Rhetorical Devices and Vocabulary--Part II

In Part I of Rhetorical Devices and Vocabulary, we saw how Tone and Figurative Language can affect and even create Key Ideas in a passage. Let’s now take a look at how Points of View, Irony, and the Use of Questions in a passage influence and even create Key Ideas. Mastering these techniques will really help in raising not only your CARS score, but your overall MCAT score as well.

Points of View:

The types of passages you’ll be reading in the CARS Exam have a very particular point of view, that of the narrator, the writer that is speaking to you. Often, however, this narrator will be discussing or quoting other authors, and your job is to figure out whether the author is adopting that other point of view, dissenting from it, or just raising it as an interesting idea. Knowing the difference is critical in understanding the Argument that the author is making, the Main Idea and the Key Ideas that support it. Let’s take a look at some CARS practice passages. The first is from Examkrackers (Test 1, Passage VI, p. 28).

The essay is about the planning after World War II that aimed to bring democratic government to Japan. In the second paragraph the author writes:

Historian Robert F. Wood maintains that even after the post-surrender stage, there was a consensus that the emperor would be retained. But Wood is only one of a few historians who claims this as definite; most others saw the fate of the emperor to be very uncertain, at least until a much later date. Even by Ward’s own account, Americans at every level, from policy makers to homemakers, saw the emperor as the heart of the Japanese political system, and the reason for all its faults.

Read and think about this paragraph carefully. We’ve got a number of different points of view and the author hasn’t explicitly told us what he thinks, what his point of view is.

The first point of view is that of Robert F. Ward that most people felt the emperor would be retained. But notice what the author does. He discredits Ward’s point of view by citing a second point of view, that of most other historians that the consensus was that the emperor’s status was uncertain. Basically, the author is saying that Ward is wrong. In doing that the author is giving us his point of view about Ward. Note that he’s saying that Ward was wrong in saying that most historians thought that there was a consensus that the emperor should be kept. We still don’t know yet if the author thinks the emperor should be kept or not. The author is only telling us what his opinion or point of view is on Ward’s outlook. Then there is a third point of view in the last sentence, the opinion of everybody else (policymakers to homemakers) that the emperor was the heart of Japan’s problems.

Again, note that the author is not telling us whether he thinks the emperor should have been retained. He is only telling us what he thinks the point of view or opinion of the majority of historians and the majority of the people in the United States was.

Let’s now take a look at part of the next paragraph:

The assessment of the emperor as the agent of militarism, nationalism and the war seems to be a strange one for American political leaders to have made; it does not conform to the view of modern historians about the political role of the emperor. The prevailing opinion now is that Emperor Hirohito was merely a figurehead for the genro (capitalist elite), whom he supported, and later became a tool for the military and pro military bureaucracy, with whom he disagreed, but was unwilling to formally oppose.

In the first sentence of this paragraph, we begin to see the author’s opinion come through. Notice that he says that “The assessment of the emperor as the agent of militarism, nationalism and the war seems to be a strange one for American political leaders to make…” He’s telling us that this assessment is “strange”. In effect, he’s telling us that he disagrees with it. So if he disagrees with it, he’s telling us that he does not believe the emperor was an “agent of militarism nationalism, and the war.

The paragraph then goes on to state:

Historian Mikiso Hane says that the emperor was, in fact, so passive that the army tried to change his image into that of a war hawk with dramatic photo spreads, but that these attempts were unsuccessful, and the emperor retained the reputation within Japan of being strictly a civilian figure--a dramatic dissimilarity from his image outside Japan.

Notice what the author is doing: he’s cited another historian's point of view. Why? Because he wants to use it to bolster his own opinion that the emperor was not a war hawk. He is adopting Jane's point of view and by using it to prove his point, he is both agreeing with it and telling us what he thinks.

