English Language History Essay Questions

As with any test, the AP English Language and Composition exam has certain quirks that you need to be prepared for before you walk in the door. In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to forget things that really are essential, so we’ve compiled a list of things for you to keep in mind when taking the AP English test. Read carefully, and feel free to ask any questions in the comments, or tell us what you think should be added to this list.

1. Graders are Looking for Precise Diction.

We’ve never liked the phrase “$10 words” – surely we’re not the only ones? If you feel pressured to include outlandish, ‘scholarly’ words in your essay, just relax. According to the AP English Language and Composition Rubric, to get a nine, an essay should demonstrate that a student is “particularly impressive in their control of language.” The key word here is control – what the graders want from you is precise diction. If that means you pull out a fifteen syllable word, fine, but if it doesn’t fit exactly where you put it, you’ll look silly.

2. Have a Strategy in Place for Roman Numeral Questions.

Roman numeral questions are very common on the AP Language exam. These questions will list three to four elements and ask you to decide which of them an author uses a certain way. The following example can be found in the AP Language and Composition Course Description, which is a great source for free practice material:

The speaker gives explicit symbolic significance to which of the following?

I. The “Jasmin’’ (line 4)

II. The “Myrtle’’ (line 4)

III. The “star’’ (line 7)

IV. The “Sea’’ (line 11)

(a) I and II only

(b) III and IV only

(c) I, II, and III only

(d) I, II, and IV only

(e) I, II, III, and IV”

When approaching these questions, first find a numeral you know should not be in the list. If you know that the Sea is not given symbolic significance, you can immediately eliminate (b), (d), and (e). From there, it is as simple as deciding whether or not the star is given symbolic significance. You never even have to think about the Jasmin or Myrtle, saving you time and simplifying the question.

3. You Will be Graded Heavily on your Thesis.

The most important part of any of your essays is your thesis. A weak thesis is an automatically lower score. Whatever method you chose, be sure to incorporate a main idea, supports, and a tie-in to a universal idea. Once you’ve done that, make sure your writing lives up to the claims you made in your thesis, and don’t forget a conclusion!

4. Use at Least Three Sources for the Synthesis Essay.

The AP English Language essay rubric specifies that at least three sources are required to earn a score of 5 or higher. Even fulfilling the other requirements exceptionally well cannot compensate for using too few sources, so practice using outside sources to develop your thesis. You can impress the graders by incorporating more than three sources- but only if you stay focused on your main goal . Consider carefully if your essay needs additional support to be effective.

5. Two Words: Rhetorical Strategies.

You know all of those pesky rhetorical devices your teacher is drilling into your head? If you’re ever stuck for what to study, pull up a list of those and make sure you know how to spot them, as well as how to use them.

Take for example the following question, pulled from the AP English Language and Composition Course Description:

“In the sentence beginning “There were times’’ (lines 58–63), the speaker employs all of the following except

(a) concrete diction

(b) parallel syntax

(c) simile

(d) understatement

(e) onomatopoeia”

This type of question is very common, and it forces you to go back to the passage listed and look for all five of those devices. If you can do this quickly and correctly, you will improve your score. Understanding the effects of rhetorical devices also helps you to elevate your own writing by using them in your essays.

6. You Will be Expected to Have Outside Sources.

In your AP English Language and Composition review, take a moment to think about what you know well enough to apply to different situations. You will need the mental list you create when tackling the argumentative essay.

If you have a book by a canon author that you know that well, you’re in luck. If not, think about what else you’re knowledgeable about. Can you list every Supreme Court Case in the last century? Do you have every song by the Beatles memorized? Have you aced every AP Bio test this semester? Create a small list of what you know best, think about the different ways you could analyze each item, and chances are you’ll be able to some of it on the test.

7. You Will be Tested on Footnotes and Citations.

When reading through your multiple choice passages, mark any footnote and citation. Before you continue, think about what purpose it serves. The AP Language exam never fails to include questions about footnotes and citations that many students struggle with because they were not expecting them. If you notice them as you read, however, you will be more prepared to answer these questions.

8. Go Beyond the Obvious in your Analysis.

One of the things graders look for in a high-scoring analysis essay is well-developed, meaningful analysis. Take, for example, the student responses 2A and 2C released for the AP English Language and Composition 2014 analysis essay.

The prompt, which can be found here, asked students to analyze what methods Abigail Adams used in a letter to her son, John Quincy Adams, in order to advise him. The student who wrote 2A was given a score of 8, while 2C was given a 3.

For our purposes, we will be looking at how each student analyzed the guilt that Adams employed to manipulate her son. Both samples touch on this subject, but the complexity of 2A does so more fully than 2C.

One way you can incorporate the complexity of 2A into your essays is to use multiple textual examples for each point you make. This student listed off metaphors, allusions, backhanded compliments, and a motherly tone as ways Adams inspired guilt. Another way you can do this is to explain the author’s exact intended effect. The first student clearly stated that John was intended to feel guilty, “for not capitalizing on his beliefs,” while the second states that he was intended to think “he has to do something.” The vague nature of this statement weakened 2C’s argument, while the specificity of 2A strengthened its argument.

9. When in Doubt, Fill it Out!

You are going to have one hour to complete 52-55 questions. Unlike the SAT, the AP English Language and Composition exam will not dock you for missed questions. The best thing you can do if you don’t understand a question is eliminate the answers you know are wrong, and guess from there.

There will be 4 to 5 reading passages on the test that all of your questions will be based on. If you are having trouble getting through a passage, skip it and come back if you have time. For AP English, it’s important to focus most of your time on the passages that you best understand, maximizing the questions you get right.


The best way to review for the AP English Language and Composition test is to familiarize yourself with the format and study up on the details you know they will ask for. If you keep these nine points in mind as you prepare and as you take the test, you’re in a good place to pass with flying colors. Again, if you have any questions or anything to add, feel free to tell us in the comments!

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Sample Essay Questions

Check your understanding of the major aspects of the history of English by answering the questions below.

  1. Why do historians of English tend to divide the stages of the language's development into Old, Middle and Early Modern English? What distinguishes these different forms of the language from each other?
  2. How did Old English differ from Modern English? Can you explain this with reference to both grammar and vocabulary?
  3. What factors caused Old English to develop into Middle English and in what ways did the language change?
  4. What effect has religion had on the development of English over time?
  5. Choose ten place names local to where you come from and, using an etymological dictionary, find out what these names mean and how they have developed over time. What do the place names you have chosen tell you about the settlement of these areas over time?
  6. How and why did a standard form of English develop? When did this occur and what changes did the language undergo during the process of standardisation?
  7. What were the initial causes of the global spread of English and how did these affect the linguistic development of the language?
  8. What were the major external causes of the development of American English?
  9. In what ways did the English language develop during the twentieth century? Try to consider linguistic development at more than one linguistic level.
  10. Based on what you know about the development of English from its earliest inception, can you speculate on how the English language might develop in the future? What kinds of changes might we expect to see and what factors affect the extent to which you can make such predictions?

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