(this is a difficult
and in-depth section. If you have limited time to prepare, skip
to Section F: Don't read, skim).
The GRE essays are organized using a
variety of structures. If you identify the structures, you can
more easily identify the author's point. In this section, we
go through five forms of essay structure that you are likely
1. Chronological Pattern
the focus of a text is a change, a transformation, or a sequence
of actions unfolding over time, then chronological order is the
pattern of choice for that text. Consider the following sentence:
When the plague entered northern
France in July, 1348, it settled first in Normandy and, checked
by winter, gave Picardy a deceptive interim until the next summer.
The sentence emphasizes the interruption
in the spread of plague, a concept linked to chronology. The
plague entered Northern France in July, 1348, settled first in
Normandy, was checked by winter, and gave Picardy a deceptive
interim until the next summer.
2. Spatial Pattern
This pattern organizes information
by location, orientation or configuration.
Consider the following passage:
if the Romans couldn't, or didn't care to, conquer the Germans,
the latter equally could not then conquer the Romans. The standoff
deflected German expansion toward the east; by the third century
it had pushed as far as the Dnieper. Stretching now from the
North Sea to southern Russia and from Scandinavia to the Roman
frontier, Common Germanic inevitably evolved from a fairly uniform
tongue into three distinct, though still closely related, languages.
North Germanic (ancestor of the
Scandinavian tongues) covered most of Norway and Sweden; East
Germanic (which included Gothic and several other extinct dialects)
covered Eastern Europe and southern Russia. West Germanic, ancestor
of all the other modern Germanic tongues, including English,
was spoken from the coasts of the North Sea and western Baltic
south to the Roman frontier.
the prevalence of phrases that denote geographic expansion of
the Germans or their containment in territories held by the Romans.
Note also the predictability of this passage: it describes the
north-south and the east-west boundaries of the spread of the
German languages (the geographic whole) and then differentiates
three parts of the whole according to directions: the Far North,
the east, and the west. Here, the spatial pattern is in service:
the author states a relationship, in this case, a correspondence
between geographic and linguistic expansion.
3. Hierarchical Pattern
Passages organized by hierarchy,
a ranked series, create an order where no natural relationship
(such as chronological or spatial relationship) exists. For example,
if no natural chronological or spatial characteristic is a critical
aspect of the matter described, then the text may designate a
grouping according to a system of some sort.
Like chronological and spatial
order, a hierarchical pattern moves in a linear direction, and
for this reason, it creates a pattern of expectation for the
reader. Once you have identified the principle of order (for
example, lesser to greater, least familiar to most familiar,
colder to hotter), you can anticipate and assimilate later information
and understand the general framework. Consider the working out
of a hierarchy in support of a thesis in this passage:
Because of their extravagance,
violence, and vainglory, tournaments were continually being denounced
by popes and kings, from whom they drained money. This was in
vain. When the Dominicans denounced them as a pagan circus, no
one listened. When the formidable St. Bernard thundered that
anyone killed in a tournament would go to Hell, he spoke for
once to deaf ears. Death in a tournament was officially considered
the sin of suicide by the Church, besides jeopardizing family
and tenantry without cause, but even threats of excommunication
had no effect.
to the thesis, the denunciation of tournaments by popes and kings
The Dominicans denounced them, but no one listened; St. Bernard
thundered but spoke to deaf ears; the Church threatened excommunication,
to no effect. You perceive a hierarchical order in the increasing
degree of severity of these denunciations, and that regularity
gives pattern to the passage.
4. General-to-Specific Pattern
This pattern is especially useful
in argumentation. Argumentative writing makes a general argument,
develops it by a grouping of specific examples that give evidence
for the claim, and concludes by restating the general argument.
Here is the pattern:
- General Statement, followed by
- more evidence
Consider the following passage:
Throughout the seventeenth century,
the French medical profession had what we should call a thoroughly
bad press; Moliere [a satiric dramatist] conferred upon its members
an inglorious morality, the satirists did their worst with them,
and, in private correspondence, the physician was almost always
presented as a cross between a murderer and a buffoon.
passage starts with a general claim of the widespread negative
view of the medical profession in France in the 17th century.
The general claim rests on three factual pieces of evidence that
are stated after the initial claim: Moliere attacked the profession
in his farces; satirists savagely attacked it; persons in private
life attacked it.
5. Specific-to-General Pattern
specific-to-general pattern presents a series of related examples
whose relationship is unclear until the passage draws them to
a conclusion or general claim.
Here is the pattern:
- General statement
Consider this passage:
Frogs react quickly and effectively
to bugs that fly past them. This by no means implies that they
have a concept of bug. Indeed, we can be pretty sure that they
do not, or at best, that their concept of bug both under- and
over-generalizes to a rather gross extent. For instance, they
will overgeneralize by snapping at bug-sized pellets that are
flipped past them, but will undergeneralize by totally ignoring
motionless bugs even when no other food source is available.
The most parsimonious explanation of their behavior is that networks
of cells that respond to rapid movement and small rounded objects
are directly linked to the snapping reflex and that there is
nothing more sophisticated than this inside the frog's brain.
this passage, statements that describe behavior of frogs in certain
instances are the categories: frogs react quickly and effectively
to bugs, they snap at bug-size pellets, they totally ignore motionless
bugs. The general claim that accounts for all these specific
behaviors is phrased at the end of the paragraph.
• F. Don't
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