THE SAT ESSAY: ANALYZING ARGUMENTS
Use the “Three-Pass Approach” (15–20 minutes)
Good analytical writing begins with strong analytical reading. In this first stage of the process, which should take between 15 and 20 minutes, take the “Three-Pass Approach” to analyzing the passage.
Lesson 4: First pass: Comprehend
First, read the passage to understand its primary and secondary ideas using the skills you learned in Chapter 5. Ask: What is the central thesis, and what claims does the author make in each paragraph to support this thesis? Underline the key ideas, and annotate the paragraphs with very brief summaries.
Lesson 5: Second pass: Analyze
Next, read the passage again with a different question in mind: How does the author use evidence, reasoning, and rhetorical devices to support the central thesis and perhaps address potential counterarguments?
The College Board says that a strong essay must offer insightful analysis of the source text by examining the author’s use of evidence, reasoning, and/or stylistic elements. Therefore, you should know the common stylistic and rhetorical devices and recognize them when you see them.
In Chapter 5, we discussed the 16 basic rhetorical and literary devices that can help you to better analyze college-level prose. Now let’s revisit them, and look at 17 more devices you should look for as you analyze argumentative essays.
33 Stylistic and Rhetorical Devices for Analysis of Rhetorical Essays
An ad hominem is an attack “on the person” rather than an attack of his or her ideas or reasoning. For example, Her political opinions can’t be trusted because she is just an actor is not an argument about the merits of her ideas, but merely an ad hominem.
Alliteration is the repetition of initial sounds in words to emphasize a rhetorical point. For instance, when John F. Kennedy referred to high standards of strength and sacrifice, he was using alliteration (notice the repeated “s” sounds) to draw his listeners into public service.
An allusion is an implicit reference to something, usually to a piece of literature or a well-known historical event. For example, the statement He’s gone down the rabbit hole is an allusion to the bizarre and fanciful episodes in the story Alice in Wonderland, and a reference to Benedict Arnold is an allusion to historical betrayal.
Anachronism is the intentional or accidental clash between things from different historical eras. It is a form of juxtaposition. For instance, calling the telegraph “the Twitter of the nineteenth century” not only elicits a sonic allusion (the taps and beeps of a telegraph sound like chirping), but also employs creative anachronism.
An analogy is an illustrative comparison between things that have a similar function or structure, usually with the use of the words like or as. For example, the levels of processing in a computer provide an analogy for understanding levels of processing in the human brain.
An anecdote is an illustrative story. For example, a story about a friend whose headache went away after he stood on his head for ten minutes is anecdotal evidence, not scientific evidence, for the health benefits of inversion.
An aphorism is a widely accepted truth. For example, the aphorism If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it can provide a concise argument against spending a lot of money on a new program. Aphorisms are also called maxims, adages, or proverbs.
An appeal to authority is a suggestion that the reader should agree with an idea because a respected authority happens to believe it. For example: The world’s greatest scientist, Sir Isaac Newton, believed that iron could be turned into gold, so who are we to question the idea?
An appeal to emotion (pathos) is an attempt to persuade the reader through an emotionally charged anecdote or allusion. For example, a story about an infuriating experience with an insurance salesman may be an effective way to argue against aggressive sales tactics.
Begging the question is the process of seeming to address a question without actually doing so, or assuming that the answer to a question is obvious when it is in fact not. For instance, asserting that putting more guns in the hands of good people can only deter crime is an example of begging the question. Specifically, it ignores the questions of how this would work, whether solid evidence supports the claim, and whether such a program might have dangerous unforeseen consequences.
Characterization is the use of imagery, diction, or description to convey a particular attitude toward a person, thing, or idea. For example, referring to your opponent’s proposal as a scheme characterizes it as being deceitful, harmful, or secretive.
Concession or qualification is the act of acknowledging a point of argument to the opposition, perhaps as a means of moderating your thesis or to preempt potential attacks that your opponent might use against you. For instance, an argument for a tax increase might include a concession that it would place an extra burden on taxpayers, and that those taxpayers might be rightfully concerned that those revenues are spent wisely, then appease these concerns by weighing the social benefits against any perceived burdens.
Connotation refers to the emotional, historic, and sensual associations of a word. Good writers are always aware of the connotations of a word as well as its literal meaning. For instance, a proposal for a tax increase might be described as an investment because this word connotes growth and progress.
Didacticism is basically a fancy word for teaching. In a rhetorical essay, an author may use didacticism to instruct the reader about a technical concept that the reader might need to know to understand a concept. For instance, in an essay about the differences between natural selection and the theory of “intelligent design,” an author might use didacticism to clarify the definition of terms like “scientific method,” “evidentiary standards,” and “hypothesis.”
Ethos is a class of rhetorical devices that attempt to elicit moral sentiments in order to make a point, especially when those moral sentiments correspond to a set of shared cultural beliefs. For instance, an author may refer to the American Spirit or traditional values as an appeal to ethos in order to inspire or persuade a reader.
A euphemism is a term that makes something seem more positive than it is. For example, salespersons or political canvassers often use the term courtesy call as a euphemism for an unwanted disruption, and military technicians use the term collateral damage as a euphemism for human casualties.
A foil is a person or thing that makes someone or something else seem better by contrast. For example, a person arguing against a tax increase might use the image of a bumbling, bureaucratic tax collector as a foil, whereas the foil for someone arguing for the tax increase might be the image a greedy billionaire who doesn’t care about the public good or about opportunities for the disadvantaged.
