Chapter 2: Logos, Ethos, Pathos

David McMurrey; Kalani Pattison; and Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt

When technical writing first emerged as a subject in university engineering schools, it was defined as rigorously objective in writing style, even to the extent of using the passive voice instead of the first person singular “I.” The standard model was the primary research report. Since then, however, it has become clear that technical writers must often engage in persuasive communication efforts in their primary work.

What Is Persuasion?

Persuasion is the communicative effort to convince people to think or act in a certain way—to vote for a city-wide recycling program, to oppose the building of more coal-fired electricity plants, or to purchase a new piece of technology for a classroom.

Some might argue that technical writing is supposed to be “scientific,” “objective,” and “neutral.” However, like any human pursuit of knowledge, science is never truly objective and neutral. All data must be interpreted by someone in order for the data to be useful or meaningful. Moreover, certain types of technical and professional communication, such as proposals, progress reports, résumés, application letters, and even complaint letters, are more overtly persuasive while still conveying technical information.

Persuasive strategies for technical writing are often embedded in the structure of the document rather than in overt appeals to emotions or justice. Persuasion is an essential factor in the infrastructure of proposals and progress reports. To convince people to hire you to do a project, and to reassure them that the project is going well, you need persuasive strategies. This chapter highlights common persuasive strategies to prepare you to write those kinds of documents, as well as persuasive technical documents.

Classical Appeals

The classical approach to persuasion, established by Aristotle (384–322 BCE) in the Art of Rhetoric, involves three appeals to readers and listeners: logos, pathos, and ethos.[1] These appeals are both interconnected and directly tied to key parts of the rhetorical situation (genre/form, audience, and deliverer, respectively).

Logos (Logical Appeal)

When you use reason and arguments, backed up by facts and logic, to make your case, you are using logical appeals. Most writers easily understand the importance of reliable evidence in a persuasive document, but logical appeals extend to the structure of one’s argument as well. How you explain your evidence and its relationships to other claims and evidence is just as important a logical appeal as the information itself. In academic and technical communication, logos is the preferred method of persuasion.

Pathos (Emotional Appeal)

When you attempt to rouse people’s anger or sympathies in a persuasive effort, you are using emotional appeals. Such direct emotional appeals, however, are less effective in technical or business writing since these styles attempt to be more measured or objective. Effective pathos in this situation would instead appeal to common motivations, goals, and values. Arguing that a certain course of action would save the company money, for instance, would appeal to what the audience wants. For another example, picture a company that really values long-term sustainability. Arguing that a certain course of action would reduce a company’s carbon footprint would appeal to the company’s values, and therefore, probably to the values of their clients.

Ethos (Ethical Appeal/Credibility)

When you present qualifications, experience, expertise, and wisdom (whether yours or others’) in an attempt to build readers’ confidence in you and your document, you are using ethical appeals. Part of what will convince readers to “listen” to you is if they know who you are and what makes you an authority on a subject. Another aspect of ethos is the credibility and “trustworthiness” of your sources of information. Just as pathos can be used legitimately to get readers to pay attention and care about your message, the appropriate development of ethos will build readers’ confidence in you.

You may also have encountered the “stylistic” appeal: the use of language and visual effects to increase the persuasive impact. For example, a glossy, fancy design for a résumé can have a positive impact just as much as the content. This is yet another facet of ethos as it is an appeal that lends to how you are perceived by your audience.

 

Exploring a Text: Ethos, Pathos, Logos

The Denver Nuggets won the 2023 NBA championship, and its star player, Nikola Jokic, was named MVP. Have a look at the NBA’s tweet and subsequent responses:

A tweet from the official NBA twitter account shows a player, Nikola Jokic, holding a trophy in one hand and a young child cradled in his other arm. The trophy is for being the most valuable player.

A screen shot of Twitter users responding to the NBA tweet about Nikola Yokic winning MVP. Some comments are about his performance and others about the child.
Tweet from the official NBA twitter account about Nikola Jovis winning MVP and responses by Twitter users

 

The responses vary noticeably in content and (intentionally or not) rhetorical strategies; those rhetorical strategies might affect our perceptions of that content. Think about Chri$’s response. It has plenty of stylistic elements that do not conform standard written English:

  • “jokic” is a proper noun and also the first word in the sentence, so it should have a capital.
  • “jokic” should also be a possessive (i.e., Jokic’s ring), but it doesn’t have the apostrophe and the s.
  • The response seems to comprise two sentences–the first sentence stopping between “career” and “dude”.

