MCAT Verbal : Understanding the thesis

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for MCAT Verbal

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Example Questions

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Example Question #1 : Understanding The Thesis

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.

Which of the following statements most represents the main idea of the passage?

Possible Answers:

The older surgeons were stubborn and thus replaced by younger surgeons more willing to adapt to new technology.

While the younger surgeons were well-versed in the latest operative techniques, the experience of the older surgeons was priceless.

Younger surgeons were disdainful of the older surgeons and were willing to take risks that their predecessors feared.

Older surgeons were so highly esteemed in their fields that it was impossible for a young surgeon to establish himself.

Correct answer:

While the younger surgeons were well-versed in the latest operative techniques, the experience of the older surgeons was priceless.

Explanation:

The main purpose of this passage can best be summed up by the statement "while the younger surgeons were well-versed in the latest operative techniques, the experience of the older surgeons was priceless."

To break down the passage, let's look at what each paragraph is saying.

Paragraph 1: The field of surgery was dominated by surgeons who made a name for themselves during the Civil War.

Paragraph 2: The established surgeons were of an older generation who did not incorporate all the newest advances in their field.

Paragraph 3: The recognition of infectious microorganisms and development of techniques to counteract them allowed younger surgeons to advance the field well beyond what the previous generation was able to do.

Paragraph 4: Previous surgeons made their name by saving lives through amputations, but they were no competition for younger surgeons using new techniques to save lives as well as the limb itself.

Paragraph 5: While younger surgeons took over the role of operating, the experience, knowledge, and administrative abilities of previous surgeons was second-to-none and invaluable to the field.

The overall idea of the passage is thus that while younger surgeons were taking over most of the operating due to their incorporating new techniques, the previous generation of surgeons were still highly regarded for their intangible attributes of experience and leadership and thus continued to lead prominent roles.

Incorrect choices:

While paragraphs 2 and 3 tell us that the use of new techniques by young surgeons allowed them to perform operations previously impossible to their predecessors, the suggestion that "older surgeons were stubborn and thus replaced by younger surgeons" is faulty use of the information. Likewise, the statement that "younger surgeons were disdainful of older surgeons and were willing to take risks" is not supported by the passage. There is nothing to suggest that the new generation of surgeons clashed with the older generation, nor can we say that they took risks. Their new work and techniques were permitted by aseptic techniques that was previously unknown to their predecessors.

While paragraph 1 seems to suggest that civil war surgeons were firmly entrenched in their field, paragraph 3 tells us that new techniques brought in a new wave of surgeons that quickly established themselves and became the primary operators (paragraphs 4 and 5).

Example Question #2 : Understanding The Thesis

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.

In the second paragraph, the author primarily focuses on __________.

Possible Answers:

The impact of the assassination

The rarity of the event

The significance of the telegraph

The rapid spread of information

Comparisons with previous events

Correct answer:

The rarity of the event

Explanation:

In the second paragraph, the author primarily focuses on convincing his audience of the rarity of the assassination of an empress. This can be seen in such excerpts as, “One must go back about two thousand years to find an instance to put with this one” and “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.” This is part of the author’s argument throughout the passage, but it is most heavily developed in the second paragraph. The impact of the assassination and comparisons with previous events are somewhat part of the overall argument of the essay and the second paragraph, but they are not the primary focus of either.

Example Question #3 : Understanding The Thesis

Adapted from "William Dean Howells" published in The Nebraska State Journal by Willa Cather (July 14, 1895)

Certainly now in his old age Mr. Howells is selecting queer titles for his books. A while ago we had that feeble tale, The Coast of Bohemia, and now we have My Literary Passions. “Passions,” literary or otherwise, were never Mr. Howells’ forte and surely no man could be further from even the coast of Bohemia.

