Using Kenneth Burke’s Pentad

Note: Updated 11/8/18 with additional literary examples from The Great Gatsby, better citations, and other minor adjustments.  Some preliminary ideas for turning this into a mini-module are here.

Literary critic and rhetorician Kenneth Burke calls humans “the symbol using animal.” In his long career exploring how humans communicate, he has invented a variety of systems for analyzing speech and writing. In his book A Grammar of Motives he describes what is perhaps his most useful device, a five-term system for analyzing the motivation of characters that he calls the “pentad” (xv).

Most of us are familiar with the the five W’s—Who, What, When, Where, and Why—sometimes called “the reporter’s questions.” A sixth question, “How?” is often added. These questions are designed to elicit the basic facts of a situation. A good news story should answer all of these questions in the first three paragraphs. Everything after that is added detail.

Burke’s pentad is similar, but rather than facts, he is interested in motives. His set of terms is designed to help us think about what motivates the things that people do. Here are Burke’s terms:


Note that Burke collapses “when” and “where” into “scene” and “how” becomes “agency.”

The terms “act” and “scene” may remind you of a play and you would not be entirely wrong, although in a play an “act” is a major section of the play and not an individual action.  Burke calls his system, “dramatism” in part because it treats real life as if it were a drama.  In Shakespeare’s play As You Like It, a character says “All the world’s a stage,/
And all the men and women merely players.” Burke would agree.  Burke says,

Dramatism centers on observations of this sort: for there to be an act, there must be an agent.  Similarly, there must be a scene in which the agent acts.  To act in a scene, the agent must employ some means, or agency. And it can be called an act in the full sense of the term only if it involves a purpose (that is, if a support happens to give way and one falls, such motion on the agent’s part is not an act, but an accident).  These five terms (act, scene agent, agency, purpose) have been labeled the dramatistic pentad; the aim of calling attention to them in this way is to show how the functions which they designate operate in the imputing of motives (A Grammar of Motives and a Rhetoric of Motives 1962, Introduction).  (Gusfield 135)

Shifting Points of View

Each term represents a perspective or point of view. There is no right way to answer the questions posed by the terms in a particular situation. Rather than a tool for finding right answers, the pentad is a tool for shifting your point of view around to see new possible arguments and ways of thinking about a situation. It can be used to discover the gaps, ambiguities, and contradictions in an opponent’s arguments, plus find ways to counter them by taking on a completely different perspective yourself.

Though newcomers to this system often start by looking at a situation and trying to answer all of the questions as a sort of checklist, the most useful way to use the terms is to combine two of the terms into what Burke calls “ratios.” The most important question is almost always, “What caused or motivated the act?” A lot of the most useful combinations will have “act” on the right side and another term on the left side, representing the source of the motivation you want to emphasize.

Some Examples

We often think that when people do something, they do it either because of their own personal nature (agent→act) or because of their purpose (purpose→act). (Here I am using an arrow to show that the motivation for the act comes from the term on the left. You could think of the arrow as representing something like “leads to.”)

However, there are many other useful combinations. Let’s imagine a neighborhood that has a lot of graffiti. Young people are painting slogans, gang signs, four-letter words, and other messages on buildings, bridges, billboards, and even garage doors. Homeowners and businesses are upset about it. The people doing this are agents. Painting the graffiti is an act. What motivates this act?

In this example, some people in the community argue that the young people have no respect for the property of others, so they commit this vandalism. Burke would call that an agent→act ratio. Bad people commit bad acts. The solution to the problem, defined by this combination, might be to punish or re-educate the agents. However, others argue that the bad neighborhood creates bad people who do this. That would be a scene→agent ratio (We could actually think of this as a three term combination, scene→agent→act.) Here the solution might be to improve the neighborhood through addressing root causes, such as poverty or homelessness. On the other hand, perhaps young people see all of the graffiti in the neighborhood and want to imitate the behavior. That would be a scene→act ratio which might imply a graffiti removal campaign to clean up the city. Finally, someone else might argue that the graffiti is legitimate political or artistic expression. That would be a purpose→act ratio. In that case, the solution might be to engage with the community and address the issues that the perpetrators are talking about. Each of these ratios defines the problem in a different way and implies a different kind of solution. Each implies different kinds of arguments. It is not clear that any one of these perspectives is “correct,” but they are all possible positions. The pentad has opened up a lot of possibilities for discussing the situation.

