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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