AP Language & Composition

Patterns: Description Notes

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Here's a copy of our class notes 


 AP Rhetorical Modes


#1: The Descriptive Mode


The Method: it evokes the senses to create a verbal picture

The Purpose:

Overall: to give a “dominant impression” (this is like the thesis)


It was a narrow room, with a rather high ceiling and crowded from floor to ceiling with goodies. There were rows and rows of hams and sausages of all shapes and colors─white, yellow, red and black; fat and lean and round and long─rows of canned preserves, cocoa and tea, bright translucent glass bottles of honey, marmalade, and jam; round bottles and slender bottles, filled with liqueurs and punch all these things crowded every inch of the shelves from top to bottom.

-        Thomas Mann




Objective description (impartial, public, and functional): you describe your subject so clearly and exactly that your reader will understand it or recognize it; you leave your emotions out.

i.e. technical or scientific description

more likely to use denotation, precise/ factual lang.



Subjective description (emotional, personal, impressionistic): conveys your likes and dislikes, biases and personal feelings

i.e. a magazine advertisement

more likely to use connotation


--There is usually a balance between objective and subjective.

--You may favor objective when your purpose is explanation and subjective when your purpose is self-expression or entertainment.

--Purpose and audience will determine objective or subjective.

--Description is usually found in writings exhibiting other methods/ modes.  It will:

o  Enliven a NARRATION

o  Empower an ARGUMENT




Example:  A news report on a tropical storm might objectively describe bent and broken trees, fallen wires, and lashing rains, but your selection of details would give a subjective impression of the storm’s fearsomeness.


Whether subjective or objective, or a mixture, effective description requires a dominant impression – a central theme or idea about the subject to which readers can relate all the details.


Dominant impression – could be something you see in the subject, i.e. apparent purposefulness of city pedestrians or expressiveness of an actor.


Or…it may derive from your emotional response to the subject – perhaps pleasure at the purposefulness or disdain for the actor’s technique.


Dominant impression = unifying principle that guides your selection of details and the reader’s understanding of the subject.


Point of View:  in order to create the dominant impression, the writer must maintain a consistent position from which to approach the subject.


Physical Point of View – real or imagined relation to the subject


o  Fixed: View a mountain from the bottom looking up, or from fifteen miles away

o  Moving: From an airplane passing overhead


Psychological Point of View – partly conveyed by pronouns.

I and you narrow the distance between you and the subject and you and the reader.


One is the most subjective and impersonal description –


EX:  “One can see the summit

OR avoid self-reference altogether to appear distant and unbiased


What details does Mary McCarthy use to evoke the dominant impression in the passage from Memories of a Catholic Girlhood?


       Whenever we children came to stay at my grandmother’s house, we were put to sleep in the sewing room, a bleak, shabby, utilitarian rectangle, more office than bedroom, more attic than office, that played to hierarchy of chambers the role of poor relation. It was a room without pride: the old dewing machine, some cast-off chairs, a shade less lamp, rolls of wrapping paper, piles of cardboard boxes that might someday come in handy, papers of pins, and remnants of a material united with the iron folding cots put out for our use and the bare floor boards to give an impression of intense and ruthless temporality. Thin white spreads, of the kind used in hospitals and charity institutions, and naked blinds at the windows reminded us of our orphaned condition and of the ephemeral character of our visit; there was nothing here to encourage us to consider this our home.


Order of Descriptive Details:


--Writers must plan the order

Patterns of organization must fit logically and naturally, and must be easy to follow


Example: visual details can be arranged spatially─

o  from left to right 

o  top to bottom,

o  near to far,

o  or other logical order


 Other patterns:

o  smallest to largest,

o  softest to loudest,

o  least to most important,

o  most to least unusual. 


How does McCarthy order her details?


What does her choice of details suggest about the order?


How do you write description?


Look at your subject (if possible) or imagine it.

Select words and images that help your readers see, hear, taste, smell and touch

o  And select carefully

Audience: Consider how much you need to tell writers and how much you need to show.

o  If you choose a familiar object, then give it new images and insights to create a “fresh” vision.


How do you organize description?

Consider point of view: are you an observer or participant?

You might move spatially or from prominent objects to less significant ones, etc. (hint: transitional words aid movement).

Consider your purpose and the impression you wish to give readers, and then arrange details accordingly.

Consider details: images, figures of speech

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