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What Is a Rhetorical Precis?

By Lee Johnson
Updated May 23, 2024
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A rhetorical precis is a specific type of summary of a piece of writing, which follows a standardized format and is used as a rhetorical “abstract.” Four sentences which contain specific pieces of information make up the precis. An opening sentence should include the name, title, and date of the work, as well as an accurate verb and a statement of the general argument. The next sentence contains information on how the author supports or argues his or her claim, and the third sentence explains the author’s purpose. The final sentence of the rhetorical precis explains the intended audience of the piece.

An abstract is a common part of scientific papers in which the entire study or experiment is summarized, including aims, hypotheses, key results, and a conclusion. A rhetorical precis is the same thing, except that it is a summary of an argument and its audience. It follows a very specific format.

The opening sentence of a rhetorical precis contains information relating to the specific piece of work, including the author, title, and the date of publication in parentheses. A verb such as “asserts,” “denies,” “argues,” or “refutes” is added to the precis to explain the writer’s general stance on the main topic. The writer then adds a “that” clause explaining the major claim of the piece of work. An example would be “Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006) argues that the notion of a God and religions such as Christianity are illogical and damaging as a whole."

The second sentence of a rhetorical precis explains what exactly the author uses to support or develop the major theme. No specific rules govern this sentence other than it should show the argument’s basis. For example, “Dawkins compares logical arguments for and against God’s existence and examines whether Christianity is a positive or negative force in the world.” A third sentence explains the author’s purpose and contains a clause starting with “in order.” For example, “Dawkins’ purpose is to question the assumption that believing something on the grounds of faith alone is virtuous in order to enable people to decide whether they truly ascribe to a particular religion or believe in a deity.”

The final sentence of the rhetorical precis relates to the audience. No linguistic requirements govern this sentence. It requires an explanation of the audience being addressed and the relationship the author formulates with them. For example, “Dawkins is writing for laymen who have reason to question traditional beliefs, as indicated by his explanation of any technical or scientific terms that arise through the book.”

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