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Rhetorical Analysis

Rhetorical analysis involves analyzing the parts of a speech or text to understand how it produces its persuasive effect.

Writing the Rhetorical Analysis
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What is Rhetorical Analysis?

Rhetoric is the art of effective or persuasive communication, and analysis is the act of taking something apart to understand it. Therefore, rhetorical analysis is the act of investigating the elements of a speech or other communication to understand how it produces its persuasive effect.

Writing the Rhetorical Analysis

For most rhetorical analysis assignments, you’ll want a thesis, a clear and specific statement that lets readers know what the main point of your paper is. To do this you might ask yourself two questions:

  1. What effect does this piece of communication have on me?
  2. How (or with what rhetorical choices) did the creator make that happen?

You can start on either end, with the “what” or the “how.” For example, maybe Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech inspires you to action against systems of prejudice and oppression. Great! You’ve got the what—now it's time to go looking for the how. What rhetorical strategies does Martin Luther King Jr. use to make you feel that way? Repetition? Symbolism?

Or, maybe you love the catchy rhythm of Lincoln's “Four score and seven years ago. . .” which reads almost like a line of poetry. What effect might opening the Gettysburg Address in this way have had on Lincoln’s audience? Perhaps it grabbed their attention to prepare them to meditate on his serious topic? If so, how?

Developing the Body

After you’ve crafted your thesis, it’s time to develop your analysis. A typical body paragraph may look like this:

  • Step 1: Identify the rhetorical choice
  • Step 2: Explain why the author made the choice
  • Step 3: Show the choice in action
  • Step 4: Add commentary to explain how the choice might accomplish its overall purpose

Example: “Martin Luther King Jr. encourages us to fight for racial equality by giving us his optimistic outlook, telling us, in essence, that if he can find hope in the challenging fight against racism, we can too: ‘So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow,’ King says, ‘I still have a dream.’ Perhaps this emotional optimism, this shared courage, is exactly what we need to move the fight forward."

What are Rhetorical Devices?

Rhetorical devices are the “parts” of rhetorical communication. Just as you might attempt to understand how a car works by taking apart an engine and learning about the function of each part, like pistons and ball bearings, you can understand a speech, an essay, or an advertisement by breaking it into its parts (elements, pieces) and finding their function.

For example, Julius Caesar once said the famous quote, “I came, I saw, I conquered.” This three-part construction is called a tricolon: A tricolon is a figure of speech in which the speaker or writer uses a list of three parts that are identical in syllabic length (Veni, vidi, vici, in the original Latin). What’s the function of the tricolon? Rhythm, for one.

Martin Luther King Jr. uses the rhetorical choice of repetition in his famous “I have a dream” speech, in which he repeated “I have a dream” eight times. He could have stated the phrase once, but by using the rhetorical technique of poetic repetition, King added a poetic and memorable pattern to his speech. Again, why might King do something like this? To give his audience something to remember, among other goals.

Repetition, alliteration, metaphor, procatalepsis, anacoluthon—rhetorical choices go by many names, some more difficult than others. Your professor probably doesn’t expect you to know all of them, or even to use their technical names, but looking for devices may help you understand how a rhetorical text is constructed.

For a great list of rhetorical devices and figures of speech, check this website out.

Final Considerations

It’s OK to be unsure about whether you have the “right” interpretation of a speech or other piece of communication. Analysis is subjective, and there often isn’t just one right answer—there are usually multiple good or reasonable ones.

"Spotify is Killing Beethoven."

July 19, 2023 03:37 PM
Rhetorical Analysis.mp4

Here are some great questions to discuss with your consultant.

  1. Do you understand the rhetorical tools my paper is attempting to analyze?
  2. Have I sufficiently analyzed “why” the speaker or writer used those tools?
  3. Have I adequately explained “how” those tool might have work in the text or speech?
  4. Where do you need more analysis?