Chapter 5: RHETORICAL MODES
What are the "modes of writing"?
Analyzing Readings Using the Modes
This chapter is a very simple, brief introduction to
the rhetorical modes. Using the modes is like putting together the pieces
of a puzzle: most major paragraphs use at least one mode, and most papers use
several modes. The modes are useful in particular in helping writers learn
how to develop paragraphs, create longer papers in many subjects and disciplines
in college, and complete careful analyses of college readings.
The modes may help you survive writing assignments
in a wide variety of subjects and disciplines. This is because some
instructors give assignments using the names of the modes as key words: e.g.,
"Write a comparison-contrast paper on the psychology of Sigmund Freud and the
philosophy of Plato." For this reason, this chapter may be of help to you
as a reference--to help you understand just what the instructor is expecting.
A rhetorical mode is a strategy--a way or method of presenting a
subject—through writing or speech. Some of the better known rhetorical
modes are, for example, "argument" and "cause and effect."
There are literally dozens, perhaps hundreds, of strategies or methods for
presenting subjects; however, the modes are among the most basic. Instructors
have used rhetorical modes to teach writing or public speaking since ancient
Greek times over two thousand years ago, perhaps longer. Knowing the modes
can help us understand the organization--the methodology--of most kinds of
writings or other presentations.
The basic modes are presented below in alphabetical order. Though you can
study and practice the modes in any order, often it is helpful to start with
"Extended Definition" because it's
pattern of thought useful when writing the introduction to any paper using the
other rhetorical modes. Similarly, you may find "Description"
helpful to learn early: not only do many people find this mode easier to use,
but also its pattern of thought, too, is used in many other types of papers.
"argument" is, simply, an educated guess or opinion, not a simple
fact. It is something debatable: "Men have walked on the moon" is a
fact, but "People will walk on Venus in the next ten years" is an
opinion. Anything that reasonably can be debated is an argument. A simple
argument paper usually presents a debatable opinion and then offers supports in
favor of it, or sometimes an argument paper will discuss both sides of an issue
and then give good reasons for choosing one side over the other. For
example, a paper about space flight might argue that humans should not spend
large sums of money in sending people into space. The paper might then
argue that three good reasons this is true is that there are many poor on our
planet, on whom our resources should be spent, that space flight is not as
enlightening for humankind as increasing literacy or cultural awareness, and
that most of he money being spent on space is for military purposes, which is
useless. Another type of argument paper might ask the main idea as a
question: "Should the human race spend large sums of money to send people
into space?" Then it might argue both sides thoroughly and, finally,
choose one side and give strong reasons why this side is best.
argument paper often has what is called a "thesis" structure. It
starts with an introduction that offers an interesting opening--a quotation,
perhaps, or an interesting story, a statement of the main argument, and
sometimes a list of the several reasons (often three, but not necessarily so) to
be given in support of this argument. Then, step by step, the reasons are
given with supporting details such as quotations, facts, figures, statistics,
and/or people's experiences. If the paper is short, there may be just one
paragraph per reason. In a longer argument paper, there may be several
paragraphs or even several pages per reason. At the end, a conclusion
provides a restatement of the main argument and a final interesting quotation or
In the alternative form, the
introduction is much the same, and often starts with an interesting quotation or
story, but it offers the main idea as a question and provides the two (or more)
possible answers. It may or may not state which answer it will choose in
the end. The body is formed by having a section discussing the first
possible answer with reasons and details supporting it, the second possible
answer and its reasons and supporting details, and a final section in which you
choose one of the two answers and give strong reasons why you are doing so.
The conclusion once again restates your final choice and offers a final
interesting quotation or story.
all the other modes, argument is a thinking pattern or skill that is used in a
number of types of college papers in shorter form. You will find it in any
sentence, paragraph, or section of a paper in which an opinion is expressed,
especially when one or more supporting reasons are given for the opinion.
Argument is one of the most basic forms of human thinking. When you use
argument, you rise above the mere offering of a personal opinion precisely
because an argument requires supporting reasons, preferably with specific
supporting details, to justify the position you are taking.
