Functions of Language & Modes of Exposition (2023)

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Review the functions of exposition and how to tailor your text to your intent.

Previously Covered:

The interpretation of expository text begins with reading comprehension. Several strategies may be used to increasereading comprehension, either individually (for more advanced readers) or as part of an integral process (forbeginning readers). Individual strategies are aimed at helping students first understand what the author is saying(including vocabulary, basic lines of inquiry, and background investigation) and then decipher the main points ofthe author’s argument (prioritizing information and paraphrasing and summarizing).

Exposition may be intended simply to provide information that the reader needs to perform a certain task or reach anindividual conclusion. It may be also be intended to persuade the reader of a certain point of view or of the needfor a certain course of action. Depending on the author’s intent, any of nine modes of exposition may be used tostructure an argument and the evidence it presents. In order to achieve his or her intent, the author may also use avariety of rhetorical tactics, such as humor, diplomacy, or emotion.

Basic Language FunctionsLanguage has three basic functions: to inform, to persuade, and to entertain. In terms of expository writing, thefirst two functions are of primary importance. All exposition provides information of some kind. Most expositorywriting goes on to the next step, which is to persuade the reader to adopt some theory or undertake a certain courseof action.

Informative Exposition

In everyday life, expository text is most commonly used to convey basic information. Informative exposition is veryimpersonal. It conveys no authorial opinion and makes no argument but is restricted instead to presenting anexplanation or series of facts. In general, this kind of exposition uses very plain language in order to remain asclear and simple as possible. Examples include driving directions or instruction manuals that include step-by-stepprocesses.

Informative exposition also comes in handy in the study of English/Language Arts. Students are often called uponto provide basic information without inserting their own opinions or interpreting the material in any way, as in thefollowing cases:

  • to objectively summarize a text, as for a book report
  • to collect and organize factual information from a variety of sources, as when doing research
  • to present background facts, as when presenting the basis for a premise or supporting an argument

Here’s an excellent example of informative exposition—Thomas Jefferson’s opening paragraph from theDeclaration of Independence (July 4, 1776):

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bandswhich have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equalstation to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions ofmankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.


What basic piece of information is Jefferson presenting here?

  1. Sometimes circumstances warrant a people’s rebellion against their current government.
  2. In order to gain the respect of other nations, a people in rebellion must declare the reasonsfor their action.
  3. The people of every nation deserve equal access to freedom and liberty.
  4. God intends all people to be separate but equal.

Reveal Answer

Persuasive Exposition

Though its informative function is fundamentally important, expository text has another primary role: to persuade.Political speeches, essays, and systems of philosophy all intend to persuade their audience of something, whetherit’s the validity of the author’s opinions or the necessity of a certain course of action. In almost any kind ofpersuasive exposition, the author chooses a particular mode of exposition and employs some rhetorical tactic inorder to make his or her case more convincingly.

In order to present a persuasive argument, the author must also present evidence to support the premise andconclusions that the argument advances. Good expository writing presents its supporting evidence as objective fact:“These things are true and beyond question,” the author seems to say. “Any reasonable person would simply take themfor granted. Let’s move on, then, to the meat of the argument.” In fact, however, supporting evidence is often verysubjective—that is, it represents one side of an argument while slighting another, equally valid argument; orit intentionally gives a slanted view of perspectives other than the author’s.

Persuasive exposition may takea variety of forms. For instance, the author may choose to compare and contrast two sets of information, with thegoal of showing one to be superior, or may present a problem and then argue the best means of solving it.

The Two Go Together: Informative Persuasion

Regardless of their form or the biases they may conceal, all effective arguments are based in fact. Therefore,though an argument’s main purpose is to advance the author’s thesis, persuasive exposition still retains itsinformative function to some degree. The purpose of the information is to help the reader understand the author’s point of view and, ultimately, to share it.

Look at how in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson begins to craft hisargument intended to persuade his audience that rebellion against Great Britain is not only right , butnecessary:

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations … . . . evinces a design to reduce them under absoluteDespotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards fortheir future security . . . . … The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeatedinjuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over theseStates. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.


Given the information Jefferson provides in the first paragraph of the Declaration, what do we know is the point ofhis persuasion? That is, why is Jefferson interested in persuading his audience that rebellion is the right courseof action?

  1. Because he wants to establish the government of the new United States as legitimate in the eyesof the world.
  2. Because the “long train of abuses and usurpations” are generally unknown to the rest of theworld.
  3. Because it is important for the new American rebels to understand the reasons for the coming
  4. Because the colonists are getting used to living under a tyranny and must be motivated tofight.

