Column: Ethos, pathos and logos hit the campaign trail

By Jordan Fischer

Good news for those of you out there in Grammar Land: the Grammar Guy is back from his hiatus and ready to talk politics (sort of).

Generally, holding the position of Grammar Guy in as high esteem as I do, I try to stay above the fray. But now that election season has roared upon us with all its sound and fury, even I can’t resist a few steps on the campaign trail.

Don’t worry: We’re not going to be spellchecking campaign mailers or critiquing candidates on their subject-verb agreement. We’re going deeper. So grab your copy of Aristotle’s “Rhetoric” and prepare to talk about the art of persuasion.

If ethos, pathos and logos sound like characters from the Three Musketeers … then you’re surprisingly well-read for someone who’s not familiar with the modes of persuasion.

First put to page by Aristotle in the 4th Century BC, the modes of persuasion (ethos, pathos and logos) are how speakers appeal to their audiences. I’ll let the man himself do the introductions:

“Of the modes of persuasion furnished by the spoken word there are three kinds. […] Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech was so spoken as to make us think him credible (Ethos). […] Secondly, persuasion may come through the hearers, when the speech stirs their emotions (Pathos). […] Thirdly, persuasion is effected through the speech itself when we have proved a truth or an apparent truth by means of the persuasive arguments suitable to the case in question (Logos).”

Repackaging that for this century, ethos is an appeal to authority – specifically the speaker’s. It can come from expertise, from an elected position or just inherent goodness. The important thing is that the speaker has authority and you should listen to him/her because of it.

Pathos is an appeal to emotion. If you’re a fan of the Simpsons, you’ll recognize pathos in Helen Lovejoy’s frequent, handwringing appeals for “somebody to please think of the children.” Won’t you?

Logos is the appeal to logic – and it’s often the least effective mode. If you’d like to understand why, consider that Airborne – the popular Vitamin C supplement – made its parent company $70 million between 2011 and 2012 – a full three years after the makers admitted in a $23 million class-action lawsuit that there was “no competent and reliable scientific evidence” to support its health claims. As of the writing of this article, a bottle of 75 Airborne gummies goes for $23.75 on Amazon.

Coming up next week: “Ethos, or: Why people should listen to me.”