MCAT Verbal : Determining relevance of information

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for MCAT Verbal

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Example Questions

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Example Question #1 : Determining Relevance Of Information

Adapted from Hall, J. N. "Clayhill Parkhill, Anatomist and Surgeon" in Annals of Surgery (May 1902; 35(5): 674-678)

The surgery of America in those days was still in the masterly grasp of those great surgeons who, in the bloodiest war of modern times, had advanced their profession to an enviable position. In practically every city of the land, the leading surgeon was a man who, after Antietam, Gettysburg, and Cold Harbor, had amputated, perhaps, scores of limbs in a single day. The young man thirsting for a place in surgery, stood no chance in the race with men whose operative work in a single day had exceeded all that he might hope to do in ten years.

As a result, the surgery of the country in 1885 was in the hands of men already getting past middle age, and not easily adaptable to new things; as fine a class of surgeons, nevertheless, as ever honored the profession of any country.

Meanwhile the times had changed. Under the stimulus of the work of Lister, antiseptic surgery had been born. The older men watched the younger ones as they fearlessly invaded field after field upon which they had never dared to tread, and they hesitated in their work. The knowledge of bacteriology had been their undoing. A few of these men, conspicuously Keen, of Philadelphia, and Conner, of Cincinnati, adapted themselves to the new order of things; the great majority of them were crowded out by the younger men.

And had these excellent men, thus crowded out of their field of activity, done nothing for surgery? Let us look briefly at their work. After one of the great battles, perhaps 100 amputations were performed. Experience had taught them that in the serious wounds of the extremities, without amputation, 75 percent died; with immediate amputation, 75 percent lived. In other words, amputation avoided fifty deaths in each 100 cases, chiefly from septicemia, pyxemia, erysipelas, secondary hemorrhage, and hospital gangrene. But the new surgery made unnecessary most of these amputations, practically annihilated all these causes of death, and yet saved most of the limbs. Competition under these circumstances was out of the question.

The older men then stepped aside so far as operative surgery went; but the magnificent knowledge of non-operative surgery which these men had attained, executive ability of the first order, and the power of handling large bodies of men, left them still invaluable to the profession and the world. As an illustration of this point, note that as the great railroads pushed westward, almost every one had as chief surgeon one of these able men. Mercer of the Union Pacific, Livingston of the Burlington, and Bancroft of the Denver and Rio Grande, may serve as examples. During the transition period of which I speak, although the young men carried on their operative work independently, they continually sought the counsel of these older men in broad surgical questions, in their fractures and dislocations, and in many other non-operative parts of the field of surgery for which an incomparable experience had so magnificently fitted them.

What is the purpose of the second paragraph to this passage as a whole?

Possible Answers:

Support the previous paragraph in demonstrating the dominance of Civil War surgeons in their field

To take a shot at the older surgeons and criticize their lack of adaptability

Provide another statement to honor the older generation of surgeons

Provide a transition from the days of the Civil War surgeon to the younger surgeons

Correct answer:

Provide a transition from the days of the Civil War surgeon to the younger surgeons

Explanation:

The second paragraph provides a transition from the days of the Civil War surgeons to the younger surgeons.

The opening paragraph sets the backdrop of a surgical field that is dominated by Civil War surgeons who performed a lifetime of operations during the war. The third paragraph throws in a time of change when the next generation of surgeons is able to break into and take over the field.

This second paragraph then sets up the reader by hinting that the older surgeons' lack of adaptability could be ushering in a time of change as "new things" are introduced.

Incorrect choices:

While the second paragraph does iterate the fact that the surgical field was dominated by the older generation, it's main purpose is to set up the reader for the third paragraph where change occurs. Including an additional paragraph to restate the idea from the opening paragraph would be redundant.

The second paragraph does conclude by honoring the Civil War surgeons; however, that statement is more of an attempt by the author to recognize the surgeons' shortcomings without spite or blame.

The author does not at any point criticize or put down the previous generation of surgeons and uses the second paragraph to respectfully point out a deficiency in that generation.

Example Question #2 : Determining Relevance Of Information

Adapted from "The Memorable Assassination" in What is Man? And Other Essays by Mark Twain (1906)

The more one thinks of the assassination, the more imposing and tremendous the event becomes. The destruction of a city is a large event, but it is one which repeats itself several times in a thousand years; the destruction of a third part of a nation by plague and famine is a large event, but it has happened several times in history; the murder of a king is a large event, but it has been frequent.

The murder of an empress is the largest of all large events. One must go back about two thousand years to find an instance to put with this one. The oldest family of unchallenged descent in Christendom lives in Rome and traces its line back seventeen hundred years, but no member of it has been present in the earth when an empress was murdered, until now. Many a time during these seventeen centuries members of that family have been startled with the news of extraordinary events—the destruction of cities, the fall of thrones, the murder of kings, the wreck of dynasties, the extinction of religions, the birth of new systems of government; and their descendants have been by to hear of it and talk about it when all these things were repeated once, twice, or a dozen times—but to even that family has come news at last which is not staled by use, has no duplicates in the long reach of its memory.

