How to Identify Writing Techniques on the SAT

By Geraldine Woods, Ron Woldoff

Every passage on the SAT is different, but many writing techniques appear frequently when the author makes an argument. Here are several things to look for:

  • Logos, ethos, and pathos. These Greek terms refer to general strategies for argument:

    • Logos is an appeal to logic or reason. Factual evidence and examples may be part of logos. Perhaps the writer cites statistics on the rate of car crashes when the speed limit is lowered and refers to accident rates in neighboring areas with different traffic laws.

    • Ethos relies on the character and qualifications of the writer (perhaps a highway patrol officer who regularly handled crash sites) or, in some cases, quotations from experts (perhaps urban planners). Look for references to authorities on the subject if you suspect that the writer is relying on ethos to make a point.

    • Pathos hits the emotions. The writer may present a story about one particular accident victim, hoping to tug the readers’ heartstrings.

  • Diction. Word choice, or diction, may have a huge effect on the reader’s reaction. Consider the difference between privacy and loneliness in an essay about solitude. One of those words (privacy) creates a positive impression, and the other (loneliness), a negative. Sophisticated vocabulary tells you that the writer sees the reader as educated and aware; simpler diction may create a “just us folks” impression of innocence.

  • Concession and reply. Useful in written arguments (not to mention personal quarrels), this writing technique acknowledges and responds to the opposing point of view. Using the speed-limit example mentioned in the first bullet point, the author may concede that driver inattention has more influence on the accident rate than speed limits do but argue that lower speed limits save some lives and are therefore still desirable.

  • Structure. The passage may be set up as a comparison (accident rates in Germany and in the United States), as cause-and-effect (the law was passed, and traffic fatalities dropped), or observations and conclusions (seemingly random facts that gradually forge a chain of logic), drawing the reader to the writer’s point of view. As you read, try to discern (detect, perceive) the organizing principle of the passage.

  • Repetition and parallel structure. A section of the Declaration of Independence lists the actions of King George III that the colonists object to. The writers use the expression “he has” more than 20 times. Normally, writers avoid repetition and a string of similar sentence patterns. In this document, however, the result is almost a criminal indictment (formal charge of wrongdoing).

    Each time you read “he has,” the writers’ case becomes stronger. As you read the passage, notice these elements. They may not appear, or you may see only two or three similar statements or words, arranged in parallel structure. (Parallelism is the English-teacher term for elements in a sentence that perform the same function and have the same grammatical identity. Don’t worry about the terminology. Just notice patterns.) When you find repetition or parallelism, ask yourself why the writer chose this technique — to emphasize, to equate one item with another, or for another purpose.

  • Figurative language. Imaginative comparisons, even in nonfiction passages, add depth to the writer’s arguments. In his magnificent “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King Jr. refers to “the bank of justice” and a check returned from the bank marked “insufficient funds” to show the unmet demands for equal rights.

    These metaphors (comparisons made without the words like or as) relate King’s argument for equality to a situation everyone with a bank account can understand. If you run across metaphors or other types of figurative language such as similes (comparisons made with like or as) or personification (giving human qualities to abstract or nonhuman elements), think about their effect on the reader.