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7.1: An Overview of the Rhetorical Modes

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    What are Rhetorical Modes?

    We’ve talked earlier in the course about genres, different ways of categorizing specific types of reading. We examined the different genres of literature, textbooks, journalism, and academic writing.

    Non-fiction writing can be further defined by sub-genres, sometimes referred to as the rhetorical modes of communication. These are categories of types of writing, and they help us, while reading, anticipate the structure and purpose of the text itself.

    Some of the most common types of rhetorical modes are addressed in detail below. A piece of writing can consist solely of one rhetorical mode, but most often they are used in combination throughout a text.


    Occasionally writers organize an entire document according to a topic’s physical characteristics. Frequently, however, description plays a part in an essay that has a broader purpose. For example, an engineer conducting an analysis of a bridge might organize a section of his report by describing what the bridge looks like, identifying its type, daily load, or year built. A doctor might describe a patient’s physical characteristics, perhaps noting her weight, height, and family history. A teacher describing a class might mention the class title, course content, number of students, and semester.


    Because definitions for words evolve over time, there are several dictionaries that track these changes, including Oxford English Dictionary, A Dictionary of American English, and A Dictionary of Americanisms.

    Why Do People Write Definitions?

    Creative people seek to develop new terms, concepts, and activities. A doctor might discover a biological or medical process, causing the need for a new name or concept. A scientist might discover a new chemical reaction, perhaps a particle smaller than a quark. An astronomer may discover a new star. For example, Walker Gipson is commonly credited with developing the term “cyberspace” to describe the way people become so obsessed and focused on playing video games.

    Occasionally, readers will reject a writer’s term, concept, or research finding. And, at times, a writer may present a humorous definition or apply a word in a new context, one that helps us look at our behavior in new ways.


    A nice illustration of definition in action is in the video below, where the word “innovation” is considered in a new way.

    Comparing and Contrasting

    Comparing and contrasting issues can be a powerful way to organize and understand knowledge. Typically, comparing and contrasting require you to define a class or category of objects and then define their similarities and differences.

    Comparing and contrasting are very natural processes, a strategy we employ in our everyday lives to understand ideas and events. We learn new ideas by comparing the new ideas with what we’ve learned in the past. We understand differences between people and events by comparing new events and people to past people and events. Comparisons are often conducted to prove that one concept or object is superior to another. People selling a grant idea or business proposal or people marketing a product may compare and contrast one idea or product to another, advocating their position.


    Occasionally, an entire document focuses on explaining a taxonomy–that is, a scheme of classification.

    Why Classify Information?

    To make knowledge, we routinely categorize information. A biologist might refer to the periodic table. A musician might speak about country music, new age music, jazz, or techno. A movie critic might talk about suspense, thriller, drama, or comedic movies. A religious studies professor might discuss Christian religions, Muslim sects, and Buddhist practices. As a college student, you might talk about specific colleges’ sports teams according to the divisions their teams play in.


    Here’s another example, this time of classification. The following video categorizes characters from Marvel Comics into four types.


    You’ll encounter two uses of narrative in reading.

    Chronological Narratives

    Chronological narratives follow chronological time. For example, fiction writers often tell stories about people and events using dates, years, seasons, or even hours to define the progress of events. Historians tell stories about key people. Sociologists describe communities.

    Some examples are found at the links listed:

    1. American Slave Narratives.
    2. North American Slave Narratives.
    3. First-person Narratives of the American South.

    Process Narratives

    Process narratives explain how to do something or explain how something works. Process narratives are extremely common in many professional careers, including most engineering and scientific fields.

    1. Number each step and substep in the process. Substeps might be lettered alphabetically. In some engineering and legal documents, each paragraph is numbered using the automatic numbering feature of most word processing tools. For example:
      • Identify a common software application that you know well.
      • Consider a feature of Microsoft Word. Make sure your teacher approves your topic
      • Work through the process once, taking notes of what important steps are involved, what substeps exist within each major steps.
    2. Provide visual pictures of major steps in the process.
    3. Be sure you follow the correct chronological order by actually conducting the process based on your instructions.
    4. Be sure you define key terms and concepts. Provide the background information your readers will need to understand the instructions.

    7.1: An Overview of the Rhetorical Modes is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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