Words and Their Use - AP English Language - AP English Language & composition exam

AP English Language & composition exam


AP English Language


Words and Their Use



While the title of this exam allows people to differentiate between this test and the AP English Literature Exam, it’s still somewhat misleading. The AP English Language Exam is not a language exam—at least not in the sense that you may think. For example, it is possible not to know the difference between a gerund and a present participle—or even a gerund and a giraffe—and still score a 5 on this exam.

In the multiple-choice section of the exam, test writers will attempt to evaluate your ability to analyze how writers use language to explain or to argue; in the free-response, or essay, section they will expect you to use language to explain or to argue. Naturally, you’ll want to avoid making egregious errors in grammar or usage on the test, but as you study don’t get hung up on the rules of language. If you’re considering taking the AP exam, your language skills are probably sufficient for the task. Now, you may be wondering what is tested on the exam. The answer iscomposition, and we’ll spend Part V of this book reviewing all you need to know about composition to be fully prepared for the test.


Now for the bad news. Despite the test’s lack of emphasis on the rules of language, there are some aspects of language that we must examine here to make sure you’re ready for test day. We’ll start by discussing diction, style, tone, and point of view. We’ll move on to circumlocution and euphemism, and discuss irony and satire. Finally, we will review the many types of figurative language and go through some drills that will prepare you for the types of questions you’ll see on all of these topics. Let’s begin!


The basic definition of diction is “word choice.” Generally, the diction questions you’ll see on the test will ask you to evaluate why an author’s choice of words is particularly effective, apt, or clear. However, as we explained in Part II, in the multiple-choice section, more often than not it is the test writer’s diction that you have to crack. While knowledge of grammar and usage is almost irrelevant for this exam, a broad vocabulary is a necessity.

After common sense, vocabulary is the most important tool that you can use on the multiple-choice section of the exam. For this reason, we’ve included a Hit Parade in Part VI of this book—a list of terms and their definitions that you should know cold before you sit down to take the test, and lists of key terms at the end of every content chapter. To ensure that you’ll remember these terms for the exam, you may want to make flashcards as you work through this book.

Let’s look at a question that emphasizes the importance of studying vocabulary as you prepare for the test.

1. The style of the first paragraph on the previous page can best be described as

(A)   pedantic

(B)   lyrical

(C)   terse

(D)   ludic

(E)   edifying

While it’s possible that none of the answers stands out to you as the correct choice, you could rule out pedantic if you knew that it meant “narrowly, stodgily, and often ostentatiously learned,”—it isn’t possible that you could think that of the writing in this book! Likewise, a Princeton Review book and lyricism (intense, intimate display of emotion) make for an unlikely pair, so you can use Process of Elimination and get rid of that choice too. The test writers slipped ludic (pertaining to game, playful) in there in case you wanted to misremember some Latin (ludus); and finally terse (concise, without superfluous detail) shows up regularly on this exam but probably doesn’t describe the writing in this book very well. Given that the last choice can mean both enlightening and informative, (E) is the best answer.

But as you can see, if you knew none of these words, the question may as well have read as ­follows:

  2. The style of the paragraph above can best be described as

(A)   pompom

(B)   banana

(C)   dog

(D)   tire iron

(E)   Susan

And then which would seem like the correct answer? Obviously, vocabulary is important, so study the Hit Parade in the next chapter.

Let’s try another question that illustrates the importance of a relatively wide vocabulary to scoring well on this exam.

If survival is an art

I have seen mangroves

weird leathery berry pods.

3. The style of the above passage is characterized by

(A)   extended metaphors

(B)   historical allusions

(C)   vividness of diction

(D)   technical language

(E)   colloquial expressions

The best answer is (C); vividness of diction. The speaker’s language is very descriptive and paints a very clear picture of the mangrove. Here’s a list of the vocabulary you needed to know to answer this question: metaphor, allusion, diction, and colloquial.

As we explained in Part II, if you understand the passage but don’t know the meaning of any of the answers, it’s still possible to get the right answer. However, it’s easier and faster to get the right answer if you do know the meanings of the words that make up the answer choices. Let’s continue our review of important language terms.


