AP English Language & composition exam

PART III

Cracking the System: The Essays

5

The Argumentative Essay

FIRST, A WORD…

When you get to the argumentative essay on the AP English Language and Composition Exam, you will be asked to take a stand and present your point of view on a topic. This should be an essay that you look forward to! You are not only allowed to use the first person singular (“I”), but also required to use it. Plus, there is no correct position—all that matters is how effectively you argue and back up your position. If you like to debate, this is the part of the free-response section where you should really shine.

As you may recall from the last chapter, when you read the prompt for the first time, you should identify the type of essay you are required to write and figure out which tasks you’re being asked to accomplish. Every argumentative essay prompt in recent history has contained the following phrase: “refute, support, or qualify.” In other words, you should have no trouble distinguishing between a rhetorical analysis essay and an argumentative one.

SAMPLE ESSAY #1—HERE’S HOW IT’S DONE

Here’s a sample argumentative essay prompt. The passage that follows this prompt is typical of argumentative essays you’ll see on the test—they’re much shorter than the analytical essays.

THE DIRECTIONS

ENGLISH LANGUAGE AND COMPOSITION

SECTION II

Total time—2 hours

Question 1

(Suggested time—40 minutes. This question counts as one-third of the total essay section score.)

Read and think carefully about the following quotation, taken from Utilitarianism, by John Stuart Mill. Then write an essay in which you refute, support, or qualify the author’s claim. Make sure to use appropriate evidence from literary, historical, or personal sources to develop your argument.

THE FIRST TIME YOU READ THE PROMPT

Remember, as you read the prompt for the first time you should underline the directions it gives you. Your prompt should now look as follows:

Read and think carefully about the following quotation, taken from Utilitarianism, by John Stuart Mill. Then write an essay in which you refute, support, or qualify the author’s claim. Make sure to use appropriate evidence from literary, historical, or personal sources to develop your argument.

Since you know that the argumentative essay prompt always contains the phrase “refute, support, or qualify,” you know right away that this is an argumentative essay. Notice that we also underlined the phrase “evidence from literary, historical, or personal.” When you read the passage for the first time and begin to formulate a response, the kind of evidence that pops into your mind should determine what stand you take on the argument. Remember that no reader knows or cares what you really think about an issue. This is an AP test, not a testimonial. You’ll want to take the stand that’s easiest for you to defend at that particular moment, based on the ideas that come to you.

THE SECOND TIME YOU READ THE PROMPT

Your second reading of the prompt can be fairly superficial; at this point there shouldn’t be too much more information for you to glean. If you’ve taken a lot of history courses, then you may have studied John Stuart Mill, and this would give you some information about context. If not, then at least the title should be a tip-off about the content of the passage.

THE PASSAGE

The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure. To give a clear view of the moral standard set up by the theory, much more requires to be said; in particular, what things it includes in the ideas of pain and pleasure; and to what extent this is left an open question. But these supplementary explanations do not affect the theory of life on which this theory of morality is grounded—namely, that pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends; and that all desirable things (which are as numerous in the utilitarian as in any other scheme) are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain.

THE ANALYSIS

In this case, the author’s thesis is clearly stated in the topic sentence: “…  actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” In the next sentence, Mill defines happiness (“pleasure”) and unhappiness (“pain or the privation of pleasure”). This is not a rhetorical analysis essay, so you do not have to take apart the entire passage; initially your goal is merely to identify the author’s claim. After you do this, your next step is to refute, support, or qualify that claim.

If possible, you should refute the claim made by the author of the passage. If done well, essays that refute the author’s claim will be the most interesting for the reader. However, if you take a clear, firm stand, in either direction—either for the author’s claim or against it—you’ll be off to a good start. The most important things are that you have clearly decided how you feel about the issue and that you have the examples to back up your claim.

In this passage, Mill has made an ethical claim: Good actions are those that give oneself pleasure (and, thus, happiness); bad actions are those that give oneself pain or deprive oneself of pleasure (causing unhappiness). What examples (from literary, historical, or personal sources) come to mind that either refute or support the thesis? Quickly jot down three to five of them below.

Now review your ideas. Which are the easiest to develop? Which do you feel most strongly about? Do you have two or three that will allow you to refute the author’s claim? If so, then go for it. If not, do you have two or three examples that will allow you to support the claim? Then go in that direction. In virtually all cases, you should be able to think of evidence for or against the claim. However, if you’re caught without very strong evidence that points in either direction, then you’ll have to qualify the author’s claim. Whatever you decide to do, make your position perfectly clear in the introduction of your essay.

Let’s look at an essay that was written by a student under actual testing conditions.

