ACT Reading : Determining Context-Dependent Meanings of Words in Prose Fiction Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for ACT Reading

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Example Questions

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Example Question #1 : Determining Context Dependent Meanings Of Words In Prose Fiction Passages

This is an excerpt from Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street by Herman Melville (1853)

I am a rather elderly man. The nature of my avocations for the last thirty years has brought me into more than ordinary contact with what would seem an interesting and somewhat singular set of men, of whom as yet nothing that I know of has ever been written—I mean the law-copyists or scriveners. I have known very many of them, professionally and privately, and if I pleased, could relate divers histories, at which good-natured gentlemen might smile, and sentimental souls might weep. But I waive the biographies of all other scriveners for a few passages in the life of Bartleby, who was a scrivener of the strangest I ever saw or heard of. While of other law-copyists I might write the complete life, of Bartleby nothing of that sort can be done. I believe that no materials exist for a full and satisfactory biography of this man. It is an irreparable loss to literature. Bartleby was one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable, except from the original sources, and in his case those are very small. What my own astonished eyes saw of Bartleby, that is all I know of him, except, indeed, one vague report which will appear in the sequel.

Ere introducing the scrivener, as he first appeared to me, it is fit I make some mention of myself, my employees, my business, my chambers, and general surroundings; because some such description is indispensable to an adequate understanding of the chief character about to be presented. 

Imprimis: I am a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best. Hence, though I belong to a profession proverbially energetic and nervous, even to turbulence, at times, yet nothing of that sort have I ever suffered to invade my peace. I am one of those unambitious lawyers who never addresses a jury, or in any way draws down public applause; but in the cool tranquility of a snug retreat, do a snug business among rich men's bonds and mortgages and title-deeds. All who know me, consider me an eminently safe man. The late John Jacob Astor, a personage little given to poetic enthusiasm, had no hesitation in pronouncing my first grand point to be prudence; my next, method. I do not speak it in vanity, but simply record the fact, that I was not unemployed in my profession by the late John Jacob Astor; a name which, I admit, I love to repeat, for it hath a rounded and orbicular sound to it, and rings like unto bullion. I will freely add, that I was not insensible to the late John Jacob Astor's good opinion.

Given the invocation of John Jacob Astor in the third paragraph, it can be inferred that the narrator is __________.

Possible Answers:

humble

pompous

wealthy

kindly

Correct answer:

pompous

Explanation:

The narrator asserts that he enjoys his relationship with Mr. Astor. When he states that it is “a name which, I admit, I love to repeat,” he implies that he enjoys the affiliation with Astor for his title and wealth.

Example Question #135 : Determining Context Dependent Word Meanings In Literature Passages

From "The Cask of Amontillado" by Edgar Allan Poe (1846):

The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitively settled — but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.

It must be understood that neither by word nor deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. I continued, as was my wont, to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his immolation.

He had a weak point — this Fortunato — although in other regards he was a man to be respected and even feared. He prided himself upon his connoisseurship in wine. Few Italians have the true virtuoso spirit. For the most part their enthusiasm is adopted to suit the time and opportunity, to practice imposture upon the British and Austrian millionaires. In painting and gemmary, Fortunato, like his countrymen, was a quack, but in the matter of old wines he was sincere. In this respect I did not differ from him materially; — I was skilful in the Italian vintages myself, and bought largely whenever I could.

It was about dusk, one evening during the supreme madness of the carnival season, that I encountered my friend. He accosted me with excessive warmth, for he had been drinking much. The man wore motley. He had on a tight-fitting parti-striped dress, and his head was surmounted by the conical cap and bells. I was so pleased to see him that I thought I should never have done wringing his hand.

I said to him — “My dear Fortunato, you are luckily met. How remarkably well you are looking to-day. But I have received a pipe of what passes for Amontillado, and I have my doubts.”

“How?” said he. “Amontillado? A pipe? Impossible! And in the middle of the carnival!”