Apropos of My Literary Passions, which has so long strung out in The Ladies’ Home Journal along with those thrilling articles about how Henry Ward Beecher tied his necktie and what kind of coffee Mrs. Hall Cain likes, why did Mr. Howells write it? Doesn’t Mr. Howells know that at one time or another everyone raves over Don Quixote, imitates Heine, worships Tourgueneff and calls Tolstoy a prophet? Does Mr. Howells think that no one but he ever had youth and enthusiasm and aspirations? Doesn’t he know that the only thing that makes the world worth living in at all is that once, when we are young, we all have that great love for books and impersonal things, all reverence and dream? We have all known the time when Porthos, Athos and d’Artagnan were vastly more real and important to us than the folks who lived next door. We have all dwelt in that country where Anna Karenina and the Levins were the only people who mattered much. We have all known that intoxicating period when we thought we “understood life,” because we had read Daudet, Zola and Guy de Maupassant, and like Mr. Howells we all looked back rather fondly upon the time when we believed that books were the truth and art was all. After a while books grow matter of fact like everything else and we always think enviously of the days when they were new and wonderful and strange. That’s a part of existence. We lose our first keen relish for literature just as we lose it for ice cream and confectionery. The taste grows older, wiser and more subdued. We would all wear out of very enthusiasm if it did not. But why should Mr. Howells tell the world this common experience in detail as though it were his and his alone? He might as well write a detailed account of how he had the measles and the whooping cough. It was all right and proper for Mr. Howells to like Heine and Hugo, but, in the words of the circus clown, “We’ve all been there.”

What is the author’s primary criticism of Mr. Howells?

Possible Answers:

He mimics youthful enthusiasm perversely.

He is gullible and easily manipulated.

He claims ordinary experiences for his own.

He misunderstands the role of experience in life.

He is dispassionate and monotonous.

Correct answer:

He claims ordinary experiences for his own.

Explanation:

The author primarily criticizes Mr. Howells for the manner in which he claims ordinary experiences as if they were his own unique and rare experiences. This can be seen in excerpts such as, “But why should Mr. Howells tell the world this common experience in detail as though it were his and his alone? He might as well write a detailed account of how he had the measles and the whooping cough. It was all right and proper for Mr. Howells to like Heine and Hugo, but, in the words of the circus clown, 'We’ve all been there.'" You could argue that the author criticizes Howells for his mimicry of “youthful enthusiasm,” but there is little evidence to suggest the author would call this “perverse.” And, although the author accuses Howells of lacking passion, she does not focus on criticizing his “monotonous” or “dispassionate” writings. Finally, the author does discuss the influence that experience has on one’s enjoyment of life and perception of literature, but this is done to support the author’s primary criticism of Howells’ claiming ordinary experiences as his own.

Example Question #4 : Understanding The Thesis

Adapted from "William Dean Howells" published in The Nebraska State Journal by Willa Cather (July 14, 1895)

Certainly now in his old age Mr. Howells is selecting queer titles for his books. A while ago we had that feeble tale, The Coast of Bohemia, and now we have My Literary Passions. “Passions,” literary or otherwise, were never Mr. Howells’ forte and surely no man could be further from even the coast of Bohemia.

Apropos of My Literary Passions, which has so long strung out in The Ladies’ Home Journal along with those thrilling articles about how Henry Ward Beecher tied his necktie and what kind of coffee Mrs. Hall Cain likes, why did Mr. Howells write it? Doesn’t Mr. Howells know that at one time or another everyone raves over Don Quixote, imitates Heine, worships Tourgueneff and calls Tolstoy a prophet? Does Mr. Howells think that no one but he ever had youth and enthusiasm and aspirations? Doesn’t he know that the only thing that makes the world worth living in at all is that once, when we are young, we all have that great love for books and impersonal things, all reverence and dream? We have all known the time when Porthos, Athos and d’Artagnan were vastly more real and important to us than the folks who lived next door. We have all dwelt in that country where Anna Karenina and the Levins were the only people who mattered much. We have all known that intoxicating period when we thought we “understood life,” because we had read Daudet, Zola and Guy de Maupassant, and like Mr. Howells we all looked back rather fondly upon the time when we believed that books were the truth and art was all. After a while books grow matter of fact like everything else and we always think enviously of the days when they were new and wonderful and strange. That’s a part of existence. We lose our first keen relish for literature just as we lose it for ice cream and confectionery. The taste grows older, wiser and more subdued. We would all wear out of very enthusiasm if it did not. But why should Mr. Howells tell the world this common experience in detail as though it were his and his alone? He might as well write a detailed account of how he had the measles and the whooping cough. It was all right and proper for Mr. Howells to like Heine and Hugo, but, in the words of the circus clown, “We’ve all been there.”

