Rhetorical Devices and Vocabulary--Part I

Humanities passages pose real challenges for pre-med students in the CARS exam. When you encounter a passage on literature or history in your CARS practice passages, you quickly see that the language is totally unlike language you are used to in science texts where words say what they mean. In humanities passages, it can be quite different. Often, it's not what words say that is important, but what they suggest or imply, and these can be two very different things.

It seems strange, but there really is a logic behind it. In science texts, an author’s goal is the simple transfer of information or knowledge. With the rhetorical use of language in novels, plays, movie scripts, humanities essays, etc, authors are doing something very different. They not only want you to know something; they want you to experience it as well. They want to engage you in the process of experiencing an idea or event so that your experience of it leads you to a conclusion that you come up with. You become part of the writing process. Some authors don’t want to just give you an idea; they want you to participate in what they are doing and make you work for it. When you experience it rather than just think about it, it becomes so much more real and convincing.

Let’s look at some of the chief devices that the authors of the CARS passages use to do this. Knowing these devices will help you get into the upper 25% of the MCAT score range.

There are basically 5 different Rhetorical Devices that you’ll find pretty consistently in these passages. These are:

  • Tone
  • Figurative Language
  • Points of View
  • Questions
  • Irony

The first of these, Tone, involves the emotional aspect of language as opposed to the conceptual aspect. A word obviously contains a concept of some sort, but in some cases it can also give off a feeling. For example, think about the following scene:

Two young women are sitting in Starbucks having coffee. Someone walks by.

1st woman to second woman: Do you know that young man? 2nd woman: You mean that stud?

Let’s think about the difference between “young man” and “stud”. Now if we look at the conceptual content of these descriptions, what’s called the denotation, it’s very much the same.

Young man = Under 30 years of age + XY chromosomes
Stud = Under 30 years of age + XY chromosomes

That is the idea common to both descriptions: a male under 30 years of age. But when we look at the emotional content of the language, the connotation, it’s quite different.

Young man = Emotionally neutral
Stud = Interest, Attraction

So with Tone, the emotional content of language can add a whole new layer of meaning.

When reading a CARS passage, how can you detect tone in a sentence or a paragraph? It helps a great deal if you remember the fundamentals of grammar that you learned years ago (more on that in a later blog) What you’ll be looking for are the nouns, adjectives, and adverbs, and weighing their emotional content. If you don’t remember what those are, just look for words in sentence or paragraph that evoke emotion,

Let’s take a look at an example. This comes from Examkrackers 101 Passages (Passage 2, Page 4, lines 42-47). This passage deals with the issue of why men dress in a particular way in business, wearing suits and ties. The author contends that men do this to convey power or position. The author then talks about the origin of this “power look”.

The power look gravitated toward the British heavy woolen suit because of a historical accident; Englishmen were driven by a combination of jingoism, greed, and gunpowder to become the dominant colonial empire, and thus exported to economically and culturally subjugated nations their dismal fashion sense.

Notice that there’s a lot of emotionally charged language here. Let’s underline those emotional words:

The power look gravitated toward the British heavy woolen suit because of a historical accident; Englishmen were driven by a combination of jingoism, greed, and gunpowder to become the dominant colonial empire, and thus exported to economically and culturally subjugated nations their dismal fashion sense.

Notice the three words, “jingoism, greed, and gunpowder”. You may not be familiar with the word “jingoism”. It means stupid political language or phrases. But even if you don’t know what it means, you know that “greed” is pretty negative. You can also figure out what the reference to “gunpowder” is. If someone is “driven by gunpowder” they are using guns or violence to achieve their ends. The British also “subjugate” nations; they make them bend to their will or do their bidding by force. Now notice that they have “dismal” fashion sense as well. So let’s put this all together and see how the author feels about the British:

Jingoism = Stupid
Greed = Dishonest, Thieving
Gunpower = Violent
Subjugate = Cruel
Dismal = Awful, Tasteless

So we can see that the emotional content of this language, the Connotation of the words, tells us that the author thinks that the British are stupid, dishonest, violent, cruel, and tasteless, a really negative assessment. There was a direct question in the passage based on the tone of this language.

Another Rhetorical Device is Figurative Language. When an author uses Figurative Language, he is basically giving you a word picture that stands for something else. You saw that in the quoted language above where the author uses the term “gunpowder” not literally (gunpowder itself can’t drive or compel anyone to do anything) but as a representation for violence: violent people use gunpowder to hurt people.

Often, though, the use of Figurative Language or word pictures is a lot more elaborate. The author will give you a word picture that is made up of a lot of different parts.

Let’s take a look at an example in a poem from the Scottish poet, Robert Burns (Yes, something like this will show up in the exam)

O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;

Now the first thing that you want to remember about figurative language is that it never means literally what it says. It means what it suggests

Let’s take the first phrase: “O my Luve”. Now again it’s not about what it says; he’s not talking about the emotion of love, what we would normally think of when someone uses that word. But notice also, Luve is capitalized, just like you capitalize your name. He’s hinting that he’s talking about a person. What he is suggesting is that he is talking about his beloved, his girlfriend, his “Luve”.

