Rhetoric Research Paper

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‘Rhetoric’ has different meanings depending on the context and whether used abstractly or concretely. The word, found with slightly different spellings in modern European languages, is derived from Greek rhetorike, which first appears in Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, written about 385 BC. It is used there of the art (tekhne ) of a public speaker (rhetor), and may be defined as the art of persuasive public speaking; it can refer to the theory of discourse, to the art of orators and writers, or to speeches, writings, or sometimes other art forms ( painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and dance) when these are intended to influence an audience. In scholarly contexts ‘rhetoric’ is usually a morally neutral term, but it has had influential detractors beginning with Plato and continuing with Descartes and Locke, with the result that in modern popular language or journalism the term often describes empty or misleading verbosity.

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From the fourth century BC until the nineteenth century AD rhetoric was an academic discipline taught in most western schools and universities, following grammar and preceding dialectic in the liberal arts trivium. Its function was to teach and practice students in techniques of public speaking or written composition in prose and verse. Thousands of rhetorical handbooks, treatises, and model compositions were written from ancient to modern times; many have survived in manuscript or print, but many were ephemeral. The Romantic movement, with its rejection of rule-based composition and celebration of individual genius, and the development of science, with its assertions of objective truths, undermined study of rhetoric in the nineteenth century, so that it often came to be thought of as limited to identification of linguistic tropes, such as metaphor and metonymy. In the twentieth century, however, rhetoric experienced a renaissance in connection with new communication and media studies, new literary theories, and new forms of linguistic analysis. Confidence in objective truth was challenged, and some thinkers came to believe that all speaking and writing, even discourse about the natural and social sciences, is a rhetorical act and necessarily contains rhetorical elements. The extension of rhetoric from its traditional concern with public address to embrace discourse of all sorts is called ‘globalization’ (Gross and Keith 1997), a term perhaps better reserved for another recent development, the comparative study of the rhetorical traditions of western and nonwestern societies. In contrast, ‘rhetoric’ is sometimes the name given to introductory courses in composition at the college level. In these courses students are practiced in a variety of forms of writing, including descriptive, narrative, and argumentative compositions together with attention to spelling, word choice, grammar, arrangement, and the use of figures.

1. The Historical Development Of Rhetoric In Europe And America

Systematic study of rhetoric in Greece resulted from the need for effective public speaking by ordinary citizens under democratic governments, especially in Athens, in the fifth and fourth centuries BC. In the Athenian democracy litigants were expected to plead their own cases before large juries of fellow citizens, thus putting a premium on rhetorical ability, and the functioning of the council and popular assembly was predicated on extensive debate among citizens. The first teachers of rhetorical techniques were the traveling lecturers known as ‘sophists,’ of whom the most famous are Protagoras and Gorgias. In Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, in opposition to Gorgias and his followers, Socrates takes a very negative view of rhetoric, which he represents as a form of flattery of an audience and as lacking concern with truth, but in Plato’s later dialogue, Phaedrus, Socrates is made to describe an ideal philosophical rhetoric that would use knowledge of logic and psychology for legitimate ends. By the late fifth century BC rhetorical handbooks could be bought and studied. They seem to have included examples of introductions, narratives, probable arguments, and conclusions in the form of commonplaces that readers could adapt to specific situations.

1.1 Aristotle’s Theory Of Rhetoric

Plato’s student, Aristotle, developed some earlier teaching in greater depth and added many practical observations in his lectures, embodied in the treatise On Rhetoric (ca. 336 BC). Although it was rather little read until modern times, through the work of his students many of Aristotle’s theories became part of traditional rhetorical teaching. Major concepts and divisions of modern rhetorical theory are derived from Aristotle. He defined rhetoric abstractly as ‘an ability (or faculty: dynamis), in each case, to see the available means of persuasion.’ A speaker uses ‘nonartistic’ means of persuasion, such as witnesses or documents, and ‘invents’ artistic means of persuasion, of which there are, Aristotle said, three and only three: they are often referred to as ethos ( presentation of the character of the speaker as trustworthy), pathos (the emotions of the audience as aroused by the speaker), and logos (rational argument). There are two kinds of logical argument: the enthymeme, or rhetorical syllogism, is a deductive, probable argument in popular form; it usually takes the form of a statement with a supporting reason or of an ‘if …, then …’ hypothesis. The other type of argument is the paradigm, or example; it is an inductive argument, supporting a proposition with examples from history or analogy.