“I have my doubts,” I replied; “and I was silly enough to pay the full Amontillado price without consulting you in the matter. You were not to be found, and I was fearful of losing a bargain.”

“Amontillado!”

“I have my doubts.”

“Amontillado!” 

“And I must satisfy them.”

“Amontillado!”

“As you are engaged, I am on my way to Luchresi. If any one has a critical turn it is he. He will tell me ——”

“Luchresi cannot tell Amontillado from Sherry.”

“And yet some fools will have it that his taste is a match for your own.”

“Come, let us go.”

“Whither?”

“To your vaults.”

In the line "I continued, as was my wont, to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his immolation," the word immolation is closest in meaning to what?

Possible Answers:

punishment

None of the other answers is correct.

chastisement

sacrifice

burning oneself

Correct answer:

sacrifice

Explanation:

Immolation is a word meaning "sacrifice", especially by fire.  Burning oneself in an act of protest is considered self-immolation and thus would be incorrect in this context.  "Punishment" is too broad a meaning for this word, and if Montresor were to chastise Fortunato, he'd simply be talking to him rather than planning something worse.

Example Question #2 : Determining Context Dependent Meanings Of Words In Prose Fiction Passages

This is an excerpt from Wieland: or, the Transformation, an American Tale by Charles Brockden Brown (1798) 

My state is not destitute of tranquillity. The sentiment that dictates my feelings is not hope. Futurity has no power over my thoughts. To all that is to come I am perfectly indifferent. With regard to myself, I have nothing more to fear. Fate has done its worst. Henceforth, I am callous to misfortune. I address no supplication to the Deity. The power that governs the course of human affairs has chosen his path. The decree that ascertained the condition of my life, admits of no recall. No doubt it squares with the maxims of eternal equity. That is neither to be questioned nor denied by me. It suffices that the past is exempt from mutation. The storm that tore up our happiness, and changed into dreariness and desert the blooming scene of our existence, is lulled into grim repose; but not until the victim was transfixed and mangled; till every obstacle was dissipated by its rage; till every remnant of good was wrested from our grasp and exterminated.

How will your wonder, and that of your companions, be excited by my story! Every sentiment will yield to your amazement. If my testimony were without corroborations, you would reject it as incredible. The experience of no human being can furnish a parallel: That I, beyond the rest of mankind, should be reserved for a destiny without alleviation, and without example! Listen to my narrative, and then say what it is that has made me deserve to be placed on this dreadful eminence, if, indeed, every faculty be not suspended in wonder that I am still alive, and am able to relate it. My father's ancestry was noble on the paternal side; but his mother was the daughter of a merchant. My grandfather was a younger brother, and a native of Saxony. He was placed, when he had reached the suitable age, at a German college. During the vacations, he employed himself in traversing the neighbouring territory. On one occasion it was his fortune to visit Hamburg. He formed an acquaintance with Leonard Weise, a merchant of that city, and was a frequent guest at his house. The merchant had an only daughter, for whom his guest speedily contracted an affection; and, in spite of parental menaces and prohibitions, he, in due season, became her husband.

“Dictates,” in in the second sentence, most closely means which of the following?

Possible Answers:

Helps

Governs

Unnerves 

Teaches

None of the other answers

Correct answer:

Governs

Explanation:

The term dictate is used with regard to instruction, but in this phrase it indicates that hope is not governing the speaker; rather, the sentiment that governs him is something else.

Example Question #3 : Determining Context Dependent Meanings Of Words In Prose Fiction Passages

This is an excerpt from Wieland: or, the Transformation, an American Tale by Charles Brockden Brown (1798) 

My state is not destitute of tranquillity. The sentiment that dictates my feelings is not hope. Futurity has no power over my thoughts. To all that is to come I am perfectly indifferent. With regard to myself, I have nothing more to fear. Fate has done its worst. Henceforth, I am callous to misfortune. I address no supplication to the Deity. The power that governs the course of human affairs has chosen his path. The decree that ascertained the condition of my life, admits of no recall. No doubt it squares with the maxims of eternal equity. That is neither to be questioned nor denied by me. It suffices that the past is exempt from mutation. The storm that tore up our happiness, and changed into dreariness and desert the blooming scene of our existence, is lulled into grim repose; but not until the victim was transfixed and mangled; till every obstacle was dissipated by its rage; till every remnant of good was wrested from our grasp and exterminated.

