Constraints: Definition and Examples in Rhetoric

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In rhetoric, any factors that restrict the persuasive strategies or opportunities available to a speaker or writer are called constraints. In "The Rhetorical Situation," Lloyd Bitzer notes that rhetorical constraints are "made up of persons, events, objects, and relations which are part of the [rhetorical] situation because they have the power to constrain decision or action." Sources of constraint include "beliefs, attitudes, documents, facts, tradition, image, interests, motives and the like," (Bitzer 1968).

Etymology: From the Latin, "constrict, constrain." Popularized in rhetorical studies by Lloyd Bitzer in "The Rhetorical Situation."

Rhetorical Situations

Before you can understand how constraints impact rhetoric, you should first understand what defines a rhetorical situation. The parts of a rhetorical situation are the text, author, audience, purpose(s), and setting. Any of these can be impacted by a constraint. Cheryl Glenn explains rhetorical situations and the purpose of rhetoric in more detail in The Harbrace Guide to Writing. "A rhetorical situation is the context a rhetor enters in order to shape an effective message that can resolve an exigence and reach an intended audience. A rhetorical situation creates a call for change (an exigence), but that change can be brought about only through the use of language, whether visual, written, or spoken text.

For instance, by asking a question, your instructor creates a call for change in the classroom. The question just hangs there—until someone provides a fitting response. If the company you work for loses online business because its [w]ebsite is outdated, that problem can be resolved only through the appropriate use of text and visuals. Once the fitting response comes into being, the call for change ('I need an answer' or 'We need to update our [w]ebsite') is either partially removed or disappears altogether; then it is satisfied," (Glenn 2009).

Establishing Exigencies and Constraints

Constraints can be impressed upon an individual by a third party and out of their control, but they can also be wielded strategically against opposing speakers during debates.

Robert Heath, et al. give an example of how rhetorical constraints imposed by an entity operating outside of a rhetorical situation can make crafting an effective argument difficult. "The rhetorical exigencies might include the need to produce counter-rhetoric to forestall regulation or to defend challenged actions in public (e.g., by publicizing oil spills or automobile recalls). The rhetorical constraints might include legal or financial limitations on the channels the opponent could use or the language and claims available to be made (e.g., the Federal Trade Commission's regulation of the truth content of advertising)," (Heath et al. 2009).

Lloyd Bitzer describes a situation in which constraints are used to limit possible responses from an opponent. "Working on different target audiences at different times, the activist group attempts to chip away at the various supports underlying its opponent's position. It makes a series of gradual and small moves [the tactic of incremental erosion] designed to maneuver opponents into a position where they have no more rhetorical options. This is done by establishing rhetorical exigencies—needs, conditions, or demands to which the opposition must respond—while simultaneously establishing rhetorical constraints that limit the strategies available for a response," (Bitzer 1968).


  • Bitzer, Lloyd. "The Rhetorical Situation." Philosophy & Rhetoric, vol. 1, no. 1, Jan. 1968, pp. 1-14.
  • Glenn, Cheryl. The Harbrace Guide to Writing. 1st ed., Wadsworth Publishing, 2009.
  • Heath, Robert Lawrence, et al. Rhetorical and Critical Approaches to Public Relations. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2009.
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Nordquist, Richard. "Constraints: Definition and Examples in Rhetoric." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Constraints: Definition and Examples in Rhetoric. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Constraints: Definition and Examples in Rhetoric." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 7, 2023).