The author’s point of view on the role of the Emperor during the war becomes clearer in the beginning of the next paragraph:

How did this flawed perception of the emperor as an aggrandizing military dictator take hold in America? One possible explanation is that because Japanese soldiers swore allegiance to the emperor, and carried out the war in his name, Americans believed that he was their actual leader.

Notice the first sentence; read it again. The opinion that the emperor was an aggrandizing military dictator is “flawed” or wrong. Clearly, the author believes that he was a passive figure as stated in the previous paragraph. But also notice the next sentence: the author is talking about one possible explanation. Be careful here. He’s not adopting it; he’s just speculating. It’s not his opinion; he’s just raising it as an interesting idea.

From these examples you can see that whenever an author is talking about other people’s opinions, he’s using them in one of three ways

  • Adopting them to bolster his point of view;
  • Challenging them, and by challenging the ideas, adopting the opposite point of view;
  • Simply raising an interesting idea, perhaps leaning toward it but not adopting it outright.

So how do you approach passages with multiple points of view?

  • Look for direct statements by an author that express his opinion. This is pretty easy to do; these are sentences where an author just says what he means.
  • When an author is discussing or quoting another point of view, stop for a moment and ask yourself:
    • Is he using that opinion to contrast with what he thinks, thereby telling you that his opinion is the opposite; or
    • Is he using that point of view to bolster a point that he previously made, thereby adopting it.

This all may seem a little tricky at first, but as you do more passages with multiple viewpoints, keeping these questions in mind, you’ll see how much easier it gets and you’ll get really good at this.

Now let’s turn our attention to another Rhetorical Device, Irony.


Irony is a veiled form of sarcasm. It often involves the use of a word to mean something entirely different, and often the word or phrase usd ironically is in quotes. Let me give you an example.

Suppose you’re really fascinated by physical chemistry. It’s an area that you find really intriguing. One day it’s announced that the latest Nobel Laureate in physical chemistry is going to be giving a lecture at your school. You’re really excited and get to the lecture early to get a front row seat. As the auditorium fills up, you wave to a friend of yours in the back row. The lecture begins and you’re mesmerized, but every five minutes, this guy raises his hand and asks a stupid question. After the third time, you send your friend a text message: Who’s the “genius” that keeps asking questions”.

Now notice that you really don’t think he’s a genius. You think the opposite: you think he’s an idiot. So given the context, you’ve called him the opposite of what you think he is and put the point in quotations to emphasize it. But notice something else: by making that comment you’ve also signaled disapproval: you don’t like what this guy is doing.

Now let’s take a look at a test passage that uses this device. This is taken from Examkrackers Test 1, Passage III at page 22. The passage deals with the question of whether marijuana should be legalized. In the first three sentences of the second paragraph, the author discusses the legalization of marijuana in the Netherlands:

In the Netherlands, marijuana has been legally available since 1976. “Coffee shops” sell cannabis over the counter in many parts of the country. However, more people have tried cannabis since it has been legalized.

Notice that the term “coffee shops” is in quotes. What does this tell us? The author is indicating that these aren’t really coffee shops at all: they are marijuana dispensaries. Even if we didn’t have the following sentence, we’d know that the author is against legalization. Irony is always sarcastic and shows disapproval.

You can see another example at Test 1, Passage IV, at page 24. In this essay the author is discussing the governor of New York’s plan to cut hospital costs in the state hospitals. He begins the fourth paragraph with the following sentence:

Much of the “savings” will fall on the shoulders of New York City, which will have to scramble to subsidize costs for the poor and uninsured, who will be turned away from hospitals.

Notice how the author uses the term “savings” in quotes. Again, he’s using this term to mean something entirely different. These aren’t savings, the governor is just shifting the costs from the state to the City.

Once you know how it’s used, irony is fairly easy to spot, but be on the lookout for it. Again, it’s another example of language not meaning what it says, but what it suggests. This is a big issue for premed students who are used to reading science texts that say what they mean. Remember, whenever you see quotation marks around a word or a short phrase, the author is making a specific point, very different, and often opposite of what the word says.

