What Is a Rhetorical Feature?

by Elissa Hansen

“Rhetoric” means “persuasion,” and a rhetorical feature is any characteristic of a text that helps convince readers of a certain point of view. Writers use a host of strategies to construct texts that are logically ordered, that establish their credibility and that appeal to their target audience.

Logos, Ethos, Pathos

The rhetorical features of a text can be broken down into three main categories: logos, pathos and ethos. Often referred to as the “rhetorical triangle,” these three elements intertwine to create persuasive arguments for a specific audience. Logos deals with a text’s content, structure and reasoning. Pathos deals with the audience’s sympathy toward certain kinds of perspectives. Ethos deals with the author’s expertise or ability to draw on authoritative sources. The ways in which writers create and appeal to logos, pathos and ethos involve certain uses of language, such as precise organization, word play and figurative language.

Form and Organization

Textual form and organization are rhetorical features that create a text’s logos, and they can also affect a text’s pathos and ethos. For all textual forms — such as plays, novels, speeches, letters, essays, poems — composers need to decide which organizational option will work best for a specific audience. For example, if you’re writing a persuasive letter and worry that your busy audience might not read the whole thing, you might want to lead with the point you think will most strongly affect the readers (pathos) while establishing your authority (ethos) right away. If you are certain your audience will read to the end, a rhetorical strategy of building from the least to most crucial points might have a more lasting effect, since readers often best remember the last point they read.

Word Play

Rhetorical features on the level of sentences and phrases include a vast array of rhetorical figures, including repetition of initial phrases (anaphora), parallelism, chiasmus and alliteration. A passage from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech uses all four of these features in a strong appeal to pathos: “Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee! Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi! From every mountainside, let freedom ring.” Anaphora occurs with the repeated initial phrase, “Let freedom ring.” Parallelism, the repetition of syntactic structures, occurs in the first two sentences, since both begin with the phrase “Let freedom ring” and end with the phrase “from [a place].” In the final sentence, we see chiasmus, which is the opposite of parallelism. It inverts the syntactic structure we just saw: First, we get “From [a place],” then “let freedom ring.” Finally, alliteration, the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of nearby words, occurs with the “m” sounds in “molehill,” “Mississippi” and “mountainside.”

Figurative Language

A host of rhetorical appeals to logos, pathos and ethos rely on figurative language, or language that communicates something other than its literal sense. These include figures of comparison (metaphor, simile and analogy), figures that describe something by its associations (metonymy and synecdoche) and figures of irony (verbal, situational and dramatic irony; sarcasm; hyperbole and litotes). Figurative language can operate at any scale from the sentence level to the entire composition. For example, Shakespeare uses analogy in a pithy quotation from "Romeo and Juliet": “What's in a name? that which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet; / So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd, / Retain that dear perfection which he owes / Without that title.” According to Juliet, the best attributes of Romeo and roses have nothing to do with their arbitrary names. John Donne, in contrast, takes an entire 36-line poem (“A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”) to compare separated lovers to the legs of a compass.

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