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The 55 AP Language and Composition Terms You Must Know

Posted by Ellen McCammon | May 2, 2018 9:00:00 PM

Advanced Placement (AP)



One of the competencies you need to develop for AP Language and Composition is a thorough understanding of rhetorical strategies and techniques. This is because you will both be expected to identify these strategies and techniques in the writing of others and to use them in your own writing.

But given the huge number of rhetorical terms there are, how do you know which ones you need to know and understand? Do you need to know what anaphora is? What about synecdoche?

In this article I'll provide two lists: one of essential key AP Language and Composition terms to know for the exam, and one list of useful bonus words that will serve you well on the exam. Then I'll advise how to learn and use these terms for AP success!


Essential AP Language and Composition Terms

The following list of 37 terms, based on consulting both the AP English Language and Composition Course and Exam Description and free-response material from past years, provides an important overview of the major AP Lang rhetorical devices and techniques you need to know. With all of this AP Language and Composition vocabulary at your disposal, you'll be a top-notch rhetorical analyst in no time!

Each entry has a definition and example or further explanation. Don't be intimidated by the size of this list—many of these are terms you are probably already familiar with!


Essential Rhetorical Analysis Terms

Explaining something complex by comparing it to something more simple.
"An amateur playing in a professional game is like an ibex stepping into a lion's den."
The combination of reasons, evidence, etc that an author uses to convince an audience of their position.
Too comprehensive a concept for a single example! In effective rhetoric, every phrase serves to further build the argument.
Aristotelian appeals
Three different methods of appealing to an audience to convince them—ethos, logos, and pathos.
See ethos, logos and pathos.
The writer's personal views or feelings about the subject at hand.
Difficult to convey in a short example, but something like "the deplorable state of this school" would convey that the author has a negative attitude towards the school.
Who the author is directing his or her message towards
When you create a resume, your audience is potential employers.
Compare and contrast
Discussing the similarities and differences between two things to some persuasive or illustrative purpose.

