Ethos, Pathos, and Logos


Aristotle defined rhetoric as “an ability, in each [particular] case, to see the available means of persuasion” (37). In other words, if you want to be persuasive you have to be both tactical and tactful. You have to find the method that works for your specific audience.

Aristotle also argued that there are three primary ways to make a persuasive appeal. He called these logos, ethos, and pathos. These three rhetorical appeals are at the heart of communication, and on this page we’ll explain how they work.


Ethos is the appeal to the authority and reputation of the speaker or writer. Let’s say you want to know more about what it’s like to be a female CEO in corporate America. Would you trust a man to tell you? Or let’s say you want to read a compelling argument against the death penalty. Would you read an essay written by a serial killer on death row?

We want the author or speaker to have credibility. Unfortunately, establishing ethos is much more difficult for writers than for public speakers. If you’re giving a speech you can give plenty of visual cues that reveal who you are and why you should be believed. Your clothing, your gestures, your body language—all these things influence your audience. If you’re a general speaking to the press, those medals pinned to your chest will do a lot of persuading.

For a writer it’s more difficult to create a sense of ethos. One strategy is to draw attention directly to your credentials. Your book might have a bio on the dustjacket. You might also describe your experience in relation to the subject matter:

While doing post-doctoral research on the effects of marijuana on college students …

Having been forced to wear a school uniform myself, I can tell you …

However, a more subtle way to establish ethos is to let your writing style draw a portrait of your personality and character. Compare the following statements:

Photo radar is just a cash cow for the police. They say they care about people’s safety, but they just want your money.

While photo radar may be abused for monetary gain, it is an effective strategy for enforcing traffic regulations.

I understand why people dislike photo radar. They feel as if the police is spying on them, as if their constitutional right to privacy has been violated.

The first sounds like a rather opinionated person, the second seems like the voice of a police spokesperson, and the last one may come across as empathetic and understanding. We know nothing about the biography of these speakers, and yet we do get a strong sense of ethos.

So as you establish a sense of ethos in your writing, think about sentence structure and tone. Your writing style can make you seem fair-minded, thoughtful—cool even. It can also make you seem smug, affected, or obsessive. Present yourself in a way that inspires trust, and then your audience will believe almost anything you have to say.


Pathos is the appeal to the emotions. Anytime your writing has an emotional impact you are dealing with pathos. Consider the following two statements:

I think we need to provide more mental health instruction.

I lost my daughter to suicide.

Which statement pulls at your heartstrings? The second one of course.

You can appeal to people’s emotions in many ways. You can make them cry, you can make jokes, you can show outrage. Even the most seemingly objective writing styles will contain some element of pathos. A science textbook, for instance, may instill feelings of awe and amazement at the beauty and complexity of the universe.

Don’t listen, then, to people who argue that all emotional arguments are truly pathetic. Pathos is a legitimate form of persuasion.


Logos is the appeal to logic. Anytime you build a case by presenting logical reasons (causal explanations, syllogisms, etc.), you are using logos.

Here are two examples of logos in action:

The rise in violent crime that lasted from the 1960s to the 1990s can be explained by higher levels of lead in the atmosphere. Since leaded gasoline has been phased out, crime levels have plummeted.

Cats should not be allowed to roam the neighbourhood. A study conducted in Lemmington, Michigan, showed that when cats were kept on a leash or indoors, the song bird population rose by 23%.

Not every attempt at logic will persuade. Sometimes the writer may be guilty of a logical fallacy. In other cases, the logic may be sound, but the reader may not trust the source (ethos) or may find the reasoning cold and heartless (a lack of pathos).

It’s always best, then, to think of all three rhetorical appeals as different pieces of the puzzle. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive strategies. Use them in any combination that fits the rhetorical situation.

Works Cited

Aristotle. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civil Discourse. Translated by George A. Kennedy, Oxford UP, 2007.

Logical Fallacies


If you want to be a skilled rhetorician, you’ll want to understand logical fallacies, or mistakes in reasoning. Not only can you then avoid them yourself, but you can take great delight in pointing out where others have erred.

On this page we review the most common logical fallacies.