Rhetoric as Aristotle understood it dealt with probable knowledge in the realm of politics (though it was found also in speeches in dramatic and narrative literature), not with scientific or philosophical knowledge. The sources of enthymemes are of two kinds: specific topics, that is, propositions drawn from other disciplines, such as politics, ethics, psychology, economics, or military strategy; and dialectical or ‘common’ topics, that is, techniques of reasoning, such as definition, division, argument from cause and effect, etc. Aristotle defined three species of rhetoric: judicial (sometimes called forensic) rhetoric, practiced in courts of law, is concerned with determining the justice of an action in the past; deliberative rhetoric, practiced in formal or informal political assemblies, is concerned with determining the benefits or expediency of a proposed future action; epideictic (or demonstrative) rhetoric, practiced on ceremonial occasions such as a holiday or funeral, is concerned with what is honorable or dishonorable and takes the form of praise or blame of a person or thing. Many of Aristotle’s rhetorical concepts are universals, applicable to discourse in all cultures; some need modification to apply to discourse more generally. Ethos, for example, has come to refer to any moral factor or any presentation of character used in a discourse for persuasive purposes, not just the credible presentation of the speaker’s veracity, and epideictic is now viewed as ceremonial or ritual discourse concerned with instilling, transmitting, or reinvigorating cultural values.

1.2 Greco-Roman Rhetorical Theory

Aristotle was primarily interested in what came to be known as ‘invention,’ the aspect of rhetoric concerned with the use of topics and means of persuasion, but in the third book of his treatise he began with some remarks on delivery, followed by an extended discussion of prose style and finally an account of the structural parts of a public address. Subsequent Greek and Roman rhetoricians outlined a theory of rhetoric in five parts which recapitulate the process of planning and delivering a speech: invention, or the planning of the argument; arrangement, or division of the speech into parts; style (the choice of words and composition of sentences); memory (or preparation for delivery); and delivery. Greek and Roman teachers of rhetoric were especially interested in judicial oratory and had much to say about the definition of the question at issue, which is known as the stasis of a case. Three main categories of stasis were recognized, with numerous subdivisions and many variants. Stasis of fact (also called conjectural stasis) deals with the situation in which a defendant denies committing the act with which he is charged (e.g., I did not kill him); in a case of legal stasis (also called stasis of definition) the defendant admits the act but claims it was legally justified (e.g., I killed him, but in self-defense); in stasis of quality the act and its definition are admitted, but extenuating circumstances are alleged (e.g., I did not intend to kill him). A topic much discussed by the rhetoricians was argument about interpretation of the letter and intent of a law or document, something of continuing interest in modern jurisprudence.

Greek and Latin rhetorical handbooks, of which a number have survived, generally describe the arrangement of a speech into a series of parts, each with its own function. The prooemion or introduction should make the audience attentive, receptive, and well disposed, and specific suggestions were offered to effect this. A narration should follow, giving a clear, brief, and persuasive account of the facts of the case. There is then often a statement, or proposition, of what the speaker hopes to prove, with perhaps division, or partition, into a series of headings. Next comes the proof, supported by witnesses and other evidence when possible, but often largely a more or less probable argument based on the circumstances and the character of those involved. Finally comes an epilogue, or peroration, in which the speaker summarizes the argument and seeks to stir the emotions of the audience.