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"Cause and effect" simply means that you start with a subject (an
event, person, or object) and then show the causes (reasons) for it, and/or the
effects (results) of it. "Cause" means the reasons why or for
something, or the source of something. "Effects" simply are results or
outcomes. Cause-and-effect writing shows a chain of connected events, each the
logical result of the one before it. A simple cause-and-effect paper discusses
the chain of events related to a person, event, or object, showing what are the
causes and what are the results. For example, a paper about a solar car
might describe how it came to be built by an inventor and how he first became
interested in solar cars (the causes), and what the results of this solar car
might be--how its existence might lead people to take energy efficiency and
environmental concerns more seriously and even lead to mass-produced solar cars
(effects or results).
a cause-and-effect paper has an introductory paragraph defining or clarifying
the subject itself, and stating the nature of the paper (i.e., that your paper
is a cause-and-effect paper); a body of several to many paragraphs; and a brief
concluding paragraph. Assume, when you write a cause-and-effect paper,
that you are explaining events to someone who may know a little about them but
never has heard the entire story of how the events are linked by logical cause
At the end
of your cause-and-effect paper, add a final, concluding paragraph. It
should summarize, very briefly, the most important cause and effect concerning
your subject. And it might offer a final interesting thought or two about
It also is
possible to use cause and effect in less than a full paper. In fact, many
explanations and discussions involve cause-and-effect logic in just a paragraph
or two, just a sentence, or even within a phrase within a sentence.
Anytime you want to answer the question of why something has happened, you are
using cause-and-effect logic.
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"Classification" means that a subject--a person, place, event, or
object--is identified and broken into parts and sub-parts. This type of paper is
slightly more complex than others. For this reason, you might first want
to learn to write "Extended Definition,"
"Comparison/Contrast," and "Description" papers.
example of a classification paper, imagine you want to classify a specific
student. You might first start by identifying this student by name and
briefly defining him or her. Second, you would choose a system by
which to classify him: e.g., you could choose a system that would describe his
looks, school classes, and after-school activities; or you might choose a
biological system and describe him by his physical type, health, blood type, and
other biological markings; or, perhaps, you might choose to describe the student
by his psychological makeup, his family history, and/or even his medical
history. Third, once you have chosen a system, you would then describe the
person. As you do so, you would want to show how, in each part of our
classification, he is similar to others like him and also how he differs
from them--this is the heart of developing lengthy description in a good
classification paper, to use comparisons and contrasts with each small element
of our classification system.
classification paper starts with a short introduction. In it, you state
and briefly define (see "Extended Definition") your subject. You
also should state clearly that you intend to classify your subject. In the
body of your paper, you describe your subject according to the classification
system you have chosen. You choose a system based partly on what your
audience expects (e.g., a psychology instructor probably would expect you to
classify and describe using a system of psychology; a biology instructor, a
system of biology; etc.) and partly on how many classification categories you
need to make your paper be well developed (often, the more categories you have,
the more length you can develop). Be sure to break down the body into a
number of separate paragraphs. Finally, your conclusion briefly reminds
your audience of the subject and purpose and, perhaps, ends with a final,
interesting sentence or two.
Classification is used as a pattern of thinking, speaking, and writing in
shorter forms, too. Whenever you must break down a subject into its
separate parts, you are classifying. Classification is almost as basic a
way of thinking as are "Cause and Effect" (above) and
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"Comparison/contrast" means to show how subjects are alike and/or
different. A simple comparison/contrast paper often has two subjects and
describes how they are alike and then how they differ. For example, a
comparison/contrast paper on two forms of weekend entertainment, camping and
dancing, might first give details on how both can involve physical skills,
friends, and enjoying sounds and sights; then the paper might give details of
how camping and popular dancing differ in that one happens in nature and the
other in the midst of civilization, one usually is slow and quiet and the other
often fast and loud, and one peaceful while the other is rousing. If you are
asked to write a comparison/contrast paper on just one subject, you can first
compare it to the subjects it is like and then contrast it to the subjects that
seem opposite it; several different similarities and several different opposites
are acceptable, even helpful, in such a paper. For example, if you were
going to write a comparison/contrast paper about airports, you might decide
compare them to city bus stations, train stations, and street bus stops.