It is an event which confers a curious distinction upon every individual now living in the world: he has stood alive and breathing in the presence of an event such as has not fallen within the experience of any traceable or untraceable ancestor of his for twenty centuries, and it is not likely to fall within the experience of any descendant of his for twenty more.

Time has made some great changes since the Roman days. The murder of an empress then—even the assassination of Caesar himself—could not electrify the world as this murder has electrified it. For one reason, there was then not much of a world to electrify; it was a small world, as to known bulk, and it had rather a thin population, besides; and for another reason, the news traveled so slowly that its tremendous initial thrill wasted away, week by week and month by month, on the journey, and by the time it reached the remoter regions there was but little of it left. It was no longer a fresh event, it was a thing of the far past; it was not properly news, it was history. But the world is enormous now, and prodigiously populated—that is one change; and another is the lightning swiftness of the flight of tidings, good and bad. "The Empress is murdered!" When those amazing words struck upon my ear in this Austrian village last Saturday, three hours after the disaster, I knew that it was already old news in London, Paris, Berlin, New York, San Francisco, Japan, China, Melbourne, Cape Town, Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, and that the entire globe with a single voice, was cursing the perpetrator of it. Since the telegraph first began to stretch itself wider and wider about the earth, larger and increasingly larger areas of the world have, as time went on, received simultaneously the shock of a great calamity; but this is the first time in history that the entire surface of the globe has been swept in a single instant with the thrill of so gigantic an event.

Which of these best describes why the author believes the assassination of the Empress is even more meaningful than the assassination of Caesar?

Possible Answers:

The assassination of Caesar had little effect on the development of the Roman empire, whereas the assassination of the Empress is likely to alter her empire entirely.

There are a great deal more people on Earth now than there were in the time of Caesar.

The Empress was beloved by the population, whereas Caesar was almost universally feared and hated.

News travels much faster now than in the time of Caesar, so that everyone is aware of the incident shortly after it happens.

People were more accustomed to the assassination of political figures in the classical era than they are in the author’s era.

Correct answer:

News travels much faster now than in the time of Caesar, so that everyone is aware of the incident shortly after it happens.

Explanation:

In answering this question, you could reasonably select one of three answer choices; however, the question asks you to determine which of these “best describes why" the author believes what he does, you therefore have to evaluate and consider the various levels of importance that can be attributed to each argument.

The best answer is that the assassination of the Empress is more meaningful that the assassination of Caesar because news travels much faster now than it did in the time of Caesar. This argument can be seen throughout the fourth paragraph in statements like "the news traveled so slowly that its tremendous initial thrill wasted away, week by week and month by month, on the journey, and by the time it reached the remoter regions there was but little of it left. It was no longer a fresh event, it was a thing of the far past; it was not properly news, it was history.”

You might ask at this junction why this argument is more important that the one that reads “Because there are a great deal more people on Earth now than there were at the time of Caesar.” This is a fair question. The main reason is that the author spends more time focusing on the greater speed at which news is spread than he spends explaining how the growth of population affects the meaningfulness of news. The growth in population is almost a subsidiary argument that explains why the rapid spread of news has greater impact. When facing a question that asks you to determine how an author’s opinion could “best” be described, be sure to focus on which answer choice is the bulk of the author’s argument. In theory, you could also contend that “Because people were more accustomed to the assassination of political figures in the Classical Era than they are in the author’s era” is a correct answer. As the author mentions how there has been no assassinations of emperors or empresses in two thousand years, it stands to reason that he believes people two thousand years ago might have been more accustomed to this event than people in his era. But, this requires a good deal more inference and guessing that the correct answer, or even one of the other incorrect answers. It is certainly not the “best” answer choice.

Example Question #3 : Determining Relevance Of Information

Adapted from "The Memorable Assassination" in What is Man? And Other Essays by Mark Twain (1906)

The more one thinks of the assassination, the more imposing and tremendous the event becomes. The destruction of a city is a large event, but it is one which repeats itself several times in a thousand years; the destruction of a third part of a nation by plague and famine is a large event, but it has happened several times in history; the murder of a king is a large event, but it has been frequent.

The murder of an empress is the largest of all large events. One must go back about two thousand years to find an instance to put with this one. The oldest family of unchallenged descent in Christendom lives in Rome and traces its line back seventeen hundred years, but no member of it has been present in the earth when an empress was murdered, until now. Many a time during these seventeen centuries members of that family have been startled with the news of extraordinary events—the destruction of cities, the fall of thrones, the murder of kings, the wreck of dynasties, the extinction of religions, the birth of new systems of government; and their descendants have been by to hear of it and talk about it when all these things were repeated once, twice, or a dozen times—but to even that family has come news at last which is not staled by use, has no duplicates in the long reach of its memory.

It is an event which confers a curious distinction upon every individual now living in the world: he has stood alive and breathing in the presence of an event such as has not fallen within the experience of any traceable or untraceable ancestor of his for twenty centuries, and it is not likely to fall within the experience of any descendant of his for twenty more.