The author’s tone and attitude could best be described as __________.

Possible Answers:

scathing and disparaging

portentous and disconcerted

irritated and condescending

arrogant and critical

whimsical and mocking

Correct answer:

scathing and disparaging

Explanation:

In this passage, the author focuses on attacking Howells for the lack of literary merit in his recent writings. Many of these answer choices are close to describing the author’s tone and attitude towards Howells, but the best answer is “scathing and disparaging.”Although the author is “critical,” “condescending,” and “mocking,” her writing could best be described as “disparaging.” “Disparaging” means speaking of someone or something as if they are unimportant. And that is the primary argument of this essay—that Howells’ writing is on something so ordinary and commonplace as to have little worth. “Scathing” means bitterly critical, and we may see in the author’s tone a modicum of anger and frustration in the manner in which she attacks Howells. Evidence to support this answer choice can be found in excerpts like "'Passions,' literary or otherwise, were never Mr. Howells’ forte," and, “But why should Mr. Howells tell the world this common experience in detail as though it were his and his alone? He might as well write a detailed account of how he had the measles and the whooping cough. It was all right and proper for Mr. Howells to like Heine and Hugo, but, in the words of the circus clown, 'We’ve all been there.'"

Example Question #5 : Understanding The Thesis

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.

Which of these excerpts best reflects the main argument of the passage?

Possible Answers:

“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.”

“However, my standard is a pretty wide one and covers a good deal of territory.”

“He goes by the brand, yet imagines he goes by the flavor.”

“As concerns tobacco, there are many superstitions.”

“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.”

Correct answer:

“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.”

Explanation:

The main argument of this passage is that there is no standard for cigars and that no man can decide for another man what his preference should be. This is best reflected in the answer choice, “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.” The other answer choices are either incomplete, as far as determining the main argument goes, or else are pieces of evidence used to support the primary argument.

Example Question #6 : Understanding The Thesis

Adapted from "Walt Whitman" in The Nebraska State Journal by Willa Cather (January 19, 1896)

Speaking of monuments reminds one that there is more talk about a monument to Walt Whitman, “the good, gray poet.” Just why the adjective good is always applied to Whitman it is difficult to discover, probably because people who could not understand him at all took it for granted that he meant well. If ever there was a poet who had no literary ethics at all beyond those of nature, it was he. He was neither good nor bad, any more than are the animals he continually admired and envied. He was a poet without an exclusive sense of the poetic, a man without the finer discriminations, enjoying everything with the unreasoning enthusiasm of a boy. He was the poet of the dung hill as well as of the mountains, which is admirable in theory but excruciating in verse. In the same paragraph he informs you that, “The pure contralto sings in the organ loft,” and that “The malformed limbs are tied to the table, what is removed drop horribly into a pail.” No branch of surgery is poetic, and that hopelessly prosaic word “pail” would kill a whole volume of sonnets. Whitman’s poems are reckless rhapsodies over creation in general, sometimes sublime, sometimes ridiculous. He declares that the ocean with its “imperious waves, commanding” is beautiful, and that the fly-specks on the walls are also beautiful. Such catholic taste may go in science, but in poetry their results are sad. The poet’s task is usually to select the poetic. Whitman never bothers to do that, he takes everything in the universe from fly-specks to the fixed stars. His Leaves of Grass is a sort of dictionary of the English language, and in it is the name of everything in creation set down with great reverence but without any particular connection.