Then you might contrast them with each of these.
academic writing, comparison/contrast writing sometimes is used to show how two
related viewpoints--two ideas or opinions--can be similar but different: for
example, in the abortion controversy, some people believe that abortions are
wrong; others believe that artificial birth control is wrong. These two
positions are similar, but they also are different--leading to different
arguments and different results at times. Comparison/contrast also can be
useful in analyzing an author's argument by comparing it to someone else's
argument (yours or another author's), showing points of similarity and points of
difference. For example, if an author argues for a constitutional amendment
preventing gender discrimination, you could analyze the argument by comparing
and contrasting it to the reasons for other constitutional amendments which
comparison/contrast paper simply and clearly: tell your readers in a brief
introduction what you are going to do (compare, contrast, or both) and what your
subject or subjects are. It also may be helpful to offer a very brief
definition (see "Extended Definition") of your subject(s). Then
write the body. It is a good idea to provide at least one paragraph for
each intellectual function you are going to do. For example, you might
first have just one paragraph (or one set of paragraphs) that use comparison,
then another set that uses just contrast. Instead, you might organize our
paragraphs by subject: using the example above of airports, you might have one
paragraph or set of paragraphs comparing and contrasting them to city bus
stations, a second set comparing and contrasting them to train stations, and a
final set to street bus stops. The organization you choose for your body
paragraphs should be the one that helps your readers most easily understand your
comparisons/contrasts. Your conclusion should be one paragraph containing
a summary of your subject and purpose (to compare and/or contrast), and a final
interesting sentence or two. The audience you should consider as you plan
and then write your paper is anyone who knows all of the subjects you are
talking about but who would find it interesting to read about how they are
and contrast both are commonly used in short form in many other types of papers,
too. For example, you must use comparison and contrast to define something
(see "Extended Definition": you show what the subject is like; then
you show how it differs or contrasts from others like it). You also use
comparison anytime you explain that something is "like" something
else; likewise, you use contrast whenever you want to show how something is
different. Comparison/contrast is quite deeply and naturally imbedded in
our everyday thinking and logic.
SAMPLE COMPARISON-CONTRAST PAPER: Go to "Analysis
Using Comparison/Contrast" in the "Analysis" chapter.
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"Description" means "illustrative detail." A description
paper often takes a person or object and then describes that person or thing in
great illustrative detail. For example, a description paper about a close
friend might describe his or her appearance, her actions, and her personality,
both through direct descriptive words--like paintings of her in different
situations--and through stories or vignettes showing him in action. It is
important to e thorough--to provide plenty of details. Often it is helpful
to use one or more plans or systems of description. One typical plan is to
move in a specific direction: e.g., from head to foot when describing a person,
or perhaps clockwise when describing a room or place. The exact direction
or order does not matter as long as you are consistent. Another system is
to use the five senses to describe; still another, is to use the five W's of
journalism by answering the questions "Who, What, Where, When, and Why or
How?" When you describe a subject that moves--a person or moving object--it
is wise to describe not only its appearance when standing still, but also its
movement. In fact, whenever you write a description paper, it is wise to
include as much action as possible: to make your readers see a movie whenever
possible, and not just a painting or drawing.
description paper is organized very simply. You can start with a very
short paragraph introducing or defining the subject, or a longer one that offers
a particularly striking first description or overall summary. Next, you
can write the body in as many or as few paragraphs as you need to fully describe
the subject. Organizing these paragraphs according to one or more plans or
systems often is helpful. Finally, you can write a concluding paragraph
either briefly or at length, depending on whether you want to achieve an abrupt
end or to provide some kind of especially strong final description that you have
saved for the last.
rhetorical mode is very common in shorter form, as well. When someone
writes a story, for example, whether he or she is a famous story writer or a
simple school child, he will use two main rhetorical modes: narration (the
giving of a series of events, as above) and description. Even business reports
must sometimes use description to provide an accurate and full account of the
appearance of something. Description plays an especially important part in
the teaching of writing, as writing instructors usually want their students to
learn to write in great detail--the more specifics, the better.