A STUDENT ESSAY

In John Stuart Mill’s work Utilitarianism, the author advances a theory of morality that associates “the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain” with ethical correctness. While the pursuit of happiness can sometimes lead to a path of moral righteousness, Mill’s claim is flawed in that it assumes hedonism will inherently bring positive results. By championing any action that produces pleasure, Mill condones humanity’s greed, lust, and selfishness; three traits that are clearly immoral. As history and literature have demonstrated, pursuing goals motivated purely by self-interest does not lead to ethically responsible outcomes. Furthermore, the greatest achievements often arise when people readily eschew pleasure to attain a nobler end.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, a number of technological advances made the American economy blossom and helped to make the nation a world power. Eager to enjoy the pleasures made possible by great wealth, entrepreneurs and businessmen sought to increase profits and lower costs in any possible way. Workers were paid abysmally low wages, conditions were highly unsafe, and monopolies were commonplace. Though the heads of “Big Business” clearly adhered to Mill’s “Greatest Happiness Principle,” their actions were highly unethical. Their pleasure came at the expense of the poor and created a polarized society. In contrast, patriots seeking independence from England a century before, gladly relinquished the “absence of pain” afforded by accepting the status quo. Despite the great “privation of pleasure” brought about by the Revolutionary War, the patriots achieved their lofty goal of freedom, a morally desirable outcome. Evidently, seeking happiness does not necessarily entail finding “what is right and good.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s portrait of the Roaring Twenties, The Great Gatsby, examines hedonism and reaches a conclusion much different than Mill’s. Jay Gatsby pursues pleasure in the form of rekindling a relationship with a former love, Daisy. Following utilitarian principles, seeking the desirable outcome should be an ethically sound choice. However, it instead leads Gatsby to engage in questionable business and to court a married woman, two clear violations of ethical standards. Clearly, morality based on pleasure is an unsound principle.

This essay is a little bit short—another example would have made it stronger—but it does the job remarkably well. It would most likely receive a score of 8. The introduction is slightly long, but notice how well this student addresses the two tasks set forth. Right away, the student states the author’s claim: “… the author advances a theory of morality that associates the ‘promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain’ with ethical correctness.…” Later in the paragraph, the student takes a clear stand that refutes Mill’s claim: “As history and literature have demonstrated, pursuing goals motivated by mere self-interest does not lead to ethically responsible outcomes.” The student gives the reader a road map for the rest of the essay; first the student uses a historical example (second half of the nineteenth century), and follows with a literary example (The Great Gatsby). Had a personal example been included, this essay would have scored a perfect 9.

DON’T FORGET TO WRITE IN THE PRESENT TENSE

Little things, such as underlining the title of the book, reinforce the impression that this writer knows how to write. As was the case in the two sample essays from the previous chapter, this writer does an excellent job of handling verb tenses. Particularly important is the use of the present tense when addressing the author, text, and claim: “the author advances,” “it assumes,” “achievements often arise,” and so on. The student uses the past tense only when presenting historical facts in the second paragraph, with “advances made,” “entrepreneurs and businessmen sought,” and “monopolies were.” One of the most common grammatical errors that students make in AP English essays is using improper verb-tense shifts. You should be writing in the present tense throughout the essay—and you should shift to the past tense only if you are relating historical facts.

SAMPLE ESSAY #2—GIVING IT ANOTHER TRY

Let’s try another one. Again, now that you’re comfortable with the process for writing the argumentative essay, try writing this one on your own before you look at the student’s essay.

THE DIRECTIONS

ENGLISH LANGUAGE AND COMPOSITION

SECTION II

Total time—2 hours

Question 1

(Suggested time—40 minutes. This question counts as one-third of the total essay section score.)

Read carefully the passage below from “The Collective Wisdom,” by Herbert Spencer (1820–1903). Then in a carefully written essay support, refute, or qualify Spencer’s assertion that the House of Commons acted foolishly in denying the water rights.

THE FIRST TIME YOU READ THE PROMPT

Remember, as you read the prompt for the first time you should underline the directions it gives you. Your prompt should now look as follows:

Read carefully the passage below from “The Collective Wisdom,” by Herbert Spencer (1820–1903). Then in a carefully written essay support, refute, or qualify Spencer’s assertion that the House of Commons acted foolishly in denying the water rights.

THE SECOND TIME YOU READ THE PROMPT

Again, your second reading of the prompt can be fairly superficial; at this point there shouldn’t be too much more information for you to glean. Circle the dates that Herbert Spencer lived, circle the House of Commons, and get right to the passage.

THE PASSAGE

Phew! After writing your own essay, take a look at the essay on the next page, which was written by a student under actual time constraints.

A STUDENT ESSAY

In “The Collective Wisdom,” Herbert Spencer suggests that “conclusions drawn from words instead of facts are equally apt to influence conduct.” Under this premise, Spencer goes on to examine a decision made by the House of Commons to reject the Cheltenham Bill that granted water rights to several towns along the so-called “source springs” of the Thames. In his essay, Spencer correctly asserts that the House of Commons’ opposition to the bill was quite foolish by taking a closer look at the “facts” (or rather, “words”) that were presented to the members of the committee.

