Common Core: 11th Grade English Language Arts : Literal, figurative, and connotative word and phrase meanings; word and phrase choices: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.4

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Example Question #4 : Common Core: 11th Grade English Language Arts

Passage adapted 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.

What is the effect of the choice of the highlighted word "astonished"?

Possible Answers:

By modifying the word "eyes" it creates an instance of onomatopoeia

By modifying the word "eyes" it creates an instance of personification in the text

None of these

In contrast with the use of "vague" later in the same sentence, it creates an instance of hyperbole

Correct answer:

By modifying the word "eyes" it creates an instance of personification in the text


This question tests the test writer's ability to figure out the role of a single word in the formation of a literary device. So, the first step should be to establish the meaning of each of the literary devices named in our answer options. "Personification" occurs when a non-human object or idea has a human emotion or action ascribed to it. "Hyperbole" is extreme exaggeration for literary effect. "Onomatopoeia" refers to words whose sound mirrors their meaning (eg."bang"). Since onomatopoeia is a word that does not require pairing with another word for its effect, we can immediately eliminate this answer choice, which references the pairing of the highlighted word with "eyes." Hyperbole is a tempting option, since "astonished" is a strong word that will often be used to exaggerate; however, this answer option hinges on "astonished" being paired with "vague" later in the sentence, but "vague" is used in a different clause, and is referencing a "report" rather than the author's own impression. This leaves either the option that none of the answer choices is correct, or that the pairing of "eyes" with "astonished" creates a personification...which it does! While "eyes" are a part of the human body, they are not themselves capable of feeling "astonished," which is an emotion. This word pairing could also be argued to be a synecdoche (a part standing for a whole), but this does not preclude the pairing also forming a personification. Eyes, after all, are an object incapable of feeling, so to describe them as astonished is, indeed, an instance of personification.

All Common Core: 11th Grade English Language Arts Resources

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