Another language term that you should be familiar with for the AP English Language Exam is syntaxSyntax is the ordering of words in a sentence; it describes sentence structure. Syntax is not a topic that excites many high school students—or teachers—and therefore is not discussed very much. However, syntax is a word that finds it way onto AP English Language Exams on a regular basis. Don’t worry: You don’t need to be an expert on this subject, but you should know how manipulating syntax can enhance an author’s meaning, tone, or point of view. Let’s look at an example from Candide, from the famous opening of Chapter 3.

Never was anything so gallant, so well outfitted, so brilliant, and so finely disposed as the two armies. The trumpets, fifes, reeds, drums, and cannon made such harmony as never was heard in Hell.

The first sentence poses as a fairly simple sketch of a glorious battle scene. The second begins in the same fashion, but its words are arranged in a way that maximizes the effect of surprise that comes at the end of the sentence. The cannons are slipped in as the final member of a list of military musical instruments; the formation of the list creates an expectation that the final element will fit nicely into the set. It doesn’t, but we don’t have time to register our surprise because we’re immediately distracted by a new setup with the phrase “such harmony as never was heard.…” We expect harmony to be something beautiful, and we already begin to supply the final word (Earth? Heaven?) when—surprise—we are jolted by the word that Voltaire chose instead: hell. The syntax in this sentence is brilliant.

Here’s another slightly different example. In the following example, Candide through his servant and sidekick, Cacambo, is asking about the proper etiquette for greeting the King of Eldorado.

When they drew near to the royal chamber, Cacambo asked one of the officers in what manner they were to pay their respects to His Majesty; whether it was the custom to fall upon their knees, or to prostrate themselves upon the ground; whether they were to put their hands upon their heads, or behind their backs; whether they were to lick the dust off the floor; in short, what was the usual ceremony for such occasions.

The syntax of this long sentence is very carefully constructed; Voltaire uses all of the parallel clauses that begin with “whether” to achieve great comic effect. At first, the text is fairly ­straightforward—­after all, going down on one’s knees before a king would have been fairly standard for a European reader of the eighteenth century; however, with each clause, the groveling etiquette becomes more extreme, and the final image—of licking the dust off the floor—pushes the concept beyond the believable. The syntax of this sentence is structured in a way that allows us to see the absurdity of all forms of ceremonial deference. In fact, in this story the enlightened King of Eldorado simply embraces both Cacambo and Candide.

Related to syntax are style, tone, and point of view. As you will read in the next section, these elements work together with syntax to create a “profile” of the speaker that tells us how the speaker or author feels about the subject at hand.


You can count on seeing some combination of the terms style, tone, and point of view in both multiple-choice and essay questions on this exam, so let’s make sure you’re familiar with their definitions.

Style is the manner of expression. It describes how the author uses language to get his or her point across (e.g., pedantic, scientific, and emotive).

Tone is the attitude, mood, or sentiments revealed by the style. Tone describes how the author seems to be feeling (e.g., optimistic, ironic, and playful).

Point of view is the stance revealed by the style and the tone of the writing. The author’s point of view expresses his or her position on the topic discussed. Point of view can be tricky—sometimes, especially in works of fiction, it is difficult to determine point of view, and, thus, you may be left with nothing more to say than “first-person narrator” or “third-person omniscient narrator.”

Consider this passage.

Our left fielder couldn’t hit the floor if he fell out of bed! After striking out twice (once with the bases loaded!), he grounded into a double-play. My grandmother runs faster than he does! In the eighth inning, he misjudged a routine fly ball, which brought in the winning run. What a jerk! Why didn’t the club trade him last week when it was still possible? What’s wrong with you guys?

The style is simple, direct, unsophisticated, truculent, and even crass. The style helps evoke a simple sentiment: anger. The tone is angry, brash, emotional, and even virulent.

The point of view is clear; the author appears to be a disgruntled spectator who doesn’t like the player at all and wants the team to get rid of him.

Okay. You may not have needed any help with that passage, but let’s take a look at another that’s more like something you’d see on test day.

