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Authors and audiences both have a wide range of purposes for communicating. The importance of purpose in rhetorical situations cannot be overstated. It is the varied purposes of a rhetorical situation that determine how an author communicates a text and how audiences receive a text. Rhetorical situations rarely have only one purpose. Authors and audiences tend to bring their own purposes (and often multiple purposes each) to a rhetorical situation, and these purposes may conflict or complement each other depending on the efforts of both authors and audiences.

Authors’ purposes

In the textbook Writing Today, Johnson-Sheehan and Paine discuss purpose more specifically in terms of the author of a text. They suggest that most texts written in college or in the workplace often fill one of two broader purposes: to be informative or to be persuasive. Under each of these two broad purposes, they identify a host of more specific purposes. The following table is not exhaustive; authors could easily have purposes that are not listed on this table.

Table: Author Purposes



to inform

to persuade

to describe

to convince

to define

to influence

to review

to argue

to notify

to recommend

to instruct

to change

to advise

to advocate

to announce

to urge

to explain

to defend

to demonstrate

to justify

to illustrate

to support

(Johnson-Sheehan & Paine 17)

Audiences’ purposes

Authors’ purposes tend to be almost exclusive active if only because authors conscientiously create texts for specific audiences. But audiences’ purposes may range from more passive purpose to more active purposes.

Table: Audience Purposes

More Passive Purposes

More Active Purposes

to receive notice

to examine

to feel reassured

to quantify

to feel a sense of unity

to assess

to be entertained

to make informed decisions

to receive instruction

to interpret

to enjoy

to evaluate

to hear advice

to judge

to be inspired

to resist change

to review

to criticize

to understand

to ridicule

to learn

to disprove

The Role of Purposes

Authors’ and audiences’ purposes in communicating determine the basic rationale behind other decisions both authors and audiences make (such as what to write or speak about, or whom to listen to, or what medium to use, or what setting to read in, among others). An author’s purpose in communicating could be to instruct, persuade, inform, entertain, educate, startle, excite, sadden, enlighten, punish, console, or many, many others. Like authors, audiences have varied purposes for reading, listening to, or otherwise appreciating pieces of communication. Audiences may seek to be instructed, persuaded, informed, entertained, educated, startled, excited, saddened, enlightened, punished, consoled, or many, many others. Authors’ and audiences’ purposes are only limited to what authors and audiences want to accomplish in their moments of communication. There are as many purposes for communicating as there are words to describe those purposes.


Attitude is related to purpose and is a much-overlooked element of rhetorical situations. But attitude affects a great deal of how a rhetorical situation unfolds. Consider if an author communicates with a flippant attitude as opposed to a serious attitude, or with drama as opposed to comedy, or calmly as opposed to excitedly. Depending on authors’ purposes, audiences’ specific qualities, the nature of the context, and other factors, any of these attitudes could either help or hinder authors in their efforts to communicate depending on the other factors in any given rhetorical situation. Like authors, audiences bring diverse attitudes to how they appreciate different pieces of communication. The audience’s attitude while reading, listening, observing, or whatnot affects how they receive and process the communication they receive.