Visual Rhetoric

The elements of communication and persuasion are embedded in texts you don’t just read but see. Images, not just words, provide us with information and change the ways we think, reason, and act. They can speak to us in powerful ways. The simplest definition for visual rhetoric is the use of visual images to communicate meaning.

It is also important to note that visual rhetoric is not just about superior design and aesthetics. It is also about how culture and meaning are reflected, communicated, and altered by images. Visual literacy involves all the processes of knowing and responding to a visual image as well as all the thought that might go into constructing or manipulating an image. In other words, visual literacy is the ability to “read” and “write” images and the meanings those images communicate.  

Questions to Ask

  1. In which cultural context (historical era, country/nation, sub-cultural group, political climate) was this image originally produced?  
  2. Is any information (such as text, or a detail of the image) highlighted or stressed to attract your attention? Why do you think this is?
  3. What cultural values does the image evoke? Does the image reinforce these values or question them?
  4. What role is played by the words that accompany the image? How do they clarify, reinforce, blur, or contradict the image’s message?
  5. What overall impression / feeling does the image create in you?
  6. What positive or negative feelings about individuals or ideas does the image intend to evoke in its viewers (what are its appeals to pathos?)? Is this at odds with the actual feelings it evoked in you?
  7. What is your impression of the creators of this image? Do they make any overt appeals to ethos?
  8. Does the image make any appeals to logos? (In addition to facts / statistics / etc., remember also reasoning based on common sense, reasoning based on cultural values, analogies, etc.)
  9. Overall, do you think that this image makes an effective argument? Why or why not?


Michael | 2018

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The Toulmin Model

Claim or Conclusion: the position being argued for; the conclusion of the argument

Grounds, Reasons, or Facts: reasons or evidence that support the claim

Warrant: the connection between the grounds/reason and the claim, the underlying assumption that must be true for the claim to be logical, rarely explicit

Argument based on Generalization

Assumes that what is true of a well chosen sample is likely to hold for a larger group or population, or that certain things consistent with the sample can be inferred of the group/population.

Argument based on Analogy

Extrapolating from one situation or event based on the nature and outcome of a similar situation or event.  Has links to ‘case-based’ and precedent-based reasoning used in legal discourse. What is important here is the extent to which relevant similarities can be established between 2 contexts.  Are there sufficient, typical, accurate, relevant similarities?

Argument via Sign/Clue

The notion that certain types of evidence are symptomatic of some wider principle or outcome.  For example, smoke is often considered a sign for fire.

Causal Argument

Arguing that a given occurrence or event is the result of, or is affected by, factor X.  

Argument from Authority

Does person X or text X constitute an authoritative source on the issue in question?  What political, ideological or economic interests does the authority have? Is this the sort of issue in which a significant number of authorities are likely to agree on?

Argument from Principle

Locating a principle that is widely regarded as valid and showing that a situation exists in which this principle applies.  Evaluation: Is the principle widely accepted? Does it accurately apply to the situation in question? Are there commonly agreed on exceptions?  Are there ‘rival’ principles that lead to a different claim? Are the practical consequences of following the principle sufficiently desirable?

Backing: support, justification, reasons to believe the warrant

Rebuttal/Reservation: exceptions to the claim; description and rebuttal of counter-examples and counter-arguments

Qualification: specification of limits to claim, warrant and backing

Kayla | 2016

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Fallacies are defects that weaken arguments. By learning to look for them in your own and others’ writing, you can strengthen your ability to evaluate the arguments you make, read, and hear.  The examples below are a sample of the most common fallacies.

Common Fallacies: Emotional

The fallacies below appeal to inappropriately evoked emotions instead of using logic, facts, and evidence to support claims.

  • Ad Hominem (Argument to the Man): attacking a person’s character instead of the content of that person’s argument. Not simply name-calling, this argument suggests that the argument is flawed because of its source.

For example, David Horowitz as quoted in the Daily Pennsylvanian: “Anyone who says that about me [that he’s a racist bigot] is a Nazi.”

  • Argumentum Ad Ignorantiam (Argument From Ignorance): concluding that something is true since you can’t prove it is false.

For example “God must exist, since no one can demonstrate that she does not exist.”

  • Argumentum Ad Misericordiam (Appeal To Pity): appealing to a person’s unfortunate circumstance as a way of getting someone to accept a conclusion.

