What are the essential tools for teaching rhetoric and rhetorical analysis? This blog series will explore one tool each week.


As we established in last week’s post about rhetorical appeals, ethos is an appeal to personality or character. Aristotle conceptualized ethos as morality, expertise, and knowledge. A speaker’s ethos might rely on virtue and goodness, on skills and wisdom, or on goodwill toward the audience.

Sometimes, ethos is oversimplified as the speaker’s credibility. What we must remember is that ethos is a contract of sorts: the speaker presents him or herself in a particular way, and the audience accepts or rejects that presentation. Ethos is largely dependent on audience perception. Scholarly debate abounds regarding issues of ethos, particularly focused on female speakers and speakers of color.

Ethos is critical to an audience’s willingness to receive a speaker’s message. Without a virtuous, intelligent, generous speaker, the audience may question the speaker’s ideas or motives and reject the speech.

What creates ethos?

A note: Isocrates suggested that the audience forms an impression of the speaker before any words are said. Think of a speaker’s professional reputation, clothing, setting, etc. (Aristotle disagrees.)

Here are some key methods a speaker might employ to develop ethos:

  • Show fair-mindedness
    • Acknowledge opposing views
    • Validate the nuances of an issue
  • Appear sincere and humble
    • Litotes is ideal for this, as it is deliberate understatement designed to express modesty by downplaying accomplishments and accolades
    • Use language appropriate for audience and purpose
  • Display morality through treatment of the subject matter
  • Demonstrate or emphasize similarities to the audience (age, gender, race, socio-economic status, etc.)
  • Display theoretical knowledge, supported by citations of experts in the field
  • Share life experiences and explain how knowledge has been applied

What damages ethos?

  • Theoretical knowledge that the speaker has not had enough life experience to actually use
  • Fallacies or irrational thinking
  • Insincerity or disregard for the audience’s well-being

Essentially, ethos is compromised when the speaker is missing one or more of the following: goodwill, morality, or wisdom.

Teaching Students to Talk About Ethos

I stole adapted my favorite lesson to introduce ethos from my husband, who is also an English teacher. I copy off the first page of four books with first-person narration: Catcher in the Rye, The Book Thief, and two others that rotate depending on students’ interests and needs. Students work in groups to identify explicit and implicit details about the speaker/narrator based only on the words on the page. They consider the ideas presented above and back up their observations by citing the diction, syntax, imagery, tone, and so on. I ask them about red flags that pop up in the texts. I ask them which narrators they trust. Then I provide some additional information about each narrator, and they review the text to see if they missed any clues. This generates rich discussion about a speaker’s credibility, and we can move on to longer and more complex texts.

However you teach your students about ethos, remember that it’s not enough to address ethos in isolation. Ethos is but one of three appeals, and these are but part of the larger rhetorical situation.

To that end, be sure to check back soon for a discussion of pathos.

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