Time has made some great changes since the Roman days. The murder of an empress then—even the assassination of Caesar himself—could not electrify the world as this murder has electrified it. For one reason, there was then not much of a world to electrify; it was a small world, as to known bulk, and it had rather a thin population, besides; and for another reason, the news traveled so slowly that its tremendous initial thrill wasted away, week by week and month by month, on the journey, and by the time it reached the remoter regions there was but little of it left. It was no longer a fresh event, it was a thing of the far past; it was not properly news, it was history. But the world is enormous now, and prodigiously populated—that is one change; and another is the lightning swiftness of the flight of tidings, good and bad. "The Empress is murdered!" When those amazing words struck upon my ear in this Austrian village last Saturday, three hours after the disaster, I knew that it was already old news in London, Paris, Berlin, New York, San Francisco, Japan, China, Melbourne, Cape Town, Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, and that the entire globe with a single voice, was cursing the perpetrator of it. Since the telegraph first began to stretch itself wider and wider about the earth, larger and increasingly larger areas of the world have, as time went on, received simultaneously the shock of a great calamity; but this is the first time in history that the entire surface of the globe has been swept in a single instant with the thrill of so gigantic an event.

A follow-up article is published by the same author. Which of the following pieces of information or arguments would be least likely to be found in the article?

Possible Answers:

A detailed account of the author’s own experience with hearing the news

An explanation about the role and impact of the telegraph on the spread of news

A description of the assassin

A consideration of the momentous nature of the assassination

An account of the assassination of Caesar

Correct answer:

An account of the assassination of Caesar

Explanation:

When determining which piece of information is least or most likely to be found in a follow-up article, you have to infer which of the answer choices is least relevant to the author’s argument or which is unrelated to a further development of the author’s point. The correct answer is therefore that a follow-up article would be least likely to feature “an account of the assassination of Caesar.” Caesar is mentioned only to compare the speed at which news travels and the size of the global population in the classical era versus the author’s era. It is unlikely the author would feel the need to develop his argument through an account of Caesar’s assassination. The other four answer choices are more relevant to the subject matter at hand or to the development of the author’s argument.

Example Question #3 : Determining Relevance Of Information

Adapted from "Concerning Tobacco" in What is Man? And Other Essays by Mark Twain (1906)

As concerns tobacco, there are many superstitions. And the chiefest is this—that there is a standard governing the matter, whereas there is nothing of the kind. Each man's own preference is the only standard for him, the only one which he can accept, the only one which can command him. A congress of all the tobacco-lovers in the world could not elect a standard which would be binding upon you or me, or would even much influence us.

The next superstition is that a man has a standard of his own. He hasn't. He thinks he has, but he hasn't. He thinks he can tell what he regards as a good cigar from what he regards as a bad one—but he can't. He goes by the brand, yet imagines he goes by the flavor. One may palm off the worst counterfeit upon him; if it bears his brand he will smoke it contentedly and never suspect.

Children of twenty-five, who have seven years of experience, try to tell me what is a good cigar and what isn't. Me, who never learned to smoke; me, who came into the world asking for a light.

No one can tell me what is a good cigar—for me. I am the only judge. People who claim to know say that I smoke the worst cigars in the world. They bring their own cigars when they come to my house. They betray an unmanly terror when I offer them a cigar; they tell lies and hurry away to meet engagements which they have not made when they are threatened with the hospitalities of my box. Now then, observe what superstition, assisted by a man's reputation, can do. I was to have twelve personal friends to supper one night. One of them was as notorious for costly and elegant cigars as I was for cheap and devilish ones. I called at his house and when no one was looking borrowed a double handful of his very choicest; cigars which cost him forty cents apiece and bore red-and-gold labels in sign of their nobility. I removed the labels and put the cigars into a box with my favorite brand on it—a brand which those people all knew, and which cowed them as men are cowed by an epidemic. They took these cigars when offered at the end of the supper, and lit them and sternly struggled with them—in dreary silence, for hilarity died when the fell brand came into view and started around—but their fortitude held for a short time only; then they made excuses and filed out, treading on one another's heels with indecent eagerness; and in the morning when I went out to observe results the cigars lay all between the front door and the gate. All except one—that one lay in the plate of the man from whom I had cabbaged the lot. One or two whiffs was all he could stand. He told me afterward that some day I would get shot for giving people that kind of cigars to smoke.

Am I certain of my own standard? Perfectly; yes, absolutely—unless somebody fools me by putting my brand on some other kind of cigar; for no doubt I am like the rest, and know my cigar by the brand instead of by the flavor. However, my standard is a pretty wide one and covers a good deal of territory. To me, almost any cigar is good that nobody else will smoke, and to me almost all cigars are bad that other people consider good. Nearly any cigar will do me, except a Havana. People think they hurt my feelings when they come to my house with their life preservers on—I mean, with their own cigars in their pockets. It is an error; I take care of myself in a similar way. When I go into danger—that is, into rich people's houses, where, in the nature of things, they will have high-tariff cigars, red-and-gilt girded and nested in a rosewood box along with a damp sponge, cigars which develop a dismal black ash and burn down the side and smell, and will grow hot to the fingers, and will go on growing hotter and hotter, and go on smelling more and more infamously and unendurably the deeper the fire tunnels down inside below the thimbleful of honest tobacco that is in the front end, the furnisher of it praising it all the time and telling you how much the deadly thing cost—yes, when I go into that sort of peril I carry my own defense along; I carry my own brand—twenty-seven cents a barrel—and I live to see my family again. I may seem to light his red-gartered cigar, but that is only for courtesy's sake; I smuggle it into my pocket for the poor, of whom I know many, and light one of my own; and while he praises it I join in, but when he says it cost forty-five cents I say nothing, for I know better.

