The Four Traditional Modes of Discourse
Rhetorical modes can be overwhelming to beginning and experienced writers alike. Many students become confused who never heard the traditional modes of writing referred to as rhetorical modes. So, what are rhetorical modes?
Rhetorical Modes Defined
Rhetorical modes are the different ways of writing based on the writer’s purpose. For example, if I wanted to persuade someone to buy one car over another, I could use argumentation, comparison/contrast, or another similar mode. But I would not choose process analysis and probably not narration unless a story was being used to highlight, in a creative and engaging way, why one vehicle was better than the other.
How Many Rhetorical Modes Are There?
There are four main rhetorical modes. They are known as The Four Traditional Modes of Discourse. This is a fancy way of saying writers and speakers rely on four basic ways of communicating their point. However, these four discourses act as an umbrella for other modes, which is where students often become confused. Another way to think about the four main modes and their offshoots is like a Parent/Child relationship. The four modes are the parents, and the subsets and offshoots that fall under them are the children.
People tend to use one term to describe a mode and another person might use another term. It would be like one person calling dihydrogen monoxide “water” and another person calling it “liquid.”
Can More Than One Mode Be Used?
When you take beginning writing, composition or English courses, you will learn and use just one mode at a time. After learning all the modes, then you might be challenged with combining elements from two or more rhetorical modes.
A person just learning rhetorical modes might become confused by more than one mode being used in a writing. At times, several modes of writing might be needed or used to make a complete essay, story, speech, and so on. Even if more than one rhetorical mode is used, the fact remains that each mode has a set structure or formats and specific items that need to be included.
This overview will not get into all of that. Instead, you are just going to learn the basics!
Rhetorical Mode: Description
Description is the first of the four traditional modes of discourse. The point of description is to paint a verbal picture and tell what things are like. The mode of Description tends to rely on spatial order (top to bottom, left to right, et cetera). But the item can be described based on the order of importance (like describing a person from head to toe).
Rhetorical Mode: Narration
Narration is the second of the four traditional modes of discourse. The point of narration is to tell a story. The mode of Narration relies mostly on chronology (time order or placement, 1st, 2nd, 3rd) or order of importance (least to greatest or vice versa).
Rhetorical Mode: Argumentation
Argumentation is the third of the four traditional modes of discourse. The point of argumentation is to convince the reader of something. While the argument is often made by using facts, any one or combination of the three appeals (ethos, logos or pathos) can be used.
You can learn more about the three appeals here:
Rhetorical Mode: Exposition
Exposition is the fourth of the four traditional modes of discourse. The point of Exposition is to explain something. While Exposition is its own rhetorical mode it is also the main mode that acts as a “Parent” mode to several “Children” modes. Parent and Child are only used here to show the hierarchy of Exposition to the subsets and offshoots of it. The subsets and offshoots (“Children”) can stand alone as their own mode. So exposition serves as an umbrella term for several modes including itself.
The list below of types of Exposition is not exhaustive:
Exemplification is also called illustration because the writer uses examples to highlight or explain (Illustrate) his or her point. Exemplification is most often used as part of other rhetorical modes.
The mode of Cause/Effect traces reasons (causes) and outcomes or results (effects). An example of the format is: Because of X, Y is the result.
Comparison/Contrast looks at similarities (comparison) and differences (contrast). Sometimes this mode is often just called "Contrast." The reason is can be called Contrast is because anytime you look at comparing something, differences (contrasts) are assumed by what is said or not said, included or not included.
Definition (Extended Definition)
Definition is based on explaining a term, concept, idea, and so on. Since providing a one sentence definition is not enough for a whole essay, the writer needs to provide examples (see Exemplification/Illustration above). That is why sometimes this mode goes by the name "Extended Definition."
Division/Classification is much like Comparison/Contrast, except two or more items are examined. A great visual way to think about Division/Classification is scientific charts that break down family trees for plants and animals.
Process (Process Analysis)
Process explains how something is done. At times a whole essay can be written explaining how something is done or accomplished. But in order to really flesh it out, it needs analysis, which is why this mode is also called "Process Analysis." Therefore, the writer needs to extend the process to include why things are done or happen when they do and why that might be important.
Problem/Solution presents or highlights an issue (problem) and how it was/is resolved (solution). The format in simply terms would be: X is the Problem. Y is the Solution.
What Did We Learn Today?
Most of the time when people write, it is some form of exposition, especially for college writing. No one mode is more important than another. And modes are often combined for the greatest impact and to convey the clearest point.
About the Author
Stephanie Bradberry is first and foremost an educator and life-long learner. Her time in academia spans 19 years and counting as a professor of English, Literature, Business and Education, high school English teacher, and more. She loves freelance writing and editing. She is the former founder/owner of Crosby Educational Consulting, LLC and current founder/owner of Stephanie J. Bradberry LLC. Learn more at stephaniebradberry.com
About the Creator
Stephanie J. Bradberry
I have a passion for literature and anime. And I love everything involving academia, health, metaphysics and entrepreneurship. During my free time I enjoy nature, crocheting, reading, my kiddos, and writing.
Visit me @ stephaniebradberry.com
Very informative article. Thanks for sharing.
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This was outstanding!!! I must save this one and come back to it and take notes. I am making a conscience effort to improve my writing skills.
I'm in school again and love it! Thanks for creating and sharing this. I will definitely practice this as a way of knowing what my writings contain and what may be missing or in need of fine tuning.
Firstly, you have a flawless writing style - AMAZING! Secondly, I agree with Em - this is incredibly informative and I learned from it! I will also be revisiting this. :) Great job!
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