Campbell Elements of Rhetorical Action

by Karlyn Kohrs Campbell
from The Rhetorical Act, Belmont, CA: 1982

The terminology I shall use allows critics and rhetors to describe the parts and elements of rhetorical action. The terms name seven general categories as follows:

1. Purpose: the conclusion argued (thesis) and the response desired by the author.

2. Audience: the author’s target; those listeners or readers selected by the act; the audience’s role.

3. Persona: the role adopted by the persuader in making the argument (such as teacher, preacher, reporter, prophet, etc.).

4. Tone: the author’s attitude toward the subject and the audience (such as personal, sarcastic, instructive, etc.).

5. Structure: the way the materials are organized to gain attention, develop a case, and emphasize certain elements.

6. Supporting materials: different kinds of evidence for the argument.

7. Strategies: adaptation of language, appeals, and argument to shape the materials to overcome the rhetorical problem.

Here is the rhetorical act I shall describe as it appeared in the New York Times:

Adolescent Pregnancy

1 Cambridge, Mass. –The United States faces a problem that has reached the dimensions of a national disaster, comparable to a flood, epidemic or famine–and one that results, similarly, from a colossal flaw of nature. That flaw is the precipitous, unprecedented drop in the age of puberty; the problem is the spread of teen-age pregnancy.

2 In 1840, the average young woman in Europe and the United States menstruated for the first time at the age of 17; her modern counterpart reaches the age of menstruation at about 12. Well known to biological anthropologists as the “secular trend,” this crash in the age of sexual maturity has proceeded at the rate of four months per decade, and, in most populations, continues.

3 The age of first possible parenthood has declined comparably, and early literary references to teenage marriage and parenthood have been shown to be completely unrepresentative, exaggerated or false.

4 In much of the third world, we can watch the trend beginning. Among the Kung San, an African gathering-hunting people believed to model the original human way of life, the age at first menstruation is 16 1/2 and the age at first birth 19 1/2 (within a very narrow range). Sex play in childhood and adolescence is ubiquitous, 99 percent of girls are married by age 20 (half of them before their first menstruation) and no contraception is in use.

5 There is thus no explanation for the late age at first birth except late menstruation and adolescent sterility.

6 Human beings are not designed by evolution either in body or in spirit for the experience of adolescent pregnancy. In the United States, from 1940 to 1960, births in the 15-19 maternal age group about doubled. After 1960, out-of-wedlock births in the 14-17-year age range rose steadily until 1973, when legal abortions halted the rise. But teen-age pregnancy has continued to rise to the present rate of one million a year. The fastest rise is in the youngest group, 11-13 years.

7 As maternal age drops from age 20, mortality risks for mother and child rise sharply as does the probability of birth defects. Offspring of adolescent mothers, if they survive, are more likely to have impaired intellectual functioning. Poverty, divorce, inept parenting, child neglect and child abuse are all more frequent in teen-age parents.

8 The baby, of course, is not the only sufferer. For women of all ages, the incidence of onset of mental illness increases fivefold to fifteenfold during the first month after delivery. What sort of effect may we expect it to have on a junior high school girl? Little stretch of the imagination is required to conclude that denying her an abortion is in itself a form of child abuse, even leaving aside the kitchen-abortion horror tales.

9 In every other arena of life, including the criminal court, we absolve her of responsibility for her actions; in the maternity clinic we avert our eyes and condemn her.

10 Consider the plight of these children. Assaulted by culturally sanctioned sexual innuendo and borne along by physical and physiological events that have never before befallen such young children, they are at the mercy of their own and one another’s impulses, having five years’ less experience and mental growth than their pubescent counterparts of a century ago.

11 To guide them through these biological storms, we offer religion’s thick counsel that is vague, timid, false, irrelevant ……<<the rest is deleted>>


The seven elements of descriptive analysis can now be explained in greater detail and illustrated from this rhetorical act:

1. Purpose

a. Thesis: the specific purpose, central idea, or major conclusion: “Human beings are not designed by evolution either in body or in spirit for the experience of adolescent pregnancy.”

b. Narrowing the subject: limiting the aspect of the issue to be treated. In this case, the author treats the problems of contraception and unwanted pregnancy only for persons under the age of 20.

c. Response desired: the beliefs and actions the author seeks from the audience. Konner wants us to believe the thesis, and, as a result, to support the act of providing contraceptive information and legal abortions to teenagers.

