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


Sympathy. Empathy. Pathetic. Antipathy. Pathological. Pathogenic.

The Greek root path can mean “feeling” or “disease.” When we talk about pathos, we are focusing on an appeal to emotion. It is often the easiest aspect of the rhetorical triangle to identify and even to create. However, it can also be the most treacherous for an audience.

What creates pathos?

Pathos is highly sensory. Figurative language is the ultimate go-to here. Imagery, metaphors, and similes are fairly reliable ways to appeal to an audience’s emotions. For a more sophisticated writer, nuanced language like juxtaposition, antithesis, and the use of tone shifts can create a complex emotional response. Ultimately, though, pathos needs to appeal to something abstract in us, like our sense of duty or our utilitarianism.

An author might employ strategies such as

  • Connotative words and phrases
  • Imagery
  • Metaphors
  • Similes
  • Analogies
  • Anecdotes
  • Juxtaposition
  • Antithesis
  • Tone
  • Use of images or other media (e.g. in a presentation)

What are the pitfalls?

Pathetic appeals can be pernicious. The power of pathos lies in moving an audience to act based on emotion rather than logic. Emotional appeals can cause an audience to disregard or fail to observe errors in logic (fallacies). Thus, pathos may mask issues like

  • False equivalence.
  • Slippery slope.
  • Non sequitur.

Writing About and With Pathos

Help students avoid statements like, “The author uses pathos because…”

Instead, encourage students to name the audience characteristic that is targeted by the appeal. It is worth generating a list of audience traits and values for a given text. For example, an audience may value equality, freedom, democracy, duty, and hard work. A student might then write, “The author uses metaphors to appeal to the audience’s sense of patriotism and duty.” Try using children’s books, Super Bowl commercials, print advertisements, and Presidential speeches to teach analysis of pathos.

In argumentation, students should use pathos carefully. They must be sure to balance their use of pathos with their use of logos and ethos. In my classes, I tell my students to be responsible when manipulating others’ emotions. Their pens are powerful.

I like to remind my students of their impact with this tapestry from Society 6. It’s one of my favorite classroom decorations!

If you’d like some teaching resources for working with appeals, check out my Rhetorical Analysis Device Sort Bundle at Teachers Pay Teachers. It has three different sets of engaging examples for students to work with.


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