So what was the big argument all about in the time of Columbus? The sages of Salamanca had, in fact, made calculations more precise than his, and they held that the earth, while assuredly round, was far more vast than the Genoese navigator believed, and therefore it was mad for him to attempt to circumnavigate it in order to reach the Orient by way of the Occident. Columbus, on the contrary, burning with a sacred fire, good navigator but bad astronomer, thought the earth smaller than it was. Naturally, neither he nor the learned men of Salamanca suspected that between Europe and Asia there lay another continent. And so you see how complicated life is, and how fragile are the boundaries between truth and error, right and wrong. Though they were right, the sages of Salamanca were wrong, and Columbus, while he was wrong, pursued faithfully his error and proved to be right—thanks to serendipity.

Serendipities by Umberto Eco

Style: What can you say about the style of this passage? At the beginning, the writing is scholarly, but toward the end the author addresses the reader personally (“And so you see …”), and the passage takes on a looser, more personal style.

Tone: The tone is ambiguous. For example, why does the writer assiduously avoid using the term “professors”? We have “the sages of [the University of] Salamanca” and “the learned men of [the University of] Salamanca”—is there a reason for this periphrasis (circumlocution)? Is the author being respectful, or, rather, is he using a tone of mocking condescension? Also consider the phrase “burning with a sacred fire, good navigator but bad astronomer.” Although the words appear innocent and “factual” enough, what’s behind the trite cliché of the first part and the humor lurking in the second part? And doesn’t the title, Serendipities, call forth a light, playful tone? Perhaps—but it is difficult to pin down the author; it’s almost as if he were deliberately playing a scholarly game of hide and seek.

Point of view: Style and tone provide us with clues about the point of view of the author. He appears to be questioning the “truths” of the past, and cautioning us against believing too much in the “truths” of the present. The point of view appears to be that of an erudite man who is considering history with a critical eye and is suggesting that serendipity (chance) might play as great a role as any other force in shaping history.

As we’ve said before, the questions on the AP English Language and Composition Exam will test your ability to analyze writing as we analyzed the passage above. More often than not, identifying elements of style and tone will help you uncover what the test writers might call “the purpose of the writer” or “the author’s attitude,” and in some cases, get you one step closer to choosing the right answer on a test question.

Now that you’re comfortable using these terms, let’s try a sample question with an excerpt from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground.

The long and the short of it is, gentlemen, that it is better to do nothing! Better conscious inertia!

  4. The tone of the speaker is best characterized as

(A)   ironic

(B)   nihilistic

(C)   reflective

(D)   optimistic

(E)   accusatory

You probably immediately eliminated (C) and (D) because the passage did not sound particularly reflective or optimistic. The author is not accusatory (E) either. Choice (B) may have confused you a bit; nihilism refers to a belief in nothing. (Again notice the importance of vocabulary!) The speaker’s tone can indeed by described as “nihilistic,” so the correct choice is (B).


Rhetoric is the art of speaking or writing effectively. Figurative language is strictly defined as speech or writing that departs from literal meaning to achieve a special effect or meaning. The terms covered later in this section are terms you should know cold before taking the exam. Multiple-choice questions may use them in answer choices, and you are certainly expected to use them in your free-response essays.


First of all, what is rhetoric? It is often referred to as the stylistic devices an author uses to appeal successfully to a specific audience and is usually persuasive in nature. Before we get into the nitty gritty of figurative language and how it’s used, let’s review the three classical rhetorical appeals—methods of persuasion—you should know for the exam.

Classical Appeals

Aristotle identified three methods of appealing to an audience in order to persuade them to your point of view: logospathos, and ethos.

Logos is an appeal to reason and logic. An argument that uses logos to persuade needs to provide things like objective evidence, hard facts, statistics, or logical strategies such as “cause and effect” to back up its claim. (Logos is the root of our word “logic,” which is a good way to remember which of the appeals this is!)

Ethos is an appeal to the speaker’s credibility—whether she is to be believed on the basis of her character and expertise. For example, the prosecution in a murder trial might put a renowned psychiatrist on the stand to testify that the defendant is able to identify right and wrong and is thus capable of standing trial. Their argument would be using an appeal to ethos to persuade the jury (their audience) that the testimony of this expert is to be trusted. (Ethos is related to our word “ethics”—the principles of conduct that govern people and organizations and give them the authority to speak on certain topics.)

