A few semi-developed ideas for scholarly writing have been bumping around in my writing notebooks. One to which I keep returning is the idea of the gap as a rhetorical necessity. (I can see that last phrase becoming a subtitle…descriptive, yet decidedly uncatchy.)

In rhetorical studies, gaps are everywhere. Michel Meyer’s theory of problematology explores how questions create space for ideas, and he reinvisions Aristotle’s artistic proofs as ways to create and respond to questions. Questions thus represent gaps in what is known or believed.

Petty and Cacioppo relied on the presence of gaps (there’s an oxymoron for you) in their Elaboration Likelihood Model, which is a theory of persuasion. They posited that people are more likely to be persuaded when they have to make cognitive leaps between premises and conclusions.

One of the most widely taught models of persuasion is that of Stephen Toulmin. The simplified version of his model looks like a bridge in which a rhetor moves from data to claim through a warrant; the warrant fills a gap.

Topoi make use of commonplaces between rhetor and audience by condensing arguments into familiar tropes, thus creating gaps that the right audience must fill.

I could find more theories in which gaps are vital (and I will in the eventual article), but the point is made. And yet, with all these clear examples of gaps being useful persuasive tools, it seems that the instinct of many educators in college is to provide more information and fewer gaps for learners to fill. I think we do them a disservice when we don’t allow them to struggle with gaps, or when we allow them to think of gaps in knowledge as something other than opportunities.

Today I get to teach my communication and instruction class.  I wonder if they’ll be as interested in gaps (on the Friday before spring break) as I am.  Hm. 😉


Meyer, Michel. Of Problematology: Philosophy, Science, and Language. University of Chicago Press, 1995.
Petty, Richard E., and John T. Cacioppo. “The elaboration likelihood model of persuasion.” In Communication and persuasion, pp. 1-24. Springer New York, 1986.
Toulmin, Stephen E. The uses of argument. Cambridge University Press, 2003.

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