25 Elements of an Argument: Logos, Ethos, Pathos, and Kairos

Core Curriculum and Christina Frasier

Learning Objectives

  • Define argument in an academic context.
  • Understand an author’s argumentative strategy and its effectiveness.
  • Learn about the different devices for an argument.

Identifying and analyzing arguments

When writers and speakers want to persuade their audiences, they have a series of tools or strategies at their disposal. These strategies can be called modes of persuasion. Because of their effectiveness, these modes have been employed by countless people over thousands of years. Among them were the ancient Greeks, who recognized that speakers frequently appealed to logic, to the speaker’s own character, and to the audience’s emotions, while paying special attention to the timing of an argument. The Greeks labeled these efforts, respectively, as logos, ethos, pathos, and kairos.

1. What is an argument?

An argument is a systematic attempt to support a debatable claim using logical explanations and reliable evidence. The thesis or claim is debatable because an audience may not find it readily believable without supporting evidence. Stating a debatable claim alone is not sufficient for an argument, however. The author must also explain her reasoning and offer adequate and appropriate examples or data or other forms of evidence to support the claim.

2. How do I identify an author’s argument?

Writers and speakers often state their argument as part of their introduction. In this opening to a piece on children’s beauty pageants by J. Salzano (2013), her main claim is made in the final sentence:

When most people think of normal activities for a six year-old girl, they picture a sea full of Barbie dolls, coloring books and dress up clothes … Popular shows such as “Toddlers and Tiaras”, which revolves around exaggerated filming of child pageantry shows America one narrow view of what the pageant world is all about …The media distorts how society views pageants but they can be beneficial because they give children contestants useful life lessons and they can be viewed on the same positive level as other popular competitive sports.

In journalistic writing, it’s also common to find the argument in the title, as in the article “Pet ownership in college can be a full time job” (Banus, 2013).

Sometimes the argument is made in the conclusion. Sometimes, however, an argument is never distilled into one or two sentences. In that case, it’s up to the audience to decide what argument is being made based on the sum of all the claims the author makes.

3. What is an effective argument?

An effective argument supports a main claim—that is, a thesis—with a set of supporting claims. These key supporting ideas often are stated as topic sentences in body paragraphs. Each stage of the argument—each key supporting idea—is illustrated with logical and reliable evidence.

An effective argument also shows a clear understanding of differing viewpoints and does its best to acknowledge competing claims.

For example, in her argument in support of Oregon’s “pay it forward” college tuition plan, B. Dudley (2013) agrees with one set of opponents when she suggests that “we certainly agree that both the state and federal governments’ contributions to higher education need to be increased.” Yet she concludes that “pay it forward” is a good interim plan by arguing that “those are battles that will be fought out over several years. In the meantime, our students need and deserve a chance to get a college education without incurring enormous unrelenting debt.”

Dudley has not only acknowledged a set of opponents here, she has agreed that their argument is the best long-term goal.

4. What is an ineffective argument?

An argument may be ineffective for a variety of reasons. Maybe the “argument” does not make a claim that an academic audience would disagree with. For example, “smoking is bad for you” might be considered an ineffective argument, not because it is wrong but because your audience already knows this.

An argument also might be ineffective because the support for it is nonexistent. Paragraphs may make claim after claim while offering little to no evidence or illustration. Another reason that an argument may be ineffective is that the support is not logical. An example of an illogical argument would be that global warming doesn’t exist because it snowed in the Arizona desert last winter. An argument also may be ineffective if the evidence is unreliable, as would be the case if an author used material from a corporation’s website to praise or defend the company.

An argument also might be ineffective because it is too broad, which makes the claim difficult to “prove” in a short essay. Claims that gun control is needed/not needed or that abortion should be legal/illegal are examples of assertions that may lead to overly broad—and therefore ineffective—arguments.

Making a broad claim about an ongoing debate also makes it difficult to bring new perspectives to the discussion.

5. What is logos?

An appeal to logos relies upon on reason or logic. If an author appeals to logos, she is implying that her argument is convincing because it is rational (i.e., it “makes sense”).

The following logos-based appeal from Grist Magazine’s website aims to convince readers that they should do something about global warming:

  • every year since 1992 has been warmer than 1992;
  • the ten hottest years on record occurred in the last 15;
  • every year since 1976 has been warmer than 1976;
  • the 20 hottest years on record occurred in the last 25;
  • every year since 1956 has been warmer than 1956; and
  • every year since 1917 has been warmer than 1917.