Pathos is an appeal to the emotions, values, or desires of the audience. Aristotle felt that, although ideally people would be persuaded by appeals to logic (logos, remember?), they would probably most often be persuaded by their emotions and beliefs instead. This is why, in that same murder trial, a defense attorney might tell the jury about the lonely childhood and difficult life of the defendant—he would be appealing to the pathos of the audience to convince them that his client should not be convicted. (Pathos is also the root of “pathetic,” a word we use to describe something that is, shall we say, suffering from inferiority.)


As we stated at the beginning of this chapter, you don’t need to be an expert in rhetoric to ace the AP English Language and Composition Exam; however, you do need to have some understanding of how language works. With the exception of technical manuals (like the one that helped you assemble your entertainment center), few texts are written such that all of their language is meant to be taken literally. Take, for example, the end of one of Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural speeches.

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Are we supposed to take “to bind up the nation’s wounds” literally? Of course not. Lincoln has personified our country to make the suffering of particular individuals relatable to all the people of the nation. And what about “him who shall have borne the battle”? Clearly, Lincoln is using the singular (a man) to represent the collective mass of soldiers, and when he adds “his widow and his orphan,” we understand that “shall have borne the battle” really means “shall have died in battle.” Lincoln personalizes the suffering of this group of people by instead speaking of individual sacrifice, which he knows is far more likely to strike a profound emotional chord in his listeners.

Despite the effectiveness of Lincoln’s speech, you should keep in mind that many other perfectly convincing arguments and explanations are conveyed primarily through literal language. On this exam, there’s no need for you to strain yourself attempting to use figurative language in the free-response section. But it will be very helpful for you to review the common terms associated with figurative language that we’ve listed below because you will be obliged to analyze texts that contain figurative language on this test.

With all this in mind, here is a list of some common terms related to figurative language; we’ve put them in order of their decreasing relevance to the test.


For the purposes of this exam, you may consider imagery to be synonymous with figurative language. However, in a more restricted sense, imagery is figurative language that is used to convey a sensory perception (visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, or gustatory).


Hyperbole is overstatement or exaggeration; it is the use of figurative language that significantly exaggerates the facts for effect. In many instances, but certainly not all, hyperbole is employed for comic effect.

Example: If you use too much figurative language in your free-response essays, the AP readers will crucify you!

Clearly, this statement is a gross exaggeration; while the readers may give you a poor grade if you use figurative language that doesn’t suit the purposes of your essay, they will not kill you.


Understatement is figurative language that presents the facts in a way that makes them appear much less significant than they really are. Understatement is almost always used for comic effect.

Example: After dinner, they came and took into custody Doctor Pangloss and his pupil Candide, the one for speaking his mind and the other for appearing to approve what he heard. They were conducted to separate apartments, which were extremely cool and where they were never bothered by the sun.

Taking the last sentence literally would lead you astray. The understatement in this case (“They were conducted to separate apartments, which were extremely cool and where they were never bothered by the sun”) should be taken to mean that the poor men were thrown into horribly dark, dank, and cold prison cells.


simile is a comparison between two unlike objects, in which the two parts are connected with a term such as like or as.

Example: The birds are like black arrows flying across the sky.

You can easily identify a simile—and distinguish it from a metaphor—because of the use of like or as.


metaphor is a simile without a connecting term such as like or as. Here’s an example of a metaphor.

Example: The birds are black arrows flying across the sky.

Birds are not arrows, but the commonalities (both are long and sleek, and they travel swiftly through the air—and both have feathers) allow us to easily grasp the image.

Extended Metaphor

An extended metaphor is precisely what it sounds like—it is a metaphor that lasts for longer than just one phrase or sentence. A word of caution for the exam, however; do not use extended metaphors in your own AP essays, for many scholars (and many AP graders) believe that the extended metaphor is a poor expository or argumentative technique.

Example: During the time I have voyaged on this ship, I have avoided the cabin; rather, I have remained on deck, battered by wind and rain, but able to see moonlight on the water. I do not wish to go below decks now.

