Rhetorical Strategies: Logos, Ethos, Pathos, Kairos

By Aaron Smale


When crafting arguments based on your reasoned opinions, sometimes you’ll hear the terms logos, ethos, pathos, and even kairos from time to time.  Even though these are established components in approaching arguments, they can be hard to use effectively. No matter what the purpose of your argument is, all of these strategies will be present. As you learn to use these rhetorical strategies, you’ll find that your arguments can become more credible, cohesive, timely, and persuasive depending on how you balance them within an argument.

Logos deals with the “word” or message of your argument, complete with claims backed up by reasoning and evidence related to your topic. For example, if your paper argues against smoking in the US, statistics about the rising prevalence of certain respiratory conditions or cancers related to smoking helps provide clarity in your argument.  Demonstrating a possible link with research and evidence frames your argument in a way that makes sense to your audience. Logos can also refer to how your argument is organized, structured, or presented depending on how your message needs to be tailored to your audience or purpose.  Where you place your evidence and how you structure your claims may change based on what information and reasons are most valued by your target audience. Your paper against smoking in the US may need to be organized differently if you’re trying to signal the need for more cancer research to combat these diseases or if you are trying to call attention to the need for stricter anti-smoking legislation.  Logos can also be used to introduce counterclaims and illustrate other aspects of the issue. Generally, it is helpful to think about logos as the strategy that asks: “What proof or evidence helps this argument make sense?”

Ethos deals with the “character” or trustworthiness of the speaker presenting the argument. This rhetorical strategy is also referred to as an appeal to credibility. With this in mind, ethos is often used to demonstrate how well-informed you are as an author or speaker, how your perspective stacks up against other arguments, or how capable you are in analyzing related sources “conversing” with each other. In your paper arguing against smoking, a strong ethos would be present if you cite a pulmonologist who has operated on several patients with diseases caused by smoking.  If you had a family member or someone close to you impacted by a smoking-related disease, this could help establish ethos in your paper as well.  Ethos also deals with refuting counterarguments in order to prove your thesis is still correct. Ethos can take time to build, but it can be lost instantly if you make a hasty generalization or a faulty claim. A good question to ask yourself regarding ethos is: “Do I know enough about this topic that my audience will trust me?”

Another important rhetorical strategy, pathos, appeals to your audience’s general perspective, emotions, or empathy regarding your topic. Employing pathos can help your audience emotionally invest in your argument and relate to your purpose. When arguing against smoking in the US, you might employ pathos by referencing testimonies of smokers who have lost limbs or organs due to smoking or even showing pictures of the heavy physical costs of smoking cigarettes. Using pathos helps to engage your audience. This strategy presents a viewpoint of your argument that can actually be conceptualized in showing how it could impact your audience or people they care about. By focusing on your audience’s general perspective of your argument, the audience is more likely to take action or make a change regarding your issue.  Regarding pathos, some helpful questions include: “How does my audience feel about this issue?” and “What will engage my audience so that they will take action regarding this issue?”

Finally, kairos is a strategy that deals with the “right time,” timeliness, or currency of your argument. This strategy also involves the setting or place of your argument and where you will be engaging your audience. For example, your paper will demonstrate a stronger use of kairos if you present your findings on a new method of quitting smoking to heavy smokers than if you were to present those findings to non-smokers or people who have already quit. If you make a claim that cigarettes should be taxed more, kairos will help you conceptualize why they should be taxed now given that taxes on cigarettes increase semi-frequently and many arguments have been made in the past about why they should be taxed.  When using kairos, it helps to ask: “What does your argument present now that makes an impact on this issue?” or “Why does this argument apply more at this point in time?”

The most effective arguments find a balance between logos, ethos, pathos, and kairos depending on the needs or perspectives of the audience.  Knowing what these strategies aim to accomplish can help you test the strength of your argument and ensure that you are making the points that you intend to make. Knowing the important characteristics of these strategies can also help when gathering and analyzing sources because you can test to see if an author is focusing on one strategy over another based on the purpose of the text.  These strategies not only help you construct strong arguments, but make you a more confident writer as well.

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