Ethos in Writing

Why Is Ethos Important in Writing?

"Ethos" has a similar meaning to "character." In prose designed to be persuasive, it is important for writers to show their "ethos" in order to establish their credibility, knowledge, and morals. Readers are far more likely to trust – and be persuaded by – a writer if they understand and condone the writer's ethos.

Formal Definition of "Ethos"

Here is Merriam-Webster's definition of ethos:
  • ethos (noun): the distinguishing character, sentiment, moral nature, or guiding beliefs of a person, group, or institution

Table of Contents

  • What Are the Origins of Ethos?
  • "The Triad" (Three Modes of Persuasion)
  • Example of Prose Employing the Aristotelian Triad
  • The Three Elements of Ethos
  • Adjectives for Ethos, Pathos, and Logos
  • Test Time!

What Are the Origins of Ethos?

Ethos is a Greek word, which best translates as "moral character." The idea of using ethos to persuade was first recorded by the Greek philosopher Aristotle in his work "Rhetoric" (sometimes called "On Rhetoric"). In "Rhetoric," Aristotle lists ethos of one of three primary modes of argument (ethos, logos, and pathos). These are often described as Aristotle's Triad or the Aristotelian Triad. He asserts that a writer, or speaker, must employ all three to build a well-balanced, persuasive argument.

"The Triad" (Three Modes of Persuasion)

Here are explanations for Aristotle's three fundamental modes of persuasion:

(1) Ethos

Ethos refers to the credibility or ethical character of the speaker. It is important for writers to impart their ethos in order to establish a trust with the audience based on reputation, authority, or moral standing. A common way for a writer to demonstrate their ethos is to cite their extensive experience in a specific field or to use endorsements from recognized experts. Ethos is "part one of three" of preparing to persuade.

(2) Logos

Logos refers to logical reasoning or the content of the argument itself. In other words, it is presenting clear, rational ideas supported by evidence and facts. A common way for a writer to demonstrate logos is to show their analysis of statistical data and to explain in detail the premises, inference (how the premises relate to each other), and conclusion of their argument. Establishing ethos is "part two of three" of preparing to persuade.

(3) Pathos

Pathos refers to appealing to your audience's emotions. More specifically, it is eliciting feelings that support your argument. This means invoking joy, anger, sadness, sympathy, surprise, and fear. A common way for a writer to demonstrate pathos is to share a heartfelt personal story or to use vivid imagery. Ethos is "part three of three" of preparing to persuade.
Aristotle triad, ethos, logos, and pathos

Example of Prose Employing the Aristotelian Triad

In the following prose, the sentences showing ethos are marked (1), those showing logos are marked (2), and those showing pathos are marked (3). The whole text is leading to the final line, the message.
  • baby in surgery to show pathos"During my three years as a trauma surgeon in Iraq with the Red Cross, I operated on more than 500 patients with shrapnel wounds and burns(1). I decided at the outset that limb amputation would be a last resort, even though – from resource and aftercare perspectives – it would often have been the most practical option(1,3). After two years in Iraq, I was invited by the British General Medical Council to head their team of consultant surgeons(1), but I simply did not have time to return to London to discuss the position(1,3), and consequently it was filled by the current incumbent(3). Ten years on, 85 (68%) of my 125 patients who might have been amputees (were it not for our policy) are now living normal lives with little to no signs of disability(2,3). It was evident from our records that the heart of the fight was against infection, not the trauma injuries themselves(2). I have found that war zones are full of people who can make splints, crutches, and beds, but there are far, far fewer people who can conjure up a pack of antibiotics(1,2). The truth is you can fit the most valuable part of any field hospital in your coat pockets, and this simple fact must now drive how readily and how quickly the First World provides its first tranche of aid into conflict zones(the message)."
Although only short, this text employs all three elements of the triad to deliver the message in the last line. Are you convinced?

Key Point

A successful piece of persuasive writing often combines all three elements to resonate with the audience on multiple levels.

The Three Elements of Ethos

In "Rhetoric," Aristotle explains that ethos comprises three elements (phronesis, arete, and eunoia), which writers ought to address when presenting an ethical rhetorical appeal (i.e., demonstrating ethos):

(1) Phronesis

Phronesis refers to practical wisdom or intelligence. When a writer exhibits phronesis, they demonstrate a deep understanding of the subject matter and the ability to make sound decisions about it. Phronesis is often achieved by using examples from practical experience and highlighting previous research. Readers will perceive such a writer as knowledgeable and reliable.

(2) Arete

Arete refers to the moral virtue or charity of an argument. When a writer exhibits arete, they explain the morality of their argument. By its nature, persuasive writing is designed to elicit agreement for your argument. This often means that your readers' preconceptions do not fully align with yours. Therefore, highlighting the virtue and morality of an argument is key part of the persuasion process.

(3) Eunoia

Eunoia refers to the goodwill towards the audience. When a writer exhibits eunoia, they explain how they have their readers' best interests at heart. This fosters trust, reassuring readers that there are no manipulative intentions.

Key Point

Aristotle argues that in order for ethos to be effectively employed, all three of these components must be present.

Adjectives for Ethos, Pathos, and Logos

When describing rhetorical appeals, it is widely accepted that "ethos" becomes "ethical," and "logos" becomes "logical." However, there is an issue with "pathos." The adjective "pathetic" is sometimes used, and it works when writing in the context of Aristotle's triad for an informed audience. However, most writers are uncomfortable with "pathetic" because it has come to mean "miserably inadequate" or "of very low standard." The sought-after meaning of "pathetic" (i.e., "relating to emotions") is now archaic, and its use runs the risk of causing a reading stutter or, worse, a misunderstanding. A good option for a wider audience is to use the adjective "emotional" for "pathos" (e.g., an emotional rhetorical appeal).
author logo

This page was written by Craig Shrives.