The subject of style was much developed by rhetoricians after Aristotle; it is found discussed in rhetorical handbooks such as Rhetoric for Herennius, in Latin and dating from the early first century BC, and also in a number of monographic works, of which the most famous is the Greek treatise On the Sublime, probably dating from second century AD (the authorship of both works is uncertain). Discussions of rhetorical style dealt with the choice of words, the composition of sentences, both simple and periodic, appropriate rhythms for spoken prose, tropes, figures, and kinds of style. A trope is a substitution of one word or phrase for another; among the most common are metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and hyperbole. Figures are divided into verbal figures, sometimes also called grammatical figures, such as alliteration and anaphora, and figures of thought, such as rhetorical question and antithesis. Style was divided by many authorities into three kinds: plain, grand, and middle; others, of whom the Greek rhetorician Hermogenes (fl. ca. AD 180) is the best known, sought to describe a series of qualities such as grandeur, beauty, sincerity, sweetness, subtlety, and vehemence, that could be blended into a harmonious and effective whole. The works of the orator Demosthenes (384–322 BC) were commonly taken as the best examples of eloquence in Greek, the speeches of Cicero (106–43 BC) in Latin, and students were encouraged to analyze and imitate these models.

The rhetoricians developed mnemonic techniques to help their students memorize speeches. The commonest system was based on identifying words or ideas with visual symbols and imagining these against a familiar spatial background. Discussions of delivery dealt with control of the voice and the use of gestures. By the first century BC the study of rhetoric had been introduced into Roman schools, although after resistance from conservatives; it always kept close to concepts taught by Greeks. The turbulent conditions of the late Roman Republic provided the context for vigorous debate in the senate, popular assembly, and law-courts, which were the venues of the rhetorical masterpieces of Cicero. He also wrote dialogs and treatises on rhetorical theory in which the orator is celebrated as the ideal figure of civilized society, to be achieved by a man learned in philosophy, law, history, literature, and rhetoric and applied in public life for the common good. Cicero recast the Aristotlean means of persuasion into what he called ‘the duties of the orator’: to teach, to charm, and to move, and he identified these with the plain, the middle, and the grand style respectively.

The establishment of the Roman Empire by Augustus after 30 BC led to a decline in opportunities for political oratory, but schools of rhetoric strengthened their dominance of the educational system. In these schools much of the students’ time went into the practice of ‘declamation,’ writing and orally delivering speeches on imaginary historical and legal themes, often expressed in highly artificial prose. The most extensive account of classical rhetorical theory and rhetorical education is found in The Education of the Orator (Institutio Oratoria) in twelve books, published by Quintilian in 95 AD. Quintilian followed Cicero in regarding the orator as the highest civic ideal, and repeatedly insisted that only a morally ‘good man’ ( ir bonus) can become a ‘good orator.’ Early Christians, Saint Paul among them, show ambivalent attitudes toward rhetoric, but preachers often borrowed techniques from classical rhetoric. About AD 426 Saint Augustine, a teacher of rhetoric before his conversion to Christianity, completed an influential treatise, On Christian Learning (De Doctrina Christiana), which is essentially a handbook of Christian rhetoric, applying Ciceronian teaching to the training of a Christian preacher and teacher.

1.3 Medieval And Renaissance Rhetoric

Although freedom of speech and opportunities for public address were limited under autocratic governments in late antiquity and the Middle Ages, some understanding of rhetoric was transmitted in encyclopedias of the liberal arts compiled by Martianus Capella (fifth century), Cassiodorus (sixth century), and Isidore of Seville (seventh century). In the later Middle Ages rhetoric found new application in handbooks of letter writing (ars dictaminis), verse composition (ars poetriae), and thematic preaching (ars praedicandi ). The recovery of a reading knowledge of Greek in Western Europe in the fifteenth century, and the rediscovery by Italian humanists of important manuscripts on rhetoric from the classical period were major contributions to the vigorous intellectual life of the Renaissance. Rhetoric as taught in schools and universities in the Renaissance was primarily based on writings by Cicero and Quintilian, but some dissenting voices were heard. In the sixteenth century Peter Ramus, lecturing in Paris, transferred the teaching of invention from the course in rhetoric to the course in dialectic and limited rhetoric to the study of style, primarily the use of tropes and figures of speech. His position proved especially popular with Calvinists and Puritans; rhetoric as first taught in America (at Harvard College, founded 1636) was based on Ramist teaching. Meanwhile, textbooks of rhetoric began to appear in the vernacular languages; the first in English was The Art or Crafte of Rhethoryke by Leonard Cox (1535). A more profound understanding of the subject is found in Francis Bacon’s Advancement of Learning (1605), where ‘the duty and office of rhetoric’ is defined as ‘to apply reason to imagination for the better moving of the will.’ A split between a narrow view of rhetoric as a linguistic or literary phenomenon, largely limited to the use of tropes and figures in written language, and a broader view of rhetoric as a persuasive tool of political speaking and discursive writing has persisted. The linguistic–literary approach has often characterized the teaching of rhetoric on the European continent and in English Departments in schools and universities; the view of rhetoric as concerned with political issues and with discursive writing flourished in eighteenth-century Britain and America and has its modern home in Departments of Speech, Communication, or Media Studies.