Common Fallacies

Ad Hominem

An Ad Hominem argument (from Latin for to the man) is a direct attack on the character and ethos of a person. Instead of dealing with the issue or idea, the speaker questions the credibility of the source:

Al Gore has made a career out of scaring people with his theory of climate change. Yet Gore is a hypocrite. Not only did he sell his cable network, Current TV, to Al Jazeera, which is funded by oil-producing Qatar, but he also leads a lavish lifestyle traveling around the world and consuming much more electricity than the average American.

While it’s a valid strategy to attack the credibility of a court room witness, in public discourse ideas should often be considered separately from the people who promote them.

Strawman Fallacy

Think of a strawman as a scarecrow in the fields. It’s easy to push over because it can’t fight back. In the same way, a strawman argument occurs when you sum up an opposing view in such a way that it is easy to defeat. Simply put, you’ve made a caricature of someone else’s ideas. Here’s an example:

Opponents of capital punishment claim that all killing is wrong. They make no distinction between the killing of a serial killer and the death of our country’s enemies in war. They oppose all legitimate police violence in defense of law and order. They even oppose our right as citizens to defend our property by being willing to shoot to kill.

In this passage, the writer has characterized critics of capital punishment as opposing all killing, which is an unfair charge.


Stereotyping or generalizing is common enough. Here is a sports commentator speaking about European ice hockey players:

This NHL season there has been an increase in high-sticking penalties. Most of the players that do it were trained in Europe. They wear visors themselves, and so perhaps they don’t understand the danger. But that’s not how we play in North America.

Non Sequitur

The Latin phrase non sequitur means it does not follow. A non sequitur is a break down in logic, where A is falsely said to have caused B. Here are some examples:

Since you’re a fan of rock music, you will love Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

Because you’re a good speaker, you’ll make an excellent salesman.

John is very concerned about what he eats; therefore, he will be an excellent dietitian.

Either Or Fallacy

An either or fallacy is the mistake of thinking that there are only two options in a given situation:

Those countries have been at war for far too long. Either we send in the troops now or this violence will go on forever.

If we assume that something has to be either this or that, we ignore other viewpoints in favour of polarizing opinions.

Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc

The Latin phrase post hoc ergo propter hoc means after this, therefore because of it. A post hoc argument assumes that because B happened after A, B must have been caused by A. Here is an example:

After he was elected, there were fewer incidents of racially motivated violence. His leadership made a difference in overcoming racial conflict.

Just because one thing happened after another doesn’t mean there is a causal connection.

Bandwagon Appeal

To jump on the bandwagon means to support whatever is popular or fashionable.

bandwagon appeal is the mistake of thinking that if enough people have an opinion about something, they must be right:

Israel was certainly wrong to invade the Gaza strip.  Not only most Middle-Eastern nations, but also many western countries were against it.

Most respectable people don’t smoke.

Remember that the majority is not always right.

Slippery Slope Argument

A slippery slope argument assumes that if A happens, B, C, and D are sure to follow:

If you keep hanging around with those friends, pretty soon you’ll be a druggie.

For now they say they’re only interested in banning the carrying of concealed weapons. Before long, though, they’ll even try to take away your right to own private property. It’s time to take a stand against these communists.


As you evaluate the strength of an argument and check for logical fallacies, here are some things to consider:

  • Can you think of exceptions to any of the premises or parts of the argument?
  • Are all aspects of the question considered? What kind of proof or evidence is used?
  • To what extent are the arguments based on pathos, logos, or ethos?
  • Has the writer summed up the opposing view adequately and fairly?

Burke’s Pentad


Kenneth Burke’s Pentad is a popular heuristic that allows us to analyze motivation in any dramatic situation. At a basic level, the Pentad functions like the journalistic questions (who? where? what? when? why? how?). However, the Pentad’s true function has more to do with the relationship between its five terms. Burke argued that motivation cannot be properly explained as having a single or simple cause. In a dramatic and rhetorical situation, motivation is a matter of the relationships (the ratios) between terms.

The Pentad

Burke explained the Pentad in his book A Grammar of Motives (originally published in 1945):

“[A]ny complete statement about motives will offer some kind of answers to these five questions: what was done (act), when or where it was done (scene), who did it (agent), how he did it (agency), and why (purpose)” (p. x).

