Two I think of initially: the discourse triangle
– Writer – Reader) and the rhetorical situation (Writer/Speaker – Audience –
Context). Followed by: Aristotle’s: Ethos, Pathos, Logos; Berthoff’s:
Reference, Word, Referent; and my own: Legos, Mentos, Wormholes, and so on. I
made that last one up just now. I’m not convinced that it gets at anything
particularly profound. Heck, it only took a few seconds to think up.

In the past, I’ve used traingular models a time or two for whatever reasons (i.e.,
in a weak moment, deferring to a textbook). I’ve run across a few variants, and
most of them, as well as I can tell, side with one of two teams (been watching the
World Cup?): hermeneutics or meaning-motivated triangles and dramatics or
event-motivated triangles. And when the final whistle blows, they trade jerseys.
I hope you’ll tell me what I’m leaving out.

Here’s the thing: I’ve overheard triangles off-handedly dismissed as only so
much simplistic rubbish (right, of course, there are more thoughtful, respectful
and smart critiques, too). During a few of those triangle bashings, I admit, I
sat by, complicit in my silence. Which should I prefer? Why one? Any?

I briefly looked again at Bitzer’s famous essay early this week and was
reminded that he relies on the troika of exigence, audience and constraints (is
it a generous gloss that this transmodifies into speaker-audience-purpose (or
context)? Or does this last one come from elsewhere still?). Insufficient though
Bitzer’s set may well be, I wonder whether you think they’re suitable as a
beginning model for, say, students in a lower division writing course who have
never heard of rhetoric or who have never considered situation as an object of
study. Given that we’re concerned with a rhetorical situation understood to be a
small slice of a complex ecology of activities and intensities, do you think that
Bitzer’s three terms do justice as a starting point?

Really, what I’m trying to find out is whether you ever use any
triangular model when teaching a writing course. And which one? Why? Go on, be
anonymous with your comments if you wish.


  1. Sure, I use the triangle all the time. Usually the discourse triangle (though mine is usually labeled writer-reader-text). I talk about Aristotle’s triad sometimes, and have heard myself mention Bitzer’s rhetorical situation, though that one usually comes up more in the 205 or 307 class than in 105.

    I don’t think triangles are in themselves overly simplistic or reductive, the same as I don’t believe the 5 paragraph essay model in inherently bad. The triangle is a way of understanding how writing functions in the world and why. It is first a tool of analysis. I think the problem comes when it is tranformed into a prescription for thinking.

    But I find with my students that the triangle helps them understand why what they write isn’t always what is read by the reader (the whole encoding/decoding thiing), and why the text lives on way past either writer or reader, and what that can mean.

    I don’t really like Bitzer’s model for teaching. I don’t know why, but with writing it just doesn’t seem to have the currency it might if I were teaching a speech course. It would be easy enough to explain it in the context of, say, the urge to fire off a letter to the editor on a particular subject, but I don’t think the idea of constraints and exigence is as accessible for first year writing students as the reader/writer model.

  2. This is a funny post!

    At desperate moments (he confesses) I use various triangle diagrams, especially when I find myself at the board trying to explain something, and everytime I get the author/reader/text in place (or whatever my three elements are) I can’t stand what I’ve just done and draw a massive circle around the triangle, calling the circle “context” or “situation” … then I wildly add a random square somewhere in the circle and sometimes enmeshed with the triangle that I call “genre.” Nutty! Completely useless!

    The payoff of producing something memorizable seems not worth being so triangularily reductive as such diagrams require. Legos, Mentos, Wormholes: I like that.

  3. I haven’t had a good time resolving just how useful any given triangle is (beyond understanding that the use of the triangle itself sets up an absurd metasituation; the situation explained in a situation of its own). But I’ve used variations, often accompanied by a stream of heavy qualitifications: No, this won’t do. It misses x. It fails to account for y. It overdetermines z. Other times the situation model is just the thing I need to crystallize relationships, add a dimension to a reductive claim about what’s going on, etc.

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