Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms - Definition and Examples

The term pentad comes from the Greek word for "a group of five.". (Dimitri Otis/Getty Images)


In rhetoric and composition, the pentad is the set of five problem-solving probes that answer the following questions:

  • What was done (act)?
  • When and where was it done (scene)?
  • Who did it (agent)?
  • How was it done (agency)?
  • Why was it done (purpose)?

In composition, this method can serve as both an invention strategy and a structural pattern.

In A Grammar of Motives (Berkeley, 1945), American rhetorician Kenneth Burke adopted the term pentad to describe the five key qualities of dramatism (or the dramatistic method or framework).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "Act, Scene, Agent, Agency, Purpose. Although ​over the centuries, men have shown great enterprise and inventiveness in pondering matters of human motivation, one can simplify the subject by this pentad of key terms, which are understandable almost at a glance."
    (Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley, 1945)
  • Burke's Pentad as a Research Tool
    "Burke's pentad is a useful analysis tool, encouraging researchers to seek data and pay attention to:
    1. Act: What happened? What is going on? What are people saying and doing?
    2. Scene: Where and when is the act happening? What is the background context? What happened right before and after the act?
    3. Agent: Who or what is involved in performing or construing the action? Who are the actors??
    4. Agency: By what means, methods, or tools did the agents act?
    5. Purpose: What were the goals and motivations of the action? Why did the agents act in this way?
    The dramatistic pentad offers an especially worthwhile strategy when you analyze several parallel scenes of action in different contexts."
    (Sarah J. Tracy, Qualitative Research Methods: Collecting Evidence, Crafting Analysis, Communicating Impact. Wiley-Blackwell, 2013)
  • The Pentad and Rhetorical Analysis
    "[Kenneth] Burke himself used the pentad on many kinds of discourse, especially poetry and philosophy. He also later added a sixth term, attitude, making the pentad into a hexad. Pentad or hexad, the point is that 'well-rounded statements' about human motivation will make some reference (explicitly or not) to act, scene, agent, agency, purpose, and attitude. . . .

    "Burke intended the pentad to be a form of rhetorical analysis, a method readers can use to identify the rhetorical nature of any text, group of texts, or statements that explain or represent human motivation. . . . It is Burke's point that any 'well-rounded' account of human action must include some reference to the five (or six) elements of the pentad. Writers have also found that the pentad is a useful method of generating ideas."
    (David Blakesley, The Elements of Dramatism. Longman, 2002)
  • Burke's Revisions of the Pentad
    "Most people know [Kenneth] Burke by his Pentad, consisting of the five terms of dramatism . . .. What is not heeded often enough is how Burke, immediately recognizing the limitations of his Pentad, does what he does with any formulation--he revises it. He recommends the ratios among the terms for analysis, so that, for example, instead of looking only at the act, he looks at the act/scene ratio. Burke thus revises his 5-term analytical machine into a 25-term apparatus. . . .

    "Burke's Pentad has been adopted because, unlike most of his work, it is relatively explicit, static, and transportable across contexts (even though Burke's revisions of the Pentad were attempts to prevent such arhetorical uses)."
    (Tilly Warnock, "Burkean Theories of Rhetoric." Theorizing Composition: A Critical Sourcebook of Theory And Scholarship in Contemporary Composition Studies, ed. by Mary Lynch Kennedy. Greenwood, 1998)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Pentad." ThoughtCo, Apr. 6, 2017, Nordquist, Richard. (2017, April 6). Pentad. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Pentad." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 22, 2018).