What’s an Enthymeme?
  • 4-minute read
  • 8th June 2022

What’s an Enthymeme?

Whether you realize it or not, enthymemes are a common part of everyday communication. They date back to 1552 (the first recorded case) and are used by authors in literature, by public figures in speeches, and in everyday speech.

So, what’s an enthymeme?

An enthymeme (pronounced EN-thuh-meem) is a literary device that presents an argument that leaves out a premise but still implies the omitted premise, leaving the reader or listener to reason for themselves.

Enthymemes are also known as a truncated or rhetoric syllogism.

In the examples below, Example 1 is a complete argument and Example 2 is an enthymeme.

Example 1:

Major premise: Keira Knightley is a person.

 Minor premise: All people need to eat to survive.

Conclusion: Therefore, Keira Knightley needs to eat to survive.

Example 2:

Major premise: Keira Knightley is a person.

Conclusion: Therefore, Keira Knightley needs to eat to survive.

The first example shows a complete argument where all premises are clearly stated. It’s not an enthymeme. As explained by Aristotle in Rhetoric, it’s a syllogism.

The second example is an enthymeme because it skips over a premise. The premise it skips over is that all people need food to survive, but that premise is still implied. Either the major or minor premise could be removed, but the conclusion would still make sense.

Why do people use enthymemes?

People use enthymemes (whether consciously or unconsciously) to get their point across quickly and concisely.

In most cases, the writer assumes that the reader will already know the premise they skipped over and can understand the enthymeme as a complete argument.

If you had to explain every premise of a statement in your writing, it would be long-winded and difficult to digest.

An example of the use of an enthymeme in literature comes from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail:

So I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court because it is morally right, and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances because they are morally wrong

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In this enthymeme, Martin Luther King, Jr. leaves out the premise that morally wrong laws shouldn’t be obeyed. As a complete argument, it would look more like this:

Major premise: Morally wrong laws shouldn’t be obeyed.

Minor premise: Segregation laws are morally wrong.

Conclusion: Therefore, segregation laws shouldn’t be obeyed.

People also use enthymemes because they can add humor or intrigue. The missing premise gives the reader an opportunity to think about what’s in the author’s head, whether that’s a joke, a jibe, social commentary, or something else. They can involve the reader in the delivery of the message.

An example where this is done well is in Alice Walker’s Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self. In this essay, we see the enthymeme:

[M]y parents decide to buy my brothers guns. These are not ‘real’ guns. They shoot ‘BBs,’ copper pellets my brothers say will kill birds. Because I am a girl, I do not get a gun.

In this enthymeme, Walker has omitted the premise that her parents think it’s inappropriate for girls to have guns but not boys.

How to use enthymemes

You probably use enthymemes more than you think. Most of us use them all the time without even realizing it.

When you use enthymemes in your writing, think about your audience. Are you confident that they will (1) understand the premise you’re leaving out and (2) accept that premise as being true? If yes, then go for it! If not, consider restructuring so that you don’t confuse your readers.

If you’re not sure whether the premise you’ve omitted is clear, we recommend asking someone you trust.

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