When the author states that he “came into the world asking for a light,” he is primarily __________.

Possible Answers:

mocking the superstition that there is good and bad tobacco

exaggerating his dependency on tobacco for comedic effect

highlighting the audacity of young people in trying to tell him what to smoke

decrying the wealthy gentlemen who think they know best what constitutes a good cigar

commenting on his own prodigious habit of smoking throughout his lifetime

Correct answer:

highlighting the audacity of young people in trying to tell him what to smoke

Explanation:

The author’s statement that he “came into the world asking for a light” is issued in mockery at the audacity of young people in trying to tell him what does and does not constitute a good cigar. While it is a comment on his own prodigious smoking habits and an exaggeration of his own dependency on tobacco (although the author would be unlikely to use the term “dependency”), these answers are not the author’s primary intentions.

Example Question #4 : Determining Relevance Of Information

Adapted from “William Dean Howells” in What is Man? And Other Essays by Mark Twain (1906)

Is it true that the sun of a man's mentality touches noon at forty and then begins to wane toward setting? Doctor Osler is charged with saying so. Maybe he said it, maybe he didn't; I don't know which it is. But if he said it, I can point him to a case which proves his rule. Proves it by being an exception to it. To this place I nominate Mr. Howells.

I read his Venetian Days about forty years ago. I compare it with his paper on Machiavelli in a late number of Harper, and I cannot find that his English has suffered any impairment. For forty years his English has been to me a continual delight and astonishment. In the sustained exhibition of certain great qualities—clearness, compression, verbal exactness, and unforced and seemingly unconscious felicity of phrasing—he is, in my belief, without his peer in the English-writing world. Sustained. I entrench myself behind that protecting word. There are others who exhibit those great qualities as greatly as he does, but only by intervaled distributions of rich moonlight, with stretches of veiled and dimmer landscape between, whereas Howells's moon sails cloudless skies all night and all the nights.

In the matter of verbal exactness Mr. Howells has no superior, I suppose. He seems to be almost always able to find that elusive and shifty grain of gold, the right word. Others have to put up with approximations, more or less frequently; he has better luck. To me, the others are miners working with the gold-pan—of necessity some of the gold washes over and escapes; whereas, in my fancy, he is quicksilver raiding down a riffle—no grain of the metal stands much chance of eluding him. A powerful agent is the right word: it lights the reader's way and makes it plain; a close approximation to it will answer, and much traveling is done in a well-enough fashion by its help, but we do not welcome it and applaud it and rejoice in it as we do when the right one blazes out on us. Whenever we come upon one of those intensely right words in a book or a newspaper the resulting effect is physical as well as spiritual, and electrically prompt: it tingles exquisitely around through the walls of the mouth and tastes as tart and crisp and good as the autumn-butter that creams the sumac-berry. One has no time to examine the word and vote upon its rank and standing, the automatic recognition of its supremacy is so immediate. There is a plenty of acceptable literature which deals largely in approximations, but it may be likened to a fine landscape seen through the rain; the right word would dismiss the rain, then you would see it better. It doesn't rain when Howells is at work.

And where does he get the easy and effortless flow of his speech, and its cadenced and undulating rhythm, and its architectural felicities of construction, its graces of expression, its pemmican quality of compression, and all that? Born to him, no doubt. All in shining good order in the beginning, all extraordinary, and all just as shining, just as extraordinary today, after forty years of diligent wear and tear and use. He passed his fortieth year long and long ago, but I think his English of today—his perfect English, I wish to say—can throw down the glove before his English of that antique time and not be afraid.

The author primarily praises the subject for his __________.

Possible Answers:

whimsy

artistry

consistency

diligence

knowledge

Correct answer:

consistency

Explanation:

The author is primarily praising Howells for his “consistency” over the many long years of his career. This can be seen in excerpts such as, “For forty years his English has been to me a continual delight and astonishment. In the sustained exhibition of certain great qualities—clearness, compression, verbal exactness, and unforced and seemingly unconscious felicity of phrasing—he is, in my belief, without his peer in the English-writing world. Sustained” and “Howells' moon sails cloudless skies all night and all the nights.” Although the author does refer to Howells as “diligent” in the concluding paragraph, this is not his primary appraisal in the passage.