But however ridiculous Whitman may be there is a primitive elemental force about him. He is so full of hardiness and of the joy of life. He looks at all nature in the delighted, admiring way in which the old Greeks and the primitive poets did. He exults so in the red blood in his body and the strength in his arms. He has such a passion for the warmth and dignity of all that is natural. He has no code but to be natural, a code that this complex world has so long outgrown. He is sensual, not after the manner of Swinburne and Gautier, who are always seeking for perverted and bizarre effects on the senses, but in the frank fashion of the old barbarians who ate and slept and married and smacked their lips over the mead horn. He is rigidly limited to the physical, things that quicken his pulses, please his eyes or delight his nostrils. There is an element of poetry in all this, but it is by no means the highest. If a joyous elephant should break forth into song, his lay would probably be very much like Whitman’s famous “Song of Myself.” It would have just about as much delicacy and deftness and discriminations. He says:

“I think I could turn and live with the animals. They are so placid and self-contained, I stand and look at them long and long. They do not sweat and whine about their condition. They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins. They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God. Not one is dissatisfied nor not one is demented with the mania of many things. Not one kneels to another nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago. Not one is respectable or unhappy, over the whole earth.” And that is not irony on nature, he means just that, life meant no more to him. He accepted the world just as it is and glorified it, the seemly and unseemly, the good and the bad. He had no conception of a difference in people or in things. All men had bodies and were alike to him, one about as good as another. To live was to fulfill all natural laws and impulses. To be comfortable was to be happy. To be happy was the ultimatum. He did not realize the existence of a conscience or a responsibility. He had no more thought of good or evil than the folks in Kipling’s Jungle Book.

And yet there is an undeniable charm about this optimistic vagabond who is made so happy by the warm sunshine and the smell of spring fields. A sort of good fellowship and whole-heartedness in every line he wrote. His veneration for things physical and material, for all that is in water or air or land, is so real that as you read him you think for the moment that you would rather like to live so if you could. For the time you half believe that a sound body and a strong arm are the greatest things in the world. Perhaps no book shows so much as Leaves of Grass that keen senses do not make a poet. When you read it you realize how spirited a thing poetry really is and how great a part spiritual perceptions play in apparently sensuous verse, if only to select the beautiful from the gross.

The excerpt of a poem by Whitman focuses primarily on __________.

Possible Answers:

how easily he could live with animals instead of living with humans

the lack of hierarchy in the animal kingdom

the religious impact on humans that is so absent in animals

his nostalgia for his youth spent freely among the animals near his home

the beauty of simplicity in nature versus the complexity of human concerns

Correct answer:

the beauty of simplicity in nature versus the complexity of human concerns

Explanation:

The following is the excerpt of a poem by Whitman that the author chooses to focus on: “I think I could turn and live with the animals. They are so placid and self-contained, I stand and look at them long and long. They do not sweat and whine about their condition. They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins. They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God. Not one is dissatisfied nor not one is demented with the mania of many things. Not one kneels to another nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago. Not one is respectable or unhappy, over the whole earth.”

The author is discussing how the animals that he observes are different from humans. The animals are characterized as not worrying about their situation, as uncomplaining and existing simply for the sake of existence. There is an inherent beauty in the simplicity of animal life, according to Whitman, that is in stark contrast to the complexity of the human existence. The answer choices “The religious impact on humans that is so absent in animals” and “The lack of hierarchy in the animal kingdom” are part of the author’s focus, but these are pieces of evidence used to furnish the primary argument of the poem. The answer choice “How easily he could live with animals compared to humans” is close to correct, but is more of an introductory statement into the focus of the rest of the essay, which is concerned with why it is that the author could live so easily with animals—they lived a life of beautiful simplicity when compared to human life.