1.4 The Relationship Of Rhetoric To Poetics And Dialectic In The Western Tradition

Although the purpose of rhetoric was traditionally assumed to be persuasion, and the purpose of poetry to be pleasure and enjoyment, rhetoric overlapped with poetics in that both had a concern with artistic composition: word choice, tropes, figures, and sentence structure. In addition, traditional rhetorical handbooks regularly discussed narrative techniques, also applicable to narrative poetry; and rhetorical theories of the presentation of character, arousing emotions, and the effective use of humor had some application to dramatic and other poetic genres. Rhetoricians insisted that their students study poetry as a source of diction, compositional techniques, and inspiration. The close relationship between rhetoric and poetics can be well seen in Horace’s Latin didactic poem The Art of Poetry, written toward the end of the first century BC, describing the task of the poet as effectively mixing useful teaching with sweetness of expression, a view that reappears in the medieval artes poetriae, and in renaissance and early modern literary criticism such as Boileau’s L’Art poetique (1674).

Rhetoric traditionally overlapped with dialectic as practiced in schools in the treatment of logical argument, including definition, division of a question, and the use of topics. The two disciplines differed in that rhetoric was usually regarded as embodied in a continuous discourse, whether oral or written, whereas dialectic took the form of a question and answer dialogue. Moreover, rhetoric dealt with a specific question, primarily of a political or judicial sort, while dialectic dealt with general questions or philosophical universals, and perhaps most important of all, in its effort to persuade an audience rhetoric utilized the appeal of character and emotion as well as logical argument, while in dialectic only logical argument was regarded as legitimate. A good discussion of the traditional relationship of dialectic and rhetoric is found in the fourth book of Boethius’ On Topical Differentiations (De Topicis Differentiis), written in the sixth century and used as a textbook in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

2. The ‘New’ Rhetorics

The thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment of the eighteenth century were much interested in rhetoric and in their lectures and writings combined traditional elements from Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian with their new understanding of psychology and consideration of modern conditions. Among important figures in this movement were David Hume, Adam Smith, George Campbell, and Hugh Blair. Writings of Campbell and Blair were translated into several languages and used in the United States and elsewhere as textbooks of rhetoric well into the nineteenth century.

In the twentieth century many new studies of rhetoric were published, based on historical, linguistic, literary, philosophical, political, and psychological research and influenced by the growth of mass media, the use of propaganda and manipulation of audiences for economic or political advantage, and new research methods, both quantitative and qualitative. New professional organizations were founded for those interested in rhetoric, among them the Rhetoric Society of America and the International Society for the History of Rhetoric. The Quarterly Journal of Speech and other older journals published an increased number of articles on rhetoric, and new journals devoted to rhetorical subjects began to appear. These include Philosophy and Rhetoric, Rhetoric Review, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Rhetorica, and Rhetorik: Ein internationales Jahrbuch. Several dictionaries and encyclopedias of rhetoric, listed below in the Bibliography:, have also been published recently.

Among twentieth-century writers on rhetoric, two have had special influence. Kenneth Burke developed his theories of rhetoric in numerous writings over a long career. In Grammar of Motives (1945) he described his best known tool of rhetorical criticism, the pentad of act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose. In Rhetoric of Motives (1950) he defined the function of rhetoric as ‘the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols,’ and he had much to say about ‘identification’ between speaker and audience as a rhetorical technique. Burke, an American, came to the study of rhetoric from an interest in language, literature, and political philosophy; Chaim Perelman, a Belgian and author with Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca of La Rhetorique nouvelle (1958), approached rhetoric from study of argumentation and jurisprudence. He distinguished argumentation, which is always addressed to an audience, from formal proof, which is not, and explored topics of argument, divided into those of quantity and quality and those that help to identify and exemplify facts.

