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Find out what pathos is and how to use it in your persuasive writing. Learn about the three appeals of persuasive writing, and then take a quiz to test your knowledge.

Definition

Pathos is one of the three ‘appeals’ of persuasive writing.

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When you use pathos, you’re appealing to your readers’ emotions to convince them of something. The other two appeals of persuasive writing are logos (logic) and ethos (credibility). All three were identified by Aristotle in 350 BC.

How to Use Pathos

Sensory Detail

Using sensory details–things you can see, feel, smell and hear–is an effective way to invoke an emotional response. It’s the familiar concept of ‘show vs. tell’. When a pizza company advertises, they don’t just tell you the food is good, they show you what it looks like and the facial expression of people enjoying it. You probably won’t use images in your persuasive essay, but if you’re hoping to persuade people with emotion, it’s important to include plenty of sensory detail. For example, if you’re writing to persuade the reader about the importance of helmet laws, you might begin with sensory details of specific injuries people suffered because they weren’t wearing helmets.

Strong Word Choices

You can connect your reader emotionally to your argument when you use strong word choices.

For a stronger emotional connection, avoid ordinary words when you’re describing extraordinary circumstances. Don’t be afraid to replace ‘bad’ or ‘sad’ with ‘horrific’ or ‘tragic’ if the circumstances truly reflect that.

Anecdotes

An anecdote is a brief story and useful for illustrating a point.

Anecdotes are more inviting than a list of facts and figures, so it’s wise to use them at the beginning of your persuasive essay. You can add the facts and research (logos) for support in subsequent paragraphs. To apply the technique of pathos, choose anecdotes that will draw an emotional response from your readers.

For example, if you’re writing about the need for more police in a particular neighborhood, or more shelters for the homeless, begin with an anecdote about the people suffering in these conditions.

Rhetorical Triangle: Pathos Logos and Ethos

When you combine pathos, logos and ethos, you’re using the rhetorical triangle of effective persuasion. Rhetoric is language that persuades. Pathos (emotion) is only one way to effectively persuade your reader. If emotion isn’t supported with facts (logos) and your overall credibility (ethos), you may attract attention, but you won’t be as effective.One way to increase your ethos is by sharing your personal experience, and by including professional credentials if these are relevant.

For example if you’re a veterinarian writing about animal cruelty, you could boost your ethos by mentioning your veterinary degree or by including the suffix ‘DVM’ after your name. Your ethos also increases when you use a balanced approach, which you can do by considering opposing views. You can also increase your credibility by using outside sources for support. Use sources your readers will recognize as reliable, such as research from scholarly journals or reputable news organizations.

Avoid Fallacies

Be careful to avoid logical fallacies in your persuasive writing. A common fallacy with pathos is the slippery slope.

Example of slippery slope: The recent increase in tuition at the state university is a sign that no one will be able to afford college in five years.This fallacy exploits your reader’s fears, and undermines your credibility. Always use the tool of pathos carefully, and avoid relying too heavily on emotion to persuade.

Summary

Find a dramatic anecdote that illustrates your point, and practice your skills of descriptive writing to increase the emotional appeal in your writing. Remember that pathos alone isn’t convincing in the long run without a credible author and solid evidence.

Try to keep all three appeals in balance.

Learning Outcomes

Once you are done, you should be able to:

  • Recall the definition for ‘pathos’
  • Describe how to use pathos in writing
  • Explain the rhetorical triangle of effective persuasion
  • State the effect of the slippery slope on an audience
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