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Pivotal Words

As mentioned before, each passage contains 400 to 600 words and only six to eight questions, so you will not be tested on most of the material in the passage. Your best reading strategy, therefore, is to identify the places from which questions will most likely be drawn and concentrate your attention there.

Pivotal words can help in this regard. Following are the most common pivotal words.

Pivotal Words
But Although
However Yet
Despite Nevertheless
Nonetheless Except
In contrast Even though

As you may have noticed, these words indicate contrast. Many are also the counter-premise indicators from the argument section. Pivotal words warn that the author is about to either make a U-turn or introduce a counter-premise (concession to a minor counterpoint). However, because passages are much longer than arguments, the author has the space to elaborate on the concession. So with passages, counter-premises tend to be a paragraph, or more, long.

In fact, because the author has more space to elaborate on his ideas, pivotal words are more
likely to introduce a new direction than a concession.

The following are two typical outlines for reading passages:
Premise Premise
Conclusion Premise
Premise Pivotal Word
Counter-premise Continuation of Pivotal Word
Restatement of Conclusion Conclusion

Pivotal words mark natural places for questions to be drawn. At a pivotal word, the author changes direction. The LSAT writers form questions at these junctures to test whether you turned with the author or you continued to go straight. Rarely do the LSAT writers let a pivotal word pass without drawing a question from its sentence.

As you read a passage, circle the pivotal words and refer to them when answering the questions.

Let’s apply this theory to the passage on criminal justice. For easy reference, the passage is reprinted here in the left-hand column, with explanations in the right-hand column. The pivotal words are marked in bold.
There are two major systems of criminal procedure in the modern world—the adversarial and the inquisitorial. The former is associated with common law tradition and the latter with civil law tradition. Both systems were historically preceded by the system of private vengeance in which the victim of a crime fashioned his own remedy and administered it privately, either personally or through an agent. The vengeance system was a system of self-help, the essence of which was captured in the slogan “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” The modern adversarial system is only one historical step removed from the private vengeance system and still retains some of its characteristic features. Thus, for example, even though the right to institute criminal action has now been extended to all members of society and even though the police department has taken over the pretrial investigative functions on behalf of the pros­ecution, the adversarial system still leaves the defendant to conduct his own pretrial investigation. The trial is still viewed as a duel between two adversaries, refereed by a judge who, at the beginning of the trial has no knowl­edge of the investigative background of the case. In the final analysis the adversarial system of criminal proce­dure symbolizes and regularizes the punitive combat.
By contrast, the inquisitorial system begins his­tori­cally where the adversarial system stopped its develop­ment. It is two historical steps removed from the system of private vengeance. Therefore, from the standpoint of legal anthropology, it is historically superior to the adversarial system. Under the inquisitorial system the public investigator has the duty to investigate not just on behalf of the prosecutor but also on behalf of the defendant. Additionally, the public prosecutor has the duty to present to the court not only evidence that may lead to the conviction of the defendant but also evidence that may lead to his exoneration. This system mandates that both parties permit full pretrial discovery of the evidence in their possession. Finally, in an effort to make the trial less like a duel between two adversaries, the inquisitorial system mandates that the judge take an active part in the conduct of the trial, with a role that is both directive and protective.
Fact-finding is at the heart of the inquisitorial system. This system operates on the philosophical premise that in a criminal case the crucial factor is not the legal rule but the facts of the case and that the goal of the entire procedure is to experimentally recreate for the court the commission of the alleged crime. 


Even though—Here “even though” is introducing a concession. In the previous sentence, the author stated that the adversarial system is only one step removed from the private vengeance system. The author uses the two concessions as a hedge against potential criticism that he did not consider that the adversarial system has extended the right to institute criminal action to all members of society and that police departments now perform the pretrial investigation. But the author then states that the adversarial system still leaves the defendant to conduct his own pretrial investigation. This marks a good place from which to draw a question. Many people will misinterpret the two concessions as evidence that the adversarial system is two steps removed from the private vengeance system.
By contrast—In this case the pivotal word is not introducing a concession. Instead it indicates a change in thought: now the author is going to discuss the other criminal justice system. This is a natural place to test whether the student has made the transition and whether he will attribute the properties soon to be introduced to the inquisitorial system, not the adversarial system.
But also—In both places, “but also” indicates neither concession nor change in thought. Instead it is part of the coordinating conjunction “not only . . . but also . . . .” Rather than indicating contrast, it emphasizes the second element of the pair.
Let’s see how these pivotal words can help answer the questions in the last section. The first is from the Description Section:

According to the passage, the inquisitorial system differs from the adversarial system in that

  1. it does not make the defendant solely responsible for gathering evidence for his case
  2. it does not require the police department to work on behalf of the prosecution
  3. it does not allow the victim the satisfaction of private vengeance
  4. it requires the prosecution to drop a weak case
  5. a defendant who is innocent would prefer to be tried under the inquisitorial system

The pivotal phrase “by contrast” flags the second paragraph as the place to begin looking. The pivotal phrase “but also” introduces the answer—namely that the prosecutor must also investigate “on behalf of the defendant.”


The answer is (A).


The next question is from the Writing Techniques Section:

Which one of the following best describes the organization of the passage?

  1. Two systems of criminal justice are compared and contrasted, and one is deemed to be better than the other.
  2. One system of criminal justice is presented as better than another. Then evidence is presented to support that claim.
  3. Two systems of criminal justice are analyzed, and one specific example is examined in detail.
  4. A set of examples is presented. Then a conclusion is drawn from them.
  5. The inner workings of the criminal justice system are illustrated by using two systems.

The pivotal phrase “by contrast” gives this question away. The author is comparing and contrasting two criminal justice systems, which the opening pivotal word introduces.


Hence the answer is (A).


For our final example, consider the question from the Extension Section:

The author views the prosecution’s role in the inquisitorial system as being

  1. an advocate for both society and the defendant
  2. solely responsible for starting a trial
  3. a protector of the legal rule
  4. an investigator only
  5. an aggressive but fair investigator

The information needed to answer this question is introduced by the pivotal phrase, “but also.” There it is stated that the prosecutor must present evidence that may exonerate the defendant; that is, he must act fairly.


The answer is (E).

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