An example of a narrow linguistic approach to rhetoric is Rhetorique generale (1970), the work of six scholars at the University of Liege calling themselves Groupe µ. Here rhetoric was limited to the phenomenon of troping as seen in metaphor and metonomy. Of many modern studies of metaphor, one that is sensitive to rhetorical issues is Paul Ricoeur’s The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language. Another new approach to rhetoric is included in A Theory of Semiotics by Umberto Eco (1979). Eco described rhetoric from the point of view of semiotics as ‘over-coding,’ that is, a network of associations invoked by linguistic usages or by the switching of codes.

3. The Natural Sources Of Rhetoric

Many traditional features of human rhetoric have analogies in animal communication. Social animals in particular use a variety of oral, visual, and chemical signs to persuade others to do what they want, primarily in connection with mating and securing food. Animal communication shares elements of invention, arrangement, style, and delivery with human rhetoric. Many animals perform epideictic rituals, and honey bees engage in a kind of deliberation when swarming. Some intelligent animals learn to understand and even to use metonymy, but the use of metaphor, as well as logical arguments based on citation of examples, is a human development. Rhetoric in some form is a basic feature of human and nonhuman animal life, a tool in the survival of both species and individual. It can be viewed as a form of mental and physical energy, reacting to a challenge, need, or desire by producing and transmitting signs to a real or imagined audience. The simplest natural rhetorical techniques, exploited by animals and humans alike, are gesture, volume, pitch, and repetition of a message.

4. Rhetoric Without Writing In Traditional Societies

Ethnologists have collected much information about the forms and function of speech and techniques of persuasion in traditional societies in Africa, Australia, the South Pacific, and the Americas, although they generally use terms like ‘political language’ rather than ‘rhetoric’ to describe what they have observed. Formal deliberation is a regular feature of acephalous societies, where individuals gain reputations as orators, and in hierarchic societies recognized orators are employed as spokesmen for kings and chiefs. The goal of deliberation in traditional societies is usually consensus, real or imposed, and opportunity should be offered to opponents ‘to save face’ by seeming to compromise. Formal language is required of speakers on official occasions everywhere and is learned by imitation of earlier speakers. Such formal language often has archaic elements of diction and grammar, as well as conventions of etiquette and arrangement, and makes use of proverbs, examples, and traditional metaphors. Epideictic speech, as understood in the West, has nonwestern parallels in religious rituals, where extreme forms of formal language, often in- comprehensible to the general audience, are employed, frequently accompanied by music and dance. As in official deliberation, formal ritual language seems to certify the authenticity or truth of what is said and helps to perpetuate conservative social control over the society on the part of chiefs and priests. Among many examples of oral discourse Aztec huehuehtlahtolli from Mexico show an unusually complex development or rhetorical artistry. Many examples of Aztec speeches were written down by Bernardino de Sahagun and others in the sixteenth century when the genre was still flourishing.

5. Rhetoric In Nonwestern Literate Societies

The invention of writing in Mesopotamia and in China, and its spread to Egypt, Greece, India, and elsewhere clearly had some effect on rhetoric, though definition and proof of that effect is controversial. Scribes in Mesopotamia and Egypt celebrated their craft and obtained considerable power as necessary intermediaries between illiterate rulers and the general populace. Writing made possible communication over distance, record keeping, scientific and historical research, crystallization of oral poetic texts, creation of textbooks, and standardization of grammar. It may have facilitated extended logical argument and the use of complex sentences with a variety of subordinate clauses.

