Basic Rhetorical Modes - AP English Composition - AP English Language & composition exam

AP English Language & composition exam


AP English Composition


Basic Rhetorical Modes


The rhetorical modes (or patterns) contained in this chapter are worth studying for two reasons. First, they will provide you with ready-made approaches for writing your essays on the exam, and second, the multiple-choice questions on the test also often include some of the rhetorical mode terminology.

As you prepare for the exam by taking practice tests, you’ll see that 40 minutes is not much time in which to write a sophisticated essay, and the shortcuts you’ll learn in this chapter will be invaluable in helping you write a great essay in the allotted time. However, you do not need to cram and memorize all the material in this section. If you read and understand the explanations and just make sure you retain the basics, you’ll be comfortable enough with the process to do well on the exam.

Another important point to remember is that, more often than not, rhetorical modes are used in combination. Breaking them up into individual components is a somewhat arbitrary process—but for our purposes, it makes the material easier to understand. Let’s begin.


Our first rhetorical mode consists of using specific examples to illustrate an idea. Now, this may seem like a pretty simple idea, but one of the most common mistakes students make when writing their AP English Language and Composition essays is to use poor examples. Remember that all examples are not created equal. If you use poor illustrative examples, your ideas will be communicated much less clearly and effectively than if you’d used solid, appropriate ones. In writing these essays, your principal goal is clarity.

Read the following passage based on Candide, and as you do so, evaluate the effectiveness of the examples that it uses.

Pangloss is correct when he claims that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. First of all, we are seeing more and more technological innovation every year. Computer technology, in particular, has helped us in many ways, and breakthroughs in medicine have helped raise the life expectancy significantly. Furthermore, in most cities, there are bustling restaurants and great nightlife. Finally, travel has become affordable for most people, and paradises like Aruba and Hawaii await us all!

Surely you agree that the examples are not convincing, but you should also understand that they are not even relevant. Implicit in the examples chosen is the reduction of the best of all possible worlds to the writer’s own tiny corner. A better approach would be something as follows:

Pangloss is correct when he claims that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. First of all, the challenges that we have faced or are facing have inspired some of our most important scientific advances. Great famines have led scientists to exciting new agricultural discoveries, such as drought-resistant crops; great droughts have inspired engineers to develop cost-effective desalination plants. In essence, the evils in the world have been necessary stimulants for changes for the better. Furthermore, advances in medicine are no longer restricted to the wealthy nations of the world, and there is reason to hope that coordinated efforts to help developing countries will become more effective; take, for example, the international relief efforts to help the people whose homes were destroyed by the recent tsunami. Not only will the victims have better and safer homes now, but also the cooperation among the developed nations will translate into a better, safer world. Indeed, everything is for the best.

While the second essay may be naive, at least it does its best to substantiate an untenable position. Without any doubt, the examples in the second passage are much more appropriate for the argument than those that were used in the first passage.

Just as it is important to choose relevant, convincing examples to substantiate your own ideas, it is essential to constantly evaluate the examples that others use in their attempts to explain or to convince.

Tricksters, dogmatists, and charlatans usually illustrate their positions with scanty, inappropriate details. Be critical.


·        Use examples that your reader (the person who reads your essays) will identify with and understand. Do not assume that the AP reader has seen the latest teen cult film or knows any pop culture icons younger than Britney Spears.

·        Draw your examples from “real life,” “real” culture (literature, art, classical music, and so on), and well-known folklore.

·        Make sure the example really does illustrate your point. Don’t use a fancy example just to show off your knowledge; find ones that really work!

·        Introduce your examples using transitions, such as, for example, for instance, case in point, and consider the case of.

·        A single example that is perfectly representative can serve to illustrate your point.

·        A series of short, less-perfect (but still relevant) examples, can, by their accumulation, serve to illustrate your point.

·        The ideal approach is to construct a well-developed, representative example supported by several shorter examples.

·        Remember that you are in control of what you write. As you brainstorm, discard examples that may disprove your point. Your AP essays will have little or nothing to do with your beliefs or with a balanced examination of an issue. You will be defending a point of view (argumentative essay) or explaining something (expository essay)—don’t feel like you have to be fair to all sides of an argument; your aim is to get your point across.

·        Quality is more important than quantity; poorly chosen examples detract significantly from your presentation.


Write a thoughtful and carefully constructed essay in which you use specific examples to defend, challenge, or qualify the assertion that Hollywood movies are a reflection of a decaying society.


As you read each of the topics listed below, make a list of five examples you could use to support them. Are your examples all relevant? Do they support just this side of the argument? Treat each as the basis for your thesis statement in a practice free-response question.

TOPIC 1: High schools unwittingly encourage students to cheat.