2. Audience

a. Those selected by the act: the target group the rhetor seeks to influence. Notice that although many different people read the New York Times, Konner is addressing adults and only those adults whose moral positions let them consider abortion ethically possible. In addition, Konner seems to select intelligent and well-educated people by the vocabulary he uses.

b. The role prospective audience members are asked to play: in this case, agents of change to alter our laws.

3. Persona

a. The role(s) adopted by the rhetor in making the case: Kenner adopts two roles–that of a scientific expert with the authority and competence to provide and interpret accurate information, and that of moralist, one who feels in a position to tell us what is ethically proper and morally right. He condemns the actions of those who withhold contraceptive information and abortions from teenagers on moral grounds.

4. Tone

a. Attitude toward the subject: In this case, I described this facet of tone as “dramatic” and “vivid” (see page 23). There is a great deal of personal involvement with the subject, a strong emotional commitment to it (in this sense, the tone is angry and horror-rousing), illustrated by the use of emotive and loaded language or labels.

b. Attitude toward the audience: This varies, depending on the rhetor-audience relationship. Rhetors may approach the audience as peers, as inferiors (e.g., as students to be taught) as superiors (e.g., as when addressing God in prayer, as a student addressing teachers, a lay person addressing experts, and so on). In this case, the speaker acts as an authority and seeks to teach and advise. The tone is authoritative (“I know,” “I am the expert”)–in this case, that of an expert and moral adviser.

5. Structure

a. Introduction: gaining attention, introducing the subject/issue or the perspective to be taken, narrowing the subject, creating a relationship between rhetor and audience. Not all of these are done in every introduction. In this case, the introduction is paragraph 1; it gains attention by introducing the author’s perspective and by the use of vivid figurative analogies.

b. Body: the development of and justification for the purpose. It is here that you should expect to find most supporting materials (some may appear in the introduction and conclusion) and here that the strategies become apparent. Ordinarily, development and justification occur along one of these lines:

(1) Chronological development: This is development over time (starting with the earliest and working toward the latest event) or in sequence. In this case, paragraph 6 develops a trend historically, or chronologically.

(2) Topical development: This organizes material in terms of its parts or aspects. In this case, paragraph 7 illustrates a topical exploration of the problems of teenage pregnancy: (a) mortality, (b) birth defects, (c) mental retardation, (d) socioeconomic problems, and (e) psychological problems. These “topics” are answers to the question: What kinds of problems result from teen-age motherhood?

(3) Logical development: This type of organization examines processes that are necessarily related, such as the relationship between problems and solutions. Here, the whole act is organized logically. The author asserts that the cause of increased teen-age pregnancy is earlier menarche, and he describes the problem of teenage motherhood and proposes solutions he believes are most desirable.

c. Conclusion: summarizing the major ideas and reinforcing the purpose. In this case, the conclusion is paragraphs 17 through 20; 17 summarizes, 18 and 19 make comparisons to emphasize and reinforce, and 20 places special emphasis on the particular aspect of the issue that has been Konner’s concern–the moral obligation of adults to pregnant children.

d. Transitions, often internal summaries: These are explanations and comments made to show relationships. They are reminders of what has gone before and preparations for what is to come. These should enable the audience to follow the author’s structural plan. Paragraph 5 is an internal summary or conclusion drawn from what has just been presented. The beginning of paragraph 8 is a transition. In paragraph 7 we have read of the problems for the child; the first sentence in paragraph 8 prepares us for the remainder of the paragraph, which discusses the problems of the teen-age mother. This sentence also connects the problems of the two paragraphs so that we consider them together and their impact is increased by the combination.