Defining the Terms

In the example above, the “act” was consistently defined as painting graffiti. Also as noted above, because we are talking about motivation, the act tends to be central no matter what other terms are put into play. How you define the act may totally change the argument. Perhaps one side says the act was murder, while the other says it was self-defense. Similarly, what you call the agent can have important rhetorical effects. One man’s terrorist, is another man’s freedom fighter. Notice also how the scene often defines an act. If a soldier in the scene of war kills an enemy, we don’t call it murder. However, if the same man kills someone in his hometown in a bar fight, we define the act in a different way.

Often we are using the pentad to analyze a speech or a text that someone has written. Beginners often make the mistake of defining the writing of the text as the “act.” That makes the author the “agent,” the computer or other writing tool the “agency,” the society or the audience the “scene,” and the author’s point the “purpose.” This is not the most interesting way to use the pentad because each analysis tends to be exactly the same.

The Pentad in Action

Let’s say that a writer in an online newspaper has written an editorial arguing that graffiti artists are criminals who should be caught and given jail time. The writer is arguing that there should be increased enforcement and punishment. You recognize this as an agent→act combination. However, you think that at least some of the graffiti expresses real issues that are important in the community. You think that problems in the neighborhood are causing the inhabitants to express their voices in the only way they know. You see this not as a (bad) agent→act combination, but as scene→act. And instead of defining the act as vandalism, you want to define it as political expression.

Of course, when you write your response, you don’t mention agent→act or scene→act. Your readers would not know these terms (unless you are writing for your teacher). The pentad is your own secret tool. However, you describe the neighborhood problems and the ways in which the graffiti addresses them. You use this to build a case for addressing the real problems. Your readers do not need to know that you have used Burke’s pentad to think clearly about the issue and to plan your response. They just see the results of your analysis.

Burke’s pentad can be used in almost any rhetorical situation. For example, recently in the news there was a controversy about an alleged sexual assault that happened at a high school party long ago. Much of the discussion was about how much beer underage high school students were accustomed to drinking at the time. At one point, the accused said something like, “Everybody was doing it.” This is a clear scene→act combination. He is saying, “Everybody drank beer, so I drank beer too.” Alcohol can also be an instrument or “agency” of assault. Some people who were part of that scene said that they observed young men spiking the punch with grain alcohol or drugs to make girls more vulnerable to assault and to reduce their ability to consent to a sexual act. In this case we have an agency→act combination, quite a horrifying one. We could also turn this around and ask, “What kind of agent would commit this act?” or “What does this act tell us about the agent?” That would be an act→agent combination, in this case with the “act” on the left side.

Literary Criticism

Believe it or not, Burke’s pentad can also be used for literary criticism. For example, in The Great Gatsby, the narrator, Nick Carraway describes West Egg, the place he has rented a house as “one of the strangest communities in North America” (4). Across the bay “the white palaces of fashionable East Egg glittered across the water” (5). The newly rich and the not-so-rich live in West Egg, while the truly rich who have inherited their wealth and prestige live in East Egg. Gatsby lives in West Egg while Daisy, his love, lives in East Egg, making Gatsby immediately suspicious to the truly wealthy. Burke would call this a scene→agent ratio. In this combination, the “scene,” which can be a place, a culture, or a historical moment, forms the nature and character of the “agent,” the person who acts. At one point, Tom Buchanan calls Gatsby “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere” (130). For Tom, if you are from nowhere, you are nobody, and for him that is the ultimate insult.

When Tom and Daisy attend one of Gatsby’s parties, Gatsby points out various famous people including an actress and her director. He identifies people by what they do, an act→agent combination. He introduces Tom to people as “Mr. Buchanan . . . the polo player” (105). Tom rejects this act→agent ratio.

“I’d rather not be the polo player,” said Tom pleasantly, I’d rather look at all these famous people in—in oblivion.” (105)

Tom does not need fame to feel important. He’s too rich. If we think of wealth as a tool for doing things, in Burke’s terms an “agency,” we could say that instead of his actions, Tom is defined by his wealth, an agency→agent ratio.

It is also possible for the scene in which the act takes place to motivate the act, a scene→act ratio. In this novel, the action moves from East Egg to West Egg, and from East Egg to New York, passing through “the Valley of Ashes.” The Valley of Ashes is where Wilson, the gas station owner, and his wife Myrtle, with whom Tom is having an affair, live. Myrtle wants to marry Tom to get out of this place, a scene-act ratio.


The pentad is especially useful if you are trying to respond to an article that you think you disagree with. How does the writer define the act? If the writer is emphasizing the agent, what happens if you look at it from the point of view of the scene? If the writer is emphasizing a tool, such as some kind of new technology (agency), what if you emphasize the purpose? The pentad is a way of shifting perspectives that just might lead you to some winning arguments.