“Hybrid cars have a much smaller carbon footprint than traditional midsize vehicles.”
The implied meaning of a word; words can broadly have positive, negative, or neutral connotations.
conscientious = positive connotation
fussy = negative connotation
The extra-textual environment in which the text is being delivered.
If I am delivering a congratulatory speech to awards recipients, the immediate context might be the awards presentation ceremony; the broader context might be the purpose or significance of the awards themselves.
The argument(s) against the author's position.
If I want to eliminate the dress code, a counterargument might be that this will place a burden on students of a lower socioeconomic status, who must now afford an entire school wardrobe or risk unwanted attention.
Deductive reasoning
A form of logical reasoning wherein a general principle is applied to a specific case.
If all planets orbit a star, and Theta II is a planet, then it must orbit a star.
The literal, dictionary-definition meaning of a word.
The denotation of "chair" is "a place to sit."
The style of language used; generally tailored to be appropriate to the audience and situation.
You might say "What's up, loser?" to your little brother, but you would probably say "How are you doing today?" to your principal.
Setting up a source as credible and trustworthy.
"Given my PhD in the subject and years of experience in the field" is an appeal to ethos.
The information presented meant to persuade the audience of the author's position.
If I were arguing that Anne is a good student, I might reference her straight-A report card and her 1500 SAT score as pieces of evidence.
Figurative language
The use of language in a non-literal way; i.e. metaphor, simile, etc.
"The sky's like a jewel box tonight!"
The specific type of work being presented.
Broader categories include "novel" and "play," while more specific genres would be things like "personal essay" or "haiku."
Any descriptive language used to evoke a vivid sense or image of something; includes figurative language.
"The water was a pearl-studded sea of azure tipped with turquoise."
When something is suggested without being concretely stated.
"Watch your wallet around Paul," implies that Paul is a thief without coming out and saying "Paul is a thief."
Inductive reasoning
Making a generalization based on specific evidence at hand.
All of the planets in this solar system orbit a star, so all planets probably orbit stars.
At the most basic sense, saying the opposite of what you mean; also used to describe situations in which the results of an action are dramatically different than intended.
"I do so hope there are more papers to sign," is something that might be said ironically.
Placing two very different things together for effect.
"There they stood together, the beggars and the lords, the princesses and the washerwoman, all crowding into the square."
Appealing to someone's sense of concrete facts and logic.
Citing peer-reviewed scientific studies is an appeal to logos.
The reason or moment for writing or speaking.
When giving a graduation speech, the occasion is graduation.
How the different parts of an argument are arranged in a piece of writing or speech.
Think about the outlines you write in preparation for drafting an argumentative essay and you'll have an idea of what organization is.
An Aristotelian appeal. Involves appealing to someone's emotions.
Animal shelters ads with pictures of cute sad animals and dramatic music are using pathos.
The author's persuasive intention.
If you are trying to convince your mother you should get a dog, your purpose in addressing an essay on the subject to her would be to convince her that you should get a dog.
Re-using a word or phrase repeatedly for effect or emphasis.
"We run, and we run, and we run, like rats on a wheel."
The use of spoken or written word (or a visual medium) to convey your ideas and convince an audience.
Almost everything is an example of rhetoric!
Rhetorical triangle
The relationship between the author, the audience, the text/message, and the context.
The author communicates to the reader via the text; and the reader and text are surrounded by context.
The persona adopted by the author to deliver his or her message; may or may not actually be the same person as the author.
Similar to the difference between author and narrator in a work of fiction.
The author's own personal approach to rhetoric in the piece; similar to voice.
We might say the Taylor Swift's songwriting style is straightforward and emotive.
Using a symbol to refer to an idea or concept.
"Fire" is commonly used a symbol for passion and/or anger.
The way sentences are grammatically constructed.
"She likes pie," is syntactically simple. On the other hand, "As it so happened, when Barbara got out of class early she liked to have a piece of pie—key lime or pecan, always—at the corner diner; while she was there she watched the people passing by the window and imagined herself inside each of their lives, riding in their heads for moments and moments until the afternoon was whiled away and she'd become fifty people," is syntactically complicated.
Combining sources or ideas in a coherent way in the purpose of a larger point.
A typical research paper involves synthesizing sources to make a broader point about the topic.
Overarching ideas or driving premises of a work.
Some themes you will probably hear in your high school graduation speech include leaving behind a legacy, moving into the great unknown, becoming an adult, and changing the world.
The use of stylistic devices to reveal an author's attitude toward a subject.
Only a narrow distinction from attitude. The phrase "the deplorable state of this school" reveals a negative attitude, but the word choice of "deplorable" is part of the author's tone.
An author's unique sound. Similar to style.
Think of the way that you can recognize a pop singer on the radio without hearing who it is first.


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Let your voice be heard!


Bonus AP Language and Composition Terms

Here are 18 bonus AP Language vocabulary terms that, while not absolutely essential to your success on the exam, will be very helpful. They identify some common but obscurely named rhetorical techniques and some additional rhetorical and argumentative strategies.

These terms also each have a definition and an example or explanation.


Bonus Rhetorical Terms

Using words with the same first letter repeatedly close together in a phrase or sentence.
"She purchased the pretty purple parka."
Making a brief reference to the cultural canon—e.g. the Bible, Shakespeare, classical mythology, etc.
"Like Eve in the Garden of Eden, George was not good at resisting temptation."
Offering a brief narrative episode. This device can serve many functions in a text—for example, introducing an issue, serving as evidence, to illustrate a point, and so on.
"When I went to buy my morning coffee, I ran into an old friend. He told me he had won the lottery and he was about to buy a yacht. Two months later I heard he had declared bankruptcy."
Agreeing with the opposing viewpoint on a certain smaller point (but not in the larger argument).
“While I admit that hybrid cars have higher carbon production costs than conventional automobiles, this is dramatically offset by the much-smaller lifetime carbon footprint of the vehicles.”
A text with an instructive purpose, often moral.
Aesop's fables are an example of a didactic work.
Referring to something with a veiled phrase instead of saying it directly
"She let Bob go," is a euphemism for "she fired Bob."
Providing examples in service of a point.
“The Town Beautification Funds are being sorely misused; the streets are full of litter, the parks are full of broken equipment, and City Hall's facade is drab and crumbling.”
Overstating a situation for humorous or dramatic effect.
"My backpack weighs tons!"
A commonly used phrase that signifies something very different than its literal meaning.
"This costs an arm and a leg!" is an idiom which means "This is very expensive."
Using "sound-effect" words (e.g. "clap," "buzz).
"We heard an ominous hiss from the kitchen."
A phrase or assertion that appears to contradict itself (but the contradiction itself may have its own meaning).
Paradoxical phrases include "dark angel," "fresh rot," "blissful hell," etc.
Repeated structural elements in a sentence.
"We went to sea; we went to war; we went to bed."
Using the form of something to mimic and make fun of it.
Weird Al is the master of the musical parody genre.
Giving human characteristics to a nonhuman object or idea.
"The sun was shining happily today."
Mockingly stating the opposite of what you mean. Easier to convey in the spoken word than via writing.
"Did you come up with that all by yourself?" might be delivered sarcastically after someone delivers a poorly-thought out idea.
A genre of humorous and mocking criticism to expose the ignorance and/or ills of society.
Stephen Colbert is a popular modern satirist.
Referring to one part of something as a way to refer to the whole.
"Ask for her hand" is a synecdoche for marriage; the "hand" stands in for the whole woman.
Deliberately minimizing something, usually for humorous effect.
"My mom's a little bit irritated I crashed the car—I'm grounded for the next twenty-four months."