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"Exemplification" means "the giving of an example." An
exemplification paper usually starts with a main idea, belief, or
opinion--something abstract--and then gives one extended example or a series of
shorter examples to illustrate that main idea. In fact, an exemplification paper
is a paper that illustrates an abstract idea. For example, if I wished to write
an exemplification paper about "The Opposite Sex--Problems and
Pleasures" (as a man or as a woman), there might be two ways I could go
about this. One would be, after introducing my general idea, to tell several
little stories about--give examples of--how the opposite sex can be both a
problem to deal with and a pleasure to be with. The other way I might write the
paper (and a stronger, more unified way of doing it) might be to pick out one
person of the opposite gender I have dated or lived with and describe how this
one person gave me both problems and pleasures in my overall relationship with
him or her.
short exemplification paper is written like most of the other rhetorical-modes
paper. It usually starts with a single introductory paragraph that briefly
defines your subject and states what you will do in the paper--exemplify. Then
there are one or two to many paragraphs offering one or more extended examples
of your subject. Finally, there is a brief closing paragraph restating
what your subject is and offering some kind of final brief, strong example or
some other kind of interesting ending. Your audience is anyone who might
only have a partial understanding of the subject and to whom an example would be
helpful: in fact, you choose your examples partly by deciding what the audience
will easily understand.
versions of this rhetorical mode exist, as do the others, within the space of a
few paragraphs, one paragraph, or even as part of a larger paragraph.
Exemplification simply means to give an example of a subject, and it is possible
to do this in as little as a sentence.
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section describes how to start an "extended definition." An
extended definition simply defines a subject in a fuller or more extended--more
thorough--way than does a dictionary. Typically an extended definition has a
brief introductory paragraph of a few sentences, a body of one or several
paragraphs, and a brief concluding paragraph. Assume, when you write an
extended definition, that you are defining something for a student or perhaps a
foreigner who never has heard the term before.
an extended definition, start with an introductory paragraph first. Write
it in just two or three sentences as if it were a dictionary definition. A
good dictionary definition has the following parts:
(1) the exact term (the who or what) being defined,
(2) its classification--the class or group of people, events, or things to
which it belongs, and
(3) a brief summarizing description of the term. (This description often helps
define your subject by showing how it differs from similar subjects
that fit in the same classification as you have described in "2": in
other words, provide enough details that your subject cannot be mistaken for a
similar but different one.)
three items are the three parts of a good dictionary definition. Use these in
the introduction; then the rest of your news release is the "extended"
part of the definition, adding further description of or about the term. Here
are three examples of good dictionary definitions using the three defining items
(1--term:) "Chris Smith
(2--class:) is a student at George Washington College.
(3--sum/des:) He is 19, is working on an engineering degree, and is from
(1--term:) "The Sun Car Race
(2--class:) is a national competition.
(3--sum/des:) It is based in Utah for solar-run cars developed by independent
inventors and schools."
(2--class:) is a new silicon-based car polish.
(3--sum/des:) It is made by Dup Chemicals and can be used so easily that it
practically applies itself."
extended-definition paper usually starts with such simple dictionary-like
definitions; then the definition is extended by writing a long body further
describing the term. The body paragraph(s) may consist of any or all of
further description and/or details about the subject
one or several excellent examples
a description of the subject in action or use
a background or history of the subject
The conclusion should simply summarize your subject or say something
particularly interesting about it in a final paragraph. Try to make your
conclusion relatively sort--just several sentences, if possible.
is a rhetorical mode that can be used in something smaller or shorter than a
full paper. You can use extended definition for several paragraphs only in a
paper of much greater length. You also can add to a paper a one-paragraph
definition--like a brief encyclopedia definition. And you can use a short
definition, dictionary style, in many types of writing situations that call for
just a sentence or two of definition.
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"Narration" or a "narrative" provides details of what
happened. It is almost like a list of events in the order that they
happened, except that it is written in paragraph form. A narration or
narrative doesn't have to show any cause and effect; it only needs to show what
happened in the order that it happened. History books are filled with
narrations. For example, if I were to describe the visit of the Pope to Denver
in 1993, I would use his itinerary and give details of each major event in that
visit. If I were writing a book about it, I would give details of many of the
more interesting minor events as well. I would do this in the order in which
they occurred: first the Pope did this, then he did that, and then he did a
short narration paper starts with a brief introductory paragraph consisting of
two parts. The first is a sentence or two stating the event you are going
to narrate; you might even want to include the who, what, where, and when of the
event in this part. The second part is a simple statement that the paper
you are writing is a narrative of this event. In the body of the
narrative, you break the event into several parts--one part per paragraph.
