Lecture: Bazerman’s “Knowing Where You Are”

In “Knowing Where You Are: Genre,” chapter 2 of A Rhetoric of Literate Action: Literate Action Volume 1, Charles Bazerman argues that genres emerge out an established set of practices and conventions that develop over time in response to situations and sets of activities. Or, to put it more precisely, genres “embody understandings of situations, relationships, stances, moods, strategies, appropriate resources, goals and many other elements that define the activity and shape means of accomplishment” (24). Understanding the situationality and activity from which a genre emerges is important for at least two reasons, both of which help us to make sense of a piece of writing:

  1. As Bazerman notes at the start of the chapter, unlike face-to-face dialogue, writing can circulate through time and across space. That is, writing can come to us not out of context but without anyone to whom we might ask to explain the context we need to make sense of the writing (21-23).
  2. Genres provide a frame for us to understand the situationality and activity system addressed by or in need of addressing as we read and write texts (32-34). These frames help us interpret moves made in a piece of writing and help us understand the kinds of moves we need to make in a piece of writing. As Bazerman explains, because genres come with established forms and conventions that emerged out of specific purposes addressing specific situations, if we understand the genre in which we need to write then we already have a strong sense of what our writing needs to do and how it needs to do it (24).

Activity Systems

One of the most important concepts in this chapter is the idea that written texts exist within activity systems. As Bazerman explains, an activity systems “are historically emerged networks of people and artifacts (such as buildings, machines, and products as well as texts and files) that carry out typified kinds of work and other activities over extended periods, and that have developed ways of coordinating the work and attention of participants in ways that become familiar to all participants” (25).

To help explain this idea, Bazerman turns to the example of a classroom. Different kinds of schools and different kinds of subjects and disciplines are going to have different kinds of classrooms in which different kinds of activities take place. The overarching goal of each, presumably, is to enable learning just as the overarching goal of a written text is to communicate, but the conventions, practices, methods, interactions, tools, resources, etc. will differ from classroom to classroom and from genre to genre.

For instance, no one expects musical performance class to meet in a seminar room with the students sitting around a table and discussing ideas, likewise no one would expect an organic chemistry lab to regularly meet on an auditorium stage and work with musical instruments.

Because the purpose of writing is to communicate, texts exist within activity systems, and understanding the activity system in which a text is situated helps us make sense of how to read or write that text (27-29). In broad terms, we might think about different kinds of texts and their activity systems by comparing a National Science Foundation grant proposal, a student lab report, an essay for a philosophy class, a letter to the editor of the school newspaper, and a resume and cover letter used to apply for a job or internship. Each of these kinds of texts are produced for and circulate in very different systems and the work they seek to do and how they go about doing it are quite different.

While the activity systems in which a NSF proposal, a lab report, a school essay, etc. are all quite different from each, we can also talk about differences between closely related activity systems and how those differences produce different kinds of texts. For example, let us consider the lab report. As you’ll read next week in The MIT Guide‘s chapter on reports, a student lab report differs from the report of a professional researcher in some significant ways. While both are supposed to be a report of an experiment, and while both should address the methodology as well as draw conclusions and offer interpretations, the student’s lab report and the professional researcher’s lab report serve different functions and exist within different activity systems. A student lab report exists within the activity system of school, its circulation is one designed for evaluation within the educational context, and its focus is on providing an account of how the experiment was conducted. A professional researcher’s lab report, on the other hand, exists within the activity system of research, its circulation is one designed for evaluation by peer researchers and to share new discoveries and knowledge, and its focus in not on providing an account of how the experiment was conducted but instead focus on the results of the experiment.

Genres Emerge from Activity Systems

Because activity systems develop their own sets of practices in response to specific situations, within activity systems texts used to communicate in response to specific situations and needs  tend to follow certain practices and conventions that have developed over time, and we call these established practices and conventions genres. (To put this another way, Bazerman notes that genres emerge because “communications tend to flow within activity systems in typical pathways, at typical moments, in typical forms, to enact typical intentions, carrying out familiar acts” (29).) While most of us are used to thinking of genres just as an established set of conventions (“categories of textual forms”), Bazerman argues that they are more than that. They are, he suggests, “simultaneously categories of textual forms, forms of social interaction, and forms of cognitive recognition and shaping of motive and thought” (29).

We can think of genres as forms of social interaction because different genres exist to perform different kinds of work in response to different social situations. For instance, while the purpose of all proposals is to convince someone that there is a problem or need that can be addressed by taking a certain action, an informal proposal shared with the officers of your sorority or fraternity suggesting a way to resolve a conflict exists involves a very different kind of social context and engagement than an NSF grant proposal or a conference presentation proposal. So too a request for money directed toward your parents via a text message and a request for a business loan in the form of a business proposal.

We can think of genres as forms of cognitive recognition because, as noted above, they help us frame our understanding of the purpose and context form which the text emerged or to which we need to write a text. The defined characteristics of genres and the activity systems from which they emerge of help us think about and evaluate what a text does or must do and how well it does it. In short, because genres emerge in response to specific needs within specific contexts, we can use the conventions of a genre can help us understand the rhetorical situation and task before us as we work within that genre as a reader and as a writer.

Lecture: The MIT Guide, Ch. 7 & 15

Note: Unless I hear otherwise I will assume you understand the readings from The MIT Guide to Science and Engineering Communication. Therefore, lectures on readings from the book will tend to be short, focusing on specifics I want to highlight. If you have any questions whatsoever about the readings, including material not covered in the lectures, please ask.

Chapter 7: Design for Page and Screen

Reports vs. Manuscripts vs. School Papers

As might be expected from a textbook focused on workplace-based writing, you’ve almost certainly noticed that The MIT Guide‘s discussion of developing print/page-based document standards is geared towards reports, particularly when it discusses issues such as designing for two-page spread layouts, bindings, and the like. As Bazerman discusses in our other reading for this week, different genres have different conventions and expectations, which means that different genres will also have different formatting conventions, expectations, and requirements. A report you prepare as a consultant, a NSF grant proposal, a term paper, and a manuscript submitted to a journal are all governed by different genre formatting conventions.

