Pathos: A Guide to this Literary Device
  • 4-minute read
  • 15th December 2022

Pathos: A Guide to this Literary Device

Have you ever had your feelings and emotions influenced by a piece of writing? If so, you’ve experienced pathos.

But what exactly is this literary device, and how do you identify it in a text or use it in your own writing? Read on to find out.

What’s Pathos?

Pathos is a literary device that appeals to the audience’s emotions. Writers use pathos to evoke a certain response, feeling, or connection in their readers.

For example, an advertisement for a charity might use pathos to appeal to your sense of compassion:

They’ve been by our sides for years, working tirelessly. Now, these retired ponies need your help.

A horror novel, on the other hand, might use it to stoke fear and suspense:

What was that thing hiding around the corner? I only needed to take a step forward and I’d know. But something held me back.

The origins of pathos can be traced back to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who presented it as one method of persuasion in his book, Rhetoric.

Aristotle also came up with two other persuasive tools: ethos, which is about building credibility and moral standing, and logos, which is about appealing to logic or reason.

To create a sound argument, pathos should be used in balance alongside the concepts of ethos and logos.

Otherwise, you may end up with writing that appeals to an emotion but has no factual basis, or a text written with authority that gives all the right figures but doesn’t create an emotional connection with the audience.

There’s no right or wrong way to use pathos. How much a writer uses this technique depends on the format, genre, and topic of a piece of writing.

How to Identify Pathos in a Text

To identify pathos when analyzing a piece of writing, first consider the text’s purpose.

If it aims to convince the audience of something or to entertain the reader, it will probably frequently use pathos.

Look out for these common techniques for building pathos:

●  Using personal experiences or anecdotes

That year, I was at my lowest. It was the worst time of my life. But you know what? Despite everything, I got through it. Let me tell you how.

●  Strong visual imagery that invites the reader to imagine themselves or others in a certain scenario

Picture a tiny kitten, barely able to open its eyes, left alone in the snow with no mother to feed it, no matter how much it cries.

●  Passionate, emotive language

She’s always been there for me. I don’t know what I would do without her.

●  Similes and metaphors that connect to an emotion

He smiled suddenly, like the sun appearing from behind a storm cloud.

●  Using the second-person pronoun you or the first-person plural pronoun we to connect with the reader.

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●  Characters with emotion-driven goals, arcs, or backstories

It had always been Penelope’s dream to fly. But tragically, she had been born a penguin, destined never to feel the wind in her feathers.

●  A narrative voice that shares characters’ internal monologues or feelings

The fisherman had never known a pain like this. He clutched at his chest, hoping if he held his heart tight enough, he could stop it from shattering.

Writing that uses pathos will also often adopt a subjective rather than an objective tone.

When and How to Use Pathos in Your Writing

Pathos can be used in most types of creative, literary, or emotion-driven writing. This includes:

●  Marketing copy, or other writing designed to make readers take an action.

●  Poetry.

●  Novels and short stories.

●  Creative nonfiction like memoirs or travel writing.

●  Political speeches.

To create pathos in your own writing, you’ll need to use the same techniques we’ve identified above. The specific tools you use, though, will depend on what you’re writing.

If you want to use pathos in your writing, consider these three questions:

  1. What emotion do you want to appeal to? (e.g., anger, sadness, shock, hope).
  2. How will you make the audience feel this emotion? (e.g., through emotive language, imagery, or second/third-person plural pronouns).
  3. How can you make this emotion feel believable? (e.g., through anecdotes or carefully written characters).

However, pathos is only one method of persuasion; ethos and logos must also be considered. In some types of writing, relying too heavily on pathos alone can undermine your credibility or imply that you have no evidence to back up your arguments.

For this reason, you should avoid overusing pathos in writing, like:

●  Professional documents

●  Most academic or scientific essays

●  Any piece of writing that is more formal or objective

If you’re not sure if you’ve used pathos correctly in your writing, our expert proofreaders can help. Submit a trial document and get your first 500 words proofread for free.

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