AP English Language : Assumptions

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for AP English Language

varsity tutors app store varsity tutors android store

Example Questions

Example Question #71 : Author, Tone, And Intent

Adapted from Volume I of The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell (1906 ed.)

About a year after Mrs. Brontë’s death, an elder sister, as I have before mentioned, came from Penzance to superintend her brother-in-law’s household and look after his children. Miss Branwell was, I believe, a kindly and conscientious woman, with a good deal of character, but with the somewhat narrow ideas natural to one who had spent nearly all her life in the same place. She had strong prejudices, and soon took a distaste to Yorkshire. From Penzance, where plants which we in the north call greenhouse flowers grow in great profusion, and without any shelter even in the winter, and where the soft warm climate allows the inhabitants, if so disposed, to live pretty constantly in the open air, it was a great change for a lady considerably past forty to come and take up her abode in a place where neither flowers nor vegetables would flourish, and where a tree of even moderate dimensions might be hunted for far and wide; where the snow lay long and late on the moors, stretching bleakly and barely far up from the dwelling which was henceforward to be her home; and where often, on autumnal or winter nights, the four winds of heaven seemed to meet and rage together, tearing round the house as if they were wild beasts striving to find an entrance. She missed the small round of cheerful, social visiting perpetually going on in a country town; she missed the friends she had known from her childhood, some of whom had been her parents’ friends before they were hers; she disliked many of the customs of the place, and particularly dreaded the cold damp arising from the flag floors in the passages and parlors of Haworth Parsonage. The stairs, too, I believe, are made of stone; and no wonder, when stone quarries are near, and trees are far to seek. I have heard that Miss Branwell always went about the house in pattens, clicking up and down the stairs, from her dread of catching cold. For the same reason, in the latter years of her life, she passed nearly all her time, and took most of her meals, in her bedroom. The children respected her, and had that sort of affection for her which is generated by esteem; but I do not think they ever freely loved her. It was a severe trial for any one at her time of life to change neighborhood and habitation so entirely as she did; and the greater her merit.

The narrator seems to have drawn most from which of the following?

Possible Answers:

Trenchant muckraking

Detailed background research

Personal life experience

Widely reported gossip

Firsthand observations

Correct answer:

Detailed background research


The narrator's use of phrases such as "I believe" and "I have heard" suggest that she was not personally present at these events, which rules out "firsthand observations" and "personal life experience." "Muckraking" refers to the journalistic practice of publicly revealing scandals, which, like "widely reported gossip," does not relate to the content of this passage. Rather, her attention to detail and emphasis on thoughtful inference indicates a good deal of background research on her subject.

Example Question #3 : Identifying Assumptions

Adapted from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume (1748)

1. Moral philosophy, or the science of human nature, may be treated after two different manners, each of which has its peculiar merit and may contribute to the entertainment, instruction, and reformation of mankind. The one considers man chiefly as born for action and as influenced in his measures by taste and sentiment, pursuing one object and avoiding another according to the value that these objects seem to possess and according to the light in which they present themselves. As virtue, of all objects, is allowed to be the most valuable, this species of philosophers paint her in the most amiable colors, borrowing all helps from poetry and eloquence and treating their subject in an easy and obvious manner and such as is best fitted to please the imagination and engage the affections. They select the most striking observations and instances from common life; place opposite characters in a proper contrast; and alluring us into the paths of virtue by the views of glory and happiness, direct our steps in these paths by the soundest precepts and most illustrious examples. They make us feel the difference between vice and virtue; they excite and regulate our sentiments; and so they can but bend our hearts to the love of probity and true honor, they think, that they have fully attained the end of all their labors.

2. The other species of philosophers considers man in the light of a reasonable rather than an active being, and endeavors to form his understanding more than cultivate his manners. They regard human nature as a subject of speculation, and with a narrow scrutiny examine it in order to find those principles that regulate our understanding, excite our sentiments, and make us approve or blame any particular object, action, or behavior. They think it a reproach to all literature that philosophy should not yet have fixed, beyond controversy, the foundation of morals, reasoning, and criticism, and should forever talk of truth and falsehood, vice and virtue, beauty and deformity, without being able to determine the source of these distinctions. While they attempt this arduous task, they are deterred by no difficulties, but proceeding from particular instances to general principles, they still push on their enquiries to principles more general, and rest not satisfied ‘till they arrive at those original principles, by which, in every science, all human curiosity must be bounded. Though their speculations seem abstract, and even unintelligible to common readers, they aim at the approbation of the learned and the wise, and think themselves sufficiently compensated for the labor of their whole lives if they can discover some hidden truths that may contribute to the instruction of posterity.

