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Identifying Purpose and Audience

Identifying Purpose and Audience

Author: Sophia Tutorial

Given a short paragraph or scenario, identify the purpose and intended audience.

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This tutorial covers the purpose and audience of texts and how to identify that purpose and audience by assessing content, mode, and language. The specific areas of focus include:
  1. Factors That Determine Purpose and Audience
    1. Content
    2. Mode
    3. Word Choice
    4. Level of Formality
    5. Tone
  2. Identifying Purpose and Audience in a Piece of Writing

1. Factors That Determine Purpose and Audience

Purpose is the intended goal or value of a text, and the audience is the reader of the text, which can be intended (targeted by the author) or unintended (not specifically targeted by the author).

Thus, assessing, identifying, and directing your writing towards the purpose and audience is an essential task. To figure out what the purpose and audience of a text is, look for these clues:

  • Content
  • Mode of writing
  • Word choice
  • Formality level
  • Overall tone

Doing an analysis of these elements within someone else’s writing helps you better deploy those same tools in your own writing and provides you with useful examples of effective ways to target your intended audience and fulfill your intended purpose.

1a. Content

The content of a text is just what the author has chosen as the subject and what the author telling you about that subject, which is closely tied to the purpose.

If the purpose of a piece is to convince people to buy a certain product, the content will feature the product’s most attractive selling points.

Sometimes, authors say exactly what their purpose is. But even when the author doesn’t say it outright, there are other ways you can identify the purpose. Look for the kinds of details, examples, explanations, descriptions, and arguments the author chooses.

To find the audience, assess the overall subject matter and also the way the author addresses it in order to make guesses about the intended readers.

1b. Mode

There are four main modes of writing:

  • Narrative, which is driven by a story
  • Descriptive, which is used to provide details
  • Informative, which provides data without biased opinions
  • Argumentative, which takes a side on a debate

In any piece of writing, you’re bound to see descriptive, informative, and argumentative statements.

But because each mode has its perfect purpose, looking for which modes are used most commonly in any text will likely lead you in the general direction of the purpose, even though the purpose will be narrower than the mode itself.

1c. Word Choice

The words you choose, including both the vocabulary level you select and the connotations and denotations of your words, are related to your audience and purpose.

Vocabulary level can tell you a lot about the intended audience, such as the audience’s level of education or age range. Additionally, the tone struck by the connotations and denotations of the words gives you clues about how the reader is meant to feel.

1d. Level of Formality

How formal or informal a text is depends on its audience, and is revealed in:

  • Vocabulary level
  • Sentence complexity
  • How personal the content is

Academic and professional writing tends to be more formal. Conversely, personal writing is usually informal.

1e. Tone

Tone is a writer’s attitude towards the subject as conveyed through a piece of writing.

Looking to the tone that the author affects can tell you what that author’s attitude about the subject is, which can in turn clue you in to the overall purpose and how the author wants the audience to feel about that subject.

If the purpose of the text is to inform the reader about an environmental crisis, then the tone is likely to be grave and serious.

A writer’s attitude toward the subject as conveyed through a piece of writing

2. Identifying Purpose and Audience in a Piece of Writing

Now that you know about the factors that determine purpose and audience, you can practice identifying purpose and audience in a given text.

Consider the following short piece of writing:

What is the content of this text? It’s an ad for hot sauce, so you can discern a lot about the purpose by examining the content and assessing its mode. Thinking about how advertisements work and the kinds of argumentative statements you see here, it’s pretty clear that the purpose is to get you to buy, buy, buy.

Who is the audience that this hot sauce ad seems to expect? You can determine this through the assumptions the text is making about the reader. The language is very informal. Just look at that slang and the overall simplicity of these sentences:

You can see the ad using language that connotes hipness and youth, which means that the intended audience might care about social status and be up to date on current slang. Thus, this hot sauce ad is likely for teenagers.

This piece has a totally different tone:

The tone is markedly more formal, even though this is clearly correspondence. Because this is an email or letter for an academic setting sent from a student to a professor, it is more formal than other kinds of emails, and the tone is pretty neutral.

The direct intent is to inform the professor about the student's absence and that the student will visit office hours. But the underlying purpose seems to be to show the professor how responsible the student is. See how the student emphasizes the steps she took to ameliorate any negative consequences of missing class:

Now you can bring all of these tools to bear on a more substantive text and assess what purpose and audience you think it’s meant to serve.

Remember that you have a tool kit with content, mode, word choice, formality level, and tone. Using those tools, assess the purpose and audience that the author intends in the following piece:
Content: It’s pretty clear that this piece is about education and cost, and why education is important.
Mode: Much of this paragraph features informative statements.
But by the end, the language shifts into a more argumentative mode. Overall, the purpose seems to be to convince the reader to support universal access to higher education.
Tone: Tone tells you a lot here, as many of the words are more evocative and emotional than those in a neutral, informative piece might be. But this isn’t inflammatory rhetoric; this is a subtle tone. It’s neither strident and angry nor wholly dispassionate. You could characterize the tone, then, as motivated, committed, or energized. This tells you that the precise purpose is not just to convince the reader, but also to spur the reader to action, perhaps to get people to join a movement.
Audience: To determine the audience, you can look at the word choice and level of vocabulary. In this case, the vocabulary is rather precise and intellectual, referring to something as being “tangible” instead of concrete or describing the “citizenry” instead of citizens or good residents, which indicates a fairly academic word choice. Therefore, you might assume that this is an educated audience, and perhaps an audience of adults instead of kids.
The sentence structure is equally academic, with some complex and lengthy sentences and some poetic turns of phrase, as opposed to more simple, conversational sentences.
Word Choice: You’ve already thought about the overall tone, but are there any words that stand out to you in their connotative power? “Rich store of knowledge” seems pretty evocative:
The author could have just said that students will know more about the world, but by adding implications of financial benefit, this phrase connotes material wealth. Therefore, the connotations of the words lend themselves to the overall message about worth.
Using all these tools, you’ve now done a pretty thorough analysis of the purpose and audience of this paragraph.

In this tutorial, you learned that purpose is the intended goal of a text, and audience is the reader or readers of a text. There are several factors that determine purpose and audience in a particular text: content, mode, word choice, level of formality, and tone.

You also learned how to identify the purpose and audience in a piece of writing. By studying the determining factors of content, mode, word choice, level of formality, and tone, you can tell what the piece is trying to say and who it’s trying to say it to even if the author doesn’t explicitly tell you.

Good luck!

Source: This work is adapted from Sophia author Martina Shabram.

Terms to Know

A writer's attitude toward the subject as conveyed through a piece of writing.