PSAT Critical Reading : Analyzing Cause and Effect in Humanities Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for PSAT Critical Reading

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Example Questions

Example Question #4 : Recognizing The Main Idea In Argumentative Humanities Passages

Adapted from "Preface: The Maypole and the Column" in Extemporary Essays by Maurice Hewlett (1922)

In days of more single purpose than these, young men and maidens, in the first flush of summer, set up a maypole on the green; but before they joined hands and danced round about it they had done honor to what it stood for by draping it with swags of flowers and green-stuff, hanging it with streamers of diverse colors, and sticking it with as many gilt hearts as there were hearts among them of votive inclination. So they transfigured the thing signified, and turned a shaven tree-trunk from a very crude emblem into a thing of happy fantasy. That will serve me for a figure of how the poet deals with his little idea, or great one; and in his more sober mood it is open to the essayist so to deal with his, supposing he have one. He must hang his pole, or concept, not with rhyme but with wise or witty talk. He must turn it about and about, not to set the ornaments jingling, or little bells ringing; rather that you may see its shapeliness enhanced, its proportions emphasized, and in all the shifting lights and shadows of its ornamentation discern it still for the notion that it is. That, at least, is my own notion of what the essayist should do, though I am aware that very distinguished practitioners have not agreed with me and do not agree at this hour. The modern essayist, for reasons which I shall try to expound, has been driven from the maypole to the column.

Certainly, the parent of the Essay draped no maypoles with speech. Montaigne was a sedentary philosopher, of the order of the post-prandials; a wine-and-walnuts man. One thing would open out into another, and one seem better than the other, at the time of hearing. "Je n'enseigne point; je raconte," he tells you of himself; and it is true. To listen to him is a liberal education; yet you can hardly think of Montaigne footing it on the green. Bacon's line, again, was the aphoristic. He shreds off his maypole rather than clothes it: but he has one set up. He can give his argument as witty a turn as the Frenchman when he pleases—"There is no man doth a wrong for the wrong's sake, but thereby to purchase himself profit, or pleasure, or honor, or the like. Therefore why should I be angry with a man for loving himself better than me?" That is the turn his thoughts take upon Revenge, and a fair sample of his way with an abstract idea—shredding off it all the time, getting down to the pith. But he can be very obscure: "A single life doth well with Churchmen; for charity will hardly water the ground where it must first fill a pool." That is proleptic reasoning. We are to caper about the pole before the ornaments are on.

Hewlett contrasts the maypole and the column to show that __________.

Possible Answers:

the modern essay is written with less care than previous essays

the modern essay is written for different reasons than previous essays

the modern essay does not have the beauty or variety of previous essays

the modern essay is every bit as ornate as previous essays

Correct answer:

the modern essay does not have the beauty or variety of previous essays

Explanation:

Hewlett, in describing older essays as maypoles, implies that older essays had more variety and beauty than modern essays.

Example Question #61 : Content Of Humanities Passages

Adapted from "Preface: The Maypole and the Column" in Extemporary Essays by Maurice Hewlett (1922)

In days of more single purpose than these, young men and maidens, in the first flush of summer, set up a maypole on the green; but before they joined hands and danced round about it they had done honor to what it stood for by draping it with swags of flowers and green-stuff, hanging it with streamers of diverse colors, and sticking it with as many gilt hearts as there were hearts among them of votive inclination. So they transfigured the thing signified, and turned a shaven tree-trunk from a very crude emblem into a thing of happy fantasy. That will serve me for a figure of how the poet deals with his little idea, or great one; and in his more sober mood it is open to the essayist so to deal with his, supposing he have one. He must hang his pole, or concept, not with rhyme but with wise or witty talk. He must turn it about and about, not to set the ornaments jingling, or little bells ringing; rather that you may see its shapeliness enhanced, its proportions emphasized, and in all the shifting lights and shadows of its ornamentation discern it still for the notion that it is. That, at least, is my own notion of what the essayist should do, though I am aware that very distinguished practitioners have not agreed with me and do not agree at this hour. The modern essayist, for reasons which I shall try to expound, has been driven from the maypole to the column.

