Pathos, Logos, Ethos

Picture a newly licensed teenager begging for a dream car from reluctant parents. Initially, the pleas might be about the ultra-fine fabulousness of the dream car or how a person is only young once. Begging might work, but usually a passionate, emotional appeal alone cannot guarantee a successful outcome.

Let’s say the teenager decides to alter tactics and provide information, such as resale value, to shine a flattering light on the dream car.

Better yet, what if someone the parents trusted became part of the persuasion? A consumer organization’s safety ratings comparison, for example. Adding in an expert that can be trusted improves the odds of the teenager being taken seriously. Assuming points can be made in favor of the dream car, approaching the argument with more than passionate insistence might soften parental opposition.

You aren’t preparing to argue for a car, you say? Greek philosopher Aristotle said these three appeals, emotional (pathos), factual (logos), and expert (ethos) belong in all persuasive communications. Let’s look at each appeal specifically.


Pathos appeals engage readers’ emotions and opinions.  Stories are one way to add pathos, but there are other, subtle ways to generate or reinforce an emotional response in your readers. Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses¹ is my source for the following examples.

Pathos can be a phrase slipped inside a factual discussion:

The chocolate flavor may come from the plant, but the silken melting delight comes from the milk, cream, and butter, which must be fresh (157).

(“Silken” and “melting delight” may certainly seem like facts for some brands of chocolate, but these aren’t quantifiable words, they are personal, variable interpretation.)

Pathos can be one carefully chosen word:

A truffle may be either black (melanosporum) or white (magnata), and can be cooked whole, though people usually shave raw slivers of it over pasta, eggs, or other culinary canvases (161).

“Canvases” makes an association between fine art and food. Using truffles, the author implies, raises a dinner plate to the level of a painting. Whether you purr at the luxurious connection or scoff at its pretentiousness, it’s an emotional reaction.

Pathos helps readers connect with a writer and/or subject. The emotional bond keeps readers interested even if the essay moves into topics outside a comfort zone. However, if the pathos is too heavy-handed, readers will notice and feel manipulated.


Logos appeals engage the reader’s intellect. Logos uses clear claims and persuasive evidence to make a rational appeal to the audience.

The facts and their accompanying explanations used in logos are organized into either inductive or deductive thinking. [Sometimes the thinking goes wrong. There is a separate post on the missteps known as logical fallacies.]

Inductive thinking begins with specific details that will add up to form a general statement. Forensic shows illustrate inductive reasoning. Specific details, such as fibers, blood spatter, tire treads, and other carefully collected crime scene details eventually add up to a general conclusion about both the body and the killer.

Deductive thinking begins with a general statement and follows a path toward a specific conclusion. Think of a television show about homicide detectives. When confronted with a unidentified body, someone on the force searches missing persons records for anyone matching the description of the deceased, interviews whoever filed a report, rules out misleading information, and determines the identity of the body. Others check criminal databases, canvas residents and businesses near the crime scene, interview witnesses, and narrow the list of possible victims. A general description of gender, race, and physical markers becomes the specifics of a name, last known address, and time of death.

Television shows are scripted and the outcome of viewer reaction is planned. So, too, with an essay. The presentation of pathos and logos is planned (scripted) to step a reader through the essay’s various points on the way to the conclusion. Since it is unlikely that your essay assignments will be about the identifications of a victim and a murderer, let me give you a few other scenarios.

Inductive reasoning can be used to present details applicable to a topic where the writer’s general conclusion might come as a surprise. Rather than state it up front and risk a reader’s challenge or disinterest, the general statement is used as the culmination of the details. Any topic where new research has changed the general thinking is a good candidate for inductive reasoning. It is also useful for controversial topics because as the topic points are developed, readers may find themselves making small compromises of opinion.

Deductive reasoning can be used when the general statement is widely known but the analysis is what the writer is presenting to the audience. For example, a 2010 CDC report says 17% of American children are obese. It’s a much-discussed topic on the news and in reality shows, so describing the problem wouldn’t need be the focus of the essay. Instead, the deductive (detective) work can focus on the conflicting reports of how to address the problem or on the range of suspected causes in the hopes of suggesting a possible solution.


Any argument benefits from the credible support (ethos) of others. Find people and/or organizations that reinforce what you say and then let them make some of your points.

For example,  Melinda Wenner, writing for Scientific American², says evidence of cooking is in the fossil record, but in order to learn to cook, humans had to learn to start and control fires. Rather than make her own claim about how that skill might have developed, she describes an anthropologist’s experiment:

Harvard University biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham … speculates that H. eretus’s closest ancestors, the australopithecines, ate raw meat but hammered it to make it flatter and easier to chew, rather like steak carpaccio. “I’ve tried hammering meat with rocks, and what happens? You get sparks,” he says. “time and time again this happens, and eventually you figure out how to control the fire” (79).

Dr. Wrangham is a credible source for three good reasons: he is an anthropologist, which means he studies early human behaviors; he works at Harvard, a place nearly all readers will assume hires leaders in their fields; and he has attempted to replicate generating sparks by rock-hammering meat, which means he has first-hand experience of the behavior.

Ethos is most required when what you are saying will be new, difficult to understand, or tough to agree with. In a 2008 New York Times Magazine article, “Blocking the Transmission of Violence,” Alex Kotlowitz³ compares the spread of violence to a viral outbreak that needs “powerful, sustained, and early intervention.” If we readers are going to believe the most effective treatment plan for violence looks much like one for viruses, he’d better call on someone who knows something about viral disease treatment to help persuade us. This is how he does it:

CeaseFire’s founder, Gary Slutkin, is an epidemiologist and physician who for 10 years battled infectious diseases in Africa. He says that violence directly mimics infections like tuberculous and AIDS, and so, he suggests, the treatment ought to mimic the regimen applied to these diseases: go after the most infected and stop the infection at its source.

Authors can bring their own ethos to a subject. Martin Luther King very carefully establishes his ethos in “Letter from Birmingham Jail”4 written to eight Alabama clergymen:

I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against “outsiders coming in.” I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference… We have some eighty-five affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Frequently we share staff, educational, and financial resources with our affiliates. Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct-action program if it were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here. I am here because I have organizational ties here (208).

King’s straightforward description of his expertise on his topic balances the emotional and controversial  nature of his claims.

Writers, look at the vocabulary in your essays. Check for places where a little emotion will help readers connect to your topic, where you can add more reasoning in your points, and where you call in experts to help. Teachers may not specifically mention the “pathos,” “logos,” and “ethos” terms, but if you see feedback on your work about emotion, logic, or authority, you can be certain they are noticing your handling of pathos, logos, and ethos.

¹  Ackerman, Diane. A Natural History of the Senses. Random House, New York. 1990. Print.
²  Wenner, Melinda. “Cooking: Preparing foods with fire may have made us humans what we are.” Scientific American. Special Issue, Understanding Origins. September 2009. Print.
³  King, Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Norton Mix. Ed. E. R. Kessler, J. A. Ora, K. N. Ings, A. L. Jones. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York. 2010. Print.
4  Alex Kotlowitz, Alex. “Blocking the Transmission of Violence,” New York Times Magazine. May 4, 2008. Print.