As surprising as this may seem, this passage is not about nautical navigation. The ship’s voyage is the central metaphor (representing the course of life); the writer extends the metaphor by relating elements of figurative language: cabin, deck, wind and rain, moonlight, water, and decks. The cabin is a safe place, but it’s a place where you can’t experience much; on deck, you’re exposed to the elements, but you can experience beauteous sights. Having made the difficult, dangerous, but rewarding choice of staying on deck, it would be a personal defeat, a kind of surrender to wish for the safety, comfort, and limited horizons of the cabin later in life.


symbol is a word that represents something other than itself.

Example: The Christian soldiers paused to remember the lamb.

In this case, the rough, tough soldiers did not stop to think about the actual animal; the lamb is a traditional Christian symbol for Jesus Christ.

Sometimes, it is difficult to distinguish between metaphor and symbol. Remember that a metaphor always contains an implied comparison between two elements. Recall the metaphorical image of the birds and the arrows: The birds remain birds, and the arrows remain arrows—the metaphor serves to give us an image of the flight of the birds by suggesting a visualization of arrows. However, in the case of a symbol, the named object really doesn’t count. There is no lamb; lamb is merely an object that’s meant to conjure up another object or element.

Denotation and Connotation

Denotation refers to a word’s primary or literal significance, while connotation refers to the vast range of other meanings that a word suggests. Context (and at times, author’s intent) determines which connotations may be appropriate for a word. An author will carefully pick a particular word for its connotations, knowing or hoping a reader will make an additional inference as a result. Some literary critics argue that it is impossible to distinguish between denotation and connotation. Who, they ask, is to determine which meaning to assign as a primary significance? Let’s move on and look at an example.

Example: I am looking at the sky.

The denotation of the underlined word should be as clear as a cloudless sky (the space, often blue, above the earth’s surface). However, there can be connotations associated with the word. The sky is often associated with heaven; it can also evoke the idea of freedom or vast openness. Because of connotation, one can’t help but believe that the sky evokes in the writer a sense of longing for freedom from work, the computer, or the AP English Language and Composition Exam.


An oxymoron is an apparent contradiction of terms.

Example: I advise you to make haste slowly.

What would you do if someone said this to you? At first, you might think that this is simply a foolish, contradictory statement, and you might ignore the advice. However, it is possible to make sense of the apparent contradiction, which is in fact an oxymoron. In essence, the sentence advises you to go as fast as you can, while going slowly enough to do things right.


The paradox is an apparent contradiction of ideas or statements and, therefore, is closely related to the oxymoron. Think of a paradox as an oxymoron on a larger scale.

Example: The only way to overcome death is to die.

This paradox pops up in various contexts; it is not a contradiction, for some would say that only after death is it possible to pass on to eternal life (in heaven, for instance), and eternal life precludes (another) death. Thus, one dies (physically) but then lives (spiritually) forever.

It is possible to have a paradox that offers no real hope of resolution. For instance, there is the Cretan Liar Paradox (dating from Greek times), which goes like this: “All Cretans are liars; I am a Cretan.”


Personification is the figurative device in which inanimate objects or concepts are given human qualities. It can enhance our emotional response because we usually attribute more emotional significance to other humans than to things or concepts.

Example: He had been wrestling with lethargy for days, and every time that he thought that he was close to victory, his adversary escaped his hold.

This figurative wrestling match, in which lethargy is personified as the opponent to the author of this sentence, brings the struggle to life—human life. If you don’t believe this, think about the literal alternative: He tried to stop being lethargic, but he was not successful. This doesn’t sound very lively.

Rhetorical Question

rhetorical question is a question whose answer is obvious; these types of questions do not need to be answered—and usually aren’t. Rhetorical questions attempt to prove something without actually presenting an argument; sometimes they’re used as a form of irony, in which something is stated, but its opposite is meant.

Example (no irony): With all the violence on TV today, is it any wonder kids bring guns to school?

Since it has already been determined that you agree (even if you don’t), the writer need not substantiate this remark.

Example (with irony): Aren’t AP exams great fun?

Here, there is an assumption that you would answer in the negative, although there is no way for you to respond—unless you write a letter. Rhetorical questions allow a writer to make a point without further support, whether it’s a straightforward remark or one with a touch of irony.