3. It is certain that the easy and obvious philosophy will always, with the generality of mankind, have the preference above the accurate and abstruse, and by many will be recommended, not only as more agreeable, but more useful than the other. It enters more into common life; molds the heart and affections; and, by touching those principles which actuate men, reforms their conduct, and brings them nearer to that model of perfection that it describes. On the contrary, the abstruse philosophy, being founded on a turn of mind, which cannot enter into business and action, vanishes when the philosopher leaves the shade, and comes into open day; nor can its principles easily retain any influence over our conduct and behavior. The feelings of our hearts, the agitation of our passions, the vehemence of our affections, dissipate all its conclusions, and reduce the profound philosopher to the mere plebeian.

The author relies on which of the following assumptions?

Possible Answers:

Most people do not understand the difference between right and wrong.

The philosophical tasks of understanding human nature and outlining the best form of ethics are fundamentally separate.

All people prefer a complex moral philosophy based on a doctrine of rationality.

There are no significant schools of moral philosophy other than the two discussed in the passage.

All people prefer a simpler, less abstract form of moral philosophy.

Correct answer:

There are no significant schools of moral philosophy other than the two discussed in the passage.


The main assumption the author relies on in this passage is that there are no significant schools of moral philosophy other than the two discussed in the passage. If there were, in fact, another or several other significant schools of thought other than the two discussed, the nature and scope of the passage would be fundamentally changed.

The author makes no categorical statements about what ALL people think or believe, nor does he make any claims about what portion of the population understands the difference between right and wrong; his statements about "the generality of mankind" are instead focused on the kind of reasoning that appeals to most people. The author treats "moral philosophy" and "human nature" as synonymous.

Example Question #162 : Comprehension

Adapted from Utilitarianism by John Stewart Mill (1863)

Only while the world is in a very imperfect state can it happen that anyone’s best chance of serving the happiness of others is through the absolute sacrifice of his own happiness; but while the world is in that imperfect state, I fully admit that the readiness to make such a sacrifice is the highest virtue that can be found in man. I would add something that may seem paradoxical: namely that in this present imperfect condition of the world, the conscious ability to do without happiness gives the best prospect of bringing about such happiness as is attainable. For nothing except that consciousness can raise a person above the chances of life by making him feel that fate and fortune—let them do their worst!—have no power to subdue him. Once he feels that, it frees him from excessive anxiety about the evils of life and lets him (like many a stoic in the worst times of the Roman empire) calmly develop the sources of satisfaction that are available to him, not concerning himself with the uncertainty regarding how long they will last or the certainty that they will end.

Meanwhile, let utilitarians never cease to claim that they have as much right as the stoic or the transcendentalist to maintain the morality of devotion to a cause as something that belongs to them. The utilitarian morality does recognize that human beings can sacrifice their own greatest good for the good of others; it merely refuses to admit that the sacrifice is itself a good. It regards as wasted any sacrifice that doesn’t increase, or tend to increase, the sum total of happiness. The only self-renunciation that it applauds is devotion to the happiness, or to some of the means to happiness, of others. . . . I must again repeat something that the opponents of utilitarianism are seldom fair enough to admit, namely that the happiness that forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct is not the agent’s own happiness but that of all concerned. As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator. In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbor as yourself constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.

As the practical way to get as close as possible to this ideal, the ethics of utility would command two things. (1) First, laws and social arrangements should place the happiness (or what for practical purposes we may call the interest) of every individual as much as possible in harmony with the interest of the whole. (2) Education and opinion, which have such a vast power over human character, should use that power to establish in the mind of every individual an unbreakable link between his own happiness and the good of the whole; especially between his own happiness and the kinds of conduct (whether doing or allowing) that are conducive to universal happiness. If (2) is done properly, it will tend to have two results: (2a) The individual won’t be able to conceive the possibility of being personally happy while acting in ways opposed to the general good. (2b) In each individual a direct impulse to promote the general good will be one of the habitual motives of action, and the feelings connected with it will fill a large and prominent place in his sentient existence. This is the true character of the utilitarian morality. If those who attack utilitarianism see it as being like this, I don’t know what good features of some other moralities they could possibly say that utilitarianism lacks, what more beautiful or more elevated developments of human nature any other ethical systems can be supposed to encourage, or what motivations for action that aren’t available to the utilitarian those other systems rely on for giving effect to their mandates.

The author makes which of the following assumptions about the world?