For example, “You need to pass me in this course, since I’ll lose my scholarship if you don’t.”

  • Argumentum Ad Populum (Argument To The People): going along with the crowd in support of a conclusion.

For example, “The majority of Americans think we should have military operations in Afghanistan; therefore, it’s the right thing to do.”

  • Argumentum Ad Verecundiam (Appeal to False Authority): appealing to a popular figure who is not an authority in that area.

For example, “Bruce Willis supports Save the Whales International, so it must be a good cause.”

Common Fallacies: Logical

The fallacies below are errors in reasoning that will undermine the logic of an argument.

  • Hasty Generalization: making assumptions about a whole group or range of cases based on a sample that is inadequate (usually because it is atypical or just too small). Stereotypes about people (“frat boys are drunkards,” “grad students are nerdy,” etc.) are a common example of the principle underlying hasty generalization.

For example: “My roommate said her philosophy class was hard, and the one I’m in is hard, too. All philosophy classes must be hard!” Two people’s experiences are, in this case, not enough on which to base a conclusion.

  • Red Herring: introducing an irrelevant or secondary subject and thereby diverting attention from the main subject.

For example, “airbags in cars do not really increase safety, and, besides, most cars with air bags are Japanese imports. We all know that foreigners cannot be trusted.”

  • Straw Man: distorting an opposing view so that it is easy to refute.

For example, “Vote against gun control, since gun control advocates believe that no one should own any type of firearm.”

  • Non Sequitur: drawing a conclusion that does not follow from the evidence.

For example, “My shoe string broke; I guess that means it’s time to buy a new car.”

  • Post Hoc (Faulty Causality): inferring a causal connection based on mere correlation.

For example, “Murder rates correlate with ice cream sales, therefore eating ice cream makes people homicidal.”

  • False Dilemma/Dichotomy: an argument that suggests only two possible alternatives, neither of which are typically very appealing. In fact, many other alternatives may exist.

For example, “To stop the spread of AIDS we must either quarantine all infected people or ban same sex marriage. Since the first option is clearly impossible, we should make same sex marriage illegal.” Note that this also commits a straw man fallacy and a bit of a red herring. It is possible for an arguer to use more than one fallacy at a time.

  • Slippery Slope: a string of “if-then” statements that form what may seem like a valid argument, but typically draw a conclusion that predicts unfounded dire consequences.

For example, “If we don’t stop the Communists in South Vietnam, they’ll take over the whole country. If they take over Vietnam, next they’ll conquer Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand. Once they have Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand – they’ll overrun Indonesia and the rest of the Pacific Rim. Once they conquer the Pacific Rim, they’ll take Japan –and the next thing you know, they’ll be off the coast of California!The implicit conclusion here is that if we don’t stop the North Vietnamese from invading South Vietnam, America will become communist.” 

A Tip for Finding Fallacies

When writing your own essays, you have an obligation to be an ethical, credible source. In order to be credible and avoid fallacies, make sure to research all sides of the argument, be ready to explain any generalizations (especially broad ones such as “All Catholics believe…”), list your claims and the evidence you have for each claim, and double check to ensure you fairly characterize the views of others.


Kaylan | 2016

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STOP!  There are some terms you need to know first …

Premise: a statement that assumes something to be true

Conditional Premise: a statement where “if” is a hypothesis and “then” is a conclusion

Logic: the relationship between ideas, intended to produce truthful conclusions


Inductive Logic: Specific to General

Inductive reasoning allows for the possibility that a conclusion is false, even if all of the premises are true. Instead of being valid or invalid, inductive arguments are either strong or weak, which describes how probable it is that the conclusion is true. Inductive reasoning is inherently uncertain. It only deals in degrees to which, given the premises, the conclusion is credible according to some theory of evidence.

For example:

 (Premise) 100% of biological life forms that we know of depend on liquid water to exist.        

 (Strong)  If we discover a new biological life form it will likely depend on liquid water to exist.     


(Premise) All the swans I have ever seen are white.        

(Weak)    All swans are probably white. 


Generalization: proceed from a premise about a sample to a conclusion about a population

(Premise)       The majority of college students at McDaniel College don’t get enough sleep.         

(Conclusion) Therefore, the majority of all college students probably don’t get enough sleep.    


Prediction: draws a conclusion about a future individual from a past sample

(Premise)       Most cats panic when placed in a moving vehicle.        