Example Question #5 : Determining Relevance Of Information

Adapted from "Harold Frederic" in The Pittsburgh Leader by Willa Cather (June 10, 1899)

It is very fitting that Mr. Frederic’s last book should be in praise of action, the thing that makes the world go round; of force, however misspent, which is the sum of life as distinguished from the inertia of death. In the forty-odd years of his life he wrote almost as many pages as Balzac, most of it mere newspaper copy, it is true, read and forgotten, but all of it vigorous and with the stamp of a strong man upon it. And he played just as hard as he worked—alas, it was the play that killed him! The young artist who illustrated the story gave to the pictures of “Joel Thorpe” very much the look of Harold Frederic himself, and they might almost stand for his portraits. I fancy the young man did not select his model carelessly. In this big, burly adventurer who took fortune and women by storm, who bluffed the world by his prowess and fought his way to the front with battle-ax blows, there is a great deal of Harold Frederic, the soldier of fortune, the Utica milk boy who fought his way from the petty slavery of a provincial newspaper to the foremost ranks of the journalists of the world and on into literature, into literature worth the writing. The man won his place in England much as his hero won his, by defiance, by strong shoulder blows, by his self-sufficiency and inexhaustible strength, and when he finished his book he did not know that his end would be so much less glorious than his hero’s, that it would be his portion not to fall manfully in the thick of the combat and the press of battle, but to die poisoned in the tent of Chryseis. For who could foresee a tragedy so needless, so blind, so brutal in its lack of dignity, or know that such strength could perish through such insidious weakness, that so great a man could be stung to death by a mania born in little minds?

In point of execution and literary excellence, both The Market Place and Gloria Mundi are vastly inferior to The Damnation of Theron Ware or that exquisite London idyl, March Hares. The first two hundred pages of Theron Ware are as good as anything in American fiction, much better than most of it. They are not so much the work of a literary artist as of a vigorous thinker, a man of strong opinions and an intimate and comprehensive knowledge of men. The whole work, despite its irregularities and indifference to form, is full of brain stuff, the kind of active, healthful, masterful  intellect that some men put into politics, some into science and a few, a very few, into literature. Both Gloria Mundi and The Market Place bear unmistakable evidences of the slack rein and the hasty hand. Both of them contain considerable padding, the stamp of the space writer. They are imperfectly developed, and are not packed with ideas like his earlier novels. Their excellence is in flashes; it is not the searching, evenly distributed light which permeates his more careful work. There were, as we know too well, good reasons why Mr. Frederic should work hastily. He needed a large income and he worked heroically, writing many thousands of words a day to obtain it. From the experience of the ages we have learned to expect to find, coupled with great strength, a proportionate weakness, and usually it devours the greater part, as the seven lean kine devoured the seven fat in Pharaoh’s vision. Achilles was a god in all his nobler parts, but his feet were of the earth and to the earth they held him down, and he died stung by an arrow in the heel.

What is the author’s purpose in mentioning Achilles?

Possible Answers:

To highlight the similarities between Frederic’s life and that of Achilles

To provide a comparison that shows how Frederic’s weakness ultimately devoured his great strength

To provide a comparison that shows how Frederic was not actually as strong as he believed he was

To illustrate how Frederic was following an age-old and classical pattern of rise and fall

To highlight the insanity that Frederic suffered from that encouraged him to try to emulate one of history's greatest warriors

Correct answer:

To provide a comparison that shows how Frederic’s weakness ultimately devoured his great strength

Explanation:

The author mentions Achilles immediately after she says, “From the experience of the ages we have learned to expect to find, coupled with great strength, a proportionate weakness, and usually it devours the greater part," so it can be concluded that the author’s intention is to provide a comparison between Frederic and Achilles to show how Frederic’s weaknesses ultimately overcame his great strength.

Example Question #6 : Determining Relevance Of Information

Adapted from “Of the Pathetic Fallacy” by John Ruskin in English Critical Essays: Nineteenth Century (1916, ed. Edward Jones)

English affectation has of late much multiplied among us the use of two of the most objectionable words that were ever coined by the troublesomeness of metaphysicians—namely, “objective” and “subjective.” No words can be more exquisitely, and in all points, useless; and I merely speak of them that I may, at once and for ever, get them out of my way, and out of my reader’s. But to get that done, they must be explained.

The word “blue,” say certain philosophers, means the sensation of color that the human eye receives in looking at the open sky, or at a bell gentian. Now, say they further, as this sensation can only be felt when the eye is turned to the object, and as, therefore, no such sensation is produced by the object when nobody looks at it, therefore the thing, when it is not looked at, is not blue; and thus (say they) there are many qualities of things which depend as much on something else as on themselves. To be sweet, a thing must have a taster; it is only sweet while it is being tasted, and if the tongue had not the capacity of taste, then the sugar would not have the quality of sweetness.

And then they agree that the qualities of things which thus depend upon our perception of them, and upon our human nature as affected by them, shall be called “subjective”; and the qualities of things which they always have, irrespective of any other nature, as roundness or squareness, shall be called “objective.”

From these ingenious views the step is very easy to a further opinion, that it does not much matter what things are in themselves, but only what they are to us, and that the only real truth of them is their appearance to, or effect upon, us. From which position, with a hearty desire for mystification, and much egotism, selfishness, shallowness, and impertinence, a philosopher may easily go so far as to believe, and say, that everything in the world depends upon his or her seeing or thinking of it, and that nothing, therefore, exists, but what he or she sees or thinks of.

Now, to get rid of all these ambiguities and troublesome words at once, be it observed that the word “blue” does not mean the sensation caused by a gentian on the human eye, but it means the power of producing that sensation; and this power is always there, in the thing, whether we are there to experience it or not, and would remain there though there were not left a man on the face of the earth. Precisely in the same way, gunpowder has a power of exploding. It will not explode if you put no match to it. But it has always the power of so exploding, and is therefore called an explosive compound, which it very positively and assuredly is, whatever philosophy may say to the contrary.