Possible Answers:

It has existed for less than 60,000 years.

It will continue to exist after people are extinct.

It is a place with measurable amount of happiness in it, and therefore a place where all moral decisions are easily weighed.

It is a morally imperfect place wherein many events are subject to random chance.

It is a place people occupy only temporarily while on the moral soil.

Correct answer:

It is a morally imperfect place wherein many events are subject to random chance.


The author assumes, but does not justify the position, that the world is a morally imperfect place wherein many events are subject to the whims of "fate and fortune." This assumption directly influences the arguments about moral behavior and self-sacrifice made later in the piece. The author holds that self-sacrifice is sometimes necessary, but only necessary in an "imperfect world," therefore assuming the world is a morally imperfect place.

Example Question #72 : Author, Tone, And Intent

Adapted from Common Sense by Thomas Paine (1776)

Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil, in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence that in every other case advises him out of two evils to choose the least. WHEREFORE, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows that whatever FORM thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others. 

In order to gain a clear and just idea of the design and end of government, let us suppose a small number of persons settled in some sequestered part of the Earth, unconnected with the rest; they will then represent the first peopling of any country, or of the world. In this state of natural liberty, society will be their first thought. A thousand motives will excite them thereto, the strength of one man is so unequal to his wants, and his mind so unfitted for perpetual solitude, that he is soon obliged to seek assistance and relief of another, who in his turn requires the same. Four or five united would be able to raise a tolerable dwelling in the midst of a wilderness, but ONE man might labor out the common period of life without accomplishing any thing; when he had felled his timber he could not remove it, nor erect it after it was removed; hunger in the mean time would urge him from his work, and every different want call him a different way.

The author of this passage is most interested in __________.  

Possible Answers:

practical plans about how taxes should be collected

theoretical ideas about the necessity of government

convincing his readers to rebel against the government

moving to an area away from society

suggestions for how people settling in the wilderness should live

Correct answer:

theoretical ideas about the necessity of government


The author of this passage is most interested in “theoretical ideas about the necessity of government.” We can see this especially at the start of the second paragraph, when he states, “In order to gain a clear and just idea of the design and end of government, let us suppose . . .” Furthermore, in the first paragraph, he reasons his way to the conclusion that the government that can best ensure its citizens’ safety is the preferable one. While he discusses people living in the wilderness, this is a consideration made to demonstrate a theoretical point about the government. Nothing in the passage suggests that the author is interested in moving to an area away from society, and while he complains about the government, he does not urge his readers to rebel against it. He also doesn’t any practical plans about how taxes should be collected.

Example Question #73 : Author, Tone, And Intent

Passage adapted from The Passing of the Armies: The Last Campaign of the Armies by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (1915)

The momentous meaning of this occasion impressed me deeply. I resolved to mark it by some token of recognition, which could be no other than a salute of arms. Well aware of the responsibility assumed, and of the criticisms that would follow, as the sequel proved, nothing of that kind could move me in the least. The act could be defended, if needful, by the suggestion that such a salute was not to the cause for which the flag of the Confederacy stood, but to its going down before the flag of the Union. My main reason, however, was one for which I sought no authority nor asked forgiveness. Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond;—was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured?

Instructions had been given; and when the head of each division column comes opposite our group, our bugle sounds the signal and instantly our whole line from right to left, regiment by regiment in succession, gives the soldier's salutation, from the "order arms" to the old "carry"—the marching salute. Gordon at the head of the column, riding with heavy spirit and downcast face, catches the sound of shifting arms, looks up, and, taking the meaning, wheels superbly, making with himself and his horse one uplifted figure, with profound salutation as he drops the point of his sword to the boot toe; then facing to his own command, gives word for his successive brigades to pass us with the same position of the manual,—honor answering honor. On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead!

The author assumes that ________________.

Possible Answers:

his decision to call for a salute of arms could not be defended

he would later regret his own decision to call for a salute of arms

his decision to call for a salute of arms might be controversial

a salute of arms would not be a good choice

no one would question his decision to call for a salute of arms

Correct answer:

his decision to call for a salute of arms might be controversial


This question asks about the unproven assumptions made by the author. In this passage, he assumes, without providing any evidence, that his decision to call for a salute of arms would be controversial. He does not describe the arguments that could be made against it, but states that he is aware of "the criticisms that would follow" and goes on the provide several arguments by which it "could be defended."

Learning Tools by Varsity Tutors

Incompatible Browser

Please upgrade or download one of the following browsers to use Instant Tutoring: