exposition (composition)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

exposition in composition
Exposition is one of the traditional modes of discourse. (vm/Getty Images)


Exposition is a statement or type of composition intended to give information about (or an explanation of) an issue, subject, method, or idea. Adjective: expository. Compare with argument.

The noun exposition is related to the verb expose, which means to "make known" or  "bring to light." In contrast to the aims of creative writing or persuasive writing, the primary goal of exposition is to explain, describe, define, or inform. 

Katherine E. Rowan points out that in James Moffet's classificatory scheme (Teaching the Universe of Discourse, 1968), "Exposition is text that generalizes about what happens. It requires more distance or abstraction by writers than do recording or reporting, but less than does theorizing" (Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition, 2013).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples of Exposition

From the Latin, "to place" or "set out"

Examples and Observations

  • "The art of expressing oneself in a logical manner we call exposition, but 'logical' is not used here in any precise scientific sense. Indeed, we might say that exposition is the art of expressing oneself clearly, logic being implied in the structure of the sentences employed."
    (Herbert Read, English Prose Style. Beacon, 1952)
  • "In exposition, every statement is offered as a matter of accepted fact. In argument, only some statements are offered as matters of fact, and these are given as reasons to make us believe assertions or claims."
    (James A. W. Heffernan and John E. Lincoln, Writing: A College Handbook, 5th ed. Norton, 2000)
  • "[Exposition is one] of the traditional classifications of discourse that has as a function to inform or to instruct or to present ideas and general truths objectively. Exposition uses all of the common organizational patterns such as definition, analysis, classification, cause and effect, etc. Alexander Bain is believed to have been the first to identify this mode of discourse in English Composition and Rhetoric (American edition, New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1890)."
    (Linda Woodson, "Exposition." A Handbook of Modern Rhetorical Terms. NCTE, 1979)
  • Answering Questions and Narrowing the Subject
    "Any expository paragraph or essay gives answers to questions: What? Where? When? Who? How? Why? . . . You will find it helpful to consider an expository essay as the answer to a question. . . .
    "The question you ask will emphasize the need for an explanation that will satisfy your readers. If the question is specific, it will restrict your broad subject. Finding an answer to a restricted subject will narrow the search for information required to convince your readers of the validity of your thesis."
    (Morton A. Miller, Reading and Writing Short Essays. Random House, 1980)
  • Four Questions for Expository Writers
    "The writing of exposition begins . . . in an understanding of the broad purpose to be achieved. It begins, like all composition, in the writer's head. Even before he sharpens his pencil, the expository writer must ask himself four questions:
    1. What specific point do I intend to make?
    2. Is it worth making?
    3. For whom am I writing?
    4. How can I best convey my point to my readers?
    Unless the writer has carefully answered each of these questions, no amount of good grammar and correct spelling will save him . . .. Deciding upon reader and purpose is easily half the task of writing.
    "Once the writer has determined what point he intends to make, his composition is already half organized, if not completely planned. The writer has already saved himself time by eliminating several false starts, and he has already resisted the temptation to lose himself and his reader in the thickets and bypaths of his subject. With his reader in mind he has already solved many of his problems of diction and tone as well, and, however awkwardly he has expressed himself when he has done, he will know that he has fulfilled the first requirement of all writing--a definite point for definite readers.
    (Thomas S. Kane and Leonard J. Peters, Writing Prose: Techniques and Purposes. Oxford University Press, 1993)
  • The Far Side of Exposition: Info-Dumps and Expository Lumps
    "Info-Dump. Large chunk of indigestible expository matter intended to explain the background situation. Info-dumps can be covert, as in fake newspaper or 'Encyclopedia Galactica' articles, or overt, in which all action stops as the author assumes center stage and lectures. Info-dumps are also known as 'expository lumps.' The use of brief, deft, inoffensive info-dumps is known as 'kuttnering,' after Henry Kuttner. When information is worked unobtrusively into the story's basic structure, this is known as 'heinleining.'"
    (Bruce Sterling, "A Workshop Lexicon." Paragons: Twelve Master Science Fiction Writers Ply Their Crafts, ed. by Robin Wilson. St. Martin's Press, 1997)

Pronunciation: EKS-po-ZISH-un

Also Known As: expository writing