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Rhetorical Situation: Purpose and Audience

Rhetorical Situation: Purpose and Audience

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson defines the rhetorical situation and explains purpose and audience.

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Welcome to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. What are we going to learn today? We'll learn about how to identify the rhetorical situation of academic texts, including the rhetorical purpose and intended audience.

So what is a rhetorical situation? When looking at an academic text, the rhetorical situation is all the events and characteristics that went into creating it. It's the author's purpose in writing the text.

It's his or her intended audience. And it's also the personal background and cultural and historical context with which the author created the text. All of these elements change the way the text was written. And understanding them can give you, the reader, insight into it.

Rhetoric, a field of study as old as ancient Greece, is the study and art of speaking and writing effectively. There are two primary benefits to examining the rhetoric of any text. The first is that doing so will help you understand the piece itself. The more you know about why and how it was written, the more informed a reader of it you'll be.

The second benefit is that looking at the rhetorical situations of other texts will help you think more clearly about your own purposes as a writer and how your own background effects your writing. The first half of understanding a writer's rhetorical situation is understanding purpose. What is the writer's goal for the text? What value did he or she want it to have? Essentially, we're asking why he or she wrote it.

Was it to inform you about something he or she assumed you didn't know? Or was the writer trying to persuade you to accept an argument? Was the text trying primarily to entertain you? Or was it performing an analysis of another text? Or did it have some other purpose?

All of these affect the way texts are written, even if they share the same subject. For example, let's say two students are given an assignment to write an essay about eminent domain. One student, not knowing what that means, decides to write an essay that explains it, informing the reader about the history of the practice and maybe going into detail about the last time it was used to expand her college campus. Meanwhile, her classmate knows what it is and he's still angry about how his uncle was forced to move to make way for that campus expansion. He chooses to write an essay arguing against the practice, claiming it impinges on civil rights.

Obviously, these two students would write very different essays with very different purposes. As you can see, understanding a text purpose is absolutely critical if you want to perform any kind of deep, engaged reading of it.

The other half of any rhetorical situation is the audience. This is a little more complicated than you might think because writers don't necessarily control who reads their work. And so as readers, we have to consider a writer's intended audience, as well as his or her unintended audience. Here's some examples of intended audiences.

An essay could be written to or for peers, other academics working and writing within the same field, for example, or to classmates. It could be written to very specific people, a teacher or maybe the selection committee for a scholarship or internship. Or it could be written for a more general audience.

Keep in mind though that even in an essay written for a broad audience, the actual intended audience is going to vary from writer to writer. For example, if we were both writing an essay that we wanted to be read by any American citizen, chances are the Americans that I actually picture in my head reading my work are going to be different from those you imagine because we're different. We didn't grow up in the same place or at the same time. Our context for writing are different.

An author's audience affects his or her writing in many ways. The vocabulary he or she uses from subject-specific jargon to how formal or casual the tone is are all informed by audience. The same goes for assumed familiarity with the subject and assumed moral or ethical values.

It's important to note that authors often target or assume a specific audience unintentionally, usually by not considering their audience thoroughly enough. For example, I once had a student write a short essay to his classmates encouraging them to join a fraternity. He wrote quite passionately about how his experiences had helped him grow into a better man and that his fraternity brothers were now as close to him as family.

The only problem was that about 2/3 of his classmates-- the audience I'd assigned him to write to-- were women. And by failing to include any information about sororities or even any gender-neutral language, his text alienated many of the readers it was supposedly trying to convince. What are some of the ways he might have avoided this? He could have acknowledged the limited scope of his argument.

For example, just a statement that he assumed young women would reap similar benefits from joining sororities as he had from his fraternity would've been a long, long way. Or he could have expanded his argument to better incorporate all of his readers' interests and assumptions.

Keep in mind that not every piece of writing has to appeal to everyone. But as a writer, you want to be as aware as possible of your audience to avoid the kind of faux pas my student committed. And as a reader, awareness of a writer's presumed audience increases your understanding of the text, which contributes to engaged reading.

What did we learn today? We learned what a rhetorical situation is and how to recognize them, how to tell what a writer's purpose was and how that affects a text, as well as the writer's assumed audience. And all this will help us be more informed, effective writers in the future, both in and out of school. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

Terms to Know

The reader of a text, which can be intended (targeted by the author) or unintended (not specifically targeted by the author).


The intended goal or value of a text.


The study and the art of speaking and writing effectively.

Rhetorical Situation

An author’s purpose, presumed audience, personal background, and cultural and historical context, and how these items factor into an author’s writing choices.