This said, a number of design principles apply regardless of genre. For instance:

  • Style Guide: Whether you’re preparing a one-page rèsumè, a 35-page honors thesis, or a collaboratively authored NSF grant, you want to maintain a consistent style. While we don’t need to develop a style guide such as found on page. 92 of The MIT Guide for most of our in-school writing, we make (or have given to us) formatting decisions whenever we write for the page (or screen). Formatting decisions should be made for readability, and they should be consistently applied throughout the document. Modern word processors (as opposed to text editors) allow you to create your own style guide for a project, which can be quite useful for making global formatting changes should you decide to change the look of your 2nd-level headings. The article “Style Basics in Word” explains how to use styles in Word. Even if you use a different word processor, if you’re not familiar with this feature, take a glance at this document and then look for instructions specific to your tool of choice.
  • Typography: As The MIT Guide notes, in print documents serif fonts are more readable than sans-serif fonts, so use a serif font for your text. A good design principle is to contrast different elements, so when you use a serif font for the body text, use a sans-serif font for your title and headings. For online documents, the opposite used to be true and the wisdom was to use sans-serif fonts for body text and serif fonts for titles and headings; however, as screen resolutions have vastly improved from even 5 years ago, using serif fonts for body text in online documents is becoming standard.
  • Headings: Headers are powerful tools for guiding readers and improving readability. A good, descriptive header offering a summary of what’s to come prepares readers for what they about to read. As you read magazine articles, web sites, text books, journal articles, and the like, start paying attention to the use of headings to get a sense of how they are used.
  • White Space: White space is another tool that improves readability as well as add visual appeal. Don’t fear it.

Ch. 15: Oral Presentations

The Spoken vs. the Written Word

As The MIT Guide explains (and as Bazerman explained in our Week 1 reading “The Rhetorics of Speaking and Writing”), the spoken word and the written word are different, and we need to treat them differently. While readers can often follow well-written complex, dense writing full of subordinate clauses and a number of important issues packed into a few paragraphs, few listeners will be able to follow such text read aloud.

An oral presentation should not seek to cover the entirety of a complex issue. It should, instead, focus on a few key issues. While you shouldn’t intentionally leave out crucial information from your talk, not covering everything in detail is a good way to promote discussion either in a question and answer period or informally after your talk.  What is crucial in this context is dependent upon what you’re covering in your 12-minute talk rather than what is crucial to the 100-page report your talk draws from.

As you draft your talk, speak it outloud. It should, as long-time writing teacher Peter Elbow argues, it should sound good to the ear and feel good on the tongue. For an excellent, readable introduction to the interplay between speaking and writing, see Peter Elbow’s Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing. While the whole book is worthwhile, Part One will provide a good overview.

Frames and Structure

Organize your talk around a series of conceptual frames (see The MIT Guide pp. 239-242) and let your audience know what those frames are and how they fit together at the start of your talk, and then let your audience know where you are in your talk as you move through them.


Less is more. Densely packed text on a slide just makes the slide difficult to read. Pages 246-249 show examples of effective slides. (Note that the design principles covered in Ch. 7 apply here.) Large quotes or text-intensive information should be shared via handout or placed online for people to download after your talk if they’re interested in learning more.


Whether you’re reading from a written text, talking from slides, or speaking extemporaneously, practice, practice, practice. And listen to yourself; if that means recording yourself, record yourself so that you can hear how your talk sounds. Talk your friends and family into listening to you and ask them to give you feedback not just on whether or they could follow your talk but on your pacing, your inflection, your physical mannerisms, etc.

Lecture: Gopen and Swan’s “The Science of Scientific Writing”

In “The Science of Scientific Writing,” George D. Gopen and Judith A. Swan argue that dense, difficult to read prose is far more often a problem of violating reader expectation than it is an issue of long sentences, technical jargon-heavy writing, and complex topics. As this is the case, they discuss reader expectations and offer key principles one can use to revise one’s prose to meet those expectations and, therefore, produce more readable writing. In highlighting these reader-expectation principles, Gopen and Swan examine five common problems within difficult-to-read professional writing:

  • Subject-verb separation problems,
  • Stress position problems,
  • Topic position problems,
  • Logical gap problems, and
  • Action location problems.

Subject-verb Separation Problems

As Gopen and Swan note, readers expect to find the grammatical subject and verb of a sentence in close proximity so that they can put together who or what is acting and being acted upon. In other words, to understand what is going on, readers need to be able to easily identify the actor(s) and the action(s). While there are reasons to include some information between the subject and the verb, you don’t want to over do it.

For instance, in the sentence “The red squirrel, the one we saw running alongside the pond yesterday, climbed into my backpack while I was feeding the ducks,” the distance between “the red squirrel” and “climbed” isn’t problematic because the clause “the one we saw running alongside the pond yesterday” helps define the subject.

On the other hand, in the sentence “Running to and fro, the red squirrel — so cute it was with its bristly tail, pretending to bury nuts here and there as we watched, Sonja says she watched it yesterday —climbed into my backpack,” the interruption between the subject and the verb, while adding a colloquial, conversational style, places unnecessary distance between the subject and the verb, and thereby risks interfering with readers’ ability to easily take in the actor and the action of the sentence.

Stress Position Problems

As Gopen and Swan note, readers tend to place emphasis (importance) on the last bit of information in a sentence or other syntactic unit, which is a moment of syntactic closure they call the stress position; therefore, writers should place the information they want to most emphasize in this stress position. Usually this tends to be new information.

This concept of the stress position holds true not just for the structure of a sentence but for listing as well. For instance, if you are creating a list of three reasons for recommending a course of action, unless there’s a compelling reason to do otherwise, it’s often best to place your strongest reason last. Consider, for example, Gopen and Swan’s summary of three rhetorical principles regarding the stress position on page 553. They write:

We now have three rhetorical principles based on reader expectations: First, grammatical subjects should be followed as soon as possible by their verbs; second, every unit of discourse, no matter the size, should serve a single purpose; and third, information intended to be emphasized should appear at points of syntactic closure. (553)

In this sentence we see Gopen and Swan enacting their principles. By placing the list of three principles at the end of the sentence, the entire list exists within the stress position of the sentence. While the list is part of the larger sentence, it is itself a syntactic unit, and we find within the stress position of the list the principle of placing information we wish to emphasize within in the stress position.

Also worth noting in this sentence by Gopen and Swan is that the sentence is separated into two units, divided by a colon. As Gopen and Swan explain on pages 552-553, one can create secondary stress positions within a sentence through the use of colons and semi-colons. Just as the list following the colon is a syntactic unit, the section before the colon is also a syntactic unit that stresses the idea that the three rhetorical principles  are “based on reader expectations.” This “based on reader expectations” is the stress position for this syntactic unit and is a secondary stress position for the sentence as a whole.

