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Elements of Rhetorical Situations

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There is no singular rhetorical situation that applies to all instances of communication. Rather, all human efforts to communicate occur within innumerable individual rhetorical situations that are particular to those specific moments of communication.

An awareness of rhetorical situations can help in both composition and analysis. In the textbook Writing Today, Johnson-Sheehan and Paine recommend, “Before you start writing any text, you should first gain an understanding of your rhetorical situation” (12). The rest of this resource will focus on understanding the rhetorical situation. Once you know how to identify and analyze the elements of rhetorical situations, you will be better able to produce writing that meets your audience’s needs, fits the specific setting you write in, and conveys your intended message and purpose.

Each individual rhetorical situation shares five basic elements with all other rhetorical situations:

  1. A text (i.e., an actual instance or piece of communication)

  2. An author (i.e., someone who uses communication)

  3. An audience (i.e., a recipient of communication)

  4. Purposes (i.e., the varied reasons both authors and audiences communicate)

  5. A setting (i.e., the time, place, and environment surrounding a moment of communication)

These five terms are updated versions of similar terms that the ancient Greek thinker Aristotle articulated over two thousand years ago. While Aristotle’s terms may be familiar to many people, his terminology more directly applied to the specific needs and concerns of his day. This resource uses more current terminology to more accurately identify the kinds of rhetorical situations we may encounter today. But since Aristotle’s work in rhetoric has been so influential, below is a brief discussion of Aristotle’s terms and how they relate to the terms in this resource (text, author, audience, purposes, and setting).