In like manner, a gentian does not produce the sensation of blueness if you don’t look at it. But it has always the power of doing so, its particles being everlastingly so arranged by its Maker. And, therefore, the gentian and the sky are always verily blue, whatever philosophy may say to the contrary, and if you do not see them blue when you look at them, it is not their fault but yours.

Hence I would say to these philosophers: If, instead of using the sonorous phrase, “It is objectively so,” you will use the plain old phrase “It is so,” and if instead of the sonorous phrase “It is subjectively so,” you will say, in plain old English, “It does so” or “It seems so to me,” you will, on the whole, be more intelligible to your fellow-creatures; and besides, if you find that a thing which generally “does so” to other people (as a gentian looks blue to most people), does not so to you, on any particular occasion, you will not fall into the impertinence of saying that the thing is not so, or did not so, but you will say simply (what you will be all the better for speedily finding out) that something is the matter with you. If you find that you cannot explode the gunpowder, you will not declare that all gunpowder is subjective, and all explosion imaginary, but you will simply suspect and declare yourself to be an ill-made match. Which, on the whole, though there may be a distant chance of a mistake about it, is, nevertheless, the wisest conclusion you can come to until further experiment.

The author’s primary criticism of most philosophers is that they are __________.

Possible Answers:

self-centered 

foolish

ridiculous

frantic

haughty

Correct answer:

self-centered 

Explanation:

The author primarily criticizes philosophers for being “self-centered.” This is most clearly demonstrated in the fourth paragraph and can be seen in excerpts such as “From which position . . . and much egotism, selfishness, shallowness, and impertinence, a philosopher may easily go so far as to believe, and say, that everything in the world depends upon his or her seeing or thinking of it, and that nothing, therefore, exists, but what he or she sees or thinks of.” The author is commenting that philosophers are too wrapped up in declaring that their own perception of the world is the only perception that they can trust, and that they are therefore “self-centered.” It is probable that the author would also describe philosophers as “foolish" and particularly “haughty,” but these answers are supported by less evidence than “self-centered,” and you are tasked with finding the “primary” criticism.

Example Question #7 : Determining Relevance Of Information

Adapted from Frederick Douglass by Charles Chestnutt (1899)

Confronted with the probability of losing his usefulness as the "awful example," Douglass took the bold step of publishing in the spring of 1845 the narrative of his experience as a slave. The pamphlet was widely read. It was written in a style of graphic simplicity, and was such an exposé of slavery as exasperated its jealous supporters and beneficiaries. Douglass soon had excellent reasons to fear that he would be recaptured by force or guile and returned to slavery or a worse fate; hence, he sought liberty beyond the sea.

In 1845, Douglass set sail for England on board the Cambria of the Cunard Line. Due to his race, Douglass was compelled to ride in the steerage; nevertheless, he became quite the lion of the vessel, made the steerage fashionable, was given the freedom of the ship, and was invited to lecture on slavery. This he did to the satisfaction of all the passengers except a few young men from New Orleans and Georgia, who made his strictures on the South a personal matter and threatened to throw him overboard. Their zeal was diminished by an order of the captain to put them in irons. They sulked in their cabins, however, and rushed into print when they reached Liverpool, thus giving Douglass the very introduction he needed to the British public, which was promptly informed, by himself and others, of the true facts in regard to the steamer speech and the speaker.

The two years Douglass spent in Great Britain upon this visit were active and fruitful ones, and did much to bring him to that full measure of development scarcely possible for him in slave-ridden America. For while the English government had fostered slavery prior to the Revolution and had only a few years before Douglass's visit abolished it in its own colonies, this wretched system had never fastened its clutches upon the home islands. Slaves had been brought to England, it is true, and carried away; but, when the right to remove them was questioned in court, Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, with an abundance of argument and precedent to support a position similar to that of Justice Taney in the Dred Scott case, had taken the contrary view, and declared that the air of England was free, and the slave who breathed it but once ceased thereby to be a slave. History and humanity have delivered their verdict on these two decisions, and time is not likely to disturb it.

Douglass remained in England two years. Not only did this visit give him a great opportunity to influence British public opinion against slavery, but the material benefits to himself were inestimable. He had left the United States a slave before the law, denied every civil right and every social privilege, literally a man without a country, and forced to cross the Atlantic among the cattle in the steerage of the steamboat. He met in Europe, as he said in a farewell speech, men quite as white as he had ever seen in the United States, and had seen in their faces no scorn of his complexion. He had travelled over the four kingdoms, and had encountered no sign of disrespect. He had been lionized in London, had spoken every night of his last month there, and had declined as many more invitations. Everywhere he had denounced slavery, everywhere hospitable doors had opened wide to receive him, everywhere he had made friends for himself and his cause. A slave and an outcast at home, he had been made to feel himself a gentleman, had been the companion of great men and good women. Urged to remain in this land of freedom, and offered aid to establish himself in life there, his heart bled for his less fortunate brethren in captivity, and with the God-speed of his English friends ringing in his ears, he went back to America—to scorn, to obloquy, to ostracism, but after all to the work to which he had been ordained, and which he was so well qualified to perform.

