EM SC 470
Applied Sustainability in Contemporary Culture



Two of the previous sources provide concise definitions of ethos:

  • Purdue OWL defines ethos as "the ethical appeal...based on the character, credibility, or reliability of the writer" (Credit: Purdue Online Writing Lab).
  • Pathosethoslogos notes that ethos is "ethical appeal, means to convince an audience of the author’s credibility or character. An author would use ethos to show to his audience that he is a credible source and is worth listening to."

Purdue provides the following examples of ways that you can establish ethos. I highlighted a few things that are most important to consider:

  • Use only credible, reliable sources to build your argument and cite those sources properly.
  • Respect the reader by stating the opposing position accurately.
  • Establish common ground with your audience. Most of the time, this can be done by acknowledging values and beliefs shared by those on both sides of the argument.
  • If appropriate for the assignment, disclose why you are interested in this topic or what personal experiences you have had with the topic.
  • Organize your argument in a logical, easy to follow manner. You can use the Toulmin method of logic or a simple pattern such as chronological order, most general to the most detailed example, earliest to the most recent example, etc.
  • Proofread the argument. Too many careless grammar mistakes cast doubt on your character as a writer.

Pathosethoslogos provides the following advice:

Ethos can be developed by choosing language that is appropriate for the audience and topic (also means choosing proper level of vocabulary), making yourself sound fair or unbiased, introducing your expertise or pedigree, and by using correct grammar and syntax."

There are many ways to establish ethos (credibility) with your audience. Some of the most common are listed above, but there are others. What it boils down to is that whether you are speaking, writing, or trying to communicate in any way, anything you do to try to convince your audience that you are a credible, reliable source of information, is ethos. Any time that someone is trying to establish credibility, they are using ethos.

Okay, now let's get back to our original examples. Which of these sentences relies the most on ethos, and why do you think so?

  1. I think solar panels are a wonderful technology, don't you?
  2. I have been in the energy business for almost 40 years, including 30 in the oil and gas industry. But like you, I'm a cost-conscious homeowner with bills to pay. I've never seen technology as potentially game-changing as solar panels. Those things are going to change the world, and better yet they will save you money.
  3. Did you know that Tesla Energy will install and maintain solar panels on your roof for no extra cost? You don't have to lift a finger, and you will end up paying less for electricity than you do now. You can save money and get inexpensive, clean electricity. And all of it is guaranteed by contract! I had them install panels on my house, and couldn't be happier. They'll do the same for you.
  4. You know, every time I see that old coal-fired power plant I think of all of the innocent children living nearby that are probably having asthma attacks because of the pollution. That's why I added solar panels to my roof.

If you said the second example, then give yourself a pat on the back. The language used in that narrative is a clear attempt to establish the author's credibility, in a few ways.

  • First of all, saying that "I have been in the energy business for almost 40 years" is meant to be a strong indication that I know energy. This is an attempt to establish credibility. If the person said that they were an accountant for 40 years or a recent college grad with a History degree, would it have the same impact?
  • The assertion that the person worked in the oil and gas industry is a more subtle attempt to establish credibility because the renewable and non-renewable industries are usually competitors. The impact of the statement would probably be different if they said they worked in the solar industry, or if you knew they sold solar PV systems.
  • The third attempt at ethos is made when the person tries to establish common ground with the reader by stating they are a cost-conscious homeowner (this strategy is pointed out by the Purdue article).

Remember, any way that a speaker or writer can establish credibility and believability is ethos. There are myriad ways of doing this, including using appropriate language, citing legitimate sources of information, dressing appropriately, speaking/writing with confidence, avoiding grammatical and/or spelling errors, and more. 

So, now that we have ethos figured out, here's a little curveball: Appeals to ethos can change from situation to situation, even if it is the same speaker or writer trying to convey the same message. The video below from our friends at Purdue University does a really good job of explaining this and goes over ethos in general as well.

Optional Viewing

The narrators sum up ethos nicely by stating that: "In every rhetorical situation, ethos means a quality that makes the speaker believable." This "quality" can and does change all the time. Even if you don't have the credentials that render you credible on the topic, you should do your best to establish credibility by doing things like using reliable sources, proper language, and so forth. You've probably heard the truism that as a speaker or writer you need to "know your audience." Establishing ethos is one of the reasons why. You want your audience to believe you, and ethos can help make that happen. Politicians are particularly (or notoriously, depending on whom you ask) good at doing this. An example of this can be seen below.

Colored photos of Candidate and President Obama giving speeches
Figure 4.2: Barack Obama addresses a crowd in New Hampshire in 2005 (left) and President Obama giving a TV address in the Oval Office in 2010.
Left photo: Fogster, CC SA-BY 3.0. Right photo: Public domain (Wikipedia)

Notice the stark difference in physical appearance in the photos of Barack Obama above. What messages is he sending with regards to ethos? The left photo shows the classic "sleeves rolled up" look, which politicians use to speak to "regular folks," usually in public settings like fairs, construction sites (they'll also don a hard hat for this), local restaurants, and so on. The ethos-related messaging is something like: "Hey, I'm just a regular, hard-working guy like you. I understand your problems." But by wearing a dress shirt instead of, say, a polo shirt, an air of authority and professionalism is still presented.

The photo to the right presents a much different attempt at ethos. He is projecting an image of power and authority by wearing a suit and tie, being the only person in the shot, and sitting in a well-appointed office. Even his posture is different than the other photo. Note that both an American flag and flag with the Presidential Seal is in the background. Both project authority, among other things. Do you notice anything else in the background? Do the family pictures convey a message? This is a subtle reminder that he has a family with two young children, and thus is relatable (this is probably also an example of pathos).

One Final Note

It can be easy to view ethos as a way to "trick" audiences into being persuaded by someone. This can certainly happen and often does. This is a common problem with politicians, as they never want to appear not credible. But it is important for you to know that ethos can be legitimately established. Knowing as much as possible about the source of information is an important aspect of determining credibility. For example, if I want to know about drought conditions across the U.S. I refer to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) since I know that monitoring water conditions is one of their focuses and that they are tasked with presenting an unbiased, scientific perspective. In short, I know that they are credible.

If the Administrator of NOAA (one had not been confirmed yet, as of September 2018) was to give a speech or write an article, (s)he would be remiss if (s)he did not let the audience know her/his position. (S)he has credibility, but still may need to establish ethos. Doing this does not mean that (s)he is trying "trick" anyone, but it does mean that (s)he is trying to strengthen her/his argument, which if you recall is the purpose of rhetoric. Ethos is only established if the audience thinks that you and/or your argument, is credible, and that can be done without being dishonest or "tricky" in any way.

Magazine advertisement from the early 20th century stating that "more doctors smoke camels than any other cigarette."
Figure 4.4: Yes, this is a real advertisement! According to the National Institutes of Health, in the early 20th century, tobacco companies embarked on a campaign using doctors to promote smoking. These ads appeared in major national magazines. There is a clear use of ethos in these ads.
Image source: Flickr, Lau Ardelean, CC BY-NC-SA-2.0

Check Your Understanding

Describe one specific example of something that could establish OR compromise ethos, depending on the audience.

Click for a suggestion.
There are many possible examples. One really prominent one that comes to mind is that just being Donald Trump or Barack Obama will bring a very strong positive or negative reaction, depending on who is in the audience. Me having long hair and a beard can compromise my ethos in certain circles (e.g., with police officers or other authority figures), but can help establish it in others (e.g., at music festivals).