Example Question #7 : Understanding The Thesis

Adapted from “The Origin of Music” in Critical and Historical Essays by Edward Macdowell (1912)

Darwin's theory that music had its origin “in the sounds made by the half-human progenitors of man during the season of courtship” seems for many reasons to be inadequate and untenable. A much more plausible explanation, it seems to me, is to be found in the theory of Theophrastus, in which the origin of music is attributed to the whole range of human emotion.

When an animal utters a cry of joy or pain it expresses its emotions in more or less definite tones, and at some remote period of the earth's history all primeval mankind must have expressed its emotions in much the same manner. When this inarticulate speech developed into the use of certain sounds as symbols for emotions—emotions that otherwise would have been expressed by the natural sounds occasioned by them—then we have the beginnings of speech as distinguished from music, which is still the universal language. In other words, intellectual development begins with articulate speech, leaving music for the expression of the emotions.

To symbolize the sounds used to express emotion, if I may so put it, is to weaken that expression, and it would naturally be the strongest emotion that would first feel the inadequacy of the new-found speech. Now what is mankind's strongest emotion? Even in the nineteenth century Goethe could say, “'Tis fear that constitutes the god-like in man.” Certainly before the Christian era the soul of mankind had its roots in fear. In our superstition we were like children beneath a great tree of which the upper part was as a vague and fascinating mystery, but the roots holding it firmly to the ground were tangible, palpable facts. We feared—we knew not what. Love was human, all the other emotions were human; fear alone was indefinable.

The primeval man, looking at the world subjectively, was merely part of it. He might love, hate, threaten, kill, if he willed; every other creature could do the same. But the wind was a great spirit to him; lightning and thunder threatened him as they did the rest of the world; the flood would destroy him as ruthlessly as it tore the trees asunder. The elements were animate powers that had nothing in common with him; for what the intellect cannot explain the imagination magnifies.

Fear, then, was the strongest emotion. Therefore auxiliary aids to express and cause fear were necessary when the speech symbols for fear, drifting further and further away from expressing the actual thing, became words, and words were inadequate to express and cause fear. In that vague groping for sound symbols which would cause and express fear far better than mere words, we have the beginning of what is gradually to develop into music.

What is the author’s primary argument in this passage?

Possible Answers:

Darwin’s argument about the origin of music is incomplete.

Music first appeared as a result of primeval man’s attempts to find a mate.

Human language has long proven inadequate for the expression of human emotions.

Music was born out of the inability to express fear through spoken language.

Fear is the most significant and primal of human emotions.

Correct answer:

Music was born out of the inability to express fear through spoken language.

Explanation:

The author’s primary focus in this essay is explaining the origin of music. From the author’s statements in the first paragraph, we know that he disagrees with Darwin’s conclusions. But, his primary focus is not on disputing Darwin; rather, it is on proving his own argument. This means we can eliminate the answer choice “Music first appeared as a result of primeval man’s attempts to find a mate” because it is a restatement of Darwin’s conclusions. And, we can also eliminate “Darwin’s argument about the origin of music is incomplete” because it suggests that the author’s primary purpose is to dispute Darwin. The correct answer, the one that captures the author’s focus on explaining the origins of music, is “Music was born out of the inability to express fear through spoken language.” The remaining two answer choices are incorrect because they are part of the author’s argument used to prove the thesis, rather than the thesis itself.

Example Question #8 : Understanding The Thesis

Adapted from "Hallam" in Volume 1 of Critical and Historical Essays by Thomas Babbington Macaulay (1828)

History, at least in its state of ideal perfection, is a compound of poetry and philosophy. It impresses general truths on the mind by a vivid representation of particular characters and incidents. But, in fact, the two hostile elements of which it consists have never been known to form a perfect amalgamation, and at length, in our own time, they have been completely and professedly separated. The problem seems only to be getting worse. Good histories, in the proper sense of the word, we have not. But we have good historical romances, and good historical essays. The imagination and the reason, if we may use a legal metaphor, have made partition of a province of literature of which they were formerly seized per my et per tout, and now they hold their respective portions in severalty, instead of holding the whole in common.

