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Rhetorical Appeals: Ethos and Pathos

Rhetorical Appeals: Ethos and Pathos

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson teaches the other two rhetorical appeals, Ethos and Pathos.

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Hi, welcome to English Composition. My name's Gavin McCall.

What are we going to learn today? We'll talk briefly about the three types of rhetorical appeals, and then go into more detail about ethos, or appeals to credibility. Then we'll do the same for pathos, or appeals to emotion.

Just as a quick review, rhetorical appeals are modes used in writing in order to persuade or convince. There are three types of rhetorical appeals. The first, which you've already discussed at length, is logos, or appeals to logic or reasoning. Ethos is the second, appeals to character or credibility. And the third, pathos, this appeals to emotion.

The first type of rhetorical appeal we'll look at today is ethos. It's defined as appeals to credibility. They use personal or source credentials to persuade or convince. In the classic Greek context ethos was used to refer only to the character of the speaker. But we now think of other credentials and background that can give credence to a source. And so now we use ethos to mean appeals to an author's personal credibility or expertise, as well as the credibility of any other people the author uses of sources or cites as references. We'll look at an example of each.

In this first completely made up sentence we can see the author referring to him or herself as a leading scholar. People will often do this, as here, right before stating their argument. The unspoken assumption is that because they're experts you should trust their judgments and agree with their claims.

The second kind of appeal to credibility, and the form you're most likely to encounter in a piece of academic writing, are appeals to credibility of sources. After all, we can't all be preeminent authorities on everything. But we can read the work of those who are and enlist their support in making our own arguments. In this example the writer makes no mention of his or her own expertise and refers only to the credibility of the sources used.

The third form of rhetorical appeals is pathos, which are appeals to emotion. They attempt to evoke emotions in order to persuade or convince. In academic writing appeals to emotion are often seen as problematic, in part because as a whole scholars and writers tend to value logic and credibility based arguments, logos and ethos, over emotional appeals. Pathos does have value in academic writing. Though it's often seen as being manipulative.

It makes sense if you think about it. In an emotional appeal the point is to invoke feeling in the readers, not necessarily to make them think. As such, pathos can be but is not always used to obscure facts or distract readers from information that doesn't support the writer's argument.

Here's an example of an emotional appeal that, like many you'll see come election time, uses our desire to protect children in order to cover up the fact that the writer hasn't actually given us a real reason to agree with him or her yet. Take a moment to read it.

The writer seems to be hoping that our emotional reaction to having our children's future welfare threatened will keep us from thinking too much about what exactly it means to have nuclear missiles as protectors. The writer could have made an argument about how we need nukes in order to deter nuclear war, or any other number of claims. But instead we're presented with an unsupported emotional appeal.

But don't get me wrong. There are many perfectly acceptable uses of emotional appeals. If, for example, an essay meant to convince its readers to cut back on pollution and carbon emissions made use of this somewhat famous quote, "We didn't inherit this world from our parents; we hold it in trust for our children," that would probably be a good way to get readers to start thinking about the future in a less selfish way, provided that the essay also had some evidence about how or why we should be caring for the environment. Something about global warming or climate change for example, and not just an emotional appeal to protect our children's futures. I would have no problem with it. And neither would the vast majority of academics, despite the emotional appeal.

The problem is when you have an unsupported emotional appeal. So whenever you see one, ask yourself what it's really saying, and what you're really being asked to believe. Then make up your own mind, emotional or otherwise.

What did we learn today? We talked about rhetorical appeals. Then looked at ethos, or appeals to credibility, including that of writers and of sources. And finally, we discussed pathos, or emotional appeals, and how they can be used for both manipulation and honest argument.

I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

Terms to Know

Appeals to credibility; uses personal or source credentials to persuade or convince.


Appeals to emotion; evokes emotions in order to persuade or convince.