6. Comparative Rhetoric

The study of rhetoric on a cross-cultural basis is a recent phenomenon. It attempts to identify what is universal and what culturally specific in rhetorical practice across linguistic and cultural barriers, with the aim of formulating a General Theory of Rhetoric as well as to improve cross-cultural understanding. One approach is to test the applicability of western rhetorical concepts, including those outlined earlier in this research paper, to discursive practices in other societies. Of particular interest to date has been study of rhetoric in China, where thousands of speeches, as well as handbooks of composition, rhetorical exercises, and critical, historical, and poetic writings, dating from antiquity to modern times, provide a rich source for comparative research. One remarkable early thinker was Han Fei-tzu (born about 280 BC), sometimes called ‘the Machiavelli of China’ because of his pragmatic, cynical teaching to rulers about how to employ rhetoric to solidify their power. In the early centuries of the common era Chinese scholars produced moralizing and allegorizing commentaries on the Chinese classics that employ an extensive technical terminology, sometimes resembling but often differing from rhetorical concepts in the West. Comparable developments occurred in ancient India, where the Arthashastra of Kautilya (about 300 BC) outlines the rhetoric of power and provides extensive technical terminology for teaching and criticizing rhetoric. Poetic and dramatic theory was later developed in India to a high degree of sophistication.

In comparison with other traditions, western rhetorical practice, beginning with the Greeks, has been more tolerant of contention, personal invective, and flattery, less insistent on consensus, politeness, and restraint than elsewhere. The Greeks invented the counting of votes as a way of settling political and legal disputes, something unknown elsewhere until modern times. Although voting performs that function, its potential acceptance of a majority of one as determinative can sharpen disagreement. Artistic judicial rhetoric, with argument from probability and exploitation of circumstantial evidence in court, is largely a western phenomenon; elsewhere, judges have traditionally interrogated the principals and have usually demanded direct evidence or trial by ordeal. Handbooks of public speaking were composed in ancient China, India, and Egypt—the earliest known is the Instructions attributed to the Egyptian vizier Ptahhotep of which the earliest manuscript dates from the early second millennium BC—but outside the West rhetoric has always been taught as an aspect of politics, ethical philosophy, or literary criticism, and not as a separate discipline within a standard curriculum of liberal arts, as found in western schools and universities.

7. The Defense Of Rhetoric

Rhetoric has often been denigrated; the traditional defense, originating with Aristotle, argues that it is in itself neither good nor bad; like the other arts, it is a morally neutral tool that can be used by good or bad purposes. This is sometimes now labeled the ‘weak defense’ in contrast to a modern ‘strong defense’ that seeks to justify rhetoric on the ground that ethical and political knowledge is not based in a priori, abstract truth but is culturally formed and reformed through rhetorical engagement in concrete situations. The strong defense works best in a liberal democratic society where the majority grant some measure of toleration to minorities. On the global level it seems to justify any values and beliefs in society that are rhetorically constituted and accepted by an audience. That includes fascism, anti-Semitism, misleading advertising, chauvinism, religious bigotry, and most of the ills of history. At this level of description, we then have to fall back to defend rhetoric as a neutral tool that can be used equally for beneficial or for exploitive purposes.

8. Current Issues In The Study Of Rhetoric

Rhetoric, as practice, was affected by the invention of writing and both as practice and as theory by the invention of printing. The rhetorical implications of the electronic revolution of the late twentieth-century are only now beginning to be assessed. Rhetoric is, almost by definition, an interdisciplinary study. Throughout western history it has had a love–hate relationship with philosophy, and modern students of rhetoric draw extensively from twentieth-century philosophy in their analyses of rhetorical practices and in their efforts to show how rhetoric can be said to generate knowledge. Ideas derived from the epistemology and hermeneutics of Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer have been influential on some scholars, and others show indebtedness to Ludwig Wittgenstein, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty, Jurgen Habermas, or other recent philosophers, most of whom do not specifically discuss rhetoric. Much rhetorical research at the end of the twentieth century was concerned with issues of gender as rhetorically defined and practiced. Long overlooked evidence for speaking and writing by women has been discovered and is now being studied for the first time. The evidence from the classical period is fragmentary, but medieval, renaissance, and early modern women developed distinctive rhetorical forms, and the contemporary women’s movement has employed a variety of rhetorical techniques of its own as well as analyzing the repressive rhetoric of the past.


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