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Overview and Definitions of Rhetorical Modes: The Four Traditional Modes of Discourse

Stephanie Bradberry is an herbalist, naturopath, and energy healer. Her academic career includes teaching, tutoring, writing and editing.


Rhetorical modes can be daunting to beginning writer or even long time writers and students who never heard them referred to as such. So what are rhetorical modes? Rhetorical modes are the different ways of writing based on purpose. For example, if I wanted to persuade someone to buy one toothpaste over another, I could use argumentation, comparison/contrast or another similar mode. But I would not use process analysis and probably not narration unless a story was used to highlight in a creative and engaging way why one was better than the other.

There are four main rhetorical modes known as The Four Traditional Modes of Discourse. This is a fancy way of saying writers and speakers rely on four overarching modes. However, these four act as an umbrella for other modes, which is where students often become confused. People tend to use one term to describe a mode and another person something different. Then, it may be explained to students that several modes of writing may be needed to make a complete essay. However, the complication comes in the fact that each modes has a set structure(s) and specific items that need to be included. This overview will not get into all of that. Instead, you are just going to learn the basics!



This is the first of the four traditional modes of discourse. The point of description is to paint a verbal picture and tell what things are like. This mode tends to rely on spatial order (top to bottom, left to right, etc.). But the item can be described based on the order of importance.



This is the second of the four traditional modes of discourse. The point of narration is to tell a story. this mode relies mostly on chronology (time order) or order of importance.



This is the third of the four traditional modes of discourse. Exposition is its own rhetorical mode and one of the four main modes of discourse. However, it is also the main one that acts as a mother mode to several baby modes (please note that mother and baby are used by me alone. The babies can certainly stand on their own as adults). So exposition serves as an umbrella term for several modes including itself. The list below is not exhaustive.

Exemplification (Illustration)

Exemplification is also called illustration because the writer uses examples to highlight or explain (illustrate) his or her point. Exemplification is most often used as part of other rhetorical modes.

Cause/Effect (Cause/Result)

The mode of cause/effect traces reasons (causes) and outcomes or results (effects).

Comparison/Contrast (Contrast)

Comparison/Contrast looks at similarities (comparison) and differences (contrast). Because anytime you look at comparing something differences are assumed by what is said or not, this mode is often just called "contrast."

Definition (Extended Definition)

Definition is based on explaining a term, concept, idea, etc. Since obviously providing a one sentence definitions is not enough for a whole paper, one needs to provide examples (see exemplification/illustration above). That is why sometimes this mode goes by the name "extended definition."

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Division/Classification is much like comparison/contrast, except two or more items are examined.

Process (Process Analysis)

Process explains how something is done. At times a whole essay can be written explaining how something is done or accomplished. But in order to really flesh it out, it needs analysis, which is why this mode is also called "process analysis." Therefore, the writer needs to extend the process to include why things are done or happen when they do and why that might be important.


Problem/Solution is concerned with presenting or highlighting an issue (problem) and how it was/is resolved (solution).



This is the fourth of the four traditional modes of discourse. The point of argumentation is to convince the reader with logic.

In Sum

Most of the time people write, it is some form of exposition, especially for college writing. No one mode is more important than another. And modes are often combined for the greatest impact and to convey the clearest point.


Stephanie Bradberry (author) from New Jersey on May 18, 2015:

Hi manatita44,

Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

manatita44 from london on May 18, 2015:

Another interesting one. Good to read and fairly new to me. Peace.

Stephanie Bradberry (author) from New Jersey on July 04, 2012:

Hi Laurinzo Scott. Even with formal schooling in English and writing, the modes are not necessarily taught. I only became truly familiar with the modes when I started teaching at the college level. While some of these modes were expected at the high school level, the tendency of the curriculum was to lump them all together and dedicate no time to explaining the strengths of each one or appropriate time to use them. At the college level there is a major focus on exposition, and even in postsecondary with major units based on certain modes, the students still may not understand the importance of having balance of the modes and using the technical with personal flair. At the end of some semesters I will say, so any questions about your rhetorical modes and they look at me as if I grew 10 heads..."What was that term...oh you mean what we have been doing for the past 15 weeks..."

So, long example short, you are not an exception, formal training or not :)

LJ Scott from Phoenix, Az. on July 03, 2012:

Very interesting hub Stephanie... since I have never taken any formal training in the art of writing I hadn't thought of these fundamental elements of writing. Thanks for writing this one.

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