An enthymeme (EN-thuh-meem) is a logical argument in which the writer or speaker omits but still implies at least one aspect of the argument’s premise. The omission is understood by the audience and does not take away from the argument’s larger point. The audience uses deductive reasoning to connect the unstated components of the premise with the stated components.
Greek philosopher Aristotle first studied enthymemes, calling them “the substance of rhetorical persuasion.” The term enthymeme comes from the Greek enthumēma, meaning “within mind” or “piece of reasoning.”
How Enthymemes Are Used
Enthymemes are variations of syllogisms, logical arguments that utilize deductive reasoning to make a conclusion based on two or more propositions assumed to be true. In Rhetoric, Aristotle theorized that all syllogisms have three elements: a major premise, a minor premise, and a valid conclusion. An enthymeme leaves out at least one part of the premise, so the remaining premise will not have a valid conclusion by Aristotle’s definition. In this sense, enthymemes are incomplete arguments.
Nonetheless, the absence of information does not equate a lack of logic or produce a nonsensical result. Instead of spelling out each element of the argument, an enthymeme relies on the reader or listener’s ability to arrive at their own valid conclusion to make the argument work. Enthymemes reach logical conclusions by essentially truncating the argument’s rhetoric.
To illustrate this idea, look at this classic Aristotelian syllogism:
All humans are mortal. (This is the major premise.)
Socrates is human. (This is the minor premise.)
Therefore, Socrates is mortal. (This is the conclusion.)
Either the major or minor premise could be removed in its entirety, and the conclusion would still make sense. By removing the major premise, the argument is “Socrates is human, therefore he is mortal,” which is logically sound. If the minor premise is removed, the argument is “All humans are mortal; therefore, Socrates is mortal.” Again, this is logical. By removing any of the argument’s premises, the syllogism becomes an enthymeme. However, either argument would not technically be complete since it lacks the accompanying premise.
How to Form Enthymemes
There are four ways to create or understand enthymemes.
A truncated syllogism, as described above, is one that excludes but implies a key part of the argument’s premise.
A syllogism based on signs or probabilities is another type of enthymeme theorized by Aristotle. It follows the same basic principle—the author or speaker omits a key part of the premise—but the absent element is a sign, not a fact. The sign is a proposition explaining the existence of a fact. In most cases, the sign is so logically connected to the fact that the inclusion or exclusion of one naturally indicates the inclusion or exclusion of the other. These types of enthymemes, however, are fallible—or imperfect. For example: “The fact that John has been unable to get out of bed all week means he has depression.” While being unable to get out of bed is a common sign of depression, it’s unclear if there might be another reason, like having the flu, that’s preventing John from getting out of bed.
A syllogism in which the audience provides the unstated premise is an enthymeme construction first identified by political scholar William Lyon Benoit. This argument is typically based on an axiom, a statement that certain audiences or populations accept as factual or logical. For instance: “That horror movie is typical Hollywood fare, so it is gory and salacious.” The missing premise—that Hollywood commonly produces violent, sensational horror movies—is understood by certain audiences, namely those who watch horror movies.
Visual enthymemes are syllogisms in images. These are primarily used to make persuasive arguments in advertising. The images are straightforward and unambiguous, making the conclusion plain, but at least one element of the argument is left out. For example, a posted sign in the forest reads “High Fire Danger” and has an image of a raging blaze wrapping a tree in flames. It thus implies that preventable fires are easy to start in the area.
The Function of Enthymemes
Almost every argument relies, to some extent, on enthymemes. For any argument to be persuasive, the writer or speaker must assume the reader or listener understands their language and agrees with them on fundamental facts and generally accepted ideas. Pausing to explain every minor premise of an argument would take considerable time, so enthymemes quickly and efficiently make a point. In literary contexts, enthymemes make statements and arguments more readable and streamlined, free of the details that drive home the point but don’t require a declaration.
While effective and useful, enthymemes have the potential to alienate. Fallible enthymemes—like some of those based on signs, probabilities, or stereotypes—don’t always present an airtight premise. For certain audiences, these can be fatal mistakes that fail to ultimately persuade or convince them of the argument the writer or speaker is attempting to make.
