ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

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

Updated on June 19, 2013
StephanieBCrosby profile image

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."


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.

Which rhetorical mode do you use most often?

See results

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.


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • StephanieBCrosby profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Bradberry 

      4 years ago from New Jersey

      Hi manatita44,

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

    • manatita44 profile image


      4 years ago from london

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

    • StephanieBCrosby profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Bradberry 

      6 years ago from New Jersey

      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 :)

    • Laurinzo Scott profile image

      LJ Scott 

      6 years ago from Phoenix, Az.

      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.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)