And if we return to the second half of the sentence, the list following the colon, we can see that although the list as a whole is a syntactic unit, it also consists of three small syntactic units marked by the words first, second, and third, each separated from each other by semi-colons. A closer examination of each of these will show that important information worth emphasizing is located in each of their respective stress positions.

To reiterate here, the sentence from Gopen and Swan above has a primary stress position (the list following the colon) and a secondary stress position (“based on reader expectations,” which comes immediately before the colon). Each of these two halves of the sentence function as their own syntactic units that together make the complete sentence. Furthermore, the primary stress position of the sentence (the list of three principles) itself consists of three additional syntactic units corresponding to each of the three listed items, with the first two ending in secondary stress positions and the final one ending the most emphasized information of the unit.

From a purely narrative description, one might assume that the sentence should be hard to understand, and yet, when we read it, we find that it is easy to follow because it meets our expectations of how we read sentences for meaning.

Topic Position Problems

While readers expect the closing section of a sentence or other syntactic unit — the stress position — to be reserved for information we want to emphasize, readers expect the start of a sentence to orient them to the topic at hand. Typically, we do this by using the start of a sentence — the topic position — to serve as a link to what has already been said and to provide us the context needed for us to move forward. Or, as they put it, “When old information consistently arrives in the topic position, it helps readers to construct the logical flow of the argument: It focuses attention on one particular strand of the discussion, both harkening backward and leaning forward” (554).

If we consider again the example sentence above, we can see the topic position in play:

We now have three rhetorical principles based on reader expectations: First, grammatical subjects should be followed as soon as possible by their verbs; second, every unit of discourse, no matter the size, should serve a single purpose; and third, information intended to be emphasized should appear at points of syntactic closure. (553)

In the syntactic unit before the colon they give us the context for how to read the rest of the sentence: “We now have three rhetorical principles based on reader expectations.” We know that there are three reasons and why they are important. And in each of the three syntactic units of the list, we find cues (“first,” “second,” and “third”) that let us easily identify each of the three rhetorical principles and we learn what each principle governs — grammatical subjects, units of discourse, and information respectively. Again, information that helps us understand the context for the syntactic unit.

Logical Gap Problems

As we write, we often make the mistake of under explaining the logical connections and relationships between our ideas because we don’t want to come across as talking down to them or over explaining. This can be a problem because our ideas are obvious to us — they are our ideas, and we understand how they relate to one another. Our readers, however, aren’t in our heads and they don’t have access to our thought processes that link these ideas together; therefore, what seems far too obvious to us often isn’t all that obvious to many of our readers.

Action Location Problems

To understand our writing, readers often need to know who or what is doing the acting and who or what is being acted upon in order to understand the context of a sentence. This is because we are almost always involved in a form of storytelling, even when our writing has nothing to do with fiction. When we make an argument, we are in effect telling a story about how something should be, or how we should act or perceive an issue. When we write about how pollen is spread by bees, we are telling a story of pollen. When we write about how the transcription of the 5S RNA genes in egg extract is TFIIIA-dependent, we are telling a story about RS RNA. We we write a recommendation report regarding new methods for the manufacturing of printed circuit boards (PCBs), we are telling a story about how we could be manufacturing PCBs or we are telling a story about why our current method of PCB production is the best method for us. Because we are telling stories, we need to not only create clear actors but clear actions. If readers don’t have a clear idea about the action — about what is happening — they are going to have difficulty in following what they are reading.

For this reason, we need to be able to identify the action, the verb, of a sentence as well as its subject.

Principles Based upon Reader Expectations

Having identified five common problems that limit readers’ abilities to easily follow and make sense of professional writing, Gopen and Swan identify seven principles to help structure writing to meet readers’ expectations (see p. 558). As they suggest, these are not hard and fast rules that should never be broken or hard and fast rules that will always guarantee clear prose. They are, instead, general principles — good ideas — to keep in mind. Rhetorically effective communication is effective because it is designed to meet the needs of  the circumstances and context at hand (see the lecture on Prelli’s “The Nature of Rhetoric“),

and sometimes the most effective way to rhetorically achieve this goal is to violate general principles. But, as the saying goes, you need to know the rules in order to break them.

Consider copying and pasting these principles, printing them, and keeping them on hand as you revise. While you need not keep these principles in mind as you draft — no one cares what your first draft looks like as long as your final draft is polished and effective — they’re good to have at hand as you revise. As you make them a regular concern during your revision process, many of them will eventually, many of them will become second nature, not only during your revision process but even during your drafting process

A Note Regarding Revision

As Gopen and Swan note, as we draft we often place the new important information first because that’s what we want to focus on. While this tendency can cause problems for our readers, it shouldn’t necessarily be regarded as a problem for us at the time of drafting. In fact, if the goal of drafting a text is to get all our ideas down, and if it is easier for us to draft by writing down the important information first, then that is what we should do as we write that draft.

The way we reconcile our needs as writers and with the needs of our audiences as readers is through revision. If while you are drafting you find yourself worrying so much about topic positions and stress positions (and making sure that the subject isn’t too far from the verb, etc.) that these concerns are getting in the way of you getting our ideas out, then don’t worry about those issues during the drafting stage. Draft. Write. Get your ideas down. Once you’ve done that, you can then revise for readers. Technically, these are issues of style, and as The MIT Guide chapter on revising for organization and style suggest, they are issues to address after you revise for organization but before you edit.

Lecture: The MIT Guide, Ch. 5 & 9

Note: Unless I hear otherwise I will assume you understand the readings from The MIT Guide to Science and Engineering Communication. Therefore, lectures on readings from the book will tend to be short, focusing on specifics I want to highlight. If you have any questions whatsoever about the readings, including material not covered in the lectures, please ask.

Chapter 5: Revising for Organization and Style

Revision as Re-seeing

As The MIT Guide tries to make clear at the start of Ch. 5, revision is a key but often undervalued part of the writing process. Good writing is almost always a product of good rewriting. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the chapter walks you through a series of questions and strategies, starting with general issues such as structure of a document and ending with a focus on specific issues such as style and word choice. This emphasis on moving from general to specific issues makes sense when you consider that time spent revising a phrase for the correct placement of an adverb in relation to its verb is time wasted if you decide to delete the example to which sentence belongs.

So, again, as Figure 5.1 suggests, first revise for organization, then revise for style, and then proofread and copyedit. Likewise, when when revising for organization and style, start with the global issues (overall structure, paragraph), and then focus on increasingly specific issues.

As far as revising for organization goes, this is an excellent time to make an outline of what you have written. In this way, an outline serves as a diagram of your text’s organization, and you can use this diagram to help you analyze the organization in light of your audience’s aims and purposes. For instance, are you writing for a peer expert who will want to know what you did and how you did it in a way that easily lets them replicate what you’ve done? Or are you writing a report for a manager who cares more about the results and cost-benefits of the project? Or are you writing for a proposal review committee whose primary concern is your ability to complete and deliver what you’ve promised in the time allotted? Analyzing the organization of your document in terms of your audience, your aims, and the conventions of your genre will help you decide if you need to restructure your text, add or delete passages, or include additional detail.

Finally, think of revision as re-vision, that is, as re-seeing your text. It is much more challenging to revise our own work than it is to peer-review and edit someone else’s work because we know what we intend to say. As you revise your work, try to see your writing not from the perspective of your aims, purposes, and background, but from those of your intended audience. Try to imagine what assumptions they’ll bring to their reading, what information they are likely to know and not know, and the questions they’re likely to want answered based on their own interests and purposes. Also think of revision as an act of re-seeing your own text, that is, seeing it from a fresh perspective brought about through the distance of time when the act of writing and the decisions you made aren’t so fresh in your mind. This, of course, requires you to leave yourself enough time to set aside your work for a while.

Usage and Style

Until issues of usage and style become second nature, it’s a good idea to actually start revising a piece of writing by reviewing Ch. 5, specifically the sequence of revision (Figure 5.1 on page 53), revision questions raised on pages 53-54, and the specific issues discussed on pages 56-60.

And while I’m not assigning this as a formal reading assignment, I want to draw your attention to the short style and usage guide in the back of the book on pages 287-314. Get to know the principles described here and put them into practice. As with Chapter 5, reviewing these issues as get ready to revise, and referring to this section as you do revise will help make these concerns second nature.

Ch. 9: Documenting Sources

Citation Systems

By now, each of you should be familiar with the generally accepted citation systems within your discipline, and rather than ask you to conform to any one style, I ask that you choose an appropriate citation system and follow it. Keep in mind that just as various instructors in various disciplines might have asked you to document sources using different citation systems, you will almost certainly be asked to write using different systems throughout your professional career. While as a biology or chemistry major you might have encountered MLA, APA, and/or Chicago and either CBE or ACS, if you intend to go on to pursue a career in research medicine you may find yourself using CSE or ICMJE. Citation system requirements will change depending upon the professional organization, discipline, journal, publishing house, grant agency, proposal reviewer, and corporation for whom you are writing.

The important thing to remember is that each system is designed around different organizational and informational principles, and learning a new system or working again within a system you use infrequently will mean that you will spend a good amount of time looking things up. While it can feel like drudgery and busy work — believe me, I have edited technical reports with hundreds of footnotes written by others — getting your citations right is important. It is an issue of ethos. As a writer within the fields of science and technology, you want your audience to believe that you are a careful, meticulous practitioner whose data and conclusions can be trusted. If you are sloppy in your citations, you are actively undermining your ethos as a careful, meticulous practitioner. You are, instead, broadcasting to your readers that you can’t be bothered to pay attention to details.

Using Sources Ethically

Just as accurately following your chosen citation system helps you establish your ethos as a careful and meticulous practitioner, properly paraphrasing and quoting sources also helps you develop your ethos a trustworthy and ethical scientist and writer. All knowledge is based upon prior knowledge. Even new knowledge is dependent upon prior knowledge if for no other reason that we can’t comprehend something unless we can relate it to what we already know. For this reason alone, when we are engaged in acts of knowledge-making and its supporting activities, we are almost certain to be relying upon or at least referencing the work and ideas of others.

Knowing how to do so — when to summarize, when to paraphrase, when to quote; how to introduce and document your use of sources correctly so that the boundaries between your ideas and their ideas is clear; and how to use sources accurately and fairly —is, once again, an issue of ethos. While fairly and accurately representing the ideas of others can be a way of building trust between you and your audience (we expect it, so don’t assume it will earn you huge brownie points), unfairly and inaccurately representing the ideas of others marks you as untrustworthy: at best you are sloppy and careless; at worst you’re unethical or even nefarious.

Managing Citations and References

As The MIT Guide suggests, it is important to record the complete bibliographic information of a source when you think you might use it. This is especially important when it comes to online sources, which should include the date you accessed the information as well. (By online here, I’m referring to what we might call the open web rather than a subscription-based electronic database such as ScienceDirect, JSTOR, AMC Digital Library, etc.)

Lecture: Scientific Discourse as Effective Expression

The readings for Week 3 — Campbell’s “The Polemical Mr. Darwin,”1)1. Campbell, John Angus. “The Polemical Mr. Darwin.” The Quarterly Journal of Speech 61.4 (1975): 375-390. Gross’ “On the Shoulders of Giants: Seventeenth-Century Optics as an Argument Field,”2)1. Gross, Alan G. “On the Shoulder’s of Giants: Seventeenth-Century Optics as an Argument Field.” The Quarterly Journal of Speech 74.1 (1988): 1-17.  and Halloran’s “The Birth of Molecular Biology: An Essay in the Rhetorical Criticism of Science”3)1. Halloran, Michael. “The Birth of Molecular Biology: An Essay in the Rhetorical Criticism of Scientific Discourse.” Rhetoric Review 3.1 (1984): 70-83. — while quite different in their own way are unified by their understanding that effective reports of scientific experiments and research such as Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Newton’s Opticks, and Watson and Crick’s “A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid” succeed because they are, in Lawrence Prelli‘s terms, acts of effective expression; that is, they are effectively persuasive discourse designed to meet the needs of their audience in their given situation.

While unified in their demonstrations of how each of these three major works of science are rhetorical in nature, Campbell, Gross, and Halloran each have their own aims and purposes, and, therefore, examine each of these three key texts in a different light. Campbell, for instance, seeks to challenge the traditional view of Darwin as a “dispassionate and detached investigator” (376), and does so by demonstrating how On the Origin of Species is a masterwork of argumentation designed to work around specific constraints — a need to publish quickly (and to his mind prematurely), a lack of an ideal language of expression (statistical modeling), and the values and beliefs of his audience. Gross, on the other hand, uses the concept of the argumentative field to explore why Newton’s Opticks succeeded when his earlier “New Theory about Light and Colors” did not. Finally, Halloran examines how Watson and Crick’s paper did far more than explain the structure of DNA: it established a new kind of ethos — a new kind of persona — for scientists and how they report their work, and, in effect, created a new branch of science based upon identification with the ethos they established. Although each article approaches its subject with a different purpose and highlights different rhetorical aspects of the text or texts they examine, we can apply various concepts we’ve covered so far — the function and purpose of rhetoric; a writer’s aims and purpose; audience analysis; persuasion and the enthymeme; ethos, logos, and pathos; kairos; invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery; and Prelli’s five characteristics of effective expression — to both analyze Campbell, Gross, and Halloran’s essays and to identify rhetorical techniques and strategies they discuss in the texts they examine.