To make the past present, to bring the distant near, to place us in the society of a great man or on the eminence which overlooks the field of a mighty battle, to invest with the reality of human flesh and blood beings whom we are too much inclined to consider as personified qualities in an allegory, to call up our ancestors before us with all their peculiarities of language, manners, and garb, to show us over their houses, to seat us at their tables, to rummage their old-fashioned wardrobes, to explain the uses of their ponderous furniture, these parts of the duty which properly belongs to the historian have been appropriated by the historical novelist. On the other hand, to extract the philosophy of history, to direct on judgment of events and men, to trace the connection of cause and effects, and to draw from the occurrences of former time general lessons of moral and political wisdom has become the business of a distinct class of writers.

Of the two kinds of composition into which history has been thus divided, the one may be compared to a map, the other to a painted landscape. The picture, though it places the country before us, does not enable us to ascertain with accuracy the dimensions, the distances, and the angles. The map is not a work of imitative art. It presents no scene to the imagination, but it gives us exact information as to the bearings of the various points, and is a more useful companion to the traveller or the general than the painted landscape could be, though it were the grandest that ever Rosa peopled with outlaws, or the sweetest over which Claude ever poured the mellow effulgence of a setting sun.

It is remarkable that the practice of separating the two ingredients of which history is composed has become prevalent on the Continent as well as in this country. Italy has already produced a historical novel, of high merit and of still higher promise. In France, the practice has been carried to a length somewhat whimsical. M. Sismondi publishes a grave and stately history of the Merovingian kings, very valuable, and a little tedious. He then sends forth as a companion to it a novel, in which he attempts to give a lively representation of characters and manners. This course, as it seems to us, has all the disadvantages of a division of labour, and none of its advantages.

What is the author’s primary argument?

Possible Answers:

History has always involved a division into two separate components.

The recording of history suffers from its separation into poetic and philosophical approaches.

The student of history is manipulated by the division of history into two distinct classes of history.

Historical records need to be carefully examined before we put much faith in them.

Philosophical historical writing is far more useful to the student than poetic historical writing.

Correct answer:

The recording of history suffers from its separation into poetic and philosophical approaches.

Explanation:

In this essay, the author’s primary argument is that the recording of history suffers from the fact that it has been divided into two distinct categories: one more poetic, one more philosophical. This is best seen in the opening lines and in the conclusion, in excerpts such as “This course, as it seems to us, has all the disadvantages of a division of labour, and none of its advantages" and “History, at least in its state of ideal perfection, is a compound of poetry and philosophy. It impresses general truths on the mind by a vivid representation of particular characters and incidents. But, in fact, the two hostile elements of which it consists have never been known to form a perfect amalgamation." The answer choice that best states this is the correct answer, although many of the options are very similar to one another. The author would probably agree with all of these answer choices, and some of them are conclusions of parts of the author's argument. In this instance, it is very important to be able to identify what is the most important or relevant part of an author’s argument—what is the central argument?

Example Question #9 : Understanding The Thesis

Adapted from “Federalist No.19” in The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison (1788)

Among the confederacies of antiquity, the most considerable was that of the Grecian republics, associated under the Amphictyonic council. From the best accounts transmitted of this celebrated institution, it bore a very instructive analogy to the present Confederation of the American States. The members retained the character of independent and sovereign states, and had equal votes in the federal council. This council had a general authority to propose and resolve whatever it judged necessary for the common welfare of Greece; to declare and carry on war; to decide, in the last resort, all controversies between the members; to fine the aggressing party; to employ the whole force of the confederacy against the disobedient; and to admit new members. The Amphictyons were the guardians of religion, and of the immense riches belonging to the temple of Delphos, where they had the right of jurisdiction in controversies between the inhabitants and those who came to consult the oracle. As a further provision for the efficacy of the federal powers, they took an oath mutually to defend and protect the united cities, to punish the violators of this oath, and to inflict vengeance on sacrilegious despoilers of the temple.