(Beck, 2006)

Ideally, appeals to logos stand on their own, regardless of who is speaking and without the need to appeal to emotions.

6.  How do I recognize and evaluate logos in an argument?

While authors are free to draw on any of the three modes of persuasion, most academic arguments are grounded in logic, the careful use of reasoning, and evidence.

To determine whether a logos-based appeal is effective, ask the following questions:

  • How rational are the author’s claims? Are they logical?
  • Does the author have enough information to support his argument? Is the information sufficient?
  • Is the author’s information typical, or is it so unusual that it really can’t be used to suggest that the claims in the argument are generally true?
  • How reliable are the author’s facts? Is his information accurate?
  • Does the information the author is including actually have any bearing on his claims? Is the information relevant?

When you ask whether the author’s information is sufficient, typical, accurate, and relevant, you are applying the STAR criteria: Sufficiency, Typicality, Accuracy, and Relevance.

7. What is ethos?

An appeal to ethos emphasizes the character of the author or speaker. If an author appeals to his ethos, he is suggesting that an audience should believe his claims because he is honest, trustworthy, and knowledgeable.

If the writer (or his publisher) emphasizes his authority or qualifications, or if he appeals to a shared sense of morality, he is making an appeal to his ethos.  A student writer might bolster his ethos by listing an author’s credentials:

Raghu Murtugudde is executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Forecasting System at the University of Maryland Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center (ESSIC) and a professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science. (LiveScience, 2013)

This statement of Murtugudde’s credentials is a rather overt appeal to his ethos, but there are many subtler versions of such appeals. A writer bolsters her ethos by presenting her papers in error-free prose, with no formatting anomalies. A speaker increases his ethos by dressing suitably and using style and tone appropriate to his audience. Both writers and speakers bolster their ethos by being knowledgeable and fair.

8. How do I recognize and evaluate ethos in an argument?

To determine whether an ethos-based appeal is effective, ask the following questions:

  • How knowledgeable is the author about her topic?
  • Is the author employing a confident, authoritative tone in her writing?
  • Is the author using reliable sources?
  • Has the author cited her sources accurately?
  • Does the author acknowledge the existence of other points of view?
  • Should the author be using other modes of appeal along with ethos, or is her argument primarily ethos-based?
  • Has the author proofread her work?

9. What is pathos?

An appeal to pathos uses emotion to persuade. If an author appeals to pathos, she is counting on an emotional response (pity, compassion, anger, fear, excitement, nostalgia, among others) to bring the reader/listener over to her side.

The following is a pathos-based appeal from the trailer for Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth meant to convince viewers that they should do something about global warming (and, of course, watch the movie):

The Arctic is experiencing faster melting. If this [Arctic ice] were to go, sea level worldwide would go up 20 feet. . . . Here’s Manhattan. The World Trade Center Memorial would be underwater. Think of the impact of a couple hundred thousand refugees and then imagine 100 million.  . . . We have to act together to solve this global crisis. Our ability to live is what is at stake. (Gore, 2007)

Gore’s statement about the World Trade Center Memorial clearly appeals to our emotions. After all, he could have chosen countless other landmarks in the country, but he chose the site commemorating the loss of several thousand innocent civilians from an act of terrorism. We might assume, then, that his primary goal is to instill a sense of grief, fear, and outrage.

10. How do I recognize and evaluate pathos in an argument?

To determine whether a pathos-based appeal is effective, ask the following questions:

  • How vivid and engaging is the author’s language?
  • What kinds of anecdotes or stories does the author include that seem intended to appeal to his reader’s emotions?
  • Should the author be using other modes of appeal along with pathos, or is his argument primarily pathos-based?

11.  What is the rhetorical triangle?

The rhetorical triangle is a term used to describe the three major components of a communication situation:  the author, the audience, and the text. The author is the speaker or writer who produces the text, the audience is the listener or reader who receives the text, and the text is the set of words and/or images that is transmitted (or communicated) between the two parties (i.e., the author and the audience).

You can visualize this relationship like this:



Author                   Text

The three points of the rhetorical triangle reflect and influence each other. For example, a speaker who is advocating for a new sports team on campus will present himself differently and argue different points depending upon whether he is making his case to a group of students or to the Radford University Board of Visitors. Good communicators know that a change in any one of the three elements of the rhetorical triangle will affect the other two elements.

12. How are logos, ethos, and pathos related to the rhetorical triangle?

Logos, ethos, and pathos can be paired with the three points of the rhetorical triangle.  Logos relies upon the rational qualities of the text or message to convince the reader/listener; ethos emphasizes the qualities of the author; and pathos draws on the emotional response of the audience.