References   [ + ]

1. 1. Campbell, John Angus. “The Polemical Mr. Darwin.” The Quarterly Journal of Speech 61.4 (1975): 375-390.
2. 1. Gross, Alan G. “On the Shoulder’s of Giants: Seventeenth-Century Optics as an Argument Field.” The Quarterly Journal of Speech 74.1 (1988): 1-17.
3. 1. Halloran, Michael. “The Birth of Molecular Biology: An Essay in the Rhetorical Criticism of Scientific Discourse.” Rhetoric Review 3.1 (1984): 70-83.

Lecture: Prelli’s “The Nature of Rhetoric”

Lawrence Prelli’s “The Nature of Rhetoric” is the second chapter of his book A Rhetoric of Science: Inventing Scientific Discourse, a book I recommend if you’re finding these readings on the rhetoric of science interesting. 1)1. Prelli, Lawrence J. A Rhetoric of Science: Inventing Scientific Discourse. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1989. While there’s more recent scholarship, taken as a whole, Prelli offers a comprehensive foundation for understanding the rhetorical nature of scientific discourse, something we’re getting glimpses at in this course.

In “The Nature of Rhetoric,” which is, as the title suggests, an introduction to rhetoric itself as Prelli works with it throughout the book, Prelli defines rhetoric as effective expression, which has five general features, each rooted in an assumption about how effective expression works, which is the focus of this chapter (11). According to Prelli, rhetoric is:

  • the suasory use of symbols — the assumption regarding the role of language (pp. 13-21).
  • situational discourse — the assumption regarding situations (pp. 21-24).
  • addressed discourse – the assumption regarding the nature of audiences (pp. 24-28).
  • reasonable discourse — the assumption regarding criteria by which materials are evaluated (pp. 28-31).
  • invented discourse — the assumption regarding the methods of finding these materials in composing rhetoric (pp. 31-32).

Rhetoric is the suasory use of symbols

With its distinction between symbols as tools to express meaning and symbols as the medium through which meaning is made, with its use of the word suasory rather than persuasion, and its reliance upon Kenneth Burke’s concept of terministic screens, this first section is the most complicated and difficult section of Prelli’s chapter.

Prelli presumably uses the term suasory rather than persuasion to leave more room for the idea of dissuasion as well as persuasion. When we dissuade someone, of course, we are persuading them to not do something, so even dissuasion is a form of persuasion. That said, by using suasory rather than persuasion, Prelli is focusing on the issue of inducement — rhetoric as symbolic inducement — independent of whether that act of inducement is for something or against something. I’d suggest this isn’t a linguistic game on Prelli’s part, but, instead, a careful use of language designed to help navigate a nuanced issue.

A key reason for focusing on rhetoric as symbolic inducement is that it “explodes traditional boundaries,” as Prelli explains (14). As he notes, when we think of rhetoric as the use of symbolic meaning to induce others, then we’re talking about how humans making meaning in all forms. That said, Prelli also notes that rhetoric is different from other forms of human symbolic activities such as logic, linguistics, poetics, and hermeneutics (interpretation) (15). Prelli then argues that what differentiates rhetoric from other forms of human symbolic activity is that rhetoric “explains the selective functions involved when we make, apply, and judge symbols” (16). In other words, rhetoric is, as we’ve already discussed in our definitions of rhetoric lecture, a meta-art or meta-discipline that is not limited to one subject domain but an art (tehkne) we apply as we engage in other subjects— what Aristotle calls a “universal art.”

In stressing the importance of understanding rhetoric’s emphasis on the selective function of symbol use, Prelli explains that “[b]y selecting certain terms rather than others, we emphasize particular meanings and values — those that seem appropriate given our understandings” (16). As I suggest above, we see Prelli doing just this in his choice to use the word suasory as opposed to the word persuasion.

Prelli finishes out this section with a discussion of terministic screens and orientations, which comes from Kenneth Burke. Simply put, a terministic screen is the perspective through which we describe, act, and interpret symbolic activity, and that these perspectives are shaped by the terms we use. In other words, there is no neutral point of view from which to perceive and act in the world because neutrality itself requires one to adopt a particular stance through which to use and evaluate symbolic activity.

This idea of terministic orientations and screens might make more sense if you think back to Ch. 3 of The MIT Guide to Science and Engineering Communication. An expert audience and a managerial audience are different because their identities, interests, needs, knowledge, and experiences are different, and those differences shape and are shaped by the terministic screen through which they approach a professional topic. Whereas an expert might be interested in methods and results, a manager is more likely to ask you about usable results and cost-benefit analysis. In one sense, they’re both asking more or less the same thing: what you did and what happened when you did it, but they’re focused on different issues because their terministic screens orients them differently (what Prelli calls terministic orientation).

Understanding terministic orientations is important, Prelli argues, because it allows us to understand and predict three things: instrumental valuings, logical valuings, and moral valuings (18). Instrumental valuings define how one thinks things should be done (18-19), logical valuings define what we think makes sense and has legitimate value as evidence (19-20), and moral valuings define what one thinks is proper (what one ought to do) and improper (what one ought not to do) (20).

If we recall I.A. Richards’ definition of rhetoric as the study of miscommunication and its remedies (see the definitions of rhetoric lecture), then we can easily see how recognizing, analyzing, and navigating different and even clashing terministic orientations is a necessary component of rhetoric.

Rhetoric is situational discourse

Prelli argues that rhetorical discourse will always be based in a particular situation, and drawing from Lloyd Bitzer’s “The Rhetorical Situation,” 2)1. Lloyd Bitzer, “The Rhetorical Situation,” Philosophy and Rhetoric 1 (1968)., Prelli identifies the three features that make up what we call a “rhetorical situation”: It must have an exigence, there must be an intended audience, and there must be constraints upon how the rhetor can influence the audience (22).

The exigence is a problem, “[s]omething [that] is perceived as other than it should or could be” (22). More importantly, it needs to be seen as something we believe we can change or do something about. A rhetorical exigence, therefore, is “an ambiguity, defect, or obstacle” that we believe can be altered or removed by inducing our audience into action or by changing their position on the issue (22).