The next thing he does is compare her to a “red, red rose”. Again, he’s not literally talking about a rose. Think for a minute about what roses suggest. When do you normally send or receive red roses? Well, usually it’s in a romantic circumstance or setting. Roses are usually associated with romance. But what else is a dominant characteristic of roses? You send them because they are beautiful. They are considered one of the most beautiful flowers. So what Burns is suggesting is that his “Beloved” is “beautiful and romantic”.

But what else do we know about roses? They have thorns; they can be prickly. So he’s suggesting that his “Beloved” can be prickly, or feisty. Now notice the last part, “that’s newly sprung in June”. Again, he does not mean literally that she pops out of the ground in June. But think for a moment to what happens to a rose when it is “sprung”: it blossoms; it comes into full bloom. So what he’s telling us is that his “Luv” is a young woman who is just coming into the fullness of her womanhood. What about June? It’s the beginning of summer with suggestions of heat. He’s suggesting that coming into the fullness of her womanhood, she is now capable of experiencing real passion.

So let’s review the associations:

Luv = Beloved
Rose = Romantic, Beautiful, Prickly
Sprung = Blossom, Mature into fullness
June = Warmth, Passion

Again, it’s not about what each part of the word picture says, but what each element suggests.

In CARS passages each part of the word picture usually represents a key idea in the text, and when you put them together, they can suggest another key idea that isn’t even mentioned in the text. Let’s take a look at another example.

We’re going to be looking at the last sentence in an Examkrackers passage (Test 3, Passage I, Page 50) The essay deals with Einstein “Space-Time Continuum” which the author describes as having 4 elements. The first three have to do with the physical location of an object: it can go up or down, backward or forward, left or right. Physically, it has 3 axes it can travel on. The fourth dimension is time, at what time are you measuring this. If an object is traveling on an up/down axis, it’s location is determined by what point in time you are locating it. So keep these four elements in mind: three dealing with axes for physical movement, and the other dealing with time.

Let’s now take a look at the last sentence in the passage and see how the author uses figurative language to bring together some of his key ideas in a way that suggests a new idea not previously mentioned:

The space-time continuum may be a four-dimensional stone in which our past, present, and future is etched for us to continually relive each time as though it were the first

Now in this word picture we already know from the passage that the author is talking about the space-time continuum. Notice the first phrase, a “four-dimensional” stone. Remember, the author said that the space-time continuum was made up of four elements: three locations in space plus time. So we know that the author is referring to that key idea in the text. But notice that he also describes it as a “stone”. What does that suggest to you? We know that stones are hard, but what else does stone suggest? Permanence, something that lasts a long time.

Now the next phrase “our past, present, and future is etched”. Think about that for a minute. What does your past present and future equal? When you put the past, present, and future all together, doesn’t that equal your life? Our lives are the sum of our past, present and future. But notice that the author is saying that our past, present, and future, our lives, are “etched” on this stone. What does it mean when something is etched in stone or carved in stone. You’ve probably heard that expression before, like someone saying, “You can’t change his mind. His ideas are carved (etched) in stone” The phrase means you can’t change it. So let’s see what we have so far:

The space-time continuum may be a four-dimensional stone in which our past, present, and future is etched for us to continually relive each time as though it were the first.

Our lives are permanently, unchangeably recorded on the space time continuum...

Now notice the final part of the sentence: “for us to continually relive each time as though it were the first”. What does it mean to continually relive something? It means we do it over and over again; we relive our lives over and over again. How about: “each time as though it were the first”. Well, if we experience something as though it were the first time, we don’t remember that it happened before. So notice what the author is saying: we relive our lives over and over again in the same way not remembering that we lived that before.

What is the author suggesting here? What new idea do all the elements come together to suggest, a new idea that wasn’t even mentioned in any other part of the passage?

The author is talking hear about reincarnation. All the elements of the word picture come together here to suggest it. It’s an idea that appears nowhere else in the text except the last sentence, and, again, there was a question on it.

Understanding Tone and Figurative Language will help you to read between the lines in a humanities essay and really understand what the author is saying. It’s all part of “reasoning beyond the text,” which is 40% of the CARS exam. So learning how to use Tone, Figurative Language and the other Rhetorical Devices we’ll be discussing has to be a fundamental part of your MCAT CARS Strategy. Look for these devices in CARS practice passages, analyze them, and you’ll understand exactly what the author is doing. Knowing how to read this way will not only raise your CARS score, but will also improve your analytical ability for other sections of the test and raise your total MCAT score.

In our next blog post, we’ll be looking at the all important rhetorical devices of Points of View, Irony, and how Questions are used in passages.

Until next time, work hard, do well.