The Angry Storm: a story of personification.


How to Learn and Use AP Language Terms

You might be tempted to bust out some flashcards, do some aggressive memorization, and call yourself finished. However, that's really only the first step of the three-step process of actually learning AP Lang terms.


Step 1: Learn Rhetorical Terms

As you initially try to familiarize yourself with these terms and what they mean, it's fine to make flashcards. You could use the term on one side and the definition on the other, or the definition and the example from the chart on one side and the term on the other—whatever's easier for you. You could make physical flashcards if you like to learn things with a tactile element involved, but for the sake of convenience you might consider making online flashcards at a site like Quizlet, where a free account lets you make and save flash cards and then quiz yourself with a variety of games and strategies.

When you know the terms and their definitions inside and out, you're ready to move on to the next step.


Step 2: Identify Rhetorical Strategies and Devices

Next, you need to work on identifying rhetorical strategies and devices in actual written works. Make an effort when you read to seek out examples of the different rhetorical techniques at work. And think about the larger context of the piece: what's the author's purpose in writing this piece? Is the speaker the same as the author? What genre is it? What devices are being used repeatedly? You might try jotting down your thoughts about how pieces you read are using rhetorical devices.

When you feel you can consistently identify these strategies at work in the writing of others, it's time to try your hand at using them yourself.


Step 3: Deploy Rhetorical Strategies and Devices

Once you feel you have a handle on identifying a given device/concept in other pieces, it's time to think about using it in your own writing. Consider your own purpose and argument when you write. Think about audience. Deploy hyperbole and irony. See what works and what doesn't. Trying to apply the terms will help you learn the concepts much better than simple memorization.



Deploy rhetorical parachutes!


Final Thoughts: AP Language and Composition Terms

There are so many rhetorical terms that it can be hard to determine which ones you need to know for AP Language and Composition! This list gives you an overview of all the essential AP English Language and Composition vocabulary.

When you're trying to learn these concepts, it's better to try to apply them—by seeing how other authors use them and using them in your own writing—than to just memorize the terms and their definitions. The important thing is to understand the concepts, not just know the terms!


What's Next?

If you're also taking AP Literature, see our ultimate guide to the AP English Literature test and our AP Literature Reading List. Make sure to also refresh your understanding of point-of-view in literature with this primer and take a spin through our list of the literary elements you'll find in every story.

Studying poetry in a(n) English/Literature/Language Arts class? Whether you're reading "Do not go gentle into that good night" by Dylan Thomas or a Shakespearean sonnet, you're going to want to make sure you know important poetic devices and terms like assonance and iambic pentameter, just to name a few.

We can help if you're not sure how to study for AP exams.

Looking for practice tests? See our complete lists for AP Human Geography, AP Literature, AP US History, AP Chemistry, AP Biology,AP Psychology, and AP World History. Or see our guide to finding the best AP practice tests for any exam.


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Ellen McCammon
About the Author

Ellen has extensive education mentorship experience and is deeply committed to helping students succeed in all areas of life. She received a BA from Harvard in Folklore and Mythology and is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.

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