Do these stylistic elements matter here? Tweets and academic essays are different genres, and readers will have different expectations of language and content. Perhaps Chri$’s response simply follows the conventions of Twitter (now X).

But, look at the Chri$’s response in its context: the other four responses are punctuated more fully, having at least one full stop. Chri$’s stylistic choices might affect how we read his message–even among other tweets. Perhaps the writing style reveals something about Chri$’s culture, education, or outlook towards the topic or the reader. For example, can we take the statement about Jokic’s struggles at face value: is his claim sarcastic, or should we question the claim’s logic based on the other stylistic elements?

Look at Steph’s approach, “Tooooooooo Brate!”. The exclamation point suggests excitement (i.e. tone and emotion), but why choose Serbian (“To brate” is something like “That’s it, bro”) among other replies that are in English? The answer might be as simple as Steph speaks Serbian, and she is replying in a language with which she is comfortable. It might help us to know that Jokic is also Serbian. Steph’s language choice could relate to ethos. By using the language of the person it’s recognizing, Steph’s response might seem more credible or genuine. It may also simply align Steph more closely with Jokic.

Bertina does not start with congratulations. Rather, her response starts by mentioning the child in the NBA’s photo–perhaps trying to elicit emotions. Many people find “little ones” to be cute, vulnerable, and endearing. Why–in a thread about the MVP–would Bertina mention the child before the MVP himself? Intentionally or not, the choice suggests priorities (ethos) and potentially stirs the emotions of the reader (pathos).

Yoav Rimon’s reply also works towards ethos. It mentions Novak Djokovic by name alongside Jokic, but specifies only vaguely why it does so. This choice works only if others recognize the person to whom Rimon refers. It establishes Rimon’s ethos with a sports-minded audience: Rimon knows that both Djokovic and Jokic are Serbian sport stars (general international sport knowledge) and suggests that he knows Djokovic won tennis’s French Open only a few days before Jokic won basketball’s MVP (up-to-date and wide-ranging sport knowledge). The reply would also have a potentially emotional effect for Serbians (pride). Rimon is using a thread congratulating Jokic to recognize Serbian sports figures in general.

The point is that stylistic choices (such as lack of punctuation), word choices (“brate” instead of “brother”), organization (Jokic’s child before Jokic), and content itself (Djokovic and Jokic in the reply) can all affect how our messages will be received.

Additional Persuasive Strategies

In addition to the three classical appeals, other helpful strategies for argument, such as the Toulmin Model, include rebuttals and concessions.[2] These approaches are focused more specifically on addressing potential concerns or counter-arguments that your readers may have when reading your document or hearing your presentation.

Rebuttal

In a rebuttal, you directly address arguments that your persuasive opponents might bring up. You show how these claims are wrong or how they don’t affect your overall argument. Picture yourself face to face with your persuasive opponents. What arguments are they going to use against you? How are you going to answer those arguments? In a written persuasive effort, you must simulate this back-and-forth, debate-style argumentative process. Imagine your opponents’ counter-arguments (arguments they might put forth against your position), and then imagine your own rebuttals (your answers to those counter-arguments).

Concession

In a concession, you acknowledge (or concede) that certain opposing arguments have some validity, but you explain how they do not damage your overall argument. Concessions build credibility and make you seem more open minded.

Not all arguments need to end with one side completely winning. One strategy is to aim for synthesis, or a combination of major arguments and points. Modern rhetoricians urge us not to view the persuasive process as a win-lose situation or zero-sum game. Such rigidity prevents us from resolving issues and moving forward. Instead, the process of counter-argument, rebuttal, and concession should be sincere and continuous until all parties reach synthesis—a middle ground where they agree.

 

 

This chapter is from

Matt McKinney; Kalani Pattison; Sarah LeMire; Kathy Anders; and Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt. (2022) Howdy or Hello? Technical and Professional Communication. (2nd Edition) https://pressbooks.library.tamu.edu/howdyorhello/. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike

Which in turn was derived from:

McMurrey, David. Online Technical Writing. n.d. https://www.prismnet.com/~hcexres/textbook/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


  1. Aristotle, Rhetoric, trans. W. Rhys Roberts, (Massachusetts Institute of Technology Classics, n.d.) http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/rhetoric.html.
  2. Laurel Nesbitt, The Toulmin Method, Writing@CSU, (Colorado State University, 1994 - 2012) https://writing.colostate.edu/guides/guide.cfm?guideid=58; Toulmin Model of Argument (Carson-Newman University, 2018) https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/Toulmin.pdf.
definition

License

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Chapter 2: Logos, Ethos, Pathos Copyright © 2023 by David McMurrey; Kalani Pattison; and Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book