Now let’s turn our attention to how questions are used within passages.


Most students studying for the CARS Exam, really focus on the Questions and Answers, and appropriately so. That’s what you’re graded on. But questions also play a big role in passages themselves.

Questions in passages do a lot of things:

  • They tell you that the question itself is a key idea;
  • They organize the material around them; and
  • They challenge you to look for the answer, since the rest of the paragraph or even the rest of the essay will provide an answer or multiple answers to the question.

Let’s take a look at an example from Examkrackers, Test 3, Passage VII, p. 62. The passage deals with the Battle of the Somme in World War I, where half a million soldiers were killed or wounded in a five month period. What surprises the author, is that even facing imminent death, the soldiers on both sides kept on charging. He begins the second paragraph with a question:

One may wonder why more men did not refuse to go when faced with such a meager chance of surviving. However, the motivating factors to obey were powerful. The first, and possibly strongest motivator, was peer pressure, which was especially intense at the Somme, where fighting units were made up of fighting units from the same communities. A man’s unwillingness to embarass himself in the sight of his lifelong friends may, in itself, been enough to compel him to go “over the top,” out of his trench, and into the hail of the enemy fire.

Notice the first sentence. Even though there isn’t a question mark, you can see that the sentence poses a question: Why did they do it? You can see immediately that this is a key idea: the author is looking for an answer, and notice how that question organizes the rest of the paragraph that provides the answer: peer pressure was the strongest motivator.

Very often, a question will be answered in one paragraph alone, but notice how in this passage, the author continues to answer the question in each of the following paragraphs. The third paragraph begins with the sentence:

Another strong motivator would have been the so called herding instinct, where a man finds security in a crowd.

The paragraph then goes on to discuss the “herding instinct,” but notice that the author is posing an answer to his original question. Each of the following paragraphs goes on to give additional answers to the question:

There is also the question concerning the moment of decision…

Finally there is the obvious to consider: there were serious repercussions for disobedience, including being shot on the spot…

Remember, whenever an author poses a question, it’s a key idea. The rest of the paragraph or even the rest of the essay will supply the answer or answers. Always make sure that you find the answer to every question posed because that information will surely show up in the questions after the passage.


This is a big challenge for premed students. How do you figure out what a passage means if you don’t understand some of the words? It’s a big problem since science students haven’t been spending the last four years reading Jane Austin and Plato. The answer? You simply have to memorize a whole new set of words, just like you had to memorize the symbols on the periodic chart of elements.

Keep this in mind. The passages you are reading are written at the level of a university undergraduate in the humanities. Readers are expected to know what these words mean. In order to prepare for this, do the following:

  1. Start with a basic vocabulary list like the standard SAT list of 1,000 words. This is just a baseline list. Memorize 100 words/week. It shouldn’t be that hard because you should know at least half of them already but make sure you know all of them. It constantly surprises me that bright premed students are often stumped by some of these words. A good list is found at: https://quizlet.com/48838107/sparknotes-1000-most-common-sat-words-flash-cards/
  2. Whenever you read a passage and find a word you don’t know, look it up and add it to your vocabulary list! Except for the most esoteric passages, this is pretty common language. Make sure you know these words.
  3. Do some outside reading. Good sources are the London Review of Books and The Times (of London) Literary Review. Both have free articles on line. These book reviews often focus on the humanities (unfamiliar topics for you) and are written at the level of university graduates. Add any unfamiliar words to your list.

So much of getting a good score on the CARS Exam is just grinding through the fundamentals of language as you do your CARS practice passages. But you can do this; you can succeed. It’s just a question of taking a step at a time, mastering each modality, and practice, practice, practice.

We’re always here to help, so don’t be shy about contacting us. Like you, we want you to attain the highest MCAT scores possible, especially in CARS. Just getting a few extra points can raise your MCAT percentiles considerably.

Until next time, work hard, do well.