In theory, and upon paper, this apparatus of powers seems amply sufficient for all general purposes. In several material instances, they exceed the powers enumerated in the Articles of Confederation. The Amphictyons had in their hands the superstition of the times, one of the principal engines by which government was then maintained; they had a declared authority to use coercion against refractory cities, and were bound by oath to exert this authority on the necessary occasions.

Very different, nevertheless, was the experiment from the theory. The powers, like those of the present Congress, were administered by deputies appointed wholly by the cities in their political capacities, and exercised over them in the same capacities. Hence the weakness, the disorders, and finally the destruction of the confederacy. The more powerful members, instead of being kept in awe and subordination, tyrannized successively over all the rest. Athens, as we learn from Demosthenes, was the arbiter of Greece seventy-three years. The Lacedaemonians next governed it twenty-nine years; at a subsequent period, after the battle of Leuctra, the Thebans had their turn of domination. It happened but too often, according to Plutarch, that the deputies of the strongest cities awed and corrupted those of the weaker; and that judgment went in favor of the most powerful party. Even in the midst of defensive and dangerous wars with Persia and Macedon, the members never acted in concert, and were, more or fewer of them, eternally the dupes or the hirelings of the common enemy. The intervals of foreign war were filled up by domestic vicissitudes, convulsions, and carnage.

After the conclusion of the war with Xerxes, it appears that the Lacedaemonians required that a number of the cities should be turned out of the confederacy for the unfaithful part they had acted. The Athenians, finding that the Lacedaemonians would lose fewer partisans by such a measure than themselves, and would become masters of the public deliberations, vigorously opposed and defeated the attempt. This piece of history proves at once the inefficiency of the union, the ambition and jealousy of its most powerful members, and the dependent and degraded condition of the rest. The smaller members, though entitled by the theory of their system to revolve in equal pride and majesty around the common center, had become, in fact, satellites of the orbs of primary magnitude.

Had the Greeks, says the Abbe Milot, been as wise as they were courageous, they would have been admonished by experience of the necessity of a closer union, and would have availed themselves of the peace which followed their success against the Persian arms to establish such a reformation. Instead of this obvious policy, Athens and Sparta, inflated with the victories and the glory they had acquired, became first rivals and then enemies, and did each other infinitely more mischief than they had suffered from Xerxes. Their mutual jealousies, fears, hatreds, and injuries ended in the celebrated Peloponnesian war, which itself ended in the ruin and slavery of the Athenians who had begun it.

What is the author’s primary argument in this passage?

Possible Answers:

The Greeks were their own worst enemies and in order to succeed as a nation America must avoid the greed and corruption that marred ancient Greece.

The lack of peace and unity among the confederacies of Greece provides evidence to support the founding of a stronger union between the American states.

Greek politicians were different in character than American politicians, and so America may hope for a much brighter experience than that of the Greek confederacy.

The confederacies of Greece fell apart due to constant in-fighting and political clamoring and should serve as a warning to the American people.

Confederacies are always and inevitably going to fail.

Correct answer:

The lack of peace and unity among the confederacies of Greece provides evidence to support the founding of a stronger union between the American states.