The audience of a rhetorical situation (i.e., a rhetorical audience) is one that we have reason to believe we can influence through our suasory use of symbols. We should keep in mind here that whether an audience is rhetorical depends upon our aims. In one context, a stranger on the bus might listen intently to your complaints about your co-workers but having no ability to affect change at your workplace, they are not a rhetorical audience. However, if your aim in complaining about your co-workers is to feel better by having a sympathetic ear listen to what you have to say or to gain a perspective that might help you better handle the situation, then that same stranger can be a rhetorical audience.

The constraints of a rhetorical situation “limit or enhance opportunities for making appropriate rhetorical responses to an exigence” (22). The rhetorical concept of kairos is very much at play here. So too issues such as your audience’s interests and terministic orientations, your aims, and the genre conventions in which you need to work.

Rhetoric is addressed discourse

As Prelli explains, different audiences have different values, beliefs, assumptions, backgrounds, interests, etc., and the practice of effective communication requires of us that we seek to shape our discourse to our intended audiences, even when that audience is ourself (24-28).

Rhetoric is reasonable discourse

Drawing from Chaim Perelman’s “The Rational and the Reasonable” (Chaim Perelman, “The Rational and the Reasonable,” The New Rhetoric and the Humanities)) Prelli makes a distinction between what is rational and what is reasonable, arguing that rhetoric is concerned with the reasonable rather than the rational. Reasonableness, Prelli reports, is concerned with judgement and commonsense in a given situation; whereas rationalness is concerned with abstract contexts governed by predetermined conclusions (28). Seen in this light, it’s quite understandable as to why rhetoric focuses on the reasonable rather than the rational.

Likewise, reasonableness has to do with the particular values and beliefs of particular audiences, with reasonable meaning something that the audience will find valid or acceptable.

Rhetoric is invented discourse

Finally, Prelli argues that rhetorical discourse is invented, that is, the rhetor evaluate their goal (31-32); they must evaluate the issue at hand within the context of its rhetorical situation, and how to order the discourse in a way that best meets their goals within the context of that situation (32); and then the rhetor must decide the specific things she or he wants to say in order to develop each topic or issue they wish to address. In other words, as we saw in The MIT Guide to Science and Engineering Communications chapters 3 and 18, even when we are constrained by a specific formal genre such as the job application letter or a  report on designing for earthquakes in the San Francisco waterfront, we can’t approach our writing tasks as an act of fill-in-the-blanks and expect it to be an act of effective communication.

References   [ + ]

1. 1. Prelli, Lawrence J. A Rhetoric of Science: Inventing Scientific Discourse. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1989.
2. 1. Lloyd Bitzer, “The Rhetorical Situation,” Philosophy and Rhetoric 1 (1968).

Lecture: The MIT Guide, Ch. 3 & 4

Note: Unless I hear otherwise I will assume you understand the readings from The MIT Guide to Science and Engineering Communication. Therefore, lectures on readings from the book will tend to be short, focusing on specifics I want to highlight. If you have any questions whatsoever about the readings, including material not covered in the lectures, please ask.

Chapter 3: Your Audience and Aims

Writing for audiences

As the title suggests, Ch. 3 discusses the importance of shaping your writing based upon your audience(s) and your aims.

The key issue in shaping your writing for an audience is to decide who will be the likely readers of your text and what are their likely interests (reasons) for reading your text. In terms of professional scientific and engineering writing, audiences can generally be divided into four groups: decision makers (managers), knowledge producers (experts), operators and maintainers (technicians), and generalists (laypeople). It’s worth remembering that few professional documents have just one audience. There’s the primary audience, secondary audiences, and hidden audiences. While your progress report may be written for and at the request of your supervisor, your secondary audience might be the people who supervise your supervisor (and the people above them). Hidden audiences might be a jury or a future research browsing an archive.

Sometimes you’ll have a very clear sense of who your audience is, such as when writing that progress report for your supervisor. Other times your sense will be less clear, such as when you’re writing for a specific NSF grant or submitting a paper to a journal; however, even then you should have a fairly good sense of your audience. For instance, a review written for Trends in Analytical Chemistry will have a different audience than a feature in Advances in Analytical Chemistry, and a research report in Analytical Chemistry Research will have a different audience as well. (While individual people might read all three journals, they’re reading each journal with different expectations and looking for different kinds of content.)

Page 30 of the book offers two useful examples of how a report on the seismic design of San Francisco Waterfront Facilities might be organized differently depending upon whether the intended audience is an expert or a manager. Note, for instance, than when writing for a manager, you might want to put recommendations second, following a summary of the problem and your findings; whereas when writing for an expert, the design recommendations come at the end of the report, which begins by defining the problem and providing background.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that sometimes your audience is other writers working on the same document. When that’s the case, it’s particularly important to understand your role in the project and where you fall in the development of the document as it moves along its pathway in addition to understanding where all the document might go in its life cycle (see pp. 32-34).

Keeping your aims in mind

While you need to shape a piece of writing for your audience, you need to do so in a way that meets your aims. In this way, as our authors Paradis and Zimmerman suggest, you can think of this interplay between addressing the needs of your audience and your aims as a problem to be solved. While there are lots of ways to write about improved lipid absorption for patients with inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), who your audience is and what your goal is will greatly limit the ways you can and will want to write about the topic. For instance, if your goal is to ask your funder for additional money so that you can confirm and refine your findings and prepare recommendations to doctors treating IBD patients, your writing task is very different than if you are writing to convince doctors to change their treatment practices of IBD patients or if you are preparing a paper for a biochemistry conference.

Ch. 4: Organizing and Drafting Documents


Over the years, I’ve found that students either love or hate outlines, with most students hating them. I’ll freely admit that I hated them too, but part of the problem was that I thought an outline was that thing you did with the Roman numerals and the alphabet, using both upper and lower cases, which you drafted before you started writing. That is one kind of outline. If it works for you, great. If not, there’s plenty of other kinds of outlines, some of which you use after you’ve written your text as a tool to help you analyze (and revise) your organizational structure. (When I’ve found those formal Roman numeral and alphabet outlines helpful, it’s been to develop a detailed outline of a piece of writing after I’ve written the text it. Paring away the writing down to the barebones outline lets me analyze the organization and flow from issue to issue.)