Reveal Answer

Entertaining Exposition

In the litany of language’s basic functions, “to entertain” usually takes third place after “to inform” and “to persuade.” Writing is said to be entertaining when it makes us laugh, cry, or share another’s experience. As such,the entertainment function generally belongs to kinds of writing other than exposition: the novel, short story,poem, and drama are all entertaining by nature.

That is not to say that exposition and entertainment are mutually exclusive. Much exposition is highly entertaining,as it must excite some sort of response from its audience in order to be effective. However, in terms of exposition,the function of entertainment is secondary. When the author seeks to entertain a reader, it is with the goal ofmaking the argument more persuasive.

See the following discussion of humor and emotion as rhetorical tactics for more information on how expositorywriting can entertain.

Modes of Exposition

The challenge in making any persuasive argument is to present information and supporting evidence so that it clearlysupports the main point. In presenting arguments in writing, expository authors make trade offs. On one hand, theirlanguage has permanence. Unlike live speakers, whose words fade with the audience’s memory, authors create a pieceof static literature that the reader can refer to again and again. On the other hand, live speakers have access topowerful communication tools, such as eye contact, facial expression, body language, and tone of voice, that aresimply unavailable to authors.

Readers cannot ask the author to clarify a point or explain exactly how evidence supports a certain conclusion.Expository writing must therefore be crafted for maximum effectiveness so that readers can answer any such questionsfor themselves. First and foremost, a good argument is well organized. Information is presented so that readers caneasily relate it to the author’s premise. Evidence is also ordered to clearly support the author’s conclusion.Ideally, readers never have to question why they are being supplied with a piece of information or how thatinformation relates to the author’s premise.

Good expository writing clearly leads the reader from a premise, through a logical sequence of supporting evidence,to a reasonable conclusion.

To achieve that goal, expository writing defines various “modes, ” or forms, of exposition, including basic instruction, categorization, cause and effect, comparison and contrast,and problem and solution.Traditionally, this set also includes the descriptive, definitive, and narrative modes. However, description, definition, and narration can more properly be defined astools of exposition rather than modes or forms. All exposition, for instance, tells or narrates a story; it definesterms and provides description.

Each of the various modes is best suited to a particular type of argument. For instance, comparison and contrast would be ideal foran essay about the relative merits of certain Victorian novels, while categorization would be the more logicalchoice for an essay that sought to define the differences between Victorian and modern literature. However, mostexpository writing uses a combination of modes. A critical essay on the development of the narrative might use thecategorization mode to define the various narrative forms, the cause-and-effect mode to describe howeach form developed, and the comparison-and-contrastmode to examine how each form uses various narrative elements.


In this mode of exposition, the author divides a complex topic, concept, or issue into smaller categories, which areeasier to define and discuss. This mode of exposition also makes an argument easy to read and understand. Becausethe categories are often compared with one another, categorization is frequently used in tandem with the comparison-and-contrastmode.

As well as being helpful to the reader, categorization is useful to the author. For the author, this mode is anexcellent way of getting a handle on a complex topic. A discussion of storytelling through the ages, for instance,might categorize the narrative into its distinct forms:

  • Epic poem
  • Drama
  • Novel
  • Short story

Most complex subjects, however, can be categorized in several different ways. In the case of storytelling, the authormay choose to divide the topic according to narrative form. But he or she might also categorize by narrative medium,such as oral recitation, public performance, and print publication, or attributes of the narrative artist, such asculture, gender, and historical influences.

In dividing the main topic, the author must be certain to use the same method of categorization. For instance, itwould make no sense to divide the topic of storytelling into the categories of oral recitation, female novelists,and the theatre of the absurd. These classifications all relate to different aspects of the topic (form, artist, andmedium) and thus cannot be related to each other.

The author also has the freedom of defining any categories that are appropriate to the discussion. In the essay onstorytelling, for instance, the author may not intend to discuss literature at all—perhaps the subject is arthistory instead. In that case, the same topic might break down into entirely different categories, such as cavepainting, illustration, and portraiture.

A good example of categorization as a mode of exposition can be found in Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams (1911). Here, the bigger topic is not just dreams(which could be categorized in any number of ways) but how the waking mind can make sense of them. Freud defines thefollowing categories:

  • how scientific literature has dealt with dreams thus far
  • the Freudian method of interpreting dreams
  • the function of dreams in relation to waking life
  • how waking life is portrayed in dreams
  • the source of dream imagery, symbols, and other content
  • the purpose of dream interpretation in psychology
  • how dream interpretation benefits the patient


The categories above are paraphrased from the actual titles Freud gives the seven chapters of Interpretation of Dreams. From these categories and their progression,what can we conclude is Freud’s main point in this book?