TOPIC 2: Studying the humanities is important.

TOPIC 3: Respecting diversity reveals much about a person.


How do you classify things? Well, you probably start by dividing up whatever you have into groups according to certain characteristics. For example, if you wanted to explain “new music” to someone, you might divide the artists into groups by type (female vocalists, male vocalists, and bands) and classify the groups by genre (heavy metal, punk rock, alternative, and so on). This would make the material easier for someone to understand because it would be organized. In other words: We classify to more easily analyze and explain.

There is almost always more than one way to classify things. Right now, you may group your teachers as being either cool or uncool. Later, it’s more likely that you’ll classify them according to what they helped you learn: The new categories may be teachers who inspired you, teachers who taught you the most, teachers who taught you about life, and teachers who should not have been teachers.

When you place things into categories on the AP English Language and Composition Exam, avoid creating classifications that overlap. For example, it would not make sense to classify your favorite foods in the following way: sweets, barbecued meats, vegetables, and chocolates; logically, the last group is a smaller subset of the first group.

All of this boils down to the following: Classification is nearly the same thing as organization. And organization is important. As you know by now, the directions in the Free-Response section of the AP English Language and Composition Exam request that you write “a well-organized essay.” It may seem obvious that the test writers would request this of you—but then you’d be surprised how poorly organized many of the AP essays that students write are. Classify before you write.

Aristotle liked to classify, and he did so quite often. Some of classifications have stood the test of time, including the one you see below, which is the beginning of Part 6 of an essay entitled “Categories.”

Here, Aristotle’s division of quantity into two categories (discrete and continuous) makes sense. The examples that he uses to illustrate the nature of his categories reveal a great deal about his interests: time, space, language, and mathematics. This is a well-organized passage; the categories are well-defined and Aristotle has clearly explained why the members of each category have been put in their categories.


·        Remember that when you’re asked to analyze and explain something, classification will be very useful.

·        Make sure you have a central idea (thesis).

·        Sort your information into meaningful groups. Are there enough elements in each group to allow you to write a convincing, useful paragraph? Sometimes you’ll find that you need to combine categories.

·        Make sure you have a manageable number of categories—three or four. Remember that you have only about 40 minutes to plan and execute each essay.

·        Make sure the categories (or the elements in the categories) do not overlap.

·        Before writing, make sure the categories and central idea (thesis) are a good fit. Sometimes you’ll want to modify your thesis statement based on the categories that you’ve found.

·        As you write, do not justify your classification unless this is somehow necessary to address a very bizarre free-response question. Justify your thesis, not your categories.


Write a short essay in which you analyze the different methods a teacher uses to convey information to his or her class.


As you read each of the topics, think about how you would organize your essay in terms of classification. Come up with a possible thesis (central idea), and plan how you could categorize the information you have on these topics into three or four meaningful divisions.

TOPIC 1: Television commercials

TOPIC 2: Movies

TOPIC 3: Students

TOPIC 4: Cars


You compare and contrast every day. When you note similarities between objects, people, characteristics, and even actions, you’re making comparisons. When you note the differences, you’re using a rhetorical mode called contrast.

It is very likely that you will have to use comparison and contrast when writing at least one of your essays for the free-response section of the AP test. Sometimes you’ll use this mode merely to explain—especially when you’re comparing something unfamiliar with something well known; other times, you will use comparison and contrast to argue in favor of one of the two elements.

Keep in mind that to compare and contrast two elements, they need to have enough commonalities to justify comparison or contrast. It may be interesting to compare and contrast a baseball team from the National League and another from the American League, but it would be less pertinent (although potentially very entertaining) to compare and contrast one of those baseball teams with your neighbor’s poker club.

To write a successful compare-and-contrast essay for the AP English Language and Composition Exam, you must first select the points of comparison (and contrast) and present them. Does this sound familiar? In other words, you must start by classifying them.

The most common mistake people make when comparing and contrasting is to present a discussion of one of the elements first (in one paragraph), and then discuss the other element afterward (in a second paragraph). Do not do this. Instead, we’ll show you an example of a good method for comparing and contrasting:


Comparison and contrast of my favorite classes

AP Enligh

AP Art History

Involves essay writing, which I love
 Treacher writes intriguing questions
 Most writing done in class

Involves essay writing, which I love
 Treacher writes intriguing questions
 Most writing done in class

Interesting reading
 A variety of books
 No pictures in books

Interesting reading
 A textbook
 Lots of pictures in book

Teach is old
 Teach tells bad jokes
 Teacher is grumpy

Teach is young
 Teach is funny
 Teacher is good-natured

Ideally, when you turned this into an essay you would not write the first half of your essay about AP English, and the second half about AP Art History. Using the information you collected in the outline above, ideally you would spend your first paragraph discussing the role of writing in both classes, spend your second paragraph discussing aspects of the reading in the two classes, and spend your third paragraph discussing the teachers. Integration is key in comparison and contrast.