Update: More on using ratios and Burke’s concept of “Identification” in this newer post: Identification and Division in the Current Crisis.

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley:Univ. Of California Press, 1945.

Gusfield, Joseph R. ed. Kenneth Burke: On Symbols and Society. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. 1925. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print.

Click here to download this post as a .pdf for classroom use.

18 thoughts on “Using Kenneth Burke’s Pentad

  1. guitarsophist

    Last night we discussed this post in my “Pedagogies of Reading” seminar and I got a lot of good feedback from high school teachers in the class. They suggested some changes in the language used to explain Burke’s system. First, they didn’t think that students would understand how motivation could “flow” from one term to the other. Second, phrases such as “clarify the resources of ambiguity” were confusing. Third, and most interesting, they thought that Burke’s term “ratio” was in itself confusing. It seems that my task is to translate Burke’s concepts into terms more accessible to high school and first year college students. I wonder if “combination” might work better than “ratio.” Anyway, I have a lot of thinking to do before I make another attempt.

    They did like the examples, however. Some suggested that I might lead with the examples, then theorize, and then illustrate with more examples. This is getting interesting.

  2. guitarsophist

    I have updated the post. I tried to incorporate the suggestions from the seminar. I still don’t think this is the final version, however, so please continue to send suggestions.

  3. Lanae Harper

    As a high school English teacher, myself, I agree with the comments made by the other teachers in your seminar. I love the pentad, and I think it will be an excellent tool to help students understand the nuances of rhetoric and develop their analysis of different rhetorical situations.

    When designing a unit around the pentad, I think there should be time at the beginning of the unit dedicated to unpacking each of the five elements and their relationship to one another. Your examples are great, and I do believe that leading with those examples will help students to understand the purpose of the pentad.

    You could create tasks where students develop their own examples, or a step-by-step process where they focus on one element of the pentad, then incorporate a second, then third, until they’ve been guided (through questioning, as is typical in ERWC units) through all five elements using the same text. Making the initial connections to the “Who-What-Where-When-Why” that students are more familiar with will also support their understanding of Burke’s pentad.

    Once time has been devoted to unpacking each of the elements individually, I think it would be valuable to do some whole-class or group exercises in which students study the relationship between the elements (scene –> agent, vs. act –> agent, vs. agency –> agent, etc.) before students are asked to attempt to utilize the pentad on their own. It might take a while, but I think it will yield better success and longevity if enough time is dedicated to the understanding of the elements, themselves, and how their interactions with one another lead to differing rhetorical interpretations.

    I’m excited to see the unit as you develop it – it will surely produce excellent classroom discussion, and with the use of current issues and topics, I know students will be very engaged in the process!

  4. guitarsophist

    Two other ideas to add:

    Early in the module I might ask students to brainstorm a list of “scene” words such as city, town, neighborhood, childhood, 18th Century, the Truman administration, front porch, American society, Koreatown, workplace, etc.

    Then to explore the concept of agent, I might quote some descriptions of characters in detective novels, which are generally supposed to provide clues about what they are capable of and who did the crime. For example, on the first page of The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade is described as looking rather like a “blonde Satan.” The novel is written in such a limited third person that we don’t know what Spade is thinking, only what he sees, hears, and does. The contradiction in the description plays out throughout the novel, so that we are continually enacting an act-agent ratio, trying to figure out if Spade is a good guy or a bad guy based on what he does.

  5. guitarsophist

    I added a paragraph from Burke about dramatism. I think it is good for the students to read at least a paragraph of Burke’s language. He is pretty clear in this quote too.

  6. Robert Stewart

    This is a very cool way of reading motivations. The examples were great, I was kind of struggling at first to see the purpose but after the extended graffiti example it made more sense to me.

    I’m not a teacher so it’s difficult to say how I could implement this. What I can say is that it provides a unique way to read and then turn that reading on it’s head to view it from a different perspective.

    I like using political examples but it might get messy in a classroom. But maybe old political examples since finding the intent of politicians can be so easy, it’s easier to identify in a speech what the purpose is and where they’re coming from because there is only one intended meaning, whereas in a novel the author may be trying to be purposefully ambiguous or misleading. So, to me, that would be an easy way to break the ice on the pentad. It seems very valuable to teach, and can only benefit the students by giving them yet another tool to read with.

  7. Ema Burman

    I am not yet a writing teacher, but I like the the idea of designing writing around the Pentad. The examples for “agent”, “act”, and “scene” are very good. They create a concrete understanding of what each term represents.

