Reading Passages
Rhetorical Devices and Literary Techniques
Rhetorical devices and literary techniques are closely related to tone and style. In fact, an author’s style partly consists of selecting and using certain devices; an author’s tone is partially determined by the type of techniques an author uses.
Many SAT books will list lots of Greek terms you don’t need to know, such as synecdoche and anaphora. But the Critical Reading section won’t require that you know the names of rhetorical devices or literary techniques.
Rather than bombard you with dozens of unfamiliar terms, we’ll categorize and clump the most common types of devices and techniques below and provide some examples and commentary. As we said, you won’t be specifically tested on these concepts, but they do lurk beneath the surface in the passages. Having a solid understanding of these devices and techniques will improve your ability to handle RPs. Focus on absorbing the similarities and differences between and among them. As you read through the list, note the one key feature all of these techniques and devices share: they allow words and sentences to carry more than only their literal meaning.
Here is a list of the most important devices and techniques. We’ve included examples along with commentary on each one:
Hyperbole

I’m as hungry as a starving lion.

Hyperbole is a synonym for exaggeration. Clearly, the speaker is not really as hungry as a starving lion. A hyperbole is just a figure of speech we use to emphasize a point. The opposite device is understatement: I’m a little tired is a purposeful understatement if the speaker has been up for 48 hours.
Repetition

Duty does not trump honesty. Duty does not trump common sense. And duty, my friends, does not trump morality.

Repetition is the conscious and purposeful replication of words or phrases in order to make a point. In this example, it’s clear that the limits of duty are being sketched out. The speaker is trying to show that duty is not the only or even the most important virtue.
Imagery and Figurative Language
Simile

Her eyes were like stars.

Her eyes are literally human eyes. Figuratively, they are being compared to stars, meaning, most likely, that they are bright and shiny and cause wonderment. This is an example of a simile. Similes use like and as to make explicit comparisons between unlike things, such as eyes and stars.
Metaphor

Her eyes were pools of liquid light.

Again, her eyes are literally human eyes. Figuratively, they are being compared to pools of liquid light. However, the comparison is implied, not stated. This is an example of a metaphor. Unlike similes, metaphors compare unlike things without explicitly stating the comparison with “like” or “as.”
Personification

Her eyes followed me up the stairs.

Can eyes follow someone up the stairs? Not literally, but in this case an eye—which is not a person—is given a person’s abilities, namely, following someone else up the stairs. This is an example of personification.
Symbolism

Her eyes looked but did not see. All was dark.

Literally speaking, eyes either see (healthy eyes) or they don’t see (blind eyes). An eye that looks but does not see is blind in a figurative sense. Very often, vision and light are symbols for understanding and enlightenment. In this example, the woman is most likely unaware of—or “in the dark”—about something. This is an example of symbolism.
Sound Patterns

Her eyes were rippling pools of liquid light in which I splashed playfully.

This metaphor also uses sound patterns to underscore its meaning. Note that the letters l and p repeat: rippling pools of liquid light…splashed playfully. The author may have repeated “l” and “p” sounds to evoke the sound of water (like in the word splash itself) or simply to link together the words that make up the metaphor—or both. There are many types of sound-pattern devices, each with its own difficult Greek name that you certainly won’t need to know.
Rhetorical Questions

Can poverty ever be eradicated?

Rhetorical questions are not meant to be answered. A rhetorical question is used to present what’s taken to be an unanswerable question, such as these questions:

Can a repeat offender ever be trusted not to commit another crime?

Can a person ever have too much love?

A rhetorical question can also be one in which the author’s answer is clearly intended to be “no” or “yes.” In these two examples, the author’s answer is clearly intended to be “no” (whether you agree with those answers or not).
Idioms and Clichés

That’ll cost you an arm and a leg.

Idioms are inherited quirks of language that native speakers understand without question but which cause nonnative speakers endless trouble. Only a native speaker knows that if something costs an arm and a leg that means it’s expensive, not that you actually need to lose your limbs to purchase it. Many overused idioms and symbols are clichés, and clichés themselves can be used ironically (see irony below).
Irony

[Said to a mean boss]:You’ve been so kind to me.”

The SAT loves irony. A statement is ironic if it expresses something different from or opposite to the literal meaning of the words. This example is called verbal irony or sarcasm, which can be thought of as “heavy-handed irony”:

The overuse of antibiotics has led to the rise of resistant strains of many diseases.

A statement or situation can be ironic or paradoxical when the words accurately report events that seem to be contradictory but which have actually occurred, as in this example:

A soldier has returned from a war. He crashes his motorcycle and dies. His war experiences are told in flashback. Whenever he thinks about death, a motorcycle drives by.

A specific literary use of irony is called dramatic irony. In the example above, the audience knows that the soldier will die in a motorcycle crash. The soldier himself, of course, doesn’t know how he will die. (A flashback, by the way, is another literary device made popular by the movies. Flashbacks jump back in the story’s chronology to give background information. For example, the opening scene of the film Lord of the Rings: Return of the King shows Gollum before he found the ring.)
Foreshadowing

A soldier goes to war. He survives many brutal battles, just barely missing being killed several times. The soldier becomes obsessed with his “good luck”—why does he survive when so many others die? Every time the soldier has a brush with death, the author makes some subtle mention of a black motorcycle. Eventually, the soldier’s best friend is killed in a motorcycle crash the day after the war has ended. The soldier himself comes home and not too long afterward, he dies by crashing his motorcycle.

In this example, the audience and character are equally ignorant about the outcome of the story. However, by using foreshadowing, the author begins to clue in his audience. The character’s fate is slowly revealed to the audience but not necessarily to the character himself.
Note that the ending to this story is doubly ironic—was the soldier “meant” to die in a motorcycle crash or did he bring it about through his own guilt about surviving while others perished? The theme of free will versus predetermination underlies this little story.
Motif

The motorcycle in the last two examples.

A motif is a symbol that is carried through an entire work of fiction. The motorcycle symbolized death throughout both stories. In the Lord of the Rings, the One Ring is a motif for the corrupting nature of power.
Now that you have all these concepts under your belt, it’s time to learn the most efficient way to use your knowledge on testlike items and sets.
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