Day 7 – Argumentation: Modality

Yesterday was a lengthy post. I know most students start to sweat a little when it comes to parsing out arguments on the CARS section, but don’t worry. You’ll get better at it over time. It’s just like any skill, it’s going to be difficult at the beginning. You can download a summary PDF of today and yesterday’s posts here. I recommend you review it once a day for the next week or so, until you feel like you understand what’s going on.


Today’s topic is one of the most important skills you can develop for the MCAT CARS section. It applies to passages, questions, and answer choices alike. If you master this, you’re going to give yourself a major advantage on test day. If I could give you one magical skill (besides flying), I’d give you this one. I’m talking about identifying the modality of an argument. What is modality? Modality is a blanket term for the modal qualifiers that show what kind and degree of reliance is to be placed on the conclusions, given the arguments available to support them.* Or said in less snobby terms:

Modality is a measure of the strength of the claim of the argument.

Every argument has a certain modality, which is to say that every argument can be evaluated on a scale in terms of strength or weakness, conditions, and/or limitations. In being able to evaluate the modality of a particular argument, you enter the pantheon of MCAT CARS Gods. Check these examples out:

A, so in all probability B.
A, so plausibly B.
A, so very likely B.
A, so certainly B.

Without the extra words, it’s easy to see the modality of the argument. In the first example, the strength of the argument is middle of the road or leaning slightly to the affirmative. With the second example, the claim is somewhat less certain. With the third, a strong claim is very much being made. And with the final example, we have a very strong claim being made, indeed. Let’s throw some words in there.

Michael never brushes his teeth.
Carl sometimes jumps rope when nervous.
Cindy always refuses to kiss anyone named Ted.

The modal qualifiers in the second set of examples are “never,” “sometimes,” and “always.” They communicate to you the strength of the claim being made and also communicate to you the strength of support necessary to make the argument a good one. Imagine if someone told you that Michael never brushes his teeth, but then you walk pass him in the dorm and there he is with his electric toothbrush buzzing away. Because of the modal qualification, the argument fails, because it was too strong of a claim. If someone said, Michael almost never brushes his teeth, now we’re in a very different situation.

Modality on the MCAT:

Modality pops up all over the MCAT. You’re going to see it in the passages, questions, and answer choices. If you are able to recognize the strength of claims in terms of degrees as modal qualifiers do, you’ll be able to see right through wordy passages and know if a passage is making a strong claim, a weak one, or one somewhere in between. Sometimes the CARS will ask you to evaluate the strength of a claim made by the author. Modal qualifiers allow you to get in and out as quickly as possible.

The most important use of modality on the MCAT will show up in the answer choices. This is the easiest way for the MCAT to make a wrong answer choice look correct. They’ll take a reasonable answer to the question, but then jack it up on modal steroids and make it too extreme (or starve it for two weeks and make it too weak). Then they’ll throw it into a question. You’ll read it and think, well that isn’t quite right, but it sure sounds like something the author was saying in the passage. Hey, it even uses some of the same language…and you pick (C). Unfortunately, (C) has the little sleeper cell “always” and the author doesn’t make the claim that XYZ is always this way or that. BOOM. Answer choice = wrong. Be wary of extreme modality on the MCAT. It is rare that the MCAT will have an extreme passage, thus extreme answer choices are rarely correct.Since most authors on the MCAT make measured and reasonable arguments, it’s likely that the correct answer choices will be too.

Breaking Modality Down:
All modal qualifiers fall along a scale. If you can try to picture something like this in your head, it will allow you to place the modality of whatever argument you’re evaluating on a scale.

I’ve included a table below with some common modal qualifiers. You don’t need to memorize them, and we’re going to talk more about how to use keywords in practicing for the CARS later.But for now, just become familiar with these and try to keep an eye out when you’re reading passages and answering questions.

Let’s take a look at a few questions to see how modality looks in the wild.

1. Based on information provided in the passage, what does the author most likely believe about psychologists?

A) They are all corrupt.
B) They are frequently able to help their patients
C) They occasionally fall asleep during therapy sessions.
D) Every psychologist is different. No two are alike.

2. The passage’s description of existentialism implies which of the following concerning the human condition?

A) Most humans live life in bad faith.
B) All but a lucky few humans go through life unaware of the absurdity of living in the modern world.
C) All but the stupid realize that existence comes before essence.
D) Few people utilize philosophy, and even fewer people realize its ultimate value.

Now, these questions were pretty straight forward, and the MCAT will often disguise the modality of an argument or answer choice more subtly, but nonetheless, you are probably beginning to see what I’m getting at when I reference modality. Take question one, if the author argues that the majority of psychologists are charlatans, answer choice (A) may trick quite a few people. Notice that a majority of psychologists is very different than 100% of psychologists. Take a look at question two. What if the author’s argument is that most people practice philosophy in their everyday lives without every knowing it. Now the second part of answer choice (D) would be in line with the author’s argument, but the first part would not, because the modality is off. The author believes most people use philosophy whereas answer choice (D) says only a few do.

If you practice keeping an eye out for modal qualifiers, before you know it, you’ll develop an intuition about the strength of a claim, support, or assumption of the author and will intuitively know if an answer choice doesn’t match up. It will come with hard work if you practice.

Ok, that’s it for today. I’ll see you back here tomorrow. Keep it up. Do your daily passage. In tomorrow’s post, we jump up to two-a-days. Thanks for stopping by, and don’t forget that you can leave a question on this guide’s dedicated forum thread on SDN Testing Solutions’ 30 Day Guide to MCAT CARS Success. Want these last two posts in an easier format? You can download a summary PDF of everything we discussed about arguments here!

Today’s Assignment: Do One CARS Passage Under Timed Conditions

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