PSAT Critical Reading : Comparing and Contrasting in Humanities Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for PSAT Critical Reading

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Example Questions

Example Question #9 : Comparing And Contrasting Ideas In Humanities Passages

Adapted from “Talking About Our Troubles” by Mark Rutherford (1901)

We may talk about our troubles to those persons who can give us direct help, but even in this case we ought as much as possible to come to a provisional conclusion before consultation; to be perfectly clear to ourselves within our own limits. Some people have a foolish trick of applying for aid before they have done anything whatever to aid themselves, and in fact try to talk themselves into perspicuity. The only way in which they can think is by talking, and their speech consequently is not the expression of opinion already and carefully formed, but the manufacture of it.

We may also tell our troubles to those who are suffering if we can lessen their own. It may be a very great relief to them to know that others have passed through trials equal to theirs and have survived. There are obscure, nervous diseases, hypochondriac fancies, almost uncontrollable impulses, which terrify by their apparent singularity. If we could believe that they are common, the worst of the fear would vanish.

But, as a rule, we should be very careful for our own sake not to speak much about what distresses us. Expression is apt to carry with it exaggeration, and this exaggerated form becomes henceforth that under which we represent our miseries to ourselves, so that they are thereby increased. By reserve, on the other hand, they are diminished, for we attach less importance to that which it was not worthwhile to mention. Secrecy, in fact, may be our salvation.

How does the second paragraph differ from the first and third paragraphs?

Possible Answers:

It references an authority

It establishes a conceit

It does not differ from the first and third paragraphs

It narrates a first person account

It provides a counterpoint 

Correct answer:

It provides a counterpoint 

Explanation:

The first and third paragraph focus on warning the reader about the dangers incurred when one shares one’s problems with another individual. The second paragraph, on the contrary, provides an example of when sharing problems might lessen the fear associated with them. It provides a counterargument to the main point that the author is trying to make.

Example Question #1 : Passage Meaning And Construction

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.

The author thinks that contemporary households are like a German confederacy in that __________.

Possible Answers:

the details of decisions made by each are carefully planned out in advance

neither is responsible for the problems it faces

neither manages its finances well

both are poorly organized and overly complex

both adhere to strict moral principles

Correct answer:

both are poorly organized and overly complex

Explanation:

The author compares the households of his time to a German confederacy at the beginning of the second paragraph, where he says, “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.” This may be enough to lead you to the correct answer, “both are poorly organized and overly complex,” but the next sentence clarifies the comparison: “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.”

Example Question #1 : Comparing And Contrasting 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.

According to Johnson, Swift's A Tale of a Tub differs from his other works in that __________.

Possible Answers:

it has more imagery than his other works

it is more wordy than his other works

it is written in a much more lively style than any of his other works

it requires more thought on the reader's part than his other works

Correct answer:

it is written in a much more lively style than any of his other works

Explanation:

Johnson says that Swift's Tale of a Tub is written in a livelier style than his other works are in the first paragraph, when he writes, "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."

Example Question #1 : Compare / Contrast

Adapted from "The Writing of Essays" in Certain Personal Matters by H.G. Wells (1901)

The art of the essayist is so simple, so entirely free from canons of criticism, and withal so delightful, that one must needs wonder why all men are not essayists. Perhaps people do not know how easy it is. Or perhaps beginners are misled. Rightly taught it may be learnt in a brief ten minutes or so, what art there is in it. And all the rest is as easy as wandering among woodlands on a bright morning in the spring.

Then sit you down if you would join us, taking paper, pens, and ink; and mark this, your pen is a matter of vital moment. For every pen writes its own sort of essay, and pencils also after their kind. The ink perhaps may have its influence too, and the paper; but paramount is the pen. This, indeed, is the fundamental secret of essay-writing. Wed any man to his proper pen, and the delights of composition and the birth of an essay are assured. Only many of us wander through the earth and never meet with her—futile and lonely men.

And, of all pens, your quill for essays that are literature. There is a subtle informality, a delightful easiness, perhaps even a faint immorality essentially literary, about the quill. The quill is rich in suggestion and quotation. There are quills that would quote you Montaigne and Horace in the hands of a trades-union delegate. And those quirky, idle noises this pen makes are delightful, and would break your easy fluency with wit. All the classical essayists wrote with a quill, and Addison used the most expensive kind the Government purchased. And the beginning of the inferior essay was the dawn of the cheap steel pen.

In the first paragraph, Wells compares the ease of writing an essay to wandering through the woods because he suggests that __________.

Possible Answers:

both are pleasurable

both are simple activities

both require no effort whatsoever

both require planning but very little work in the execution

Correct answer:

both require planning but very little work in the execution

Explanation:

Wells honestly seems to suggest that writing an essay is an activity requiring little effort.

Example Question #1 : Comparing And Contrasting In Contemporary Life Passages

"Commentaries" by Matthew Minerd (2013)

The idea of a commentary is not anywhere as simple as most people think. To the popular imagination, the commentator makes a few observations based on a text, not going far beyond its contents. This standard opinion completely misses the various types of commentaries that can be written. Indeed, even the notion of “literal commentary” is itself so variegated that it is incorrect to imagine that such “literal” work is merely a slavish repetition of an original text.

Some literal commentaries truly are “literal,” that is, based on the letters and words of the text. Such philological studies investigate the language structures and meanings of a text. The interpretation of the text proceeds based on these linguistic investigations. Often, this process will note the types of rhetoric being used, the dialects utilized, and any odd language structures that might imply something with regard to the text’s meaning. All of these methods remain very concerned with the “letter of the text” in a very direct manner.

Indeed, even the Medieval commentaries on Aristotle’s works could be considered “literal,” though they do differ from such linguistic approaches. Men like Thomas Aquinas would very carefully read Aristotle’s text, giving what was called a divisio textus for every section of the text in question. This “division of the text” sought to provide a succinct but correct outline of the text in question so that its literal meaning might be more easily noticed. Certainly, the commentary that followed this divisio textus did express some aspects of Aquinas’ own thought. However, he (like other literal commentators of this type) would attempt to remain as close to the literal meaning of the text as possible, always using the divisio textus as a guide for understanding the structure of the original author’s thought.

What is the difference between the type of commentary mentioned in the second paragraph and that which is mentioned in the third paragraph?

Possible Answers:

The first type of commentary is still being written, but Thomas Aquinas was the last person to do a literal, divisio textus commentary.

The first type is based primarily on details of language, while the other focuses primarily on the outline structure of the whole text. 

The first type is far more scientific and historical than the latter, outdated medieval methodology.

The first merely provides an historical analysis, while the latter provides a true commentary.

The first type is far more modern than the other type.

Correct answer:

The first type is based primarily on details of language, while the other focuses primarily on the outline structure of the whole text. 

Explanation:

Do not be distracted by secondary details about the two paragraphs. Clearly, the overall intent of this passage is to show these as two legitimate examples of types of so-called "literal commentaries." The first sentence of the third paragraph can help to see the contrast: "...though they do differ from such linguistic approaches." The difference is then stated: divisio textus outline in opposition to the linguistic approaches noted above.

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