Enthymemes Outside of Literature
Enthymemes are frequently employed for reasons other than literary purposes, with advertising being among the most common. This makes sense, considering that enthymemes, like all syllogisms, make an argument to persuade audiences to believe a certain fact. Consider the famous Smucker’s Jam tagline: “With a name like Smucker’s, it has to be good.” There are a couple of possible premises missing from this argument. One is that because Smucker’s is a reputable company, this product must be good; another is that because Smucker’s is a rather unattractive name, then the product must be good to have remained popular all these years. The Smucker’s people likely want audiences to think about this, as it keeps their name on in mind—and on shopping lists.
Speeches—especially political speeches and mottos—also make frequent use of enthymemes. For example, Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign motto is “Not me. Us.” The implied premise here is that a party of one currently runs and maintains the political landscape’s status quo, but the United States will only be successful when its people unite and work together. Or, take Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan, “Make America great again.” The implied premise is that America was not great under former presidents.
Examples of Enthymemes in Literature
1. William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is set in 44 BCE, where Rome watches helplessly as Caesar transforms himself into a dictator. Senators Marcus Brutus and Cassius, along with a group of others, opposed Caesar. They ultimately kill him to prevent his murderous ascent. However, after Caesar’s death, Roman society plunges into chaos, and the way of life the senators wanted to uphold crumbles anyway. At Caesar’s funeral, Marc Antony gives a eulogy in which he tries to whitewash Caesar’s legacy:
Mark’d ye his words? He would not take the crown. Therefore ‘tis certain he was not ambitious.
The plebeians in attendance believe him, repeating the enthymematic message he delivered. They do not question the unstated major premise of the statement: a man who declines a crown is not ambitious. They accept that an ambitious individual would have readily seized the crown, so Caesar, then, was not a ruthlessly ambitious man.
2. Alice Walker, “Beauty: When the Other Dancer Is the Self”
In this essay, Walker documents her evolving relationship to beauty and what it means. As a child, her brothers got BB guns, and one of them accidentally shot her in the eye, disfiguring and blinding her. She discusses how the incident changed her life, her self-image, and the ways others saw her, leading her to the understanding that beauty is all about perception.
[M]y parents decide to buy my brothers guns. These are not “real” guns. They shoot “BBs,” copper pellets my brothers say will kill birds. Because I am a girl, I do not get a gun.
In this enthymeme, she omits the major premise behind why she, as a girl, did not receive a gun. Thus, the reader can logically assume it’s because of social/family customs, gender norms, or both.
3. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter From Birmingham Jail”
During the 1963 Birmingham Campaign, which included civil rights marches and sit-ins, police arrested King and other protesters. From jail, King penned an open letter in which he defended his nonviolent views and encouraged others to act and peacefully break morally unjust laws.
A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama, which set up the state’s segregation laws, was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?
There are at least two enthymemes in this passage. First, any law imposed on a minority who had no role in enacting it is an unjust one; second, anyone prohibited from voting for a body has no say in the laws passed by that body.
4. The Bible
In Acts 22:3, Paul makes this statement about his upbringing and education:
I am verily a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated under Gamaliel, strictly according to the law of our fathers.
The verse holds significant information about the seriousness and formality of Paul’s education and training. Gamaliel was a Pharisee doctor of Jewish law and a highly revered teacher in Judaism. Paul omits this major premise, but the readers and/or listeners of his day would recognize Gamaliel’s importance and understand Paul’s implication that his own education was rigorous and in strict accordance with Jewish custom.
Further Resources on Enthymemes
A course blog from the University of Maryland’s Department of Communication has an in-depth look at visual enthymemes in advertising.
The Guardian analyzes enthymemes in modern British politics.
Metro calls enthymemes “the secret behind Donald Trump’s speeches.”
Lander University has an introduction to enthymemes from a philosophical perspective.
Drew University offers advice on writing a college thesis enthymeme.