words. So don’t agonize over grammar conventions, formal speech, and populating your essay with as many vocabulary words as possible. Rather, take the opportunity to showcase your creativity and make the most of it!
While any rhetorical devices used in your essay will elevate the quality of your writing and strengthen your argument, there are some that work particularly well for the purpose of the personal statement. Below are a few of our favorite rhetorical devices and how you can use them to set your essay apart.
Conceits: A conceit is a metaphor that extends throughout the length of a piece of writing. A well-developed conceit will leave a strong impression on readers and immediately make your essay distinctive and memorable. If you can assign a metaphor to the narrative of your personal essay that you can extend throughout, it will make your essay not only more interesting to read, but also more unique – and standing out is, of course, of utmost importance in the college admissions process. For example, if you’re struggling to explain a powerful emotional experience like depression, consider using a conceit to develop the idea:
“In television and magazine advertisements, depression is often depicted as a small, feeble raincloud, showering its sufferer with negative thoughts and tiny anxieties. In reality, however, depression is more like a vast ocean; expansive, terrifying, impossibly powerful and seemingly invincible. Depression thrashes one mercilessly against the rocks one moment, only to suffocate one with silent, infinite waves the next. I spent two years of my life lost at sea, but through the turbulent journey, I have come to…”
Comparisons to natural entities like water, fire, storms, etc., work well (if you ignore clichés), but feel free to be creative; what’s most important is that whatever comparison you draw is logical and does not seem contrived, nonsensical, or immature. Consider opening and closing your essay with 2-4 sentences relating to your conceit, and make sure the tone throughout your essay is consistent too.
Anecdotes: Another engaging, memorable way to open an essay is with a personal anecdote, or story. Specific sensory details setting a scene immediately capture the reader’s interest and immerse them in your story. For instance, if you plan to write about how being captain of the varsity soccer team has shaped you, try opening your essay with a vivid description of your state of mind when you’re playing a game:
“As I sprint across the field, savoring the sensation of my cleats cutting through the earth beneath me, I notice a gap in the opposing team’s defense that’s practically begging me to take the shot. The raucous soundtrack of the game – parents screaming, players shouting to one another, children crying – fades into white noise as I focus solely on the black and white ball stained with bright green grass, the glaring red of the goalkeeper’s gloves. The moment I kick, time seems to slow and then stop entirely; the ball hangs suspended in the air for a brief moment, hanging high above the players’ heads like the sun, before grazing just past the tips of the goalkeeper’s fingers…”
Beginning essays with anecdotes heavy with sensory language like the one above provide you with an opportunity to display both your writing skills and your passion about a specific topic. Anecdotes can be intense, humorous, tragic, joyful – no matter what they describe, they are a guaranteed way to catch a reader’s attention and offer an alternative to beginning with a sentence like, “all my life, I’ve loved playing soccer.”
Anaphora: Anaphora is the repeated use of a certain word or phrase at the beginning of separate sentences or clauses. Consider the example below:
“Today, I am immensely proud of my family’s culture. Today, I can speak publicly with my parents in our native language without fear of judgment from others.”
Anaphora is extremely effective in emphasizing a specific emotion or idea. The deliberate repetition is dramatic and emotionally moving, an obvious superior alternative to the awkwardness and dullness of rewording the same idea in different ways repeatedly in order to avoid reusing the same words. Anaphora is also useful when highlighting a transition into a new mindset or environment, as in the sample above.
These are only a select few of the vast array of rhetorical devices that can be used to enhance an essay. Try browsing a list of devices and attempting to incorporate several into the latest draft of your personal statement. The greatest advantage of rhetorical devices is that they are incredibly effective in lending an essay a strong emotional appeal, also known as pathos. The ability to skillfully appeal to emotion in an essay while also clearly communicating your accomplishments and personality will be invaluable as you complete your applications.
Managing Editor at CollegeVine Blog
Anamaria is an Economics major at Columbia University who's passionate about sharing her knowledge of admissions with students facing the applications process. When she's not writing for the CollegeVine blog, she's studying Russian literature and testing the limits of how much coffee one single person can consume in a day.