Often, in professional writing contexts, the genre you’re writing (memo, journal article, grant proposal, recommendation report, etc.) will dictate an overall structure. Within that overall framework, who your audience is, what their interests and needs are, and what your aims are will dictate a structure. For instance, if you’re applying for one of three campus-wide dissertation fellowships to support your work on developing an improved haptic interface for CNC machining — fellowship proposals that might be read by a committee of faculty members from across the university — you’re going to want to define haptic interface and CNC machining. On the other hand, if you’re writing a research proposal for your robots lab supervisor to improve the haptic interface your lab uses to control the CNC machines, you’re not going to need to define those terms, which means you won’t need a section that explains what haptic interfaces are and what CNC machining is. Pages 43-45 of The MIT Guide offer a number of examples of brief outlines developed by isolating and arranging topics, integrating a general document design with your specific material, and adjusting the scope and sequence of your source material to reflect the needs of your audience.

Also, as the book suggests, showing your outline to others, whether it’s a preliminary outline created before you write or a structural outline developed from a written text, can get you necessary feedback. One of the biggest obstacles to effectively writing for an audience is that we know what we mean and we know how the ideas in our writing hold together. Because we know these things, it’s all too easy to assume our audience will know as well, that we’re telling them things that are too obvious. Sometimes this is the case, but often, because they are not — can not – be in our head, they will need far more context than we think they do. Having people look over your outline and asking them to point out gaps, places that need further development or topics that need to be covered, can help us learn to think like a reader of our work rather than the author of our work.

Lecture: Ethos, Pathos, Logos

Ethos, pathos, and logos can seem like fairly simple concepts — ethos is about the credibility of the rhetor (the speaker or writer), pathos is about emotion and empathy, and logos is about logical reasoning and structure, and we often talk about them as something that is either there (or present in a rhetorical act) or not there (not present in a rhetorical act). For instance, we often talk about scientific writing as writing that avoids pathos and/or ethos. While we often talk about them as such, ethos, pathos, and logos are actually far more complex concepts than this simple conception would suggest. Aristotle discusses them in his Rhetoric as the three available means of persuasion — it might help to remember here that Aristotle defines rhetoric not as the act of persuasion but as the means of persuasion: “an ability, in each [particular] case, to see the available means of persuasion” (Aristotle 36).1)1. Aristotle, and George Alexander Kennedy. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.

So, while ethos, pathos, and logos are about the credibility of the rhetor and ethics, about emotion and empathy, and about logical reasoning and structure, they are also about how we apply those means of persuasion in our acts of communication. Ethos is about the reliance upon one’s perceived credibility (both inside and outside the rhetorical act). Pathos is about how we engage emotion, which includes not only emotionally charged language and imagery but engaging the audience’s likes and dislikes and their values and beliefsLogos is about how we use logical reasoning and logical structures as well as the kinds of evidence we use to support our claims.

A rhetorical mixing machine
From Losh, Elizabeth, et. al. Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphical Guide to Writing. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014. 131.

In this way, ethos, pathos, and logos aren’t concepts we simply turn on or off; they are concepts that we dial up or down as if we were using a rhetorical mixing machine. That is, a lack of credibility or a lack of ethics, a lack of emotionally charged discourse, and/or a lack of logical reasoning and structure are not absences of ethos, pathos, and/or logos but an intentional downplaying of their use or a failure to use them or use them effectively. As potential means of persuasion all three always exist within all rhetorical acts whether or not they are actively used. So, when we say that a rhetor lacks ethos, we’re not saying that there is no ethos involved but that we don’t find the rhetor’s intentional or unintentional use of ethos effective. When we say that a piece lacks pathos, we’re saying that the piece doesn’t reach us on an emotional level and/or doesn’t engage our values and beliefs. And when we say that an argument lacks logos, what we’re saying is that we find its logical reasoning, or its structure, or its use of evidence (or failure to use evidence) to be flawed.

These are important distinctions because we tend to think of certain kinds of discourse as devoid of ethos, pathos, or logos. A skeptic such as Richard Dawkins might claim that there is no logic in an argument based in faith even though throughout history plenty of philosophers, including people such as Thomas Aquinas who is known for his logical reasoning, have and do believe that they can make logically valid faith-based arguments.2)1. We could also note that Plato’s dislike of rhetoric is connected to his belief in a knowable absolute Truth and the philosopher’s duty to discover that Truth is itself based upon his philosophy of forms and the idea that there’s a Realm of Forms, all of which is another example of faith-based argument. Likewise, because traditional scientific discourse is supposed to be clear, direct, objective, and dispassionate, we tend to think of it as pure logos that does not engage either ethos or pathos, and in thinking that we would be wrong.

As we’ll see during the next few weeks, both ethos and pathos play important roles in scientific discourse. The very idea that scientific discourse should be clear, direct, objective, logical, and dispassionate is a value judgement whose history can be traced back to the Royal Society of Britain during the Early Modern Period. A rhetor wishing to be taken seriously as they engage in scientific discourse needs to follow these conventions, and in doing so they are using the pathos of scientific discourse (the values and beliefs of how science should be done and how scientific discourse should be practiced) to help establish their ethos ( their credibility) as someone who understands how scientific discourse works.3)1. For the history of how scientific discourse emerged with a focus on the experimental article, see Charles Bazerman’s Shaping Written Knowledge: The Genre and Activity of the Experimental Article in Science. We’ll be dipping into this book throughout the semester. As you know, we read from the book’s Introduction last week, and in Week 10 we’ll look specifically at the chapter that discusses how the Royal Society developed scientific prose style and the genre of the scientific experimental article (Chapter 3: “Reporting the Experiment: The Changing Account of Scientific Doings in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 1665-1800“).

References   [ + ]

1. 1. Aristotle, and George Alexander Kennedy. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.
2. 1. We could also note that Plato’s dislike of rhetoric is connected to his belief in a knowable absolute Truth and the philosopher’s duty to discover that Truth is itself based upon his philosophy of forms and the idea that there’s a Realm of Forms, all of which is another example of faith-based argument.
3. 1. For the history of how scientific discourse emerged with a focus on the experimental article, see Charles Bazerman’s Shaping Written Knowledge: The Genre and Activity of the Experimental Article in Science. We’ll be dipping into this book throughout the semester. As you know, we read from the book’s Introduction last week, and in Week 10 we’ll look specifically at the chapter that discusses how the Royal Society developed scientific prose style and the genre of the scientific experimental article (Chapter 3: “Reporting the Experiment: The Changing Account of Scientific Doings in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 1665-1800“).