How will your wonder, and that of your companions, be excited by my story! Every sentiment will yield to your amazement. If my testimony were without corroborations, you would reject it as incredible. The experience of no human being can furnish a parallel: That I, beyond the rest of mankind, should be reserved for a destiny without alleviation, and without example! Listen to my narrative, and then say what it is that has made me deserve to be placed on this dreadful eminence, if, indeed, every faculty be not suspended in wonder that I am still alive, and am able to relate it. My father's ancestry was noble on the paternal side; but his mother was the daughter of a merchant. My grandfather was a younger brother, and a native of Saxony. He was placed, when he had reached the suitable age, at a German college. During the vacations, he employed himself in traversing the neighbouring territory. On one occasion it was his fortune to visit Hamburg. He formed an acquaintance with Leonard Weise, a merchant of that city, and was a frequent guest at his house. The merchant had an only daughter, for whom his guest speedily contracted an affection; and, in spite of parental menaces and prohibitions, he, in due season, became her husband.

In the following passage “Fate has done its worst. Henceforth, I am callous to misfortune. I address no supplication to the Deity. The power that governs the course of human affairs has chosen his path,” callous most nearly means what?

Possible Answers:

Governed by

Affected

Hopeful against 

None of the other answers

Unfeeling

Correct answer:

Unfeeling

Explanation:

The speaker indicates that fate has already negatively influenced his life, “done its worst.” It is reasonable to understand “callous” in this phrase to mean unfeeling or nearly immune to misfortune since the speaker has already seen the worst.

Example Question #4 : Determining Context Dependent Meanings Of Words In Prose Fiction Passages

Excerpted from Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719)

I was sincerely affected with this discourse, and, indeed, who could be otherwise? I resolved not to think of going abroad any more, but to settle at home according to my father's desire. But alas! a few days wore it all off; and, in short, to prevent any of my father's further importunities, in a few weeks after I resolved to run quite away from him. However, I did not act quite so hastily as the first heat of my resolution prompted; but I took my mother at a time when I thought her a little more pleasant than ordinary, and told her that my thoughts were so entirely bent upon seeing the world that I should never settle to anything with resolution enough to go through with it, and my father had better give me his consent than force me to go without it; that I was now eighteen years old, which was too late to go apprentice to a trade or clerk to an attorney; that I was sure if I did I should never serve out my time, but I should certainly run away from my master before my time was out, and go to sea; and if she would speak to my father to let me go one voyage abroad, if I came home again, and did not like it, I would go no more; and I would promise, by a double diligence, to recover the time that I had lost. This put my mother into a great passion; she told me she knew it would be to no purpose to speak to my father upon any such subject; that he knew too well what was my interest to give his consent to anything so much for my hurt; and that she wondered how I could think of any such thing after the discourse I had had with my father, and such kind and tender expressions as she knew my father had used to me; and that, in short, if I would ruin myself, there was no help for me; but I might depend I should never have their consent to it; that for her part she would not have so much hand in my destruction; and I should never have it to say that my mother was willing when my father was not.

The word “importunities” most nearly means which of the following?

Possible Answers:

None of the other answers

Demands

Kindnesses

Rules

Laws

Correct answer:

Demands

Explanation:

In context, it can be understood that the narrator is referring to following his father’s regulations and demands.