Guilt by association is largely regarded as a rhetorical fallacy but is frequently used in an attempt to persuade readers against an adversary. It is a fallacy because being mere association does not itself imply agreement or similarity. For instance, if a teacher mistrusts you simply because she knows that you hang around with friends who have cheated on tests, she is smearing you with guilt by association.
Hyperbole is deliberate exaggeration for persuasive effect. For example, saying that Molly’s comma usage is a catastrophe is almost certainly hyperbole.
Imagery is the use of vivid sensory impressions in order to elicit a feeling like anger, peacefulness, beauty, wistfulness, sympathy, or the like. Keats uses visual and sonic imagery in his ode To the Autumn when he writes full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn; Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft; The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft.
Induction is the process of drawing or implying broad generalizations from a few examples. Overgeneralization is an inductive fallacy. For instance, drawing the conclusion from a few encounters with driving instructors that all DMV workers are impatient is an act of induction that many would consider an unfair overgeneralization.
Irony is a deliberate reversal of expectations in order to surprise a reader, often for persuasive effect. For example, Christopher Hitchens justified his attitude toward free will by using irony: I believe in free will, because I have no other choice.
Logical analysis (logos) is the examination of an argument in terms of its logical support (or lack thereof). An author might use logos to refute a claim like all politicians are liars by pointing out an honest politician (counterexample) or by showing that such a claim does not follow from any logical premises (non sequitur). On the other hand, an author might use logos to support a claim by showing that it follows necessarily from previously accepted premises (deduction) or that its falsehood would lead to an absurd situation (indirect proof or reductio ad absurdum) or that it follows a well-accepted pattern (induction).
A metaphor is an application of a word or phrase to something it doesn’t literally apply to. For example, calling a refusal a slap in the face uses metaphor to emphasize its harshness.
Rhetorical parallelism is the use of repeated grammatical form to emphasize a point. For example, John F. Kennedy used parallelism in his inaugural address when he said we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
Rhetorical paradox is the use of a logically self-contradictory statement to make a point. Oscar Wilde is known for such masterful examples of rhetorical paradox as The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about and I can resist anything but temptation.
Parody is comical and exaggerated imitation. Tina Fey is famous for her parodies of former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Many writers of persuasive essays use parody to mock the positions of their opponents.
The persona a writer adopts is the voice that he or she uses to establish his or her standing or personality in the argument. For instance, an author might create a very gentle and casual persona (Don’t you hate it when …) or a more formal and forceful persona (Our current political discourse must change if we are to address the existential crises our nation faces …), each of which has its advantages and disadvantages in persuading readers.
Personification is the attribution of personal qualities to something that is not a person. For example, we are using rhetorical personification when we say that an idea is on its last legs or gave its last gasp.
A polemic is a forceful and controversial argument against a widely held position. For instance, any forceful argument against the virtue of compassion or the benefit of hard work would be considered a polemic because these values are widely accepted and have a history of forceful argumentation behind them. Christopher Hitchens and Jonathan Swift are some famous polemicists.
A simile is a comparison using like or as. For instance, Irena Dunn used rhetorical simile when she said A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.
A straw man is an unfair misrepresentation of an opponent’s position so that it can be more easily refuted. It is a common and dishonest logical fallacy. For instance, if one wanted to refute the position that teens should be taught about responsible contraception use in order to prevent both unwanted pregnancies and the spread of potentially lethal diseases, one might replace this position with a straw man position: my opponent wants to give all of your kids condoms so they can go out and have as much sex as they want without worrying about any consequences. This recharacterization of the original position is a straw man because it misstates not only the content of the actual proposal, but also the intention of the program and the consideration being given to the consequences of potentially dangerous activities.
An understatement encourages the reader to embrace a point by underemphasizing its intensity, which is taken to be obvious. For instance, it’s an understatement to suggest that Donald Trump is a little self-absorbed.
This list is by no means exhaustive, but it provides a solid framework for analyzing the passage. In your second read-through, keep it simple. Just underline the sentences or phrases that use these devices, and categorize the devices in the margin.
Read the annotations in the sample analysis below and see how each underlined portion represents that particular device. Train yourself to see these devices in all of the rhetorical essays you read: newspaper op-eds, long form essays, and even your own papers.
This analysis is a critical step in writing the SAT Essay. As the scoring rubric indicates, your essay should offer a thorough, well-considered evaluation of the author’s use of evidence, reasoning, and/or stylistic and persuasive elements.
The rubric also indicates that a good essay will contain relevant, sufficient, and strategically chosen support for claims or points made. This means you must give quotations from the text that show where the author uses these particular devices and stylistic elements.
Lesson 6: Third pass: Critique
In your third pass, read the passage one more time and ask: How effectively does the essay use reasoning, evidence, and the stylistic and rhetorical devices I just identified? Again, indicate your thoughts in the margins.
According to the College Board, a top-scoring essay must “offer a thorough, well-considered evaluation of the author’s use of evidence, reasoning, and/or stylistic elements.” That is, it is not enough to point out these elements; you must also evaluate them. A strong essay must also“focus consistently on those features of the text that are most relevant to addressing the task,” that is, it must demonstrate that you can distinguish especially relevant points and devices from incidental points and devices.