Here is a real example, taken from Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man, of a passage that uses comparison and contrast.

Interestingly, Darwin extends this rhetorical mode of comparison and contrast over entire chapters of his famous work. Notice the rhetorical statements of comparison he uses (for example, “the lower animals, like man” or “like our own children”); Darwin does not leave it up to us to draw comparisons—he points out virtually all of them with examples. Speaking of examples (the first rhetorical mode that we discussed), notice that in the case of this passage, the two rhetorical modes of examples and comparison/contrast are used together.


·        When comparing and contrasting A and B, find common elements (which will become your examples) from both.

·        Do not write about A in one paragraph and B in another.

·        Do your best to combine common elements into a limited number of groups—three, if possible—and write a paragraph about each group.

·        Do not attempt to justify your groups or your examples; simply present them.


Write an essay in which you compare and contrast the careers and lifestyles of professional musicians and doctors. Be sure to include examples.


For each topic, make a list like the one above (AP English versus AP art history). First, write down several similarities and differences. Then organize these similarities and differences in a logical manner; try to sort them out so that you have about three or four central ideas, which would translate into about three or four separate compare and contrast paragraphs. Do not attempt to answer the question by addressing one choice and then the other in separate paragraphs.

TOPIC 1: Two of your friends

TOPIC 2: Two teachers at your school

TOPIC 3: Two singers or bands

TOPIC 4: New York and Los Angeles (even if you haven’t been to either)

TOPIC 5: The experience of traveling to the mountains and the experience of traveling to the ocean


Although analogies are not that useful in argumentative writing, they are useful in expository writing—this means that analogies will be useful when you write your expository essay for this test.

Think of an analogy as a comparison used to explain something.

Analogies are sometimes used to explain things that are difficult to understand by comparing them with things that are easier to understand. Let’s say that you want to explain how a well-run corporation works. You might explain that it functions like a football team. In both cases there are owners or stockholders. In the corporation, there’s a CEO, who is similar to the coach of a football team. The CEO directs the managers (or vice presidents), just as the coach directs the assistant coaches; these work directly with the employees—the players. When an employee doesn’t heed directions, the success of the enterprise is put at risk, just like when a player fails to execute a block or a tackle. The most important thing about using analogies is that you choose one that will be readily understood by your audience. In this case, if the reader knows nothing about football, this analogy may do more harm than good.

You can also use an analogy to explain something that’s abstract by comparing it with something that’s concrete. Throughout history, people have used analogies to explain their god or gods. Christians explain their god, for example, through analogy. They say that their god is like a father who loves his children and, thus, both punishes and rewards them. The only difference is that they consider their god’s judgment to be perfect. They believe that their god is like a father in that both are good, but that the difference is that their god is perfectly good.

The most famous philosophical analogy serves as the basis for Plato’s “allegory of the cave.” The analogy purportedly evolved from a conversation between Socrates and Glaucon.

This is only part of the analogy, but you probably get the idea. Socrates uses this analogy to explain that we think that we see things just as they really are in our world, but that we are seeing only reflections of a greater truth, an abstraction that we fail to grasp. The cave is our world; the shadows are the objects and people that we “see.” We are like the prisoners, for we are not free to see what creates the shadows; the truth, made up of ideal forms, is out in the light.


·        Use analogy for expository writing (explanation).

·        Do not use analogy for argumentative writing (argumentation).

·        Use analogy to explain something difficult to understand or that is abstract.

·        Make sure your audience will readily understand your “simple” or concrete subject.


Write an essay in which you explain the process of applying to college. Use analogy when appropriate.


As you read each topic, think of it as the basis for the thesis of an expository essay. Come up with a simpler subject that you can use as an analogy for this more complex topic. Write down a basic plan for an essay.

TOPIC 1: The way your school functions

TOPIC 2: The benefits of honesty


In this chapter we discussed three rhetorical modes: example, classification, and comparison and contrast (analogy falls under this last category). Make sure you are familiar with the laundry lists in this chapter. If you get into good habits now when using these rhetorical modes, you’ll be much better off on test day!

Further proving how useful these modes will be, we guarantee that both your expository and argumentative essay questions will fit into some combination of these modes.

Of course, remember to plan your essay before you begin writing. It often helps to write your thesis statement along with this plan so that you can keep in mind whether the parts of your plan are relevant to your central idea. This will ensure that you write the best organized, most coherent essay you can.

Now that we’ve covered the three basic rhetorical modes, let’s move on to review a few complex modes in the next chapter.