Wednesday, April 13, 2011


As your professor hands back your argumentative research paper, you notice “Excellent Thesis” scribbled next to the last line of your introductory paragraph. You quickly turn the pages in anticipation of that A++ you were hoping for…when you are taken aback with the grade that lay before you. Comments such as, “remember the rhetorical triangle?” and “will your audience find this believable?” litter your final page.

Writing an argumentative research paper for the first time can be a daunting task. Although the thesis and supporting evidence (body paragraphs) entail the main framework of an argumentative paper, there are other aspects that cannot go ignored. By focusing entirely on the thesis, many students ignore certain elements of rhetoric that are absolutely essential to effective argumentation. Referring back to the mini story at the beginning of the post, how do you improve a paper that already contains a strong thesis PLUS ample supporting evidence? This is where the elements of the Rhetorical Triangle come into play. So, what do words like ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos mean anyway?

Interestingly enough, each and every one of us utilize these terms on a day-to day-basis. Do not allow the seemingly bizarre nature of the words themselves to overshadow their underlying simplicity. Let’s take pathos as an example. As you approach the MPA employee ticketing your car in the Mountainlair, what is the first thing that you do? You tell a sob story about your life to get out of it, that’s what! Not only are you making a claim, but you are strengthening that claim with a pathetic appeal (sob story). Remember, persuasion is an essential element of everyday life. The following presents a more detailed analysis of each of the elements of the Rhetorical Triangle:

Ethos: The author’s (of a particular source) credibility is just as important as his or her argument. Imagine that your thesis effectively argues for the implementation of a simplified tax code. Utilizing a publication (as supporting evidence) from the top researcher of the American Tax Association would provide more convincing support to your thesis than simply paraphrasing an anonymous author from Wikipedia.

Logos: The main framework of your paper consists of your claim (thesis) and the supporting evidence (main body paragraphs). How will you utilize evidence to support your thesis? Will you employ extrinsic evidence that is mainly pulled from outside sources (Data/Other author’s arguments)? What about intrinsic evidence? Can you form your own reasoning as to why your argument should be deemed superior?

Pathos: Empathy is an important concept to consider when writing to your audience. In other words, how can you tailor your writing style to appeal to the emotions of your audience? Let’s refer back to the example of an argumentative research paper that argues for a simplified tax code. Imagine that you include a paragraph on family hardship and discuss the fact that the complexity of the tax code forces families to pay burdensome fees for the services of a professional tax preparer. Rather than simply stating that these taxes “create hardships” for families, utilize charged language in order to keep your reader more engaged and more empathetic to the lives of these families (“extremely burdensome” instead of “creates hardships”).

And last, but certainly not least, is kairos. Rather than jumping right into the core of your argument, take a step back and analyze the entire issue with which you are arguing. How will you position yourself (and your argument) within this issue? Is the issue current? If so, can you use a sense of urgency to your advantage? For example, imagine sending a letter to Congress to prevent controversial legislation from passing. An opportune time to present this letter may be the day before the legislation is to be voted upon. At this point in time, the stress level within Congress has probably reached its maximum…raising the possibility that politicians are more easily swayed when they are weak-willed (aka highly stressed). You may still be asking, is kairos even that important to consider? Imagine presenting this same letter the day after the legislation is passed. That would assuredly be an inopportune time to present an argument when the issue has already been decided upon. Thus, it is vitally important to analyze the entirety of the issue before picking a side and defending it.

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