(Conclusion) My cat will probably hate riding in the car too    


Argument from Analogy: noting the shared properties of two or more things, and from this premise inferring that they also share some further property

(Premise)        Humans can move about, solve mathematical equations, win chess games, and feel pain.  

(Premise)       Androids can also move about, solve math equations, and win chess games.        

(Conclusion) Thus, itʼs probable that Androids, too, can feel pain.   


Deductive Logic: General to Specific

In deductive reasoning, if something is true of a class, or group, of things in general, it is also true for all members of that class. For example:

(Premise)            All human beings will, one day, die.        

(Premise)            Anastasia is a human being.        

(Logical Truth) → Anastasia will die.           


Assuming that both of the first statements are true, the final statement must also be true.  This type of reasoning is only sound, however, if the generalization premise is true. Otherwise, a statement can be “logical” according to deduction and still be untrue.  For example:

(Faulty Premise)    All grandfathers are bald men.         

(Premise)                Harold is a bald man.        

(Logical Untruth) ↛ Harold is a grandfather.       


Law of Detachment:

The law of detachment takes two premises, a conditional premise and a premise about a member of a class.  Based on the truth of both premises, a conclusion can be deduced.

(Conditional Premise)                                If an angle is between 90° and 180°, then it is an obtuse angle. 

(Premise about a Member of a Class)    Angle A is 120°. 

(Logical Truth)                                            → Angle A is an obtuse angle.          


Law of Syllogism:

The law of syllogism takes two conditional premises and forms a conclusion by combining the hypothetical (if) aspect of one statement with the conclusion (then) of another.  

(Conditional Premise)   If Larry is sick, then he will be absent. 

(Conditional Premise)   If Larry is absent, he will miss his classwork. 

(Logical Truth)              → Therefore, if Larry is sick, he will miss his classwork.           


Law of Contrapositive:

The law of contrapositive states that, in a conditional premise, if the conclusion is false, then the hypothesis must be false also.

(Conditional Premise)                                               If it is raining, then there are clouds in the sky. 

(Premise Proving the Prior Conclusion False)      There are no clouds in the sky.           

 (Logical Truth)                                                          → Thus, it is not raining.           

Kayla | 2016

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Rhetorical Situation

Many essays and assignments focus entirely on the “what” — on the content of an author’s argument.  Rhetorical analysis also asks you to think about “how” — on the manner in which the author constructed and presented the argument. Each argument is constructed in a specific context, and this is considered the rhetorical situation. The rhetorical situation is made up of three components: author, audience, and purpose. While some forms of argument are straightforward, others can be extremely complex. Satire — The Colbert Report, for example — is a sophisticated type of argument with a complex rhetorical situation.


This is the person, people, or organization who are responsible for the content and composition of the argument. The author is the decision maker, so this category can include multiple people so long as all of them have influence over the final product.

Example: Stephen Colbert, the writers of The Colbert Report, and Comedy Central


Real Audience

This is the audience of people who actually read or encounter the argument.

Example: My grandmother watches a clip from The Colbert Report while searching for quilting videos on YouTube. Based on my grandmother’s age, political views, and general interests, she is not the intended audience, even though she did actually watch some of it.

Implied Audience

This is the audience of people for whom the text itself says it is intended, but not the author’s true audience.

Example: Conservative Americans are explicitly addressed in The Colbert Report, especially those who might watch also enjoy watching other conservative pundits.

Intended Audience

This is the audience of people whom the author hopes will read and be influenced by the argument.

Example: Liberal Americans are the ones meant to laugh at the jokes in The Colbert Report, especially young voters or the politically cynical.


Stated/Implied Purpose

This is the purpose according to the argument itself. This purpose can either be determined by direct statements by the author or uncovered through analysis of tone and style.

Example: Stephen Colbert’s stated purpose is to deliver serious news; the audience finds humor in it because they know his actual purpose is to ridicule events and people in the news.

Actual Purpose

This is the purpose you believe the author had in mind when creating the argument. This may be the same as the stated purpose in more direct forms of writing, or it may be different from what the author states.

Example: Stephen Colbert wants to joke about events and people in the news and, perhaps, also convince his viewers to take more politically liberal stances. The exaggerated nature of his pundit persona indicates that the audience is not meant to take his statements seriously. 

Reading Strategies:

You will want to read the text you plan to analyze both “with the grain” and “against the grain.” In reading “with the grain,” you “believe” everything the author tells you without question. In reading “against the grain,” you pose challenges to the author’s claims and techniques. Read your text a few times, making note of the following features and marking examples.