What significance does the incident with the “young men from Georgia and New Orleans” have on the direction of Douglass’ story?

Possible Answers:

It convinced Douglass that he needed to return to the United States one day so he could continue to effect change.

It made Douglass feel sympathy for the ignorance of others.

It caused Douglass to become more resolute in his decision to flee the United States.

It provided Douglass with an example of his experiences to give to the British public.

It worried Douglass about how he would be received in Britain and caused him to recede from public life.

Correct answer:

It provided Douglass with an example of his experiences to give to the British public.

Explanation:

While it could possibly be true that Douglass’ experiences on the ship convince him he needs to return to the United States, it is more likely he already felt this way. Likewise, he might have been caused to feel more resolute about his decision to flee the United States, but again, it is likely he already felt quite resolute. What is clear, though, is that the experience provided Douglass with an example of his treatment and experiences to give to the British public. The author says, “[The young men from Georgia and New Orleans] sulked in their cabins, however, and rushed into print when they reached Liverpool, thus giving Douglass the very introduction he needed to the British public, which was promptly informed, by himself and others, of the true facts in regard to the steamer speech and the speaker.” Because the young men went to the papers with their story, Douglass was presented with an early opportunity to defend himself and introduce himself to the British public.

Example Question #8 : Determining Relevance Of Information

Adapted from "A Criticism on the English Historians" by Samuel Johnson in The Rambler #122 (1751)

Of the various kinds of speaking or writing, which serve necessity, or promote pleasure, none appears so artless or easy as simple narration; for what should make him who knows the whole order and progress of an affair unable to relate it? Yet we hourly find such as endeavor to entertain or instruct us by recitals, clouding the facts that they intend to illustrate, and losing themselves and their auditors in wilds and mazes, in digression and confusion. When we have congratulated ourselves upon a new opportunity of inquiry, and new means of information, it often happens, that without designing either deceit or concealment, without ignorance of the fact, or unwillingness to disclose it, the relator fills the ear with empty sounds, harasses the attention with fruitless impatience, and disturbs the imagination by a tumult of events, without order of time, or train of consequence.

It is natural to believe, upon the same principle, that no writer has a more easy task than the historian. The philosopher has the works of omniscience to examine, and is therefore engaged in disquisitions, to which finite intellects are utterly unequal. The poet trusts to his invention, and is not only in danger of those inconsistencies, to which every one is exposed by departure from truth, but may be censured as well for deficiencies of matter, as for irregularity of disposition, or impropriety of ornament. But the happy historian has no other labor than of gathering what tradition pours down before him, or records treasure for his use. He has only the actions and designs of men like himself to conceive and to relate; he is not to form, but copy characters, and therefore is not blamed for the inconsistency of statesmen, the injustice of tyrants, or the cowardice of commanders. The difficulty of making variety consistent, or uniting probability with surprise, needs not to disturb him; the manners and actions of his personages are already fixed; his materials are provided and put into his hands, and he is at leisure to employ all his powers in arranging and displaying them.

Yet, even with these advantages, very few in any age have been able to raise themselves to reputation by writing histories; and among the innumerable authors who fill every nation with accounts of their ancestors, or undertake to transmit to futurity the events of their own time, the greater part, when fashion and novelty have ceased to recommend them, are of no other use than chronological memorials, which necessity may sometimes require to be consulted, but which fright away curiosity and disgust delicacy.

It is observed that our nation, which has produced so many authors eminent for almost every other species of literary excellence, has been hitherto remarkably barren of historical genius; and so far has this defect raised prejudices against us, that some have doubted whether an Englishman can stop at that mediocrity of style, or confine his mind to that even tenor of imagination that narrative requires.

They who can believe that nature has so capriciously distributed understanding, have surely no claim to the honor of serious confutation. The inhabitants of the same country have opposite characters in different ages; the prevalence or neglect of any particular study can proceed only from the accidental influence of some temporary cause; and if we have failed in history, we can have failed only because history has not hitherto been diligently cultivated.

But how is it evident, that we have not historians among us, whom we may venture to place in comparison with any that the neighboring nations can produce? The attempt of Raleigh is deservedly celebrated for the labor of his researches, and the elegance of his style; but he has endeavored to exert his judgment more than his genius, to select facts, rather than adorn them; and has produced an historical dissertation, but seldom risen to the majesty of history.

Why does the author believe that Raleigh has so "seldom risen to the majesty of history"?

Possible Answers:

Because Raleigh, despite being a good researcher and accomplished stylist, has been insufficiently selective in his use of historical facts, and therefore has produced histories that, while accurate, are too long and not sufficiently interesting to readers.

Because Raleigh, despite being an accomplished stylist, has failed to do sufficient research to produce accurate or interesting historical documents.

Because Raleigh was distracted by his poetry career, and therefore did not devote sufficient effort and care to his historical writing.

Because Raleigh, despite being a good researcher and accomplished stylist, has been overly selective and biased in his use of historical facts, and therefore has produced histories that are not sufficiently objective.

Because Raleigh, despite being a faithful and accurate reporter of historical facts, has failed to imbue his writing with enough style to rise to the level of literary excellence.