Certainly, the parent of the Essay draped no maypoles with speech. Montaigne was a sedentary philosopher, of the order of the post-prandials; a wine-and-walnuts man. One thing would open out into another, and one seem better than the other, at the time of hearing. "Je n'enseigne point; je raconte," he tells you of himself; and it is true. To listen to him is a liberal education; yet you can hardly think of Montaigne footing it on the green. Bacon's line, again, was the aphoristic. He shreds off his maypole rather than clothes it: but he has one set up. He can give his argument as witty a turn as the Frenchman when he pleases—"There is no man doth a wrong for the wrong's sake, but thereby to purchase himself profit, or pleasure, or honor, or the like. Therefore why should I be angry with a man for loving himself better than me?" That is the turn his thoughts take upon Revenge, and a fair sample of his way with an abstract idea—shredding off it all the time, getting down to the pith. But he can be very obscure: "A single life doth well with Churchmen; for charity will hardly water the ground where it must first fill a pool." That is proleptic reasoning. We are to caper about the pole before the ornaments are on.

Hewlett brings up Montaigne to show that __________.

Possible Answers:

great essayists are not known for their imagery

great essayists always draped their essays with wonderful words

great essayists did not concern themselves with merely teaching a subject

even great essayists didn't necessarily use a lot of artifice in their essays

Correct answer:

even great essayists didn't necessarily use a lot of artifice in their essays

Explanation:

Hewlett refers to Montaigne as someone who "draped no maypoles with speech" and cannot be imagined as dancing around the maypole, so even a great essayist like Montaigne didn't always use a lot of artifice in his essays.

Example Question #95 : Understanding The Content Of Humanities Passages

Adapted from Walden by Henry Thoreau (1854)

Still we live meanly, like ants; it is error upon error, and clout upon clout, and our best virtue has for its occasion a superfluous and evitable wretchedness. Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumbnail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.

Our life is like a German Confederacy, made up of petty states, with its boundary forever fluctuating, so that even a German cannot tell you how it is bounded at any moment. The nation itself, with all its so-called internal improvements, which, by the way are all external and superficial, is just such an unwieldy and overgrown establishment, cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense, by want of calculation and a worthy aim, as the million households in the land; and the only cure for it, as for them, is in a rigid economy, a stern and more than Spartan simplicity of life and elevation of purpose. It lives too fast. Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not, but whether we should live like baboons or like men is a little uncertain. If we do not get out sleepers, and forge rails, and devote days and nights to the work, but go to tinkering upon our lives to improve them, who will build railroads? And if railroads are not built, how shall we get to heaven in season? But if we stay at home and mind our business, who will want railroads? We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man, an Irishman, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you.

Thoreau’s discussion of “sleepers” at the end of the passage helps him __________.

Possible Answers:

suggest that the railroad is a great boon to the nation

emphasize how the railroad is a burden upon people and their resources

underscore the dangers to workers involved in building contemporary railroads

urge readers never to use railroads to travel

comment on how hard it is to fall asleep on a moving train

Correct answer:

emphasize how the railroad is a burden upon people and their resources

Explanation:

Thoreau discusses sleepers in the final lines of the passage: 

“We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man, an Irishman, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you. “

The key line necessary to figuring out what Thoreau’s purpose is in discussing sleepers is the line that precedes any mention of them: “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.” With this wordplay, Thoreau is suggesting that the railway burdens us; the correct answer is thus that his discussion of “sleepers” helps him “emphasize how the railroad is a burden upon people and their resources.” While he is decidedly anti-railroad in this passage, he focuses on the building of railroads instead of the use of them, weakening the argument that the point of his mentioning “sleepers” is to “urge readers never to use railroads to travel.” Similarly, while the image of the railroad riding upon men’s sleeping bodies may seem to “underscore the dangers to workers involved in building contemporary railroads,” this is not the case either. In stating ““We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us,” the author makes his purpose in mentioning “sleepers” clear.