Example Question #4 : Determining Context Dependent Meanings Of Words In Prose Fiction Passages

This is an excerpt from The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe (1794)

It was one of Emily's earliest pleasures to ramble among the scenes of nature; nor was it in the soft and glowing landscape that she most delighted; she loved more the wild wood-walks that skirted the mountain, and still more the mountain's stupendous recesses, where the silence and grandeur of solitude impressed a sacred awe upon her heart, and lifted her thoughts to the GOD OF HEAVEN AND EARTH. In scenes like these she would often linger along, wrapt in a melancholy charm, till the last gleam of day faded from the west; till the lonely sound of a sheep-bell, or the distant bark of a watch-dog, were all that broke on the stillness of the evening. Then, the gloom of the woods; the trembling of their leaves, at intervals, in the breeze; the bat, flitting on the twilight; the cottage-lights, now seen, and now lost—were circumstances that awakened her mind into effort, and led to enthusiasm and poetry.

The word “scrupulous” most nearly means which of the following?

Possible Answers:

Attentive

Evil

Guarded

Careful

None of the other answers

Correct answer:

Attentive

Explanation:

In context, "scrupulous" clearly implies an attentive education. The following sentence goes on to outline a quite impressive list of subjects.

Example Question #1 : Determining Context Dependent Meanings Of Words In Prose Fiction Passages

This is an excerpt from The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe (1794)

It was one of Emily's earliest pleasures to ramble among the scenes of nature; nor was it in the soft and glowing landscape that she most delighted; she loved more the wild wood-walks that skirted the mountain, and still more the mountain's stupendous recesses, where the silence and grandeur of solitude impressed a sacred awe upon her heart, and lifted her thoughts to the GOD OF HEAVEN AND EARTH. In scenes like these she would often linger along, wrapt in a melancholy charm, till the last gleam of day faded from the west; till the lonely sound of a sheep-bell, or the distant bark of a watch-dog, were all that broke on the stillness of the evening. Then, the gloom of the woods; the trembling of their leaves, at intervals, in the breeze; the bat, flitting on the twilight; the cottage-lights, now seen, and now lost—were circumstances that awakened her mind into effort, and led to enthusiasm and poetry.

In context, “stupendous” most nearly means which of the following?

Possible Answers:

Potentially evil

Frightening

Overwhelming

Amazing

None of the other answers

Correct answer:

Amazing

Explanation:

Nature is described in this scene in the following manner: “glowing landscape that she most delighted; she loved more the wild wood-walks, that skirted the mountain; and still more the mountain's stupendous recesses, where the silence and grandeur of solitude impressed a sacred awe upon her heart.” It can be inferred that the mountains, though somewhat daunting, amaze Emily.

Example Question #6 : Determining Context Dependent Meanings Of Words In Prose Fiction Passages

Adapted from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)

I was born in the year 18— to a large fortune, endowed besides with excellent parts, inclined by nature to industry, fond of the respect of the wise and good among my fellow-men, and thus, as might have been supposed, with every guarantee of an honourable and distinguished future. And indeed the worst of my faults was a certain impatient gaiety of disposition, such as had made the happiness of many, but such as I found it hard to reconcile with my imperious desire to carry my head high, and wear a more than commonly grave countenance before the public.

Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures; and that when I reached years of reflection, and began to look round me and take stock of my progress and position in the world, I stood already committed to a profound duplicity of life. Many a man would have even blazoned such irregularities as I was guilty of; but from the high views that I had set before me, I regarded and hid them with an almost morbid sense of shame. It was thus rather the exacting nature of my aspirations than any particular degradation in my faults, that made me what I was and, with even a deeper trench than in the majority of men, severed in me those provinces of good and ill which divide and compound man's dual nature.

. . .

And it chanced that the direction of my scientific studies, which led wholly towards the mystic and the transcendental, reacted and shed a strong light on this consciousness of the perennial war among my members. With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two. I say two, because the state of my own knowledge does not pass beyond that point. Others will follow, others will outstrip me on the same lines; and I hazard the guess that man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous and independent denizens.

The word "imperious," in this context, most nearly means __________.

Possible Answers:

controlling

presumptuous

forgettable

overwhelming

important

Correct answer:

presumptuous

Explanation:

Presumptuous. In describing his desire to appear elite, the use of the word "imperious" is designed to show that the main character felt that he ought to be of a higher station than everyone else, without much real fact to base that off of.

