Common Core: 12th Grade English Language Arts : Vary syntax for effect; apply understanding of syntax to texts: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.11-12.3.A

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for Common Core: 12th Grade English Language Arts

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All Common Core: 12th Grade English Language Arts Resources

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Example Questions

Example Question #2 : Language

Adapted from Walt Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" in Leaves of Grass (1855)


Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!
Clouds of the west—sun there half an hour high—I see you also face to face.

Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose,
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.


The impalpable sustenance of me from all things at all hours of the day,
The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme, myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme,
The similitudes of the past and those of the future,
The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings, on the walk in the street and the passage over the river,
The current rushing so swiftly and swimming with me far away,
The others that are to follow me, the ties between me and them,
The certainty of others, the life, love, sight, hearing of others. 

Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide. 


It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried,
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemm’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.

I too many and many a time cross’d the river of old,
Watched the Twelfth-month sea-gulls, saw them high in the air floating with motionless wings, oscillating their bodies,
Saw how the glistening yellow lit up parts of their bodies and left the rest in strong shadow,
Saw the slow-wheeling circles and the gradual edging toward the south,
Saw the reflection of the summer sky in the water,
Had my eyes dazzled by the shimmering track of beams . . .

What syntactical structure is most notable the bolded and underlined stanza of the poem?

Possible Answers:

Compound-complex sentence structure


Simple sentences

Subject-predicate sentences

Correct answer:



Before moving onto the text, let's take a close look at the language of the question. You are not simply being asked to identify the kind of syntactical structure used in the specified section of the text, but "what syntactical structure is most notable." This is a major clue!

This question also provides us with the useful lesson that even poetry is written in sentences, and includes syntactical features. Just because there are line-breaks doesn't mean there aren't also sentences! You must be ready to answer questions interrogating the sentence structure used in poetry and drama, as well as prose.

Simple sentences (also known as subject-verb-object sentences) are rarely notable, and when they are will be notable only in contrast to a generally more florid style. And in any case, the sentence in question is extremely complex, and even features a semi colon. Similarly subject-predicate sentences are extremely common, and rarely notable, although this section of text does, technically, fit this structure, it is far too long and complex for this to be the most notable feature. 

Now, we get to the difficult distinction, the sentence does, in fact, both include parallelism and a compound-complex structure (don't forget that semicolon!), so you must decide which is more notable in the highlighted passage. The compound-complex structure is common throughout the poem, and indeed typical of the era in which the poem was written; just count the commas in this poem and you will see that the author favors this kind of structure. Beginning four consecutive lines with the same subject and verb, and thus creating a parallel structure is a more notable feature of this passage, both because it is less common both in this particular poem and in writing in general. The repetition of "others will" in a parallel structure is both obvious and obviously important. A question like this, which asks you to choose between two possibly correct answers, will almost always tend toward the option that is more distinct and unique, and more easily recognizable.

Example Question #3 : Language

Adapted from “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” (1900) by William James

Some years ago, while journeying in the mountains of North Carolina, I passed by a large number of 'coves,' as they call them there, or heads of small valleys between the hills, which had been newly cleared and planted. The impression on my mind was one of unmitigated squalor. The settler had in every case cut down the more manageable trees, and left their charred stumps standing. The larger trees he had girdled and killed, in order that their foliage should not cast a shade. He had then built a log cabin, plastering its chinks with clay, and had set up a tall zigzag rail fence around the scene of his havoc, to keep the pigs and cattle out. Finally, he had irregularly planted the intervals between the stumps and trees with Indian corn, which grew among the chips; and there he dwelt with his wife and babes--an axe, a gun, a few utensils, and some pigs and chickens feeding in the woods, being the sum total of his possessions.

The forest had been destroyed; and what had 'improved' it out of existence was hideous, a sort of ulcer, without a single element of artificial grace to make up for the loss of Nature's beauty. Ugly, indeed, seemed the life of the squatter, scudding, as the sailors say, under bare poles, beginning again away back where our first ancestors started, and by hardly a single item the better off for all the achievements of the intervening generations.

“Talk about going back to nature!” I said to myself, oppressed by the dreariness, as I drove by. Talk of a country life for one's old age and for one's children! Never thus, with nothing but the bare ground and one's bare hands to fight the battle! Never, without the best spoils of culture woven in! The beauties and commodities gained by the centuries are sacred. They are our heritage and birthright. No modern person ought to be willing to live a day in such a state of rudimentariness and denudation.

