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What is Rhetorical Analysis?

There is no widely accepted definition of rhetorical analysis, nor is there one for rhetoric, which is a word that has many meanings. In every day speech, the word rhetoric is commonly used to refer to manipulative or even deceitful speech1, especially when used in the context of political or commercial discourse. For example, a frequent connotation of rhetoric in political discourse is empty2 (as in Campaign promises proved to be nothing but empty rhetoric). However, not all of the uses of the word appear in negative contexts, nor does the word have a negative connotation historically.

According to one of the theories2, a teaching of rhetoric dates back as much as 467 B.C., where it grew out of necessity to argue better cases in the courtroom. The birth and development of rhetoric have been associated with that of democracy – as authoritative ruling gave way to democracy, the role of speech and rhetoric gained ground. In its rather long history, approaches to rhetoric have changed considerably. However, what has remained constant throughout the centuries is the focus on examining how language is used to achieve certain purposes. Thus, within the context of this course, we define rhetorical analysis as “an effort to understand how people within specific social situations attempt to influence others through language” (Selzer 2004: 281).