Rhetoric is "the art, practice, and study of human communication" (Lunsford). Understanding rhetoric is crucial to literacy, composing, and interpretation. Learn about rhetoric so that you can better understand why people say what they say and do what they do--and, perhaps most importantly, so you can compose messages that accomplish your goals.
Rhetoric concerns perception, interpretation, and communication Rhetoric concerns perception, interpretation, and communication

Rhetoric Definition

Rhetoric is an expansive term. It’s used in different ways by different communities of practice.

Rhetoric may refer to

  1. “the art, practice, and study of human communication” (Lunsford)
    • “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion” (Aristotle 350 B.C.E.).
    • the study of situations, the study of how relationships among authors, audiences, topics, technologies impinge on composing and interpretation
  2. a pedagogy, a catechism, a dogma, a body of knowledge, which is informed by culture, history, economics, technology, and on going peer-reviewed scholarly conversations about the topic. For example, textbook and websites for aspiring authors exhort writers to
  3. a symbolic tool, a method, for creating change
    • “[R]hetoric is a mode of altering reality, not by the direct application of energy to objects, but by the creation of discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action. The rhetor alters reality by bringing into existence a discourse of such a character that the audience, in thought and action, is so engaged that it becomes mediator of change (Blitzer 1968, 4).
    • “The study of how people use language and other symbols to realize human goals and carry out human activities . . . ultimately a practical study offering people great control over their symbolic activity” (Bazerman 1988)
    • “the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols” (Burke 1969)
  4. discourse–any text.

Related Concepts: Critical Literacy; Rhetorical Analysis; Rhetorical Knowledge; Rhetorical Reasoning; Semiotics

Summary of Related Terms & Phrases


Rhetorical refers to

  • discourse that seeks persuasion over the truth
  • discourse that is sensitive to the rhetorical situation.

As suggested above, the term rhetorical can be used positively or disdainfully.

In colloquial discourse, if someone says you’re being rhetorical, that’s not a compliment. It’s a suggestion that you’re engaged in rhetrickery, sophistry, persuasion. For many people rhetoric is synonymous with insincerity, persuasion, and ritual discourse.

If someone says That’s just rhetoric! or Oh, ignore that guy. He’s just being rhetorical, then you know they associate rhetoric with inauthentic, manipulative language.

Yet for writers and speakers who work as knowledge workers, the term rhetorical refers to how well a message accommodates the needs of its readers. In the life of a writer, a message that’s not rhetorically appropriate is a failed effort.

if a writer, editor, boss, or critic says, Wow, that’s a solid, rhetorical job, then you know they’ re complimenting how well you composed the message for its audience(s).


Rhetors are writers, speakers, knowledge workers . . . who engage in rhetorical analysis and rhetorical reasoning to interpret and compose texts.


Rhetoricians refers to people who study or practice rhetoric.


Rhetoricity is the degree to which a rhetor’s written, spoken, and visual language is appropriate given the rhetorical situation. Texts with a high rhetoricity score are those that are written and designed in ways that most appeal to their audiences. Texts with low scores are ones that ignore what the reader, listener, or user thinks, feels, and knows about the topic.


Rhetrickery refers to occasions where writers, speakers, and knowledge workers aim to fool their reader by using intentionally vague language, ignoring counterclaims, misrepresenting knowledge claims, and appealing to pathos and ethos over logos.

Although the use of fraud in every action is detestable, nonetheless in managing war it is a praiseworthy and glorious thing, and he who overcomes the enemy with fraud is praised as much as the one who overcomes it with force.

Niccolo Machiavelli


Techno-Rhetoricians are rhetoricians who focus on investigating digital matters, such as the effect of new writing tools on composing, interpretation, or literacy.

Writing is Rhetorical

“The assertion that writing is “rhetorical” means that writing is always shaped by a combination of the purposes and expectations of writers and readers and the uses that writing serves in specific contexts.”

NCTE, Principles for the Postsecondary Teaching of Writing

Rhetorical Knowledge

For college-level writers, rhetoric is so integral to reading and writing that the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) identifies rhetorical knowledge as a core outcome of postsecondary education:

To be rhetorically sensitive, good writers must be flexible. They should be able to pursue their purposes by consciously adapting their writing both to the contexts in which it will be read and to the expectations, knowledge, experiences, values, and beliefs of their readers.

NCTE, Principles for the Postsecondary Teaching of Writing

Works Cited

Aristotle, Aeterna Press (2015). “Rhetoric”, p.25, Aeterna Press.

Bazerman, Charle (1988). Shaping Written Knowledge: The Genre and Activity of the Experimental Article in Science. Madison U of Wisconsin Press.

Bitzer, Lloyd. (1968). “The Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 1:1: 1-14.

Burke, Kenneth (1969). A Rhetoric of Motives. University of California Press

Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), October 1989, Revised November 2013, Revised March 2015. Principles for the Postsecondary Teaching of Writing …, Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC).   https://cccc.ncte.org/cccc/resources/positions/postsecondarywriting.