Definition and Examples of the Topoi in Rhetoric

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Aristotle (384-322 BC) was one of the greatest theoreticians of rhetoric in the classical era. In the second book of the Rhetoric, he lists 28 topoi. A. Dagli Orti/Getty Images

In classical rhetoric, the topoi are stock formulas (such as puns, proverbs, cause and effect, and comparison) used by rhetors to produce arguments. Singular: topos. Also called topics, loci, and commonplaces.

The term topoi (from the Greek for "place" or "turn") is a metaphor introduced by Aristotle to characterize the "places" where a speaker or writer may "locate" arguments that are appropriate to a given subject. As such, the topoi are tools or strategies of invention

In the Rhetoric, Aristotle identifies two main types of topoi (or ​topics): the general (koinoi topoi) and the particular (idioi topoi). The general topics ("commonplaces") are those that can be applied to many different subjects. The particular topics ("private places") are those that apply only to a specific discipline.

"The topoi," says  Laurent Pernot, "are one of the most important contributions of ancient rhetoric and exerted a deep influence on European culture" (Epideictic Rhetoric, 2015).

Examples and Observations

  • "Virtually all commentators on classical rhetoric agree that the concept of topics occupied a central place in theories of rhetoric and invention.
  • "Commonplace topics provided orators with a stock of familiar material to which audiences often responded positively. . . . Walter Mondale's use of the television commercial line 'Where's the beef?' to attack rival presidential aspirant Gary Hart during the 1984 primaries illustrates one way in which a commonplace expression can combine argument, emotion, and style."
    (James Jasinski, Sourcebook on Rhetoric. Sage, 2001)
  • "Recall that one of the meanings of the word 'topoi' was 'commonplaces.' The study of topics is the study of the commonplaces that bind together a practice of reasoned argument. It is the study of a shared social practice of argumentation and thus the study of a shared form of social life."
    (J.M. Balkin, "A Night in the Topics." Law's Stories: Narrative and Rhetoric in the Law, ed. by Peter Brooks and Paul Gewirtz. Yale University Press, 1996
  • "Aristotle listed, described, and illustrated dozens of topoi, or commonly used lines of argument. Like the checklists for insuring that no important facts are overlooked, the topoi insure that no line of argument is overlooked."
    (Michael H. Frost, Introduction to Classical Legal Rhetoric. Ashgate, 2005)

General Topoi

  • "Classical rhetoricians identify some topoi (the koinoi topoi, common topics or commonplaces) as completely general and applicable to any situation or context. . . . The following are some types of general topoi...:
    - More and less likely. If the more likely thing does not happen, the less likely thing will also not happen.
    'If the expensive restaurant is not good, the cheaper version won't be good either.' . . .
    - Consistency of motives. If a person has a reason to do something, he or she probably will do it.
    'Bob didn't eat at that restaurant; he must have known something.' . . .
    - Hypocrisy. If standards apply to one person, they should apply to another.
    'Well, you also don't give restaurants a second chance if they weren't good the first time you ate there.' . . .
    - Analogy. If things are alike in an obvious way, they also will be alike in other ways.
    'This place is owned by the same people as our favorite restaurant; it's probably just as good.' . . . Not all of these are equally good in every situation; that will depend on the audience, available evidence, and so forth. But the more arguments you can generate, the more choices you have in persuading your audience."
    (Dan O'Hair, Rob Stewart, and Hannah Rubenstein, A Speaker's Guidebook With the Essential Guide to Rhetoric, 5th ed. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2012)

Topoi as Tools of Rhetorical Analysis

"While classical treatises primarily intended for pedagogical purposes stressed the usefulness of stasis theory and topoi as inventional tools, contemporary rhetoricians have demonstrated that stasis theory and topoi can also be used 'in reverse' as tools of rhetorical analysis. The work of the rhetorician in this instance is to interpret 'after-the-fact' the audience's attitudes, values, and predispositions that a rhetor attempted to elicit, deliberately or not. For instance, topoi have been used by contemporary rhetoricians to analyze the public discourse surrounding the publication of controversial literary works (Eberly, 2000), popularizations of scientific discoveries (Fahnestock, 1986), and moments of social and political unrest (Eisenhart, 2006)."
(Laura Wilder, Rhetorical Strategies and Genre Conventions in Literary Studies: Teaching and Writing in the Disciplines. Southern Illinois University Press, 2012) 

Pronunciation: TOE-poy

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of the Topoi in Rhetoric." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Definition and Examples of the Topoi in Rhetoric. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of the Topoi in Rhetoric." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).