Though it may have been an overwhelming or important desier, the use of the word "imperious" is not designated to denote either. In addition, it certainly was not "forgettable" or the main character would not have taken time to point out this detail. Also, the desire did not really control the main character, as he considers his inability to look noble one of his major faults.

Example Question #7 : Determining Context Dependent Meanings Of Words In Prose Fiction Passages

Adapted from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)

I was born in the year 18— to a large fortune, endowed besides with excellent parts, inclined by nature to industry, fond of the respect of the wise and good among my fellow-men, and thus, as might have been supposed, with every guarantee of an honourable and distinguished future. And indeed the worst of my faults was a certain impatient gaiety of disposition, such as had made the happiness of many, but such as I found it hard to reconcile with my imperious desire to carry my head high, and wear a more than commonly grave countenance before the public.

Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures; and that when I reached years of reflection, and began to look round me and take stock of my progress and position in the world, I stood already committed to a profound duplicity of life. Many a man would have even blazoned such irregularities as I was guilty of; but from the high views that I had set before me, I regarded and hid them with an almost morbid sense of shame. It was thus rather the exacting nature of my aspirations than any particular degradation in my faults, that made me what I was and, with even a deeper trench than in the majority of men, severed in me those provinces of good and ill which divide and compound man's dual nature.

. . .

And it chanced that the direction of my scientific studies, which led wholly towards the mystic and the transcendental, reacted and shed a strong light on this consciousness of the perennial war among my members. With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two. I say two, because the state of my own knowledge does not pass beyond that point. Others will follow, others will outstrip me on the same lines; and I hazard the guess that man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous and independent denizens.

In this context, the word "countenance" most nearly means __________.

Possible Answers:

suppressed desires

outward demeanor

funeral clothing

choice of outfit

a special type of garment the nobility wear when the go amongst commoners

Correct answer:

outward demeanor

Explanation:

Outward demeanor. By wearing a "grave countenance" the main character was attempting to look dignified and overcome his vivacious personality.

Countenance, though it has to do with appearance, has nothing to do with garments. 

Example Question #8 : Determining Context Dependent Meanings Of Words In Prose Fiction Passages

Adapted from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)

I was born in the year 18— to a large fortune, endowed besides with excellent parts, inclined by nature to industry, fond of the respect of the wise and good among my fellow-men, and thus, as might have been supposed, with every guarantee of an honourable and distinguished future. And indeed the worst of my faults was a certain impatient gaiety of disposition, such as had made the happiness of many, but such as I found it hard to reconcile with my imperious desire to carry my head high, and wear a more than commonly grave countenance before the public.

Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures; and that when I reached years of reflection, and began to look round me and take stock of my progress and position in the world, I stood already committed to a profound duplicity of life. Many a man would have even blazoned such irregularities as I was guilty of; but from the high views that I had set before me, I regarded and hid them with an almost morbid sense of shame. It was thus rather the exacting nature of my aspirations than any particular degradation in my faults, that made me what I was and, with even a deeper trench than in the majority of men, severed in me those provinces of good and ill which divide and compound man's dual nature.

. . .

And it chanced that the direction of my scientific studies, which led wholly towards the mystic and the transcendental, reacted and shed a strong light on this consciousness of the perennial war among my members. With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two. I say two, because the state of my own knowledge does not pass beyond that point. Others will follow, others will outstrip me on the same lines; and I hazard the guess that man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous and independent denizens.

In this context, the word "blazoned" most nearly means __________.

Possible Answers:

announced

ignored

kept hidden

tried to forget

denied

Correct answer:

announced

Explanation:

Announced. In this context, "blazoned" refers to displaying something prominently for all to see.

The main character does keep his realization hidden, and he says any other man most likely wouldn't. He gives no indication of trying to forget his discovery nor of ignoring it. He keeps it hidden, so he does not have the opportunity to deny it.

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