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What Is the Connection between Rhetoric and Composition?

By Emily Daw
Updated May 23, 2024
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Rhetoric and composition are branches of study that deal with the effective use of words and persuasion. The two words are occasionally used interchangeably, but there are some differences in the emphases of the two disciplines. Composition deals almost exclusively with the written word, while rhetoric refers to persuasion in other contexts as well. Both rhetoric and composition are also considered rhetorical devices, which deal with persuasion in speech or writing.

The term "rhetoric" dates back to ancient Greece, where it referred to the study or art of oration, or persuasive public speaking. Aristotle, who is considered the father of rhetoric, divided the study into what are known as the five canons of rhetoric: invention, arrangement, style, memorization and delivery. Students of rhetoric in Greece would be taught the most effective ways of persuading their audiences by these means.

In modern times, the study of rhetoric has been broadened to refer to any persuasive language, especially in writing. Nonverbal means of persuasion, such as the photography or music in advertising to produce a particular response in the audience, may also be considered rhetoric. Memorization and delivery, however, are no longer generally considered part of rhetorical studies.

Composition, on the other hand, is a more modern study that has gained importance as more of the world's population has become literate. In composition courses, students generally learn about various types of nonfiction writing. This may include composition that is intended to be informative and objective, but most compositions will have a rhetorical or persuasive purpose. Rhetoric could be considered the principles that guide persuasive composition. For this reason, rhetoric and composition are often studied together, and graduate or undergraduate programs that focus on nonfiction writing will often be labeled as Rhetoric and Composition programs.

Another area in which rhetoric and composition overlap is in what are known as rhetorical devices. These are figures of speech that improve the persuasiveness of speech or writing. Rhetorical devices are often thought of as exclusively stylistic devices, such as repetition or parallelism, but rhetoric also involves content. A skilled writer will consider which ideas, examples, etc., to include in his or her composition in order to persuade the intended audience.

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