When represented visually, the five terms are placed at the points of a star (in any order):

The Pentad helps us describe dramatic situations. Take the following sentence:

This morning, Tom got so bothered by the lack of light in his living room that he grabbed a chainsaw and cut down the apple tree in front of the window.

We can organize the information as follows:

Agent: Tom
Act: Cutting down the apple tree
Agency: The chainsaw
Scene: Morning (when), in the garden (where)
Purpose: To let more light in

You can see why Burke talks about a grammar of motives: analyzing a sentence in this way is not that different from parsing a sentence for parts of speech.

The real question, however, is where we locate motivation in all of this. If we describe the situation from Tom’s perspective, then we would say that he made a decision to cut down the tree. If we focus on the scene, by contrast, then we might say that the lighting (or rather the lack of light) drove Tom to grab his chainsaw.

Burke’s Pentad thus allows us to notice all the elements of a scene or composition, and it forces us to decide what has caused some action to take place.


The value of Burke’s Pentad is easily demonstrated by analyzing a photograph or painting. Take Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famous photo of a couple kissing on Victory over Japan Day in Times Square (1945):

At the time of the photograph, the identities of the sailor and young woman were not known. The photo was printed in Life magazine, accompanied by the following caption:

“In New York’s Times Square a white-clad girl clutches her purse and skirt as an uninhibited sailor plants his lips squarely on hers” (“V-J Day”).

The Pentad helps us to spot the scene (V-J Day in New York’s Times Square) as well as the agents (girl and sailor), the purpose (celebration), and the act and agency (the kiss).

That is, of course, if we focus on the centre of the picture. If we zoom out a bit we might notice many other agents and acts. In fact, even the photographer is acting by snapping a photo. The Pentad therefore tells us as much about our priorities and focus as about the object in view.

The Pentad also demonstrates that accounting for motivation is rarely a simple matter. The sailor didn’t know the girl, and so feminist critics have argued that the kiss was an act of sexual assault. She was simply walking along before being grabbed by a random stranger. Others suggest that the sailor shouldn’t be blamed. He had been drinking to celebrate the end of the war, and was so overjoyed (as well as thankful for the work of nurses in the war), that he kissed this young woman (who looked like she was dressed as a nurse). We can thus easily ascribe motivation to the scene itself–the circumstances of joy and jubilation–that brought these two young people together. In fact, we might find motivation even further afield, in the romantic motif of the hero who can sweep a girl off her feet–a motif common to western culture. Before we know it, we’re studying sociology.


The Pentad is most useful when we look for the relationships (ratios) between our five terms. As Richard Coe has pointed out (p. 82), a good strategy is to pick a topic and one term (e.g., Act) that captures it:

For example, let’s say that our topic is “students skipping classes,” a situation we can classify as primarily an act.

We can now explain this action by creating the following ratios:

Agent-Act: The act is the result of the agent’s motivation.

Ex. The students were lazy. That’s why they skipped classes on a regular basis.

Agency-Act: The act is the result of the available tools or means.

Ex. Since no buses ran that early, the students couldn’t make use of public transport to get to class. That’s why many skipped class on a regular basis.

Scene-Act: The act is the result of the setting and circumstances.

Ex. The school is right beside a beach. Can you blame young people for being drawn away to admire the local scenery?

Purpose-Act: The act is the result of a particular purpose.

Ex. The students skipped class because skipping class is fun.

Act-Act: The act is the result of another act.

Ex. In the first class, the teacher embarrassed one of the students, so the students felt entitled to skip class.

As you can see from these possibilities, the Pentad helps us to question motivation. It reveals that many explanations are possible.


The Pentad works particularly well for dramatic situations that involve human agents. It is less useful in describing scenes of nature. In addition, to use a Pentad properly we have to investigate the relationships (the ratios) between the five terms. The Pentad is meant to stimulate complex explanations of motivation. Rather than reduce causality to a simple cause, the Pentad makes us realize that human action has many competing explanations.

Works Cited

  • Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. New York, Prentice-Hall, 1952.
  • Coe, Richard M. Process, Form, and Substance: A Rhetoric for Advanced Writers. 2nd ed., Prentice Hall, 1990.
  • Eisenstaedt, Alfred. “V-J Day in Times Square” [Photo]. 1945. Retrieved from
  • “V-J Day in Times Square.” Retrieved from