The four traditional modes of discourse are narration, description, exposition, and argument.
Modes of Discourse
Narration is story telling. It involves relating a series of events, usually in a chronological order. Thus, a simple narrative may begin with "Once upon a time . . . " and end with "And they lived happily ever after." The events narrated may be fictional (a made up story) or nonfictional ( the events really occurred). However, we usually reserve the title "story" for fiction. If the events actually happened, we give the writing another name such as biography, autobiography, history, after action report, or newspaper report.
As with any dichotomy, there are some cases that fall in between. For example, there is a genre called "historical fiction" that may more or less accurately portray an historical event while making up a story about real or fictional characters involved in that event. One well known example is "Gone With the Wind," the story of Scarlet O'Hara and Brett Butler during the American Civil War.
At its simplest, description tells what things are like according to the five senses. A descriptive essay, or a descriptive passage in a story, tells how things look, sound, feel, taste, and smell. Nouns and adjectives can show what a person, place, or thing are like in their material aspects. But description often tries to do more than to enable readers to visualize characters, settings, and actions. It may also try to evoke a mood or atmosphere, and this is aided by the use of simile and metaphor.
Exposition is the kind of writing that is used to inform. The prefix "Ex-" comes from Greek through Latin and means "out, or away from." The root of the word comes from the Latin verb ponere which means "to place." So translated literally, exposition means "to place out," and, of course, the thing that is placed out for us to see and understand is information.
This mode of writing has several subtypes, the most common being process analysis, definition, classification and division, comparison and contrast, cause and effect, and problem and solution. These are distinguished by purpose, as the names indicate, but also by structure or organization. For example, an experienced writer understands that an essay that compares and contrasts, or that describes a problem and presents a solution, each has its own conventional pattern of organization and that once readers recognize the intended mode, they also expect the writer to follow the organizational conventions associated with it. These organizational conventions will be explained in other glossary entries about each mode of exposition.
The final mode of discourse is argument. The purpose of argument is to convince through logic. An argument is based on a belief or opinion that the writer holds as true. The statement of this opinion is called a "thesis." It is usually presented explicitly near the beginning of the argument. To convince readers that his opinion is true, the writer must build a case to support the thesis. Building a case requires presenting reasons for accepting the thesis, and then presenting evidence to support the reasons. If the reader accepts the reasons and the evidence, then he should agree with the thesis.
The argumentative mode of discourse has a variation known as "persuasion." Argument and persuasion differ in two primary ways. The first is the intent. While the intent of argument is to present reasons and evidence to elicit logical agreement, the purpose of persuasion goes beyond this to get the reader to act on his belief. A successful argument may convince someone that candidate "X" is the best choice, but successful persuasion will make that person vote for candidate "X."
The second way the two differ is in the methods that a writer uses to win the assent of his readers. The Greek philosopher Aristotle suggested in his Rhetoric that there are three kinds of proofs that speakers or writers may use to win over an audience. He called the first logos and it employs evidence and reasoning. In other words, the writer must give facts and figures, expert testimony, illustrative examples, or other kinds of evidence, and then demonstrate how these support his thesis. Both argument and persuasion make use of logos.
But persuasion also employs pathos which is "proof based on motives and emotions" (Osborn and Osborn 379). Appeals to emotions are made primarily through narratives. For example, the story of how a young girl was raped and murdered by a registered sex offender in Florida might be used to persuade lawmakers to pass laws requiring closer monitoring of sex offenders.
Next is ethos which "assumes that people can be persuaded by the personal influence of the source of a message" (382). In a speech, the speaker must project an impression that he is honest, sincere, and trustworthy. He must establish credibility and be likable. If he is successful, the audience will be more inclined to accept and to act on his message. In written appeals, ethos is also important.
One way for a writer to establish credibility is to be well informed about the topic and to know both sides of the issue that she is arguing. If a reader senses that the writer does not know what she is talking about, then she has lost credibility and will not be able to convince or persuade. Citing authorities and including a works cited page are evidence that the writer has done her homework and that what she says is based on valid and reliable information.
An author must also show that he is fairly representing his position and that of the opposing parties and is not resorting to the deceptions of the propagandist such as stacking the deck by presenting only one side of an issue or by attempting to discredit the opposition by setting up straw men to attack.
Osborn and Osborn describe a fourth kind of proof that can be used in persuasion. They call it mythos.
|Return to Glossary|