Example Question #96 : Understanding The Content Of Humanities Passages

Adapted from "Slang in America" in Vol. 141, No. 348 of The North American Review by Walt Whitman (November 1885)

View'd freely, the English language is the accretion and growth of every dialect, people, and range of time, and is both the free and compacted composition of all. From this point of view, it stands for Language in the largest sense, and is really the greatest of studies. It involves so much; is indeed a sort of universal absorber, combiner, and conqueror. The scope of its etymologies is the scope not only of man and civilization, but the history of Nature in all departments, and of the organic Universe, brought up to date; for all are comprehended in words, and their backgrounds. This is when words become vitalized, and stand for things, as they unerringly and soon come to do, in the mind that enters on their study with fitting spirit, grasp, and appreciation.

Slang, profoundly consider’d, is the lawless germinal element, below all words and sentences, and behind all poetry, and proves a certain perennial rankness and protestantism in speech. As the United States inherit by far their most precious possession—the language they talk and write—from the Old World, under and out of its feudal institutes, I will allow myself to borrow a simile even of those forms farthest removed from American Democracy. Considering Language then as some mighty potentate, into the majestic audience-hall of the monarch ever enters a personage like one of Shakespeare’s clowns, and takes position there, and plays a part even in the stateliest ceremonies. Such is Slang, or indirection, an attempt of common humanity to escape from bald literalism, and express itself illimitably, which in highest walks produces poets and poems, and doubtless in prehistoric times gave the start to, and perfected, the whole immense tangle of the old mythologies. For, curious as it may appear, it is strictly the same impulse-source, the same thing. Slang, too, is the wholesome fermentation or eructation of those processes eternally active in language, by which froth and specks are thrown up, mostly to pass away, though occasionally to settle and permanently crystallize.

Whitman attributes all of the following to the same impulses that produce slang EXCEPT __________.

Possible Answers:

the existence of poems themselves

the myths of ancient peoples

the many forms of religion

the ability of poets to compose

Correct answer:

the many forms of religion

Explanation:

Whitman does not include religion in his list of the things created by the impulses that have also created slang.

Example Question #1 : Analyzing Cause And Effect In Humanities Passages

Adapted from "Swift" in Volume III of Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets by Samuel Johnson (1781)

In Swift's works, he has given very different specimens both of sentiment and expression. His Tale of a Tub has little resemblance to his other pieces. It exhibits a vehemence and rapidity of mind, a copiousness of images, and vivacity of diction, such as he afterwards never possessed, or never exerted. It is of a mode so distinct and peculiar, that it must be considered by itself; what is true of that, is not true of any thing else which he has written.

In his other works is found an equable tenor of easy language, which rather trickles than flows. His delight was in simplicity. That he has in his works no metaphor, as has been said, is not true; but his few metaphors seem to be received rather by necessity than choice. He studied purity; and though perhaps all his strictures are not exact, yet it is not often that solecisms can be found; and whoever depends on his authority may generally conclude himself safe. His sentences are never too much dilated or contracted; and it will not be easy to find any embarrassment in the complication of his clauses, any inconsequence in his connections, or abruptness in his transitions.

His style was well suited to his thoughts, which are never subtilized by nice disquisitions, decorated by sparkling conceits, elevated by ambitious sentences, or variegated by far-sought learning. He pays no court to the passions; he excites neither surprise nor admiration; he always understands himself, and his readers always understand him. The peruser of Swift wants little previous knowledge; it will be sufficient that he is acquainted with common words and common things; he is neither required to mount elevations nor to explore profundities; his passage is always on a level, along solid ground, without asperities, without obstruction.

Johnson says that A Tale of a Tub is so different from Swift's other works that __________.

Possible Answers:

it must not have been written by Swift

it has to be judged on its own and not compared to Swift's other works

it reads like something written by somebody else

it has a slower pace than the rest of Swift's works

Correct answer:

it has to be judged on its own and not compared to Swift's other works

Explanation:

Johnson says that Swift's A Tale of a Tub is so different from his other works that it must be considered on its own when he writes in the first paragraph, "[A Tale of a Tub] is of a mode so distinct and peculiar, that it must be considered by itself; what is true of that, is not true of any thing else which he has written."

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