Chapter 6: Thinking and Analyzing Rhetorically

6.6 Moving Beyond Logos, Pathos, and Ethos: Speech Act Theory

Justin Lazor


So far, we’ve established a working definition of Rhetoric and explored the three basic categories of rhetorical appeals: Logos, Pathos, and Ethos.

But as readers and writers, we should be aware that rhetoric is often more complicated than these broad categories.  Writers often employ techniques that blur the lines within this classification system.  One common mistake that students make is to simply sift through a text, looking for examples of Logos, Pathos and Ethos and then separate them into compartments, sort of like that young children’s game, where you put the round block in the round hole, the square block in the square hole, etc.  But what if you get a block that doesn’t fit any of the holes?

“Shape Sorter Ella’s Dad” Flicker CC BY 2.0

A tool that can help us move beyond these three broad categories of rhetorical appeals and better understand an author’s purpose, both on a macro level (meaning the whole essay) and on a micro level (meaning in each sentence), is a literary analysis approach called “Speech Act Theory.”

I know.  The word “theory” can be intimidating.  But what Speech Act Theory basically says is that every time a person uses language, they are not simply communicating information, but also committing an act, and those acts have a specific purpose for the person speaking and an intended effect on the audience to whom they are communicating.

This applies both to formal writing and to informal, everyday speech.  When someone writes an argumentative essay, they are committing the speech act of trying to share their viewpoint and get others to believe it.  But it is equally true that, when we casually talk with people in our private lives, we are engaging in speech acts.  When we tell a story about something that happened to us, we want our friends to listen and have some sort of desired reaction to it, such as finding it entertaining.  When we tell a joke, we want people to laugh.  Even the basic act of saying “hello” to someone is a speech act, as it opens the possibility for further conversation.  In fact, saying “hello” is maybe one of the most important everyday rhetorical moves, as it lays the basic foundation for human connection.  But we can’t really compartmentalize it as Logos, Pathos or Ethos.  It’s one of those blocks that doesn’t fit any of the holes, but we still need it to play the game.


Jenny Bledsoe. “A Speech-Act Theory Adventure,” 10 March 2014, Youtube.

Very often, an author’s most effective rhetorical moves are of this unclassifiable nature.  And as readers, we should strive to move beyond thinking in terms of separating everything into the categories of Logos, Pathos of Ethos, and instead ask ourselves what the writer is trying to DO in every sentence, paragraph and their text as a whole.


  1. Let’s consider Frederick Douglass’s essay “Learning to Read and Write.”
  2. In the first few paragraphs, Douglass describes the negative effect that slavery had on his “mistress.” What speech act or purpose is he trying to accomplish with this opening?  How is he trying to affect his audience with this depiction of slavery as an evil that hurts white people as well as the enslaved? How does this blur the line between our rhetorical categories?
  3. When Douglass describes his interaction with the dock workers later in the essay and relates their sympathetic attitude towards him and his fate of lifelong slavery, what effect is he trying to have on his audience? How does this modeling technique relate to or defy basic rhetorical categories?


Austin, J. L. How to do Things with Words.  London. Oxford University Press. 1962.


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