First, the House of Commons voted against the water rights bill based on some deceiving information about its impact on the Thames’ water volume. The Times published an article that cited a million gallon loss of water per day, were the bill to be passed in the House. To most people, including the members of the House of Commons, a million gallons per day sounds like quite a lot of water. However, Spencer provides the reader with some comparison to make the situation clearer. Apparently, a million gallons is not much of a problem for the Thames since it discharges at about 800 times this amount in a single day. In fact, Spencer also notes that there would be methods accurate enough to measure the difference in volume between the river with and without its “source springs.” In this case, the House of Commons was influenced by the seemingly large quantity of “a million gallons per day,” which was not presented in an appropriate context.

Second, the House of Commons was given another set of misleading statistics regarding the bill’s supposed impact on the purity of the Thames. A report in the House stated that “the proportion of sewage to pure water would be seriously increased” if the springs were tapped by the surrounding towns. Again, Spencer helps the reader to see the ignorance of the House’s decision by shedding some light on the situation with a more logical comparison. The towns in question only use about one part out of 1,000 parts of water each day from the springs, so 999 out of 1,000 parts pass by unused. Therefore, the ratio of sewage to pure water is quite insignificant and definitely not as dangerous as the report makes it seem.

The central idea of Spencer’s essay is that the House of Commons acted with ignorance when they rejected the Cheltenham Water Bill without seeking the appropriate context for certain facts and figures. Spencer qualifies this as acting “foolishly” since the members of the committee did not consider the whole picture when making their decisions. One assumes that members of the House of Commons would have acted with the intelligence of a legislative body instead of the ignorance of the general public; however, Spencer’s essay suggests that this is not always the case, especially when “words” instead of facts are the basis for judgment.

This student essay is strong enough for a distinguished mark—probably a 7—but certainly not an 8 or a 9. The student takes a clear stand and writes strongly. The only snafu comes in the following thesis statement:

In his essay, Spencer correctly asserts that the House of Commons’ opposition to the bill was quite foolish by taking a closer look at the “facts” (or rather, “words”) that were presented to the members of the committee.

The phrase “Spencer correctly asserts” is clear and appropriate, but note the ambiguity caused by the position of the prepositional phrase (underlined). Was the opposition quite foolish because the House took a closer look at the facts? Clearly, this is not what the student means. By placing the prepositional phrase close to the noun it modifies (Spencer), the introduction would gain clarity—and clarity translates into points.

By taking a closer look at the “facts” (or rather, “words”) that were presented to the members of the committee, Spencer correctly asserts that the House of Commons’ opposition to the bill was quite foolish.

Also notice that we have eliminated the phrase “in his essay.” Don’t get into the habit of including superfluous words in the introduction, such as: “in the novel Pride and Prejudice,” “in the play A Doll’s House,” “in the novella Heart of Darkness,” and so on. The reader knows that the student is talking about Spencer’s essay, so does the phrase add anything? No. If words do not add, then they subtract. Sometimes, students make even worse errors by using phrases such as “in the novel A Doll’s House” or “in the play, A Doll’s House.” The first is an egregious error that calls into question the student’s knowledge of either the work in particular or literature in general, and the second is an error in usage.

The rest of the sample essay is very good, but the reader would probably like to see the student bring more original thought to bear on the subject. First and foremost, the student makes the mistake of limiting proof to Spencer’s thoughts without providing personal thoughts. Essentially, Spencer is taking a stand on what we consider a modern issue: ecology. The student should have brought this issue to the fore and integrated it into the essay.

It would also have been helpful if the student had highlighted some of the rhetorical fallacies used by Spencer in his essay. For example, on the one hand Spencer accuses the Times of using scare tactics, and a supporter of Spencer’s free use stand could compare this with current radical ecologists’ ploys. On the other hand, one could argue that Spencer himself is guilty of using straw man arguments by simplifying the conservationists’ position, or that his ad hominem attack on the Times reporter (“the paragraphist”) reveals that Spencer is not limiting himself to facts. A student writing against Spencer’s stand could bring in a rhetorical fallacy of his or her own: the slippery slope argument—if one begins by permitting the diversion of the Cerney Springs, then one is opening the door to the kind of ecological rape of watersheds that, in fact, occurred in England over the course of the next hundred years.

By taking a “personal” stand (not necessarily what the student truly believes, by the way) on this ecological dispute, and even without explicitly naming the rhetorical fallacies, this student would have improved the grade by at least one point.

MOST OF ALL, HAVE FUN

When you get to this essay on this exam, attack it with optimism. Relax and concentrate on what you want to say, rather than what you think the reader wants to hear. As long as you take a clear stand, use appropriate specific examples, and write reasonably well, you’ll do fine.

Now that we’ve learned about writing the argumentative essay, let’s take a look at how to tackle the synthesis essay.

KEY TERMS

argumentative essay

first person singular (I)

refute, support, or qualify

topic sentence

improper verb-tense shifts