How to Argue Better: The Rhetorical Situation

Writing Tutorial

How to Argue Better: The Rhetorical Situation


The art of effective arguing is lost on most folks these days, but you don’t have to be one of them wandering in the dark. With an understanding of Mr. Bitzer’s “Rhetorical Situation” you’ll have one more tool to help you craft better arguments and write better essays.

Sample Problem

I’ve written before about how to use rhetorical practices like the Toulmin Model to structure your arguments and papers. And sure, having a well-structured, coherent argument will absolutely help you get your point across clearer.

But one area I often see students struggle in is understanding the context of their arguments. Whether it’s a simple matter of trying to figure out what to write about, or the more complicated matter of making sure your work fits the assignment, the foundation of any good argument begins with an understanding of the situation that surrounds it.

Let’s say you’re working on an argument paper for you English class, and you decide to write about dryer sheets (yeah, I said dryer sheets). Well, before you can begin, it’s important that you know (1) why you’re arguing in the first place, (2) who you’re trying to persuade, and (3) what tools of persuasion you have at your disposal.

And that’s where the “Rhetorical Situation” comes in.


Enter: my man, Lloyd F. Bitzer a.k.a. LaLoyd a.k.a. LL Cool Bitzer a.k.a. the Wise Professor.

In the late 60s, Bitzer introduced the world to the oft overlooked “Rhetorical Situation“. We knew what rhetoric was ever since Aristotle explained it to us over 2,000 years ago. It’s “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.” (from Aristotle’s Rhetoric) But what no one ever considered was how the circumstances surrounding rhetoric can affect and define it.

The Exigence Causes Your Argument
The rhetorical situation begins with the problem that needs a solution. The question that needs an answer. The cause. In movie-making they call it “the inciting indecent” — I just think of it as the thing that needs fixing — but Bitzer calls it the exigence and defines it as:

…an imperfection marked by urgency;…a defect, an obstacle, something waiting to be done, a thing which is other than it should be.

If you’re making an argument, there must be a thing that caused you to want to make the argument in the first place, doesn’t there? Let’s say you’re in an indie band called Youth in Asia, and you’re putting on a show at the local VFW hall. What’s your ‘thing that needs fixing’?

Well, you need people to come to this show don’t you? Not much of a show if there’s no audience. And how much did renting the VFW cost you? That means you’ll need to charge a cover price. Is it tomorrow or a month from now? That’s going to affect the urgency of your situation. And all of these factors will define your exigence.

Or if we’re going with the argument paper on dryer sheets, our exigence might be, the practice of courtship and mating is complicated and treacherous. Therefore our argument becomes, why not employ a carefully placed dryer sheet to draw positive attention from potential mates?

The Audience Defines Your Argument
Hey! Here’s a thing I hear every time I ask someone who their audience is and totally hasn’t gotten annoying: “Well, my audience is everyone.” No it isn’t. Stop saying that. A writer’s audience is going to define how that writer approaches a piece of writing, but the audience is never everyone.

I get it. You have something important to say and you want the whole world to hear it, but Bitzer offers us one way to narrow that focus: An audience needs to be people who can act on the exigence. They are not simply, “a body of mere hearers or readers”.

…a rhetorical audience consists only of those persons who are capable of being influenced by discourse and of being mediators of change.

So taking our first example from before: Youth in Asia needs to get the word out on their show at the VFW. Who do they need to get the word out to? They need to get the word out to “mediators of change”, people who can solve the exigence. That means (a) people who can afford the ticket price, (b) people who like indie rock (or at least people who don’t dislike indie rock), (c) people who live within a reasonable distance of the VFW, etc.

Or for the paper: If the exigence of your argument is courtship is difficult, and your argument is employing a clinging dryer sheet will suggest cleanliness, domestic competence and a lovable goof persona to possible mates, then your audience must be people looking for love in all the wrong places. They are the only ones capable of acting on the exigence. Therefore in your argument, you have no reason to address (a) people who are already in lasting relationships nor (b) those lucky Casanovas out there who do not believe that courtship is difficult.

These are all ways of narrowing your audience from the vague everyone to something much more constructive.

The Constraints Shape Your Argument
We understand our exigence, we know our audience, but what we still need to consider are those constraints that come along with an audience. And here’s where the fun begins. Bitzer defines constraints as,

…persons, events, objects, and relations which are parts of the situation because they have the power to constrain decision and action needed to modify the exigence.

The word “constraints” sounds oppressive — like a dangerous magic trick — but, from a certain point of view, it’s actually pretty freeing. Don’t think of constraints as “I can’t do this, and I can’t do that.” Think of constraints as “I get to do this, and I get to do that.”

If we look at our situation with the band again, what constraints do we have to work with to advertise that show? Budget is a constraint, as is your time frame. If you want to advertise at the local college, but your show is in the summer, then you’re not going to be able to do that. There are also constraints of the medium. Will you advertise with flyers, Facebook posts, radio ads, word of mouth? Each medium will alter how you choose to advertise.

Or if we take a look at the argument paper on dryer sheets again, what constraints can we assume to come along with our audience of frustrated singles? That, again may depend on the medium. Is this going to be an article in Cosmopolitan Magazine? Or an op-ed in the culture section of the school newspaper? Or a satirical essay on a humor website?

Each medium will affect your tone, the type of language you’re allowed to use, and also whether your audience is mostly male or female, younger or older, straight or LBGTQ, etc. These are all factors that will affect how you argue.

Also, this may come as shock to you, but some people may not think clingy dryer sheets are sexy. That’s another hurdle you will have to jump. If your audience doesn’t accept a dryer sheet clinging to a sweater as a reasonable method of attracting a mate then you’ll need to employ some crafty modes of persuasion. But now we’re dipping into a different territory of rhetoric, and that’s for another tutorial…

For now, we can stick with understanding the context of our rhetoric. And as Bitzer says, it’s “these three constituents — exigence, audience, constraints — comprise everything relevant in a rhetorical situation.”

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