Rhetorical Triangle: Definition & Example

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  • 0:05 Definition of a…
  • 0:31 The Three Points of…
  • 3:29 Using the Rhetorical…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Diedra Taylor

Diedra has taught college English and worked as a university writing center consultant. She has a master's degree in English.

In this lesson, we will explore the persuasive appeals of the rhetorical triangle, including logos, pathos, and ethos. Learn how these three parts of communication work together in an argument.

Definition of a Rhetorical Triangle

Bust of Aristotle
Photograph of a Bust of Aristotle

Aristotle wrote one of the first great treatises on rhetoric, aptly titled, Rhetoric. This treatise was written in the 4th century BCE, and it outlines the three main rhetorical appeals: logos, pathos, and ethos. These three persuasive strategies make up the rhetorical triangle.

Drawing of the Rhetorical Triangle

Aristotle himself did not use the image of a triangle, but he did outline the effective uses of these three modes of persuasion.

The Three Points of the Rhetorical Triangle

Think of the triangle as a tortilla chip on a plate of nachos. Sometimes you get a chip with a little of everything on it: cheese, meat, and guacamole. Some of the chips have only meat and cheese or just cheese and guacamole. Every now and then you enjoy a delicious chip just dipped in the guacamole alone.

Drawing of Nachos

This is how the rhetorical triangle works. You can form an argument using all three appeals. However, you don't always need to use all three. Sometimes you can make an acceptable argument just using a couple of persuasive techniques, like the chip with meat and cheese.

Logos is the meat of an argument. When you are presenting an appeal to logos, you present logic, facts, or truth. It is the message by which you attempt to reason with your audience.

Let's call pathos the cheese because it's the appeal to your audience's emotions. You can move your audience to anger to take action towards war. You can move your audience to fear in order to persuade them to buy a product that prevents illness. Sadness can cause an audience to donate to a cause. Or you can move your audience to believe that certain opinions or actions will make themselves and others happy.

As for ethos, you can think of it as the guacamole. Guacamole is good for you, right? Its nutrition credibility is in vitamins E and C. Well, ethos is the speaker or writer's character, credibility, and authority. Ethos attempts to show you that the person or entity communicating is a valid source of information. For example, your teachers' ethos comes from the credibility of their degrees. So, you consider their opinions on particular subjects to be worthy.

Nachos can be made in any combination, with more of one ingredient and less of another. Argument works this way, as well. You can try out different persuasive 'recipes' in your writing to find the mix that suits your needs and audience.

Of course, the strongest arguments are usually built on points that take advantage of logos, pathos, and ethos together. Aristotle thought that logos was the most important of the three, but not all audiences will be persuaded by logos alone. A strong ethos, for instance, may make your audience more receptive to the logos you employ.

For example, if you are trying to write a health article, you may do research and provide accepted medical facts. However, if you make clear your credibility as a medical doctor (ethos), your audience may be more receptive to accepting your statements as true. Presenting just the research without your credentials could result in skepticism from some audiences. Furthermore, discussing your own personal experiences in treating or living with a particular disorder would draw sympathy (pathos) from your readers. See the examples below to get an idea of how the three parts of the rhetorical triangle work together.

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