  • Patterns of Organization
  • Appeals to Ethos
  • Appeals to Logos
  • Appeals to Pathos
  • Figurative Language
  • Patterns of Opposition

Visual/ Aural:

  • Color Scheme
  • Page Layout
  • Fonts/Typefaces
  • Images
  • Graphics
  • Narrator Characteristics
  • Music/Soundtrack
  • Sound Effects


Despite the focus on “how,” make sure not to ignore the “what.”  Consider what kinds of claims the author is making and where.

Claims of Fact: usually based on objective facts but are sometimes interpreted by the author for the purpose of argument, making them more like an opinion.

    Example: The automotive industry has depleted our natural resources to the point of crisis.

Claims of Value: present an evaluation or judgment of a situation. They often use value-laden words like variations of “good,” “bad,” “moral,” “immoral,” “beautiful,” “ugly,” etc.

     Example: Developing the natural wilderness in Alaska would irreversibly mar the beauty of the land.

Claims of Policy: often call for action and use “should” or “must” statements.

    Example: As a state-funded institution, the university should stop outsourcing jobs to overseas companies and hire in-state employees to bolster the local economy.


Vanessa Flora-Nakoski |  2016

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Understanding Audience

Some Key Terms

Intended Audience

This is the specific person or group that the author wants to influence. Good writers/speakers think carefully about the specific characteristics of their intended audience.

Example: single men in their mid-30s who live in the Baltimore region

Implied/Invoked Audience

This is the specific person or group that the author either implicitly or explicitly states as the intended audience. This person or group may not be the actual intended audience, but they may discussed in the argument in order to make a point to a third group.

Example: children in elementary school who are fans of Star Wars — but actually their parents

Real Audience

This is anyone who actually encounters the argument, whether intended or not. Written argument, especially, survive past their original rhetorical context and may be read by people who do not share the characteristics or understanding of the original, intended audience.

Example: historians reading the personal journal of someone from a prior era

Why is choosing an audience important?

We all have many ways of talking and writing — we can be formal or informal, concise or detailed, technical, specialized or general. Normally we choose a writing strategy based on who we think of as our reader. Knowing your audience before you write will make the process of writing easier because it simplifies the decisions you have to make. Writing with a specific audience in mind will also give your essay more unity of purpose and style and will involve your reader more directly in your argument.

How does choosing an audience affect the purpose?

If you don’t have a particular intended audience in mind, or if you say that your essay is for “everybody” or “society” or “people interested in this topic,” your writing will tend to be as general as your intention. Your real purpose will be (or seem to be) turning in an assignment to the teacher. On the other hand, if you see yourself as addressing a real reader, you will have a much clearer understanding of your purpose, and your reader will feel more involved.

How does choosing an audience affect the style, support, tone, or vocabulary?

Often you have to decide how formal or casual to make your essay. Knowing the intended audience, then, enables you to ask questions and make choices rather than following arbitrary rules. You will also have to decide how much and what kind of support to give for a point. The teacher may state a rule like “your term paper must contain at least ten sources,” but the real question is “what support does the intended audience need?” Real-world writers think in these terms, not in terms of length or number of sources. You may also have to choose whether or not to define special terms; if you know your intended reader’s level of expertise, this choice is much easier.

How specific should my intended audience be?

The more specific your choices, the easier your argument will be.  Generally, three to four descriptors is a good place to start. If you say that your intended audience is “men,” that is far too broad. Men are a diverse group of people with a wide range of backgrounds and beliefs. On the other hand, “working-class men with children in daycare” is a very specific group of people who are likely to have shared experiences and attitudes.

What does your audience believe?

Although you may belong to the same general group as your intended readers, it’s often a mistake to assume that your readers already agree with you or know the material you’re trying to convey. Think of it this way: if the readers agree totally with you, why do they need to read your statement? But if you assume that your readers are either uncommitted or leaning to the other side, then you will know from the start what and why to argue your point.

What factors about my audience should I consider when writing?

There is a fine line between relying on general patterns and stereotyping your audience.  Think about the intersections between the various aspects of your audience’s identity.  The chart below shows several factors that might influence a person’s beliefs, attitudes, and identity.

Diversity Wheel

Diversity Layers Wheel by Austin Community College Library Services


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