Each paragraph would then further break down the event into sub-events and
enough description of them that your reader will know what you mean. The
body may have just a few paragraphs or many, depending on the length of paper
and complexity you want. The conclusion can be very brief: just a final
rewording of the overall event you have narrated, and a final interesting
comment or two about it, or perhaps a statement about how, where, or when this
event fits into the larger flow of history around it. Your audience is
anyone who knows little or nothing about the event but can understand it easily
once you explain it.
other rhetorical modes, narration often is used in a context shorter than an
entire paper. More commonly, you may need to explain a sequence of events,
event by event, in just a paragraph or two when you are writing a longer paper
for some other purpose: if you need to give a long example of one or two
paragraphs, this example might, perhaps, be in story form--in the order in which
events happened. This would be a short narration. Any other time as
well that you write about events in the order in which they happened, you are
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you are working with the rhetorical modes, you sometimes can examine and even
summarize the structures of a reading by describing the rhetorical modes used in
it. Often, for example, in the introductory paragraph of a paper--or in
the beginning of the body--you might find the rhetorical mode of definition,
helping to define the subject. Often you will find description or
exemplification in a longer paragraph, helping to further describe or give an
example of the subject of that paragraph. Occasionally an entire paper
might be developed with just one primary mode, as discussed in this chapter.
However, it is much more likely--and extremely common--to find several of the
modes used to develop a paper, especially if it is a college essay or
professional paper. This is because each of the modes represents a form of
thinking that is very basic to writing, speaking, and indeed thinking itself;
each can be used in long or short form.
The most common major rhetorical-mode pattern you may find in college readings
is argumentation. It is common because many textbooks and other
assignments you will read in college--especially in the humanities, liberal
arts, and social sciences--are arguing a point. Sometimes this point--this
argument--is obvious. Often it is less so, primarily because in these
fields, most knowledge is based on speculation--on scholars' intelligent
guesses--rather than on hard scientific fact. For this reason, a typical
textbook chapter (or part of one) or assigned short essay in these fields is set
up as having a main argument and then a series of details helping to prove it.
With this in mind, we might look at the following pattern--or some parts of
it--as being somewhat typical for this kind of essay.
COLLEGE READING #1: Argumentation as Overall
Introduction: Issue or Main
Argument. Possible use of definition (which includes
comparison/contrast and example), statement of overall cause and effect,
and/or other modes
Body: A Series of Points Helping to
Prove the Main Argument
Each Longer Paragraph:
(1) statement of a point providing a part of the
(2) development of the proof with detail using exemplification, narration,
cause and effect, and/or other modes
Conclusion: Concluding Argument.
Possible use of description, cause and effect, narration, and/or other modes.
On the other
hand, there is another common type of college reading, one that occurs more
often in the sciences and mathematics. This second kind includes textbook
chapters and shorter readings that are purely or largely factual: they simply
offer information. These, too, use the rhetorical modes. Most
commonly their overall form of structural development is description.
However, other modes also may be used as the overall structural pattern,
especially classification or cause and effect, as these lend themselves easily
to scientific and factual thinking.
COLLEGE READING #2: Description as Overall Structural/Controlling
Introduction: Main Subject.
Possible use of definition or classification (both of which include
comparison/contrast) and/or other modes
- Descriptions of Factual Parts
of the Subject. Organization might be by mode of classification,
cause and effect, description, and/or other modes.
- Each Longer Paragraph:
Conclusion: Brief Restatement of
Subject and Final Summary. Possible use of description,
narration, cause and effect, and/or other modes.
Once you know your rhetorical modes, it is a simple
matter to look for them in your readings. Often is is easier understand
and summarize such readings by understanding just what kind of thinking
pattern the author is using. If you understand these modes--these thinking
patterns--you will find it easier to follow the logic an author is attempting to
use--and, as is sometimes quite important in college reading--to disagree with
the author, too.
Each rhetorical mode is an excellent device to use for writing a paper.
Such writing helps you practice the pure form of the mode in an extended way.
The other types of college papers and as you analyze and argue about college
reading assignments. It is possible to make the modes fun: practice, for
example, narration by telling the blow-by-blow account of an interesting or even
silly event in your life; cause and effect by showing how one part of your life
inevitably leads to your doing or participating in another; comparison/contrast
by comparing and contrasting two activities, people, or activities you really
like or dislike; etc. However you practice the modes, your practice will
have the serius purpose of helping you understand, use, and find in others these
basic methods of thinking.
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