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The Rhetorical Toolbox: Breaking Down the Basic Building Blocks for Arguments



The Enthymeme - a lighter, faster, and less formal version of the Syllogism 


Components of the Enthymeme: (A) claim, (B) the stated or explicit reason(s), (C) the unstated assumption, and, when necessary, (D) grounds/proof for these reasons or assumptions. This last component is important to keep in mind as it is often the most vulnerable part of an enthymeme and the one most often attacked by opponents.


There are a surprising number of arguments made using enthymemes either wholly or in part. You might be surprised to also learn that certain scenes and their genres employ enthymemes frequently and in very predictable ways. Below are a few specific public scenes that often feature enthymemes. 



Enthymemes are a key way of breaking down Logos in your analysis of arguments, and they are also a good way to see when persuasive arguments are INCOMPLETE (as much of our information is given to us fragmented or partial):

In the Rhetoric, Aristotle observes that enthymemes are "the substance of rhetorical persuasion



Rhetoric has always looked for the enthymemes influencing people in everyday life-- in good and bad ways.  The Enthymeme is an example of sentence level persuasion that we can analyze:


It starts with a 'claim' about something, but not a full argument or syllogism.   Smart people (comfortable thinking rhetorically) always look to read for claims in relation to other component parts:

supporting reasons or premises (main ideas supporting an argument),

unstated assumptions,

and grounds and proof that show how the claim is true or has consequences. 


Enthymemes are claims that come to us missing some parts of a simple argument of syllogism, but they're still persuasive to humans... because people will "fill-in" the blanks with assumptions or pre-conceived reasons. The fact is, people 'fill' in the blanks either automatically or with rhetorical knowledge that allows for more critical/intellectual reading or listening. 



Examples and Observations:


Famous Enthymemes:

All humans are mortal, so Socrates is mortal.

  • Claim: Socrates is mortal
  • Stated reason: all humans are mortal
  • Unstated assumption: because Socrates is a human



"We cannot trust this man, for he has perjured himself in the past."

In this classical example of an enthymeme, the major premise of the complete syllogism is missing:

  • Those who perjure themselves cannot be trusted. (Major premise - missing above -- but assumed by most readers)


  • This man has perjured himself in the past. (Minor premise - stated)


  • This man is not to be trusted. (Conclusion - stated)


EveryDay Enthymemes

An Enthymeme example that follows a fairly strict genre convention:

Scene: Public --> Local Food, Entertainment, and Businesses

Genre: Product and Restaurant Reviews



Jael H. on Yelp uses enthymemes to persuade you to eat at her favorite restaurants. 


Claim: Green Dot Stables is a good restaurant, and you should eat there. 

Stated Reason: I ate dinner at Green Dot Stables on 9/9/2014. “The food [at Green Dot Stables] is delicious, the drink selection & price is spot on, the service is genuine.”

Unstated Assumption: My experience at GDS is indicative of the typical service you will receive at this restaurant.

Grounds: I have reviewed many restaurants (see her profile) which validates my opinion in this matter.  


An argument that uses the enthymeme structure as an inventional device for generating multiple reasons :

Scene: Public --> Detroit Current Affairs

Genre: Op/Ed Pieces in the News


Sale of art would be 'devastating' DIA Official Says


From the Article: A liquidation of the treasured Detroit Institute of Arts collection would be a "devastating blow" to the museum's reputation, donor base and future funding. 


Claim: Selling the DIA's art would be devastating. 

Stated Reason: The loss of the art would hurt the the museum's reputation, donor base, and future funding

Unstated Assumptions: The museum's funding comes from, in large part, wealthy donors who support the museum due to its reputation as a 1st class art museum. If this were compomised, the museum itself would likely face extreme hardship. 

Grounds: The DIA is an internationally celebrated Art museum and a cultural foundation of Detroit and is therefore worth our attention. 


An famous enthymeme designed to preclude alternative arguments:


The glove doesn't fit, so you must acquit

  • Claim: the defendant should be acquitted
  • Stated reason: because the glove does not fit
  • Unstated assumption: because the glove was used by the murderer and therefore must fit on the murderer's hand
  • Grounds: proof that the glove was used in the commission of the crime, proof that the glove does not fit, that the glove has not changed size and shape, that the hand of the defendant has not changed size or shape...



Practicing Enthymemes:

Scene: Public --> Socio-political news

Genre: (Reportage) Newspaper Article


Women should be allowed to join combat units because the image of women in combat would help eliminate gender stereotypes.


Claim: women should be allowed to join combat units

Stated reason: because the image of women in combat would help eliminate gender stereotypes

Unstated assumption(?)

Grounds/proof (?):



In Groups: Build your own enthymeme (5-10 minutes)




Stated Reasons/Premises:

Unstated Reasons/Premises:




Build your own Enthymemes:


Women should be allowed to join combat units because the image of women in combat would help eliminate gender stereotypes.

  • Claim: women should be allowed to join combat units
  • Stated reason: because the image of women in combat would help eliminate gender stereotypes
  • Unstated assumption(?):
  • Grounds(?):


Women should not be allowed to join combat units...

  • Claim: women should not be allowed to join combat units
  • Stated reason:
  • Unstated assumption:
  • Grounds(?):


Cocaine and heroin should be legalized...

  • Claim: cocaine and heroin should be legalized
  • Stated reason:
  • Unstated assumption:
  • Grounds(?):

The LOGIC of EnthyMemes: 

-- similarly, memes help us think about how persuasive language impacts people, and how such 'raw persuasion' acts as something contagious or 'viral', as is most apparent in New Media:



meme (play /ˈmm/[1]is "an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture."[2] A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomenaSupporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures.[3]


The word meme is a shortening (modeled on gene) of mimeme (from Ancient Greek μίμημα Greek pronunciation: [míːmɛːma] mīmēma"something imitated", from μιμεῖσθαι mimeisthai, "to imitate", from μῖμος mimos "mime")[4] and it was coined by the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976)[1][5] as a concept for discussion of evolutionary principles in explaining the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. Examples of memes given in the book included melodies, catch-phrases, fashion and the technology of building arches.[6]



For others Memes and "Digital Rhetoric" represent a "peak of digital persuasion"

or how new media makes persuasion more 'visible' at this level. 


Jeff Swift (grad student):

"When a given tweet or collection of tweets is selected by the Internet’s invisible hand, it becomes Seth Godin’s “ideaviruses” or Richard Dawkin’s “meme.” Both of these terms describe an element of culture that self-propagates and self-advertises—in essence, memes represent the peak of digital persuasion. Memes are most effective when they are easy for the relevant audience to discover and pass on. If a digital rhetorical artifact is powerful enough to get readers to pass it on to their friends, and then for them to pass it to their friends, and so on, then the rhetor/creator of that artifact has effectively achieved rhetorical persuasiveness. The most persuasive of tweets, then, rise above the noise of the Internet and attract attention to themselves. Each of the below-mentioned twitter elements allows tweets to more readily be available for such attention." 



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