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5.2: Purpose and Rhetorical Modes

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    What Are Rhetorical Modes?

    A rhetorical mode refers to the way you approach the prompt. There are many ways to think through your topic, and these modes of thinking (writing) are all connected, but this chapter highlights only a few.

    The rhetorical modes you will find in this chapter include narration, classification, and description. Each time you are given a writing assignment in college, remember to consider the genre, audience, and purpose (mind the G.A.P.), and then you might best determine which rhetorical approach to take. Here is a brief list with some description of rhetorical approaches, or ways you can begin to write about any topic at the sentence, paragraph, or essay level.

    Approach 1: Narration

    These are just stories. They have a beginning, middle, and end. Every story should involve characters and conflict. Stories can be told from only a few perspectives: first, second, or third-person. Short personal narratives are called anecdotes, and you can think of these as what comedians like to use in stand-up performances.

    Here’s a sample narrative anecdote:

    In my freshman biology class, I had a pet rat. My teacher had a little zoo in his classroom, complete with populations of various rodents, reptiles, amphibians, and—uh—arthropods? Since the teacher let us play with the animals during class if we were exemplary students, I strove to be the teacher’s pet. My rat was always on my desk, in my hoodie pocket or hood, or cuddled on my lap. I don’t think I named my little varmint, but I did grow quite fond of her, and I even marked her white derriere with a small blue Sharpie so I would be able to discern her from her sisters, brothers, cousins, and whatnot.

    One day toward the end of summer (it was a four-hour per day summer class and I was fourteen, by the way), I came in and, as habitual, I went to retrieve my rat from her normal habitation. She wasn’t there! I was certain someone had handled her and put her in the wrong rat enclosure, so I frantically searched the Kowloon Walled City of cages, desperate to notice her blue butt dot, but she was not among the rats—no. I turned a corner to the herpetology section of the biology room and a gong of realization pierced my worried stupor: the blue-bottomed rat was with the ball python, Betsy, but it didn’t look like they were going to become besties.

    I’ll never forget who ate my furry friend for lunch that day. I had so many sneers for her after this incident, but I chose not to watch Betsy take my rat down her hatch.

    As you can see, the purpose of telling a story is usually to offer some sort of lesson, or illustrate some message, some theme, that the story shows us. A piece of writing’s theme might be easy to interpret, or it might inspire more thinking. Sometimes an author might not even know what the point of writing what they wrote is, but any piece of writing can be analyzed for theme or message, even a social media post. The message communicated by a social media post is varied, but sometimes it’s implied: there’s no text directing the onlooker except maybe some hashtags. Think of an Instagram post, which is often just a photograph. What does posting a selfie seem to argue? Is there a narrative in a still image, a story you can read into it? I imagine you will find you can.

    Example Narrative Essay

    "Surrendering" by Ocean Vuong

    Approach 2: Description

    Description writing is that which engages the senses, using primarily imagery to bring the reader into the scene. Considering that English 001A/101A deals with non-fiction writing, a description piece might embellish on details like that which we see in travel writing or critiques: think of the way a food critic writes about a restaurant, sometimes detailing the chiffon on the table or the mosaic tiling in the restrooms. You may think there is no point to writing descriptively other than to impress the reader, but the five senses are directly tied to memory and retention, so descriptive writing is a strong choice if you wish to write a memorable composition.

    Approach 3: Classification/Division

    Anything can be divided into smaller parts for analysis, and by analyzing anything, we learn what qualities it possesses so that we can better classify it, or put it into groups.

    Approach 4: Definition

    What can be classified or divided must at some point rely on definition, but don't be fooled: defining involves more than coming up with a description of what something is; when you write definition-based compositions, your main goal is to put into words what the phenomenon you are describing is or is not, but also how those attributions are established. How we discuss dreams relies entirely on whether you define dreaming as aspiring toward a goal or falling into subconscious realms, to provide a way of thinking of how important this can be at the sentence, paragraph, or essay level.

    Approach 5: Comparison and Contrast

    There is value in noting the differences and similarities between any differing subjects.

    Example Comparison-and-Contrast Essay

    "The Barrio" by Robert Ramirez

    Approach 6: Process Analysis

    People direct others to perform processes using commands, which is referred to as directive analysis: giving directions. Think of making a recipe or assembling furniture. The other way people write about processes is through explanation: I like to turn my mechanical toothbrush on after it is already in my mouth because I had many instances of getting toothpaste sprinkles all over my black shirts and coats when getting ready for work.

    Approach 7: Cause-and-Effect Analysis

    We all know that every action makes others happen and is itself a result of another previous action. Sometimes it is just a coincidence, which we refer to as correlative, and other times there may be a causal relationship between phenomena.

    Consider the following play on syntax (notice how many words are in this sentence) that Miguel de Cervantes writes in Don Quixote:

    About this time, when some rain began to fall, Sancho proposed that they should shelter themselves in the fulling-mill, but Don Quixote had conceived such abhorrence for it, on account of what was past, that he would no means set foot within its wall; wherefore, turning to the right-hand, they chanced to fall in with a road different from that in which they had traveled the day before; they had not gone far, when the knight discovered a man riding with something on his head, that glittered like polished gold, and scarce had he descried this phenomenon, when turning to Sancho, “I find,” said he, “that every proverb is strictly true; indeed, all of them are apophthegms dictated by experience herself; more especially, that which says, “shut one door, and another will soon open”: this I mention, because, if last night, fortune shut against us the door we fought to enter, by deceiving us with the fulling-hammers; today another stands wide open, in proffering to use us, another greater and more certain adventure, by which, if I fail to enter, it shall be my own fault, and not imputed to my ignorance of fulling-mills, or the darkness of the night.

    Although its length and lack of periods can confuse us at first, the logic of this paragraph-length sentence is held together by other punctuation marks: notice the colon, the semi-colons, and all of the beautiful commas! Since commas imply details, so many here make sense. If you trace the cause-and-effect patterning here, you may notice the following:

    1. The rain causes Sancho and Don Quixote to seek shelter
    2. Don Quixote's past experiences cause him to not wish to take shelter
    3. They take a different, unsheltered path because they turn right after refusing the fulling-mill
    4. Their new path is crossed by a glitzy knight
    5. The chance encounter causes Don Quixote to wax poetically about cliché statements, or proverbs, like "shut one door, and another will soon open"
    6. Cervantes posthumously sets me up (sorry to break the fourth wall) for a definition drop: cliché
      Definition: Cliche

      A cliche (from French, so you make a "sh" noise when pronounce the "ch": klee-shay) is any word or expression that has been used so much in writing that it is considered an uninteresting, or easy, choice. Ideas can be described as cliche, too, and most proverbs, or apothegms, are used so much that they are best not to use in your college writing.

    Example Cause-and-Effect Analysis Essay

    "Why Do We Cringe?" by Aditi Murti

    Approach 8: Argumentation

    It is only when you understand how to write using the other approaches or modes that you should attempt argumentation. In argumentative writing, the goal is to persuade, so there should be ample support for any claims put forth. Furthermore, a good argument relies on quality support, so researching and finding reliable, unbiased resources becomes more important in argument-driven writing.

    Example Argumentation Essay

    "About Anger" by Ursula Le Guin

    Work Cited

    Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de. Don Quixote. Translated by Edith Grossman, Ecco, 2003.