Correct answer:

Because Raleigh, despite being a good researcher and accomplished stylist, has been overly selective and biased in his use of historical facts, and therefore has produced histories that are not sufficiently objective.

Explanation:

The author asserts that while Raleigh is "deservedly celebrated for the labour of his researches, and the elegance of his style," he is overly selective and biased in his use of historical facts, and therefore produces documents that the author characterizes as "dissertations" rather than historical documents that reflect the "majesty" of actual events and the traditions to which they give rise.

Example Question #9 : Determining Relevance Of Information

Adapted from The Everyday Life of Abraham Lincoln by Francis Fischer Browne (1913)

Lincoln took but little part in politics of slavery until the passage of the Nebraska Bill by Congress in 1854. The enactment of this measure impelled him to take a firmer stand upon the question of slavery than he had yet assumed. He had been opposed to the institution on grounds of sentiment since his boyhood; now he determined to fight it from principle. Mr. Herndon states that Lincoln really became an anti-slavery man in 1831, during his visit to New Orleans, where he was deeply affected by the horrors of the traffic in human beings. On one occasion he saw a slave, a beautiful girl, sold at auction. She was felt over, pinched, and trotted around to show bidders she was sound. Lincoln walked away from the scene with a feeling of deep abhorrence. He said to John Hanks, "If I ever get a chance to hit that institution, John, I'll hit it hard!"

Judge Gillespie records a conversation that he had with Lincoln in 1850 on the slavery question, remarking by way of introduction that the subject of slavery was the only one on which he (Lincoln) was apt to become excited. "I recollect meeting him once at Shelbyville," says Judge Gillespie, "when he remarked that something must be done or slavery would overrun the whole country. He said there were about six hundred thousand non-slaveholding whites in Kentucky to about thirty-three thousand slaveholders; that in the convention then recently held it was expected that the delegates would represent these classes about in proportion to their respective numbers; but when the convention assembled, there was not a single representative of the non-slaveholding class; everyone was in the interest of the slaveholders; 'and,' said he, 'the thing is spreading like wildfire over the country. In a few years we will be ready to accept the institution in Illinois, and the whole country will adopt it.' I asked him to what he attributed the change that was going on in public opinion. He said he had recently put that question to a Kentuckian, who answered by saying, 'You might have any amount of land, money in your pocket, or bank-stock, and while traveling around nobody would be any wiser; but if you had a black man trudging at your heels, everybody would see him and know that you owned a slave. It is the most ostentatious way of displaying property in the world; if a young man goes courting, the only inquiry is as to how many slaves he owns.' The love for slave property was swallowing up every other mercenary possession. Its ownership not only betokened the possession of wealth, but indicated the gentleman of leisure who scorned labor. These things Mr. Lincoln regarded as highly pernicious to the thoughtless and giddy young men who were too much inclined to look upon work as vulgar and ungentlemanly. He was much excited, and said with great earnestness that this spirit ought to be met, and if possible checked; that slavery was a great and crying injustice, an enormous national crime, and we could not expect to escape punishment for it. I asked him how he would proceed in his efforts to check the spread of slavery. He confessed he did not see his way clearly; but I think he made up his mind that from that time he would oppose slavery actively. I know that Lincoln always contended that no man had any right, other than what mere brute force gave him, to hold a slave. He used to say it was singular that the courts would hold that a man never lost his right to property that had been stolen from him, but that he instantly lost his right to himself if he was stolen. Lincoln always contended that the cheapest way of getting rid of slavery was for the nation to buy the slaves and set them free."

While in Congress, Lincoln had declared himself plainly as opposed to slavery; and in public speeches not less than private conversations he had not hesitated to express his convictions on the subject. In 1850 he said to Major Stuart: "The time will soon come when we must all be Democrats or Abolitionists. When that time comes, my mind is made up. The slavery question cannot be compromised." The hour had now struck in which Lincoln was to espouse with his whole heart and soul that cause for which finally he was to lay down his life. In the language of Mr. Arnold, "He had bided his time. He had waited until the harvest was ripe. With unerring sagacity he realized that the triumph of freedom was at hand. He entered upon the conflict with the deepest conviction that the perpetuity of the Republic required the extinction of slavery.

How does the anecdote of the girl sold at a slave auction in New Orleans function in the essay?

Possible Answers:

It outlines the origins of Lincoln’s opposition to slavery.

It highlights the atrocities committed in New Orleans at the time.

It explains why Lincoln felt uncomfortable in New Orleans and the South in general.

It distinguishes New Orleans as a slave-holding city.

It demonstrates the brutality inherent in the institution of slavery.

Correct answer:

It outlines the origins of Lincoln’s opposition to slavery.

Explanation:

The author says, “Mr. Herndon states that Lincoln really became an anti-slavery man in 1831, during his visit to New Orleans, where he was deeply affected by the horrors of the traffic in human beings.” When Lincoln sees the girl sold at a slave auction, it instills in him a powerful resolve to bring about the end of slavery: “Lincoln walked away from the scene with a feeling of deep abhorrence. He said to John Hanks, 'If I ever get a chance to hit that institution, John, I'll hit it hard!'"

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