Bombast (adjective = bombastic) is language that is overly rhetorical (pompous), especially when considered in context. Generally speaking, graduation speeches contain bombast; pedantic people (those who use their learning ostentatiously) tend to use bombast. Occasionally, a passage on the AP English Language and Composition Exam will contain bombast.

The passage above is marked by pretentious and inflated speech; it is a perfect example of bombast.


pun is a play on words. In general, a pun either plays on the multiple meanings of a word or replaces one word with another that is similar in sound but very different in meaning. Puns are almost always used for comic effect.

Example: In Star Wars, why did the Evil Empire leave the Catholic nuns alone? Force of habit.

If you know anything about Star Wars, you know that the “force” is the power of good, and you’ll get the play on words here.

Metonymy and Synecdoche

Both metonymy and synecdoche are terms that mean the use of figurative language in which characteristics are substituted for the things with which they are associated.

In metonymy, one term is substituted for another term with which it is closely associated.

Example: The sailors drank a glass of hearty red.

Red is a color; sailors cannot drink it. However, metonymically, the color represents wine (red wine), which sailors over the age of twenty-one may drink.

Synecdoche is a form of metonymy that’s restricted to cases where a part is used to signify the whole.

Example: All hands on deck!

The hands (part of each sailor) represent the sailors (the whole).

If you have an aversion for learning rhetorical terms, then for the purposes of this exam you can feel free to forget the definition of synecdoche; you can get away with using the term metonymy for any situation in which a characteristic of a certain thing is used to represent the thing.


theme is a general idea contained in a text; the theme may be stated explicitly or only suggested. A theme is not just an idea; it is an idea that is developed, often over the course of a chapter or an entire book. Usually, one can identify a central theme and several minor ones. Sometimes both are overtly stated, as in the example that follows:

Many scholars agree that the central theme in Huckleberry Finn is the conflict between nature and civilization. But clearly, the book contains other themes, such as the worth of honor and the voyage of self-discovery.

Read the following passage, and see if you can identify a central theme.

It should not surprise you that the title of the essay that this passage is excerpted from is “On Trade.” In his essay, the French socialist Charles Fourier develops a central theme: Merchants, through trade, have both corrupted society and become its tyrant.

Many of the passages in the multiple-choice and free-response sections of the AP exam are long enough to permit you to identify at least one central theme, and you will almost certainly be asked to do so.


An aphorism is a concise, pithy statement of an opinion or a general truth.

Example: Life is short, the art [of medicine] is long, opportunity fleeting, experimentation dangerous, reasoning difficult.

That aphorism is attributed to Hippocrates, the “Father of Medicine.” Note that his statement is more sophisticated than the “commonplace wisdom” of a saying like “Haste makes waste.”


Malapropism is the unintentional use of a word that resembles the word intended but that has a very different meaning.

Example: He was a man of great statue.

The AP English Language and Composition readers often collect malapropisms to share with friends and colleagues as they read through the free-response essays; it isn’t in your best interest to provide them with any good laughs, so try to avoid them.

Circumlocution and Euphemism

Circumlocution has two meanings, and you should be familiar with both of them. For the purposes of this exam, we’ll say that one meaning of circumlocution is “talking around a subject” and that the other is “talking around a word.” Now let’s take a closer look at some examples of circumlocution.

It is entirely possible that you have used circumlocution when addressing your parents. For instance, instead of simply asking them straight out if you may borrow the car, have you ever said something such as, “I understand that you guys are going to stay in tonight and watch a DVD, right? If so, since I’ve already seen that movie, I was thinking about maybe going downtown. It’s a nice summer evening and all that, but it’s still too far to walk, and I’ll be with Nina, anyway, and she’d never agree to walk downtown. We were thinking that she could drive, but, unfortunately, Nina’s parents are going out, so she can’t take their car. I know that I forgot to put gas in your car the last time that I drove to the mountains, but I learned my lesson. That won’t happen again.” You may even have gone on speaking for longer. You might never have gotten to the point where you actually asked to borrow the car, but your parents understood what you wanted and put you out of your misery by saying something such as, “We already told your sister that she could use the car tonight.”

That kind of circumlocution is an example of the first meaning of circumlocution—“talking around the subject.”