Explanation:

In this passage, the author is primarily arguing in favor of forming a more centrally controlled Federal union of the American states. The author uses historical evidence from the experience of the confederacies of the Greeks to support his argument. This can be seen in such excerpts as “From the best accounts transmitted of this celebrated institution, it bore a very instructive analogy to the present Confederation of the American States,” “The powers, like those of the present Congress, were administered by deputies appointed wholly by the cities in their political capacities; and exercised over them in the same capacities. Hence the weakness, the disorders, and finally the destruction of the confederacy," and “Had the Greeks, says the Abbe Milot, been as wise as they were courageous, they would have been admonished by experience of the necessity of a closer union." The answer choices “The Greeks were their own worst enemies, and in order to succeed as a nation, America must avoid the greed and corruption that marred ancient Greece” and “The confederacies of Greece fell apart due to constant in-fighting and political clamoring and should serve as a warning to the American people” are both part of the overall argument, but not the primary one. The answer choice that reads “Confederacies are always and inevitably going to fail” is too broad and does not carry the weight of evidence that the correct answer does, although the author would likely agree with this statement.

Example Question #10 : Understanding The Thesis

Adapted from “On the Art of Fiction” in The Borzoi by Willa Cather (1920)

One is sometimes asked about the “obstacles” that confront young writers who are trying to do good work. I should say the greatest obstacles that writers today have to get over are the dazzling journalistic successes of twenty years ago, stories that surprised and delighted by their sharp photographic detail and that were really nothing more than lively pieces of reporting. The whole aim of that school of writing was novelty—never a very important thing in art. They gave us, altogether, poor standards—taught us to multiply our ideas instead of to condense them. They tried to make a story out of every theme that occurred to them and to get returns on every situation that suggested itself. They got returns, of a kind. But their work, when one looks back on it, now that the novelty upon which they counted so much is gone, is journalistic and thin. The especial merit of a good reportorial story is that it shall be intensely interesting and pertinent today and shall have lost its point by tomorrow.

Art, it seems to me, should simplify. That, indeed, is very nearly the whole of the higher artistic process; finding what conventions of form and what detail one can do without and yet preserve the spirit of the whole—so that all that one has suppressed and cut away is there to the reader’s consciousness as much as if it were in type on the page. Millet had done hundreds of sketches of peasants sowing grain, some of them very complicated and interesting, but when he came to paint the spirit of them all into one picture, The Sower, the composition is so simple that it seems inevitable. All the discarded sketches that went before made the picture what it finally became, and the process was all the time one of simplifying, of sacrificing many conceptions good in themselves for one that was better and more universal.

Any first rate novel or story must have in it the strength of a dozen fairly good stories that have been sacrificed to it. A good workman can’t be a cheap workman; he can’t be stingy about wasting material, and he cannot compromise. Writing ought either to be the manufacture of stories for which there is a market demand—a business as safe and commendable as making soap or breakfast foods—or it should be an art, which is always a search for something for which there is no market demand, something new and untried, where the values are intrinsic and have nothing to do with standardized values. The courage to go on without compromise does not come to a writer all at once—nor, for that matter, does the ability. Both are phases of natural development. In the beginning the artist, like his public, is wedded to old forms, old ideals, and his vision is blurred by the memory of old delights he would like to recapture.

What is the primary argument of this passage?

Possible Answers:

Young writers face many obstacles early in their careers, but they can overcome them with an intense focus on their craft.

The difference between journalism and writing is that journalism gets as much as it possibly can from a story, whereas artistic writing is selective and uncompromising.

There is no artistic merit in journalism any more.

Good writing comes from a lengthy process of uncompromising simplification.

Good writing is achieved through hard work, sacrifice, and dedication to the art.

Correct answer:

Good writing comes from a lengthy process of uncompromising simplification.

Explanation:

All of these arguments are part of the passage, but only one represents the primary argument. The focus of the essay is on advising young writers about the process of developing good writing and producing art. Although the author does mention journalism extensively in the opening paragraph, this is intended to demonstrate what good writing is not, rather than to be the focus of the essay. The primary argument is that “good writing comes from a lengthy process of uncompromising simplification.” This can be seen in excerpts like the following: “Any first rate novel or story must have in it the strength of a dozen fairly good stories that have been sacrificed to it. A good workman can’t be a cheap workman; he can’t be stingy about wasting material, and he cannot compromise.”

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