  1. Dreams all have meanings with the power to elucidate our everyday lives.
  2. Dreams are another aspect of the waking life, one that is usually hidden from consciousness.
  3. Dream interpretation is useful only in the study of human psychology and should not be applied
    to fraudulent studies of the human character or to attempts to divine the future.
  4. The relationship of dreams to waking life can be defined, and its study is an important focus of
    psychology, with the power to improve the lives of people suffering from mental disorders.

Reveal Answer

Cause and Effect

In this mode of exposition, the author seeks to examine a condition or problem by considering it as the effect—thatis, as the result of a set of causes. It is commonly used in discussions of empirical fact, where the “effect ” issomething that can be seen or measured—the disappearance of the ozone layer, the growing conservatism of theAmerican voting public, rising gasoline prices, or the rising of the sun. Instead of considering these conditions asgivens—that is, as objective facts that might be used as the basis for an argument—the cause-and-effectmode looks backward, into the events and actions of the past that might be responsible for bringingthese conditions into existence.

Consider again the example given in the preceding section, in which an expository piece discusses the subject ofstorytelling. Using the cause-and-effect mode, we would first have to define some aspect of storytelling as aneffect. For instance, we might choose to examine why contemporary literature is predominantly a printed medium. Ourexamination would then seek to answer the question of how literature has come to be something that is read inprivate rather than performed in public. In answering that question, the causes we might consider could include:

  • the development of literature written in vernacular languages such as Italian or English (rather than theacademic languages of Greek and Latin)
  • the invention of the printing press
  • growing literacy rates among the nonacademic population

In interpreting an argument that rests on the cause-and-effect mode, the reader should be alert to possible flaws inthe author’s logic. Three fallacies are common in cause-and-effect argumentation:

  • Assuming that chronology implies cause. Just because one event follows another doesn’t mean that the first isthe cause of the second.
  • Confusing cause with effect. The previous example may do this by claiming that growing literacy rates were acause for literature’s transformation to a print medium. Perhaps literature began to appear in print becausemore people could read.
  • Mistaking coincidence for causality. Two things that happen at the same time or are otherwise commonly relatedtend to take on a cause-and-effect relationship. Strange boating accidents that happen in the Bermuda Triangle,for instance, are blamed on that geographical location, when in fact each one can be traced to another, actualcause.

Read the following passage from Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in the West (1776):

The rise of a city, which swelled into an empire, may deserve, as a singular prodigy, the reflection of a philosophic mind. But the decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness.Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest;and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to thepressure of its own weight. The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and instead of inquiring why theRoman Empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long. The victoriouslegions, who, in distant wars, acquired the vices of strangers and mercenaries, first oppressed the freedomof the republic, and afterwards violated the majesty of the purple. The emperors, anxious for their personalsafety and the public peace, were reduced to the base expedient of corrupting the discipline which renderedthem alike formidable to their sovereign and to the enemy; the vigour of the military government was relaxedand finally dissolved by the partial institutions of Constantine; and the Roman world was overwhelmed by adeluge of barbarians.


According to Gibbon, is the degeneracy of the Roman legions a cause or an effect of the empire’s decline?

  1. Both a cause and an effect—greater and greater conquest exposed the legions to barbariancultures, which caused them to lose their discipline, which in turn caused the emperors to fear them an effect—because the legions were so badly behaved, the populace learned to distrustthem
  2. Neither—the legions became mercenaries for public hire, thus enforcing the rights ofpublic citizens
  3. A cause—the legions learned bad habits in battle and brought them home to Rome

Reveal Answer

Comparison and Contrast

The comparison-and-contrast mode is common in informative exposition, where it serves toexplain the differences between two or more similar subjects without proposing one as better than any of the others.For example, a travel writer might write an article about a variety of possible day trips, comparing the attractionsof different destinations and recommending all of them.

As it applies to persuasive exposition, however, this mode is used to convince the reader that a certain theory oridea is superior by comparing it to similar ideas that, by contrast, are clearly not as convincing. The reader’s jobis to assess the terms of the comparison and decide whether they are fair and also compelling.

In order to draw comparisons and then contrast a series of ideas, the author must first categorize them. To clarifythis process, let’s examine Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto (1848), which opens with a textbook example ofhow these two modes interact.

The first section opens with the basic premise that Marx intends to support with his manifesto: “The history of allhitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.” Marx proceeds to categorize human society in termsof the oppressor and oppressed and draws the following conclusion: “Society as a whole is splitting up into twogreat hostile camps, into two great classes, directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.”