    I think it would be interesting to work through an in-in class, group writing activity where students create their own examples and then groups rotate and identify the agent, act, and scene. I would prehaps start with these three and then scaffold the last two in after.

    I think that the more students can be exposed to non-traditional teaching and learning, the better writers they will become as they develop their own style as a writer. Often the teaching of writing is very formulaic so this is a nice option. I think students would really benefit enjoy it.

  8. Erica McNab

    I believe an understanding of the pentad at a high school level is contingent upon drawing connections to prior knowledge. While this is an important step in any lesson plan at the secondary level, it is particularly imperative when introducing complex, theoretical ideas. I would begin with an activity that promotes the distinction between “how” and “why,” as this contract represents the key difference between the pentad and the standard reporters questions. This can be done in a few ways: perhaps introducing students to a recognizable scenario. One that comes to mind is the issue of bullying. I would ask students to describe “how” someone might be bullied. While the answers will be different (cyber bullying, physical abuse, etc.) students will begin to see that this is not a particularly complex question to answer. Then, I would ask students to analyze “why” someone might be bullied: Is it an issue of school culture? Does this mean socioeconomics are involved? Is it an issue of experience? Does the perspective change is the bully himself has suffered trauma? Students will then begin to see what “why” is an inherently more complex question that “what.” That may act as a great springboard into explaining to students the difference between the pentad and ‘reporters question.’ This will contextualize the most important distinction of the pentad from other forms of analysis: the emphasis upon motive.

    Now, students are more readily able to key into the ‘meat’ of the lesson: understanding how the terms of the pentad work in tandem. I would start on a definitional level and then transition into a theoretical level: first, I would guide students through an understanding of the terms on a simplistic denotative level. Then, I would spend the bulk of my time, as this module does, focusing on examples. I would first have students analyze an example through their familiar lens: the reporters questions. Then, I would have them analyze the exact same piece through the pentad. This will allow them to juxtapose their prior knowledge against what they have now learned. I have found that this works well with high schoolers, as they are able to use their own frame of reference to make connections and expand their thinking.

    Modeling will also be very important here. I would work through the first piece together with the class before allowing them to analyze a new text in a small group. I do think it is important to look at different ratios through the same piece, so that students can see how their interpretation of the text changes simply by shifting the ratio. This is something I would add into the structure of my classroom: perhaps every Monday, our warm-up may be dedicated to a new ratio. I could see this as being very effective in showing students that the pentad is not something to simply be memorized, but, instead, to be utilized.

  9. Brian Redmond

    I believe that the pentad is extremely useful, especially as it is defined in these clear terms here. I think the conversation of character motives is an interesting one in literature analysis – and seems to provide another avenue for students to look at purpose. While the graffiti example is fitting, it allows for an entry point into social critique and commentary that is necessary for students to become democratically engaged.

    For my 10th grade English class I think I’m going to use part of this excerpt in our unit on the Iliad – specifically Achilles’ slaying of Hector. By using the pentad it seems fitting to look at the motivation of Achilles chasing down Hector, cutting open his neck, and dragging his body around Troy. While students are horrified at his violence towards his enemy, the pentad seems like it will provide an area of reason to make sense as to why such an act would be performed.

    A question we come across at the end of the Iliad is if Achilles can still be considered a hero after defiling Hector in front of his wife and child – the students grapple with this a bit, but I find that their thinking and responses will have clarity with this framework from Burke.

    The Great Gatsby example is nice and succinct and I think more lit examples would be beneficial to see how large in scope Burke’s pentad really is.

    1. guitarsophist

      I think that the actions of Achilles were probably not so horrific in the eyes of the ancient Greek audience. That means that we could talk about Greek cultural expectations as part of the scene in which the acts occur. Interesting stuff.

  10. Alexis Garcia

    I really enjoyed this post. I thought Burke’s pentad was an interesting alternative point-of-view of a five term system. The only five term system I know of is the five W’s and something the “How?” I also found the examples used in this post to clarify and help me understand Burke’s system, especially the Shakespeare passage and the graffiti in a neighborhood analogy. I think this system could definitely help student writers because they could use it as their secret tool to make sure they are addressing every point in their assignments.

    While I am not a teacher, I do think teaching students Burke’s pentad would be an excellent resource for students, especially since the terms are straight forward, and the chart presents a visual. I think the cause and effect between two terms is also clear. Furthermore, Burke’s pentad would help student go in-depth with their analysis and come to strong conclusions in different rhetorical situations. If I ever do decide to teach in the future, I would like to correlate this system in my lectures. While it may not help every student, I think providing multiple tools for students to use is always efficient.

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