Then I said to the mountaineer who was driving me, "What sort of people are they who have to make these new clearings?" "All of us," he replied. "Why, we ain't happy here, unless we are getting one of these coves under cultivation." I instantly felt that I had been losing the whole inward significance of the situation. Because to me the clearings spoke of naught but denudation, I thought that to those whose sturdy arms and obedient axes had made them they could tell no other story. But, when they looked on the hideous stumps, what they thought of was personal victory. The chips, the girdled trees, and the vile split rails spoke of honest sweat, persistent toil and final reward. The cabin was a warrant of safety for self and wife and babes. In short, the clearing, which to me was a mere ugly picture on the retina, was to them a symbol redolent with moral memories and sang a very pæan of duty, struggle, and success.

I had been as blind to the peculiar ideality of their conditions as they certainly would also have been to the ideality of mine, had they had a peep at my strange indoor academic ways of life at Cambridge.

In what way do the two highlighted sentences diverge in style from the rest of the text?

Possible Answers:

They are long, syntactically complex sentences, while most of the passage is written in a clipped, minimalist style

They feature evocative imagery while the rest of the text tends towards abstraction and a formal style

None of these; these sentences are not a notable departure from the passages clipped, minimalist style

They are simple sentences making direct statements, while most of the passage is written in a complex style, featuring multi-clause sentences with complex syntax

Correct answer:

They are simple sentences making direct statements, while most of the passage is written in a complex style, featuring multi-clause sentences with complex syntax


This question asks you to make a general appraisal of the prose style of the passage and apply that judgment to an isolated exception or break from that style.

So, let's first establish the general style of the text, and then we'll work from there. Right away, in the first sentence, we see a long, meandering sentence with 5 commas. The final sentence has 6 commas and a semicolon, indicating an extremely syntactically complex sentence with many, many clauses. This style persists throughout most of the passage. The speaker begins stances with a statements, then clarifies or justifies those statements in numerous independent or dependent clauses tied to the same sentence. This indicates a generally elevated academic style, or at least one that is geared toward syntactic complexity. Note, also the absence of slang (outside of the direct speech of the resident), which is a good indicator of a more formal style. The author is, in general, trying to convey complex descriptions and thoughts, in trying to match his style with the psychologically complex and multi-faceted content he is addressing (namely the depth of difference possible for people from different backgrounds looking at the exact same thing). The thesis is that humans see through their own experiences, and are blinded to the outside perspective of those who are not familiar with the emotional content with which they imbue their surrounding, just as the visitor are blind to the labor and emotional content that went into what they are just now seeing. So, a complex syntactical approach is used to match this nuanced and not immediately obvious content. 

From this general analysis of the prose style we can immediately eliminate the two options that characterize the style of most of the passage as "clipped and minimalist." So, this leaves us with two options. Either the evocative imagery of these two sentences is in contrast to this formal style or the simple sentences contrast with the general textual complexity. Not only does the later sound correct (based on our earlier assessment of the style), but these "sacred" "beauties" and "heritage and birthright" are all abstractions. There is nary a sensory image to be found in these two sentences, so we can safely eliminate this option, leaving us with only the correct answer.

Example Question #3 : Language

Passage adapted from Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Spring" (1921).

To what purpose, April, do you return again?

Beauty is not enough.

You can no longer quiet me with the redness 

Of leaves opening stickily.

I know what I know.  5

The sun is hot on my neck as I observe

The spikes of the crocus.

The smell of the earth is good.

It is apparent that there is no death.

But what does that signify?  10

Not only under the ground are the brains of men

Eaten by maggots.

Life in itself

Is nothing,

An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.  15

It is not enough that yearly, down this hill, 


Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

The syntax of the poem creates a(n) _______________ tone.

Possible Answers:

pastoral and sentimental

quizzical and reflective

ironic and sarcastic

clipped and harsh

Correct answer:

clipped and harsh


This question interrogates your ability to accurately assess the syntax of a passage and to make a determination of the stylistic effect of the author's syntactical choices.

The first vital step to take here is to read the poem and make your own independent analysis of the general syntactical style of the poem. Remember, poems, although they have line breaks, also have syntactical structure; they are punctuated and follow grammatical rules, just look at all the question marks and periods! Actually, let's look at those periods; there seem to be a lot of them, pretty close together. Note how many lines of the poem are self contained sentences of less than seven words. The syntax of this poem is notably simple, resorting to short, some would say, "clipped" sentences.

Next, let's check the answers, to make sure they line up with the one that is actually created by the poem overall. It is hardly "ironic," as the author makes a number of flat, direct statements that give no indication of not being meant sincerely. The poem is actively anti-pastoral (which is more of a genre than a tone anyway), so we can eliminate this answer as well.

Now, the question boils down to distinguishing not only what the tone is, but what tone is specifically created by the syntax. There are indeed numerous question marks, so for just a second you might conclude that the syntax is leading us to a "quizzical" tone, but ultimately both questions asked in the poem are rhetorical, rather than genuinely questing for knowledge. So, we can safely say that the short, simple, blunt sentences create a "clipped and harsh" tone.

All Common Core: 12th Grade English Language Arts Resources

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