On the AP English Language and Composition Exam, you’re more likely to encounter the second type of circumlocution—“talking around a word”—that is, using several words or a phrase in place of a specific word (or specific words). You may have noticed that sometimes it is more effective to be wordy than to be precise. For example, some people consider their automobiles cars, and, not surprisingly, they refer to these objects just as cars. Other people, however, use evocative circumlocutions when referring to their heap of metal—one of which is “cruisin’ machine” (and the other of which is “heap of metal.”) The point is that circumlocution is often an effective means for communicating points of view. Take a look at the following sentence.

Candide was court-martialed, and he was asked which he liked better, to run the gauntlet six and thirty times through the whole regiment, or to have his brains blown out with a dozen musket-balls.

In this sentence, we read that in a spirit of compassion and justice, the military court is giving Candide a choice: He may choose to be either beaten to death or executed by firing squad. The wording of the second choice, in particular, provides a wonderful example of the evocative power of well-used circumlocution. While using the phrase “execution by firing squad” would have allowed both the author and the reader to remain distant from the event and dispassionate, the circumlocution that the author employed with “to have his brains blown out with a dozen musket-balls” vividly describes the horror and brutality of the event. In this sentence, Voltaire succeeds in relating his feelings about the court-martial without commenting on it.

euphemism is a word or words that are used to avoid employing an unpleasant or offensive term. Again, you probably (hopefully) use euphemisms all the time. In both fiction and nonfiction, the most common euphemisms have to do with sex. In these cases, the author knows what he or she means, you know what he or she means, and the author knows that you know what he or she means. Let’s look at another example from Voltaire’s Candide. In this passage, Voltaire uses euphemism for comic effect.

One day when Mademoiselle Cunegunde went to take a walk in a little neighboring wood that was called a park, she saw—through the bushes—the sage Doctor Pangloss giving a lecture in experimental philosophy to her mother’s chambermaid, a little brown wench, very pretty and very accommodating.

Voltaire knows that his readers know what is really going on here. This particular example of euphemism is used for comic effect rather than direct avoidance of the word sex. One may expect Pangloss to limit his sagacity to philosophical matters, but clearly his “lecture in experimental philosophy” is most prosaic.


When reading the passages on the AP English Language Exam, you cannot always take what you see at face value; in fact, when reading you must always be on the lookout for slightly or very veiled meanings behind the words.


Irony: Most people use the term without really knowing its definition. Alanis Morissette’s 1996 song about irony didn’t help the situation. If you don’t believe this, ask one of your friends to define irony and see what kind of answer you receive. The two basic types of irony that you’ll need to be familiar with for this test are verbal irony and situational irony.


Verbal irony refers to the process of stating something but meaning the opposite of what is stated. Verbal irony can refer to irony that’s used in spoken language as well as in print. In spoken language, intonation is often a clue to ironic intent; however, in writing, it is not possible to imply things through intonation, so there’s always a danger that the irony may be missed; in essence, the writer who employs irony risks communicating the exact opposite of what is intended. For example, let’s say that you write, “This Princeton Review book is really interesting.” Unless your listener or reader hears your remark in context, he or she won’t know if this is high praise for this book, or if you’re bored silly and have chosen to express your sentiment more forcefully by using verbal irony.

Consider the following passage. The philosopher Pangloss has just given a rather personalized history of venereal disease, a veritable uncontrollable—and uncontrolled—plague in eighteenth-century Europe.

“O sage Pangloss,” cried Candide, “what a strange genealogy is this! Is not the devil at the root of it all?”

“Not at all,” replied the great man, “it was unavoidable, a necessary ingredient in the best of worlds.”

The student Candide shows sincere respect for Pangloss when he addresses him as “sage Pangloss;” Candide has no ironic intent. However, the same cannot be said of the narrator—who for all intents and purposes is Voltaire. In Candide, one of Voltaire’s principal aims is to excoriate (to censure scathingly) the “philosophers of optimism,” of whom Pangloss is a caricature. He does this through the frequent use of verbal irony; in the passage above, his use of “great man” is ironic—even though Candide’s tone is not. After all, neither the narrator nor the careful reader views Pangloss as a great man—he is just the opposite.

