English Ph.D. Dissertations


Silence as a Rhetor's Tool: Rhetorical Choices for and uses of Silence

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


English (Rhetoric and Writing)

First Advisor

Sue Carter Wood (Committee Chair)

Second Advisor

Kristine Blair (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Christian Coons (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Lance Massey (Committee Member)


Historically, the field of Rhetoric and Composition has participated in little or no investigation of rhetorical silence. Previous scholarship suggests silence as a form of oppressed or suppressed voices and silence as a negative action; however, this dissertation investigates the positive, productive aspects of silence. The study posits that silence can be intentionally utilized as a rhetorical tool, and investigates possible connections between rhetorical silence and rhetorical amplification. The dissertation first reviews available scholarship and organizes a heuristic with which rhetorical silence may be analyzed; and, second, applies the heuristic to two case studies of historic women rhetors who employ silence. Three heuristic categories of invention, delivery, and audience are developed as a means of organizing the focus and direction of the study. The heuristics are applied to two case studies, historical figures Anne Askew and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, as a means of contributing theory and evidence to emerging field-wide discussions of rhetorical silence. Findings suggest that silence was intentionally used by both case studies; however, each rhetor used silence in unique ways.

This study is anchored in the scholarship of scholars such as Lauer, Ede, Lundsford, Saville-Troike, Bruneau, and Burke, and extends the contemporary study of rhetorical silence by scholars such as Cheryl Glenn. Conclusions of the research confirm that silence can be intentionally used by a rhetor, and can be positive and productive. The study contributes new findings to the field by revealing the connections between rhetorical silence and rhetorical amplification, especially when the rhetor relies on the audience to supply their own meaning. Similarly, this study contributes a methodology for analyzing rhetorical silences. Implications demonstrate the usefulness of feminist methodologies and methods, that silence can be positive and productive, and that silence can be wielded as a rhetorical strategy; additional research will develop ongoing concepts and analysis with regard to rhetorical silence. The heuristics I designed can be applied to study rhetorical silences in other contexts in contemporary settings. Further, silence relies on a dynamic interplay between rhetor, audience, and context for delivery, reception, interpretation, and meaning.