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1.2: Rhetorical Situation

  • Page ID
    69187
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    “The WHAT Situation?4

    This is a typical response from students when first introduced to the concept of the rhetorical situation.

    The thing is, most of us intuitively understand rhetorical situations we face every day, but we give them little thought.

    Consider this. You [the author] need to ask your parents [the audience] for money [the purpose]. It’s the third time this semester you’ve asked, and it’s right before the holidays [the context]. Should you communicate with a text, phone call, email, or Facebook message, and should it be funny, serious, or heartfelt [text]?

    This is a rhetorical situation.

    Whenever we decide to write–whether it’s a tweet, an essay for history class, or a text message to your parents asking for money – we face a rhetorical situation or set of elements that help shape the choices we make as writers.

    The rhetorical situation consists of:

    • Author: The writer of the communication
    • Audience: The receiver of the communication
    • Purpose: The goal of the communication
    • Context: The surrounding setting, time, culture, and social discussions on the topic
    • Text: The genre, organization, and style of the communication
      • Genre is the form or shape5.
      • Writing strategies such as narration, description, or compare/contrast help develop and organize the content6.
      • Style is created through elements such as tone, diction, and syntax7.

    The rhetorical situation has evolved from the influential Greek philosopher Aristotle’s ideas on how rhetoric, using language effectively, functions.

    Often, we give little thought to, or automatically process, the rhetorical situation. However, effective writers carefully consider these elements and choose an approach to better communicate their ideas.

    Returning to the scenario, you decide that the best way to convince your parents to send you money is through an honest email that explains why you are short on money. You choose this genre because you know that your parents will read it at home after work and prefer email to texts. You also thoughtfully write in a style that doesn’t sound demanding but provide clear reasons why you need the money. How could they say no to that?

    That’s the power of understanding and analyzing what shapes the rhetorical situation. It helps you create audience-centered communication in the genre and style best suited to achieve your purpose. The rhetorical situation has evolved from the influential Greek philosopher Aristotle’s8 ideas on how rhetoric, using language effectively, functions.

    Often, we give little thought to, or automatically process, the rhetorical situation. However, effective writers carefully consider these elements and choose an approach to better communicate their ideas.

    Returning to the scenario above, you decide that the best way to convince your parents to send you money is through an honest email that explains why you are short on money. You choose this genre because you know that your parents will read it at home after work and prefer email to texts. You also thoughtfully write in a style that doesn’t sound demanding but provide clear reasons why you need the money. How could they say no to that?

    That’s the power of understanding and analyzing what shapes the rhetorical situation. It helps you create audience-centered communication in the genre and style best suited to achieve your purpose.

    This image depicts a circle containing a triangle with "purpose," "author," and "audience" written at its three corners. An arrow points from the triangle's base to text reading "context" and an arrow points out of the circle to the text "text/genre."

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): The Rhetorical Situation asks students to consider all of the above when they begin to write something. (This visual was created by Dana Anderson using Piktochart.com.)

    Assignments and Questions to Consider
    • Ask yourself, when given a project, what is the assignment’s purpose? What is its audience? What is the context of this project? What will the end product/text/genre look like?

    4 Anderson, Dana. “Rhetorical Situation.” Writing Unleashed, Version 1. NDSCS; 2016.

    5 More information in the Content and Structure Unit.

    6 More information in the Content and Structure Unit.

    7 More information in the Nerd Unit.

    8 Aristotle is a problematic character in all this since he’s linked to the start of racism; please disregard that part of him when it comes to this content.


    This page titled 1.2: Rhetorical Situation is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Sybil Priebe, Ronda Marman, & Dana Anderson (North Dakota University System) .

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