You can visualize the relationship like this:

Audience (Pathos)


Author (Ethos)     Text (Logos)

While it is helpful to recognize the relationship between logos, ethos, and pathos and the three points of the rhetorical triangle, it is also important to note that actual communication situations are more complicated. For example, a speaker at a funeral might begin to cry as he relates a story of the deceased, thus bringing his audience to tears. It would be inappropriate, in this instance, to associate pathos only with the audience.

13. What is kairos?  

When an author employs kairos, she recognizes the timeliness of an issue, addresses a subject or point at an appropriate time, and/or provides examples that reflect a particular cultural moment. If an author uses kairos, she is likely addressing a current event or pressing issue or she has organized her claims in an appropriate and effective manner.

For example,  Tareg Hajj’s 2013 essay “The Grading Dispute at Radford University” addresses the issue of adding a plus and minus to final grades given at Radford University. Hajj was a freshman in the first undergraduate class to enter under the new grading system, and emotions were high regarding the changes that academic year. While the issue seems settled and perhaps uninteresting now, it was kairotic in its time.

When the a controversy moves past its kairotic window of relevance, we call the argument or discussion moot. Arguments can be become moot when the issue is resolved.

Some arguments leave the public consciousness for a while, only to resurface later. An example this would be the ongoing and changing nature of debates focusing on climate change.

14. How do I recognize and evaluate kairos in an argument? 

To determine whether a written argument or claim is kairotic, ask the following questions:

  • How current or relevant is the issue and/or the evidence?
  • Where and/or when is the argument being made?
  • Are points and/or illustrations ordered effectively? (Do claims build upon one another? Does each appear at the right moment?)

15. How can logos, ethos, pathos, and kairos work together?

It is important to note that one passage or even statement might draw on more than one appeal. The passage above from Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth certainly is designed to evoke emotion, but it also relies on observations of the increasing speed of melting in the Arctic. The word “inconvenient” provides a nod to kairos and the timing of the argument.

The following example from economists Gernot Wagner and Martin L. Weitzman uses appeals to logos, ethos, and pathos and shows an awareness of kairos:

What is scarier still is the uncertainty about the truly extreme outcomes [of climate change]. Our own calculations estimate that there is a roughly 5 percent to 10 percent chance that the eventual average temperature could be 6 degrees Celsius higher [than pre-industrial levels], rather than 3. What this would mean is outside anyone’s imagination, perhaps even Dante’s. (Wagner & Weitzman, 2013; brackets added)

Wagner and Weitzman refer to their “own calculations” (ethos) about the percent chance that temperature increases would double original expectations (logos). They then invoke the poet Dante Alighieri, whose Inferno describes the torments of Hell in hauntingly vivid fashion (pathos). Their attention to kairos is also signalled by the opening phrase “[w]hat is scarier still,” indicating that the reader has been given some less scary scenarios in order to prepare them for this more terrifying piece of evidence.

It is important not only to recognize the use of the different appeals, but also to evaluate their effectiveness. In addition, it’s important to recognize that they might not always be easy to separate; notice that in the example above, logos, ethos, pathos, and kairos are all present in two sentences. Further, “what is scarier still” works to both appeal to pathos and to indicate the writer’s awareness of the right time to present each bit of information. To what extent are you convinced by the different modes of persuasion? To what extent should you be?


References for Approaches to Written Argument

Banus, S. (2013 , April 17). Pet ownership in college can be a full time job. The Tartan. Retrieved from http://www.rutartan.com/wordpress/?p=5498

Beck, C.  (2006, October 31).  One record year is not global warming – Luckily, there are plenty more years to consider. Grist. Retrieved from http://grist.org/climate-energy/one-record-year-is-not-global-warming/

Dudley, B. (2013, July 10). A desperate measure for desperate times. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2013/07/09/study-nowpay-later/desperate-times-call-for-desperate-measures

Murtugudde, R. (2013, November 27). Climate change needs an elephant whisperer. LiveScience. Retrieved from www.livescience.com/41578-climate-change-needs-communicators.html

Salzano, J. (2013, April 10). Glitter and glamour: Inside children beauty pageants. The Tartan.Retrieved from www.rutartan.com/wordpress/?p=5459

Wagner, G., & M. Weitzman. (2013, October 10). Inconvenient uncertainties. The New York Times. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/2013/10/11/opinion/inconvenient-uncertainties.html.


Adapted from Radford University Core Handbook, by Core Curriculum, Public Domain


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