Lecture: Introduction to the Enthymeme

This lecture supplements and extends this week’s reading on the enthymeme that is available in Blackboard.1)1. Gage, John T. “The Enthymeme” from The Shape of Reason: Argumentative Writing in College. 4th ed. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2006. 82-85. This lecture draws heavily from Gage’s The Shape of Reason and from Sharon Crowley and Debra Hawhee’s Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students. 3rd ed.

While we intuitively make use of enthymemes all the time. Whether you’re trying to convince your friends where to go to eat, persuading a potential employer that you’re a strong candidate for their position, or convincing others that you’ve developed a better gene therapy, you are relying upon an enthymeme. Therefore, understanding how enthymemes work, how to explicitly articulate them, and how to analyze them provides you with greater rhetorical control. Moreover, as Gage explains, you can use enthymemes to structure your arguments by analyzing your audience and determining what they need in order to accept your reasons so that they will, in turn, accept your argument. Enthymemes are also great tools for developing a thesis statement of an argument, whether explicitly stated or not.

The Enthymeme

Definition of the Enthymeme

An enthymeme is a form of informal logic (i.e., non-mathematical forms of logic) used to make arguments by connecting a claim with its reason(s).

  • An enthymeme consists of a claim connected to a reason by a word such as “because” or “therefore,” expressed in the following manner: Stated reason + unstated assumption = stated conclusion.
  • They were introduced by Aristotle as the rhetorical version of a syllogism used in everyday arguments where we have a choice between options and answers, and where solutions are not black and white. We use enthymemes to argue probable solutions, possible actions, and/or to make reasonable connections.
  • The word enthymeme [Gk. enthymema (thought, argument)] comes from the Greek words en (into) + thymos (soul). In other words, as a means for persuasion, enthymemes are (metaphorically) rhetorical tools that enter into the souls of our audiences in order to change their thinking about a topic.

Elements of an Enthymeme

An enthymeme consists of:

  1. An assertion,
  2. A reason connected to the assertion by “because” or “therefore,”
  3. A shared term that appears in both the assertion and reason,
  4. Both the assertion and reason must be independent clauses, and
  5. An unstated assumption. (If—and only if—an enthymeme has characteristics 1-4 will it have an unstated assumption.)

Form of an Enthymeme

An enthymeme may be expressed in the following forms:

  • Idea 1 because Idea 2.
    • Example: Batman is a cooler superhero than Superman because Batman is a human rather than an alien with inhuman powers. (In this form Idea 1 is the conclusion and Idea 2 is the reason.)
  • Idea 1 therefore Idea 2.
    • Example: Cats are far more self-sufficient than dogs, therefore cats make better pets for busy people. (In this form Idea 1 is the reason and Idea 2 is the conclusion.)

Discovering Unstated Assumptions in an Enthymeme

A key element in understanding and analyzing enthymemes, both your own and enthymemes used by others, is to identify the unstated assumptions upon which the enthymeme relies. To do so:

  1. Write out the enthymeme, making sure it has the first four required characteristics,
  2. Cross out the shared terms and replace them with a general word, like “something, someone, thing, X, etc.,” and
  3. Replace “because” with “if,” or erase “therefore” and write “if” in front of your reason (your first clause).

You can use this strategy both to help you revise your enthymeme or determine how you need to develop your argument to meet the needs of your audience and purpose, and you can use it to evaluate the arguments of others.

Following the steps above, here’s an example of how to discover the unstated assumptions in the enthymeme “Cats are far more self-sufficient than dogs, therefore cats make better pets for busy people who don’t spend much time at home.”

  1. Cats are far more self-sufficient than dogs, therefore cats make better pets for busy people.
  2. Cats Things are far more self-sufficient than dogs something else, therefore cats things make better pets for busy people .
  3. If things are far more self-sufficient than something else, things make better pets for busy people .

So, the unstated assumption in the enthymeme “Cats are far more self-sufficient than dogs, therefore cats make better pets for busy people” is that self-sufficiency in a pet is an ideal quality for busy people. While the unstated assumption of this simple, straight-forward enthymeme is fairly obvious, the unstated assumptions of more complex, less straightforward enthymemes can be far less apparent.

Tips and Considerations for Writing Enthymemes

  • If you use “because of,” your reason won’t be an independent clause.
  • Your shared term may itself be a whole phrase or clause. Ex.: “We should make rich people pay higher taxes because it would benefit social programs.” The shared term here are “to make rich people pay higher taxes” and “it.”
  • Your assertion and your reason should say substantially different things or else your reasoning will be circular. You also want to keep an eye out for circular reasoning, which is a logical fallacy.
    •  For example: “French food is fattening because it relies heavily upon sauces made from cream and butter.”
      • Technically, “because it relies heavily upon sauces made from cream and butter” isn’t a reason supporting the claim “French food is fattening,” but is instead an explanation of why French food is fattening. The unstated assumption in this enthymeme is “fattening food is fattening” which is circular reasoning.
      • Possible revisions designed to avoid circular reasoning might be: “I don’t want to eat French food because it is fattening” and “French food uses lots of cream and butter which are fattening, therefore I don’t want to eat it.”
  • As enthymemes rely upon unstated assumptions and implicit values, you may need to support those assumptions and values with additional enthymemes. In other words, the reason supporting a claim may itself need to be a claim supported by another reason. In this way, complex arguments are made up of many smaller arguments all leading to a particular conclusion.
  • Whether or not your audience will accept your argument will likely depend upon whether or not they accept your assumptions.
    • When constructing arguments, your goal is to analyze your audience and base your argument upon assumptions your audience believes. While doing so won’t guarantee an argument’s success, the more firmly you can base an argument upon the values and beliefs of your audience, the more likely it is that you will be able to persuade them that your argument has merit.
  • When writing enthymemes, you need to pay attention to the relevance and correctness of your claims and reasons as it is possible for your claims and reasons to be factually correct but fail to logically connect to one another.
  • Likewise,whenwritingenthymemes, consider revising for precision.
    • For instance, while we might argue that “cats make better pets than dogs because they are self-sufficient,” what we really mean is that if we leave enough food and water and a clean liter box for a cat, a cat could be left alone for days while most dogs could only be left alone for a few hours. Technically speaking—and many arguments stand or fall upon such technicalities—”self sufficient” might lack precision, which means that depending upon the audience we might want to revise it further or define what we mean by “self-sufficient” as part of our argument.

References   [ + ]

1. 1. Gage, John T. “The Enthymeme” from The Shape of Reason: Argumentative Writing in College. 4th ed. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2006. 82-85. This lecture draws heavily from Gage’s The Shape of Reason and from Sharon Crowley and Debra Hawhee’s Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students. 3rd ed.