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What Is a Rhetorical Situation?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated May 17, 2024
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A rhetorical situation is a broad term for a situation involving examples of rhetoric or particular kinds of speaking. The specific parameters of a rhetorical situation differ according to opposing viewpoints. Some define a rhetorical situation as consisting of an issue, an audience, and its surrounding context, where others would define the term as being composed of the speaker, the audience, and the relevant issue.

Along with the controversy over what specifically composes a rhetorical situation, there is also debate around its origin and impact on the actual language or rhetoric. Some theories propose that situations cause certain kinds of rhetoric to occur, where others contend that it is the rhetoric that creates the situation, or creates relevance between the speaker and the audience.

One aspect that is important in most views of rhetorical situations is “constraints.” The constraints are part of the context. They are the boundaries of what happens in a rhetorical situation. This is just one of the more abstract facets of these situations that students or researchers may study. Some in the academic world refer to these restraints with a Greek word, kairos that in ancient Greek society, expressed a similar concept.

In general, rhetorical situations are often observed or analyzed in an academic context. Instructors in some areas of the humanities may ask students to contemplate a rhetorical situation, and provide detailed, intelligent commentary on it. This kind of research also takes place in some areas of secondary education, where a high school class might include analysis of rhetorical situations. Also, in some kinds of standardized testing, students may be asked to read text that represents a particular rhetorical situation, and to identify parts of the author’s intent in order to explain them on the test. Students may use strategies like "text mapping" to figure out how a writer works within a rhetorical situation.

In its broadest sense, rhetorical situations are simply part of a theory of discourse. It is a construct that helps readers or other audiences to make sense of a “piece of communication,” such as a text or transcript. It leads to a wider recognition of the events and relationships surrounding that individual piece of communication. In other words, it helps audiences to analyze text or speech from a more intelligent standpoint.

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