An important element of the argument by comparison and contrast is that it allows the author to define the initialcategories so that they best support his or her argument. In this case, Marx divides modern society into two mainclasses. Because he defines the attributes of each class, he can easily stack the deck in favor of the one he thinksis better. Here is how he describes the bourgeoisie:

It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistinesentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchangevalue, and in place of the numberless and feasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single,unconscionable freedom––Free Trade.

Having accepted the author’s categorizations as fair, the reader’s job is not done. Next, it is necessary to decidewhether the terms of the comparison are also valid and objective. If the comparison is found to be basically biased,its conclusions are necessarily flawed. Here, Marx paints a one-sided picture of an entire social class, which hedenies having any positive or desirable qualities. As a consequence, his argument fails to address the other side ofthe class question, which is the proletariat’s desire to become the bourgeoisie.


We know that the Communist Manifesto ultimately argues for the universal establishment of a Communistform of government, which eliminates the useless, destructive bourgeoisie and empowers the productiveproletariat. How then may we expect Marx to support this argument, using the mode of comparison andcontrast?

  1. Marx will compare the values of the two classes, with the proletariat class being shown to be clearlysuperior.
  2. Marx will compare Communist society to other forms of government, which by contrast will be shown to beoppressive and unjust.
  3. Marx will compare historical periods to show how the rise of industrialism resulted in the creation ofthe modern proletariat.
  4. Marx will compare various modern conceptions of Communism to show how unfairly it is represented fromother political points of view.

Reveal Answer

Problem and Solution

In this mode of exposition, the author presents a problem and then attempts to persuade the reader how it may bestbe solved. This mode is generally used in conjunction with comparison and contrast. In order for the author todemonstrate the superiority of his or her proposal, it is necessary to describe and then debunk thealternatives.

Expository writing is the author’s response to some stimulus from the outside world. While many authors write inresponse to positive stimuli, most exposition is written in response to some big or weighty problem, making thismode a very useful way of examining almost any piece of persuasive writing. Some major literary works that use theproblem-and-solution mode include the following:

  • Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” provides a solution to the enormous problem of the starving Irish poor.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche attempts to solve the problem of fate and injustice in Beyond Good and Evil.
  • America’s founding fathers provided a solution to the problem of British tyranny.

The problem-and-solution mode is also helpful as a way for students to formulate their own interpretive responses toexposition. Different authors of the same historical period commonly propose different solutions to the same socialproblems. A comparison of these responses leads to a greater understanding not only of the problem under discussionbut also of the role of exposition in general. In examining how thinkers with many things in common may bestimulated by the same problems to reach totally antithetical solutions, the student also investigates the nature ofcritical thinking and thus learns to analyze positions that he or she may otherwise have taken (or discarded) forgranted.

Take the problem of equal rights. In the years following the Civil War, African Americans who had been slaves did notfind emancipation to be as freeing as they had hoped. Former slaves found themselves shackled by the socialprejudice that maintained their inferior status. Two great African American thinkers of the time, Booker T.Washington and W.E.B. Dubois, addressed this problem from radically different points of view.

Washington’s “Industrial Education for the Negro” was published as the introduction to a collection of essays titledThe Negro Problem (1903). There, Washington states that “the Negro’s [problem has been] to learn thedifference between being worked and working” and proposes the following solution:

For two hundred and fifty years, I believe the way for the redemption of the Negro was being preparedthrough industrial development. Through all those years the Southern white man did business with the Negroin a way that no one else has done business with him. In most cases if a Southern white man wanted a housebuilt he consulted a Negro mechanic about the plan and about the actual building of the structure. If hewanted a suit of clothes made he went to a Negro tailor, and for shoes he went to a shoemaker of the same race. In a certain way every slave plantation in the South was an industrial school. On these plantationsyoung colored men and women were constantly being trained not only as farmers but as carpenters,blacksmiths, wheelwrights, brick masons, engineers, cooks, laundresses, sewing women and housekeepers.

In other words, according to Washington, the solution had been there all along: former slaves should value theindustrial skills they learned as slaves and use those skills to make their living as free men.

Although an essay by DuBois was included in that same collection, DuBois’ s solution to “the Negro problem” wasdiametrically opposed to Washington’s. In the same year, 1903, DuBois published The Souls of Black Folk. He
begins the first chapter of his book as follows:

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings ofdelicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. Theyapproach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of sayingdirectly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, Ifought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or aminterested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How doesit feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

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