In essence, to fully appreciate the passage, we must read in stereo, simultaneously picking up on Candide’s serious tone and the narrator’s ironic tone. This is a pretty complicated case of verbal irony.

Sarcasm is simply verbal irony used with the intent to injure. It’s often impossible to discern between irony and sarcasm, and, more often than not, sarcasm is in the mind of the beholder. Let’s say that your close friend and soccer teammate missed a wide-open goal from ten feet away, and you smiled and shouted, “Nice shot!” Presumably your friend, used to your jests, would interpret your quip as playful irony. If the opposing team’s goalie said the same words, however, it is far more likely that your friend would take the remark as sarcasm—and reply with a not-so-kind word or two. In written form, irony and sarcasm can be considered to be fairly synonymous—but just think of sarcasm as malicious. Here is an example from Heinrich Ibsen’s Hedda Gabbler.

Brack: There’s a possibility that the appointment may be decided by competition—

Tesman: Competition! By Jove, Hedda, fancy that!

Hedda: [motionless in her chair] How exciting, Tesman.

Of course, it is easier to see the sarcasm when you are familiar with the play, but it is sufficient for you to know that Tesman is the rather boring, plodding husband and that Hedda is an unfulfilled wife. The stage direction (“motionless in her chair”) helps us see that her words are at least full of irony; if you add the bitter, malignant intent, which the husband misses but we do not, then you have sarcasm.


Situational irony refers to a situation that runs contrary to what was expected.

Suppose you live in Seattle during the rainy season and plan a vacation to sunny Phoenix. While you are in Phoenix, it rains every day there, but is sunny the entire week in Seattle. This is situational irony.


In satire, something is portrayed in a way that’s deliberately distorted to achieve comic effect. Implicit in most satire is the author’s desire to critique what is being mocked. Voltaire’s Candide is principally a satire of optimism, the philosophy that, given that the first “cause” was perfect (God’s creation of the world), all causes and effects must naturally be part of this original perfect plan. The French satirist takes on many other causes, however, and one of his favorite targets is the part of religion that he considers no more than fanatical superstition. Here is what happens after Candide and Pangloss are caught in the infamous earthquake of Lisbon, Portugal.

After the real earthquake of 1755, there were real auto-da-fes (“acts of faith”), where “evil” inhabitants of Lisbon were sacrificed to appease God, who, ostensibly (to all outward appearances), had provoked the earthquake to punish the city. The “evils” that are being punished say more about the ridiculous prejudices of the persecutors than they do about the so-called evil victims. The two Portuguese who refrained from eating the bacon are guilty of nothing—but they are taken for Jews; the man who married his godmother, who, presumably, is not tied to him by blood, is guilty of no more than infringing on a technicality of the religious code (Catholicism, in this case).

Note that the satire is heightened by Voltaire’s use of verbal irony (“the sages”), situational irony (right after the ceremony there is a second earthquake), and a comical circumlocution (“burning a few people alive over low heat and with great ceremony” is a circumlocution for auto-da-fe). Satire can be effective in both fiction and nonfiction, and Candide, a philosophical story that combines both, is thought to be one of the most brilliant satires of all.

Most critics, however, relegate satire—and satirists—to a secondary sphere in the universe of writing; satire makes for good entertainment, but mocking others does not measure up to the conviction of cogent writing. Had Voltaire been nothing more than a satirist, he would not have been remembered as a brilliant philosophe, but as a clever joker—if he were remembered at all. Although Voltaire’s satire in Candide is quite brilliant, some other examples of satire are a little easier to figure out. Let’s look at a sample question based on a passage from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

  5. The above passage is an example of

(A)   an analysis of court customs

(B)   a satire of British footwear

(C)   a study of British eccentricities

(D)   a satire of the British court

(E)   a nonsensical account of life at court

Well, the correct answer must be either (B) or (D) because this section is all about satire. The correct answer is (D). The passage serves to satirize the Whig-Tory discord (the Whigs dominated politics during much of the eighteenth century) and the relationship of the “parties” (the Whigs and Tories were not really political parties as we know them today) and the King. Unless you recognize that the passage is satirical, you will not have a good grasp of what is going on—which will lead to major problems with all of the multiple-choice questions on that passage.