6. Supporting materials: evidence that describes, explains, enumerates, and proves.

a. Examples: instances or specific cases that illustrate concretely and often in detail. In this act, the story of the Kung San is an example.

b. Statistics: numerical measures of size, scope, or frequency of occurrence. There are many in this essay, for example, “at the rate of four months per decade” (paragraph 2), “99 percent of [Kung San] girls are married by age 20” (paragraph 4), “births in the 15-19 maternal age group about doubled” and “the present rate of one mill ion a year” (paragraph 6).

c. Authority: quotation of an opinion or conclusion drawn someone with expertise and experience in an area relevant the issue. Presumably, such a person has special abilities to interpret information. No specific authority is cited in this essay. The author relies on his own credentials, cited at the end of the published essay, and on a general reference to authorities: “Well known to biological anthropologists as the ‘secular trend’ ” (paragraph 2).

d. Analogy

(1) Literal analogies, usually called comparisons, compare events, objects, persons, and so on that are obviously or literally (on the face of it) alike, or in the same category–for example, comparing two quarterbacks, four pies, ten funerals, two sewage systems, three modern poets. In this essay, the literal analogies are also statistical; that is, the comparisons are numerically measured. For example, the author compares the average age at menarche of American and European women in 1840 and today, and the incidence of mental illness among women both in general and during the month after childbirth.

(2) Figurative analogies are imaginative comparisons between things, events, and persons that are not obviously alike at all but that nevertheless resemble each other in some way. According to this author, the spread of teenage pregnancy is like a flood, epidemic, and famine because both have natural causes and widespread and disastrous effects. The author also compares the failure to provide teenagers with contraceptive information to keeping “children in the dark,” and the removal of funding for abortion to removing “a lone remaining dam above an already inundated flood plain.” Such comparisons make ideas vivid, and associate what is familiar with what is unfamiliar and alien.

7. Strategies: the selection of language, appeals, arguments, and evidence and their adaptation to a particular audience, issue, and occasion.

a. Language: the selection of terms and labels for their appropriateness and impact. “Pregnant children” is a shocking phrase that immediately suggests that teen-age mothers are thrust into an inappropriate situation and are in need of help; “secular trend” is a bit of technical terminology that lends authority to the assertion.

b. Appeals: to needs, drives, and desires; to cultural values. Konner appeals to adults to protect the survival of their teenage children–and the future of society-by preventing teenage motherhood. Since adults in our society are supposed to protect children, we can see this as an appeal to a cultural value about adult responsibility. The most important strategy is the appeal on scientific or naturalistic grounds: pregnant teenagers are not moral deviants, but victims of a natural disaster, and so deserve our help (not our condemnation) just as would the victims of flood, epidemic, or famine. The issue has been cast in a different perspective from the moral one in which it is usually considered.

c. Selection of specific discursive and aesthetic techniques: Out of the many persuasive strategies available, this editorial uses these, among others:

(1) Refutation: stating an opposing argument and showing its weakness.

(2) Enthymemes: presenting an argument in such a way that the audience participates in its completion.

(3) A fortiori argument: a special form of argumentative comparison that says, in effect, if it happens in that case, how much more likely it is to occur in this one.

(4) Allusion: a reference to historical events, literature, mythology, or some other repository of cultural wisdom. In this case, the allusions occur in the conclusion and are all very indirect references to past history, to the French Revolution, the Inquisition, the Scopes trial, and the trial of Galileo.

These categories (and their subcategories) provide a set of labels or terms that lets a critic or rhetor talk about a rhetorical act in order to analyze it (divide it into its parts) and describe it as fully and accurately as possible. Some of these categories are basic and are essential starting points. For instance, as a rhetor, you must immediately decide your purpose and determine just whom you are addressing. You must select a method of organization and the supporting materials you will use. Your simplest role would be to speak or write as a peer to your classmates (but there are always the problems of the teacher, who is not a peer, and of a subject on which you are more expert than your classmates). You may also try to treat tone very simply, by saying, “Oh, I’ll be objective.” But in most cases, you will find that you have beliefs and commitments and personal involvements, and you must decide how to handle these. The category of strategy is the most difficult, and it requires the greatest experience. You will need to read and hear many rhetorical acts to see the possibilities, and you will also need to use your instructor as a resource to get suggestions about approaches you might use to overcome special elements of the rhetorical problem.

As you will discover, these elements are always present and almost always important in understanding how and why a rhetorical act succeeded or failed in its purpose. If you are to talk to yourself and to others about anything, you must share a common language. This chapter suggests some crucial terms in the language needed to talk about rhetorical acts. Descriptive analysis provides you with a vocabulary for discussing rhetorical action and with a method of identifying what is distinctive about a particular persuasive effort. Both a vocabulary and a method are needed if you are to become sophisticated consumers of contemporary persuasion. Skillful rhetors understand both their own acts and those of others. Your ability to initiate rhetorical action and to control how others influence you depends on your accuracy in describing discourse.