PSAT Critical Reading : Purpose and Effect of Phrases or Sentences in Natural Science Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for PSAT Critical Reading

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Example Questions

Example Question #61 : Natural Science Passages

Adapted from Essays on Early Ornithology and Kindred Subjects by James R. McClymont (1920)

The voyagers named it the Angra de Santa Elena, and it may have been the bay which is now known as St. Helen’s Bay. But it is worthy of note that the G. de Sta. Ellena of the Cantino Chart is laid down in a position which corresponds rather with that of Table Bay than with that of St. Helen’s Bay.

The Portuguese came into contact with the inhabitants of the country adjacent to the anchorage. These people had tawny complexions, and carried wooden spears tipped with horn—assagais of a kind—and bows and arrows. They also used foxes’ tails attached to short wooden handles. We are not informed for what purposes the foxes’ tails were used. Were they used to brush flies away, or were they insignia of authority? The food of the natives was the flesh of whales, seals, and antelopes (gazellas), and the roots of certain plants. Crayfish or ‘Cape lobsters’ abounded near the anchorage.

The author of the roteiro affirms that the birds of the country resembled the birds in Portugal, and that amongst them were cormorants, larks, turtle-doves, and gulls. The gulls are called "guayvotas," but "guayvotas" is probably another instance of the eccentric orthography of the author and equivalent to "gaivotas."

In December the squadron reached the Angra de São Bràs, which was either Mossel Bay or another bay in close proximity to Mossel Bay. Here penguins and seals were in great abundance. The author of the roteiro calls the penguins "sotelycairos," which is more correctly written "sotilicarios" by subsequent writers. The word is probably related to the Spanish "sotil" and the Latin "subtilis," and may contain an allusion to the supposed cunning of the penguins, which disappear by diving when an enemy approaches.

The sotilicarios, says the chronicler, could not fly because there were no quill-feathers in their wings; in size they were as large as drakes, and their cry resembled the braying of an ass. Castanheda, Goes, and Osorio also mention the sotilicario in their accounts of the first voyage of Vasco da Gama, and compare its flipper to the wing of a bat—a not wholly inept comparison, for the under-surface of the wings of penguins is wholly devoid of feathery covering. Manuel de Mesquita Perestrello, who visited the south coast of Africa in 1575, also describes the Cape penguin. From a manuscript of his Roteiro in the Oporto Library, one learns that the flippers of the sotilicario were covered with minute feathers, as indeed they are on the upper surface and that they dived after fish, upon which they fed, and on which they fed their young, which were hatched in nests constructed of fishbones. There is nothing to cavil at in these statements, unless it be that which asserts that the nests were constructed of fishbones, for this is not in accordance with the observations of contemporary naturalists, who tell us that the nests of the Cape Penguin (Spheniscus demersus) are constructed of stones, shells, and debris. It is, therefore, probable that the fishbones which Perestrello saw were the remains of repasts of seals.

Seals, says the roteiro, were in great number at the Angra de São Bràs. On one occasion the number was counted and was found to be three thousand. Some were as large as bears and their roaring was as the roaring of lions. Others, which were very small, bleated like kids. These differences in size and in voice may be explained by differences in the age and in the sex of the seals, for seals of different species do not usually resort to the same locality. The seal which formerly frequented the south coast of Africa—for it is, I believe, no longer a denizen of that region—was that which is known to naturalists as Arctocephalus delalandii, and, as adult males sometimes attain eight and a half feet in length, it may well be described as of the size of a bear. Cubs from six to eight months of age measure about two feet and a half in length. The Portuguese caught anchovies in the bay, which they salted to serve as provisions on the voyage. They anchored a second time in the Angra de São Bràs in March, 1499, on their homeward voyage.

Yet one more allusion to the penguins and seals of the Angra de São Bràs is of sufficient historical interest to be mentioned. The first Dutch expedition to Bantam weighed anchor on the 2nd of April, 1595, and on the 4th of August of the same year the vessels anchored in a harbor called "Ague Sambras," in eight or nine fathoms of water, on a sandy bottom. So many of the sailors were sick with scurvy—"thirty or thirty-three," said the narrator, "in one ship"—that it was necessary to find fresh fruit for them. "In this bay," runs the English translation of the narrative, "lieth a small Island wherein are many birds called Pyncuins and sea Wolves that are taken with men’s hands." In the original Dutch narrative by Willem Lodewyckszoon, published in Amsterdam in 1597, the name of the birds appears as "Pinguijns."

In the third paragraph, the information about orthography serves to __________.

Possible Answers:

Show that mistakes in spelling "gaivotas" as "guayvotas" arose due to arguments over proper roots of words.

Show that the author of the roteiro was more interested in the animals than his or her writing.

Show that the differences between "guayvotas" and "gaivotas" are due to the writer's strange way of spelling things.

Show that the birds we see today are a different species to those mentioned in the roteiro.

Show that the previous documenters of bird-life on the country had little idea of what they were doing.

Correct answer:

Show that the differences between "guayvotas" and "gaivotas" are due to the writer's strange way of spelling things.

Explanation:

The author of the passage mentions the strange spelling of the name for gulls and says they come from the author of the roteiro's “eccentric orthography,” or strange way of spelling things.

Example Question #2 : Purpose And Effect Of Phrases Or Sentences In Natural Science Passages

Adapted from Ice-Caves of France and Switzerland by George Forrest Browne (1865)

This account states that the cave is in the county of Thorn, among the lowest spurs of the Carpathians. The entrance, which faces the north, and is exposed to the cold winds from the snowy part of the Carpathian range, is eighteen fathoms high and nine broad; and the cave spreads out laterally, and descends to a point fifty fathoms below the entrance, where it is twenty-six fathoms in breadth, and of irregular height. Beyond this no one had at that time penetrated, on account of the unsafe footing, although many distant echoes were returned by the farther recesses of the cave; indeed, to get even so far as this, much step-cutting was necessary.

When the external frost of winter comes on, the account proceeds, the effect in the cave is the same as if fires had been lighted there: the ice melts, and swarms of flies and bats and hares take refuge in the interior from the severity of the winter. As soon as spring arrives, the warmth of winter disappears from the interior, water exudes from the roof and is converted into ice, while the more abundant supplies which pour down on to the sandy floor are speedily frozen there. In the dog-days, the frost is so intense that a small icicle becomes in one day a huge mass of ice; but a cool day promptly brings a thaw, and the cave is looked upon as a barometer, not merely feeling, but also presaging, the changes of weather. The people of the neighborhood, when employed in field-work, arrange their labour so that the mid-day meal may be taken near the cave, when they either ice the water they have brought with them, or drink the melted ice, which they consider very good for the stomach. It had been calculated that six hundred weekly carts would not be sufficient to keep the cavern free from ice. The ground above the cave is peculiarly rich in grass.

In explanation of these phenomena, Bell threw out the following suggestions, which need no comment. The earth being of itself cold and damp, the external heat of the atmosphere, by partially penetrating into the ground, drives in this native cold to the inner parts of the earth, and makes the cold there more dense. On the other hand, when the external air is cold, it draws forth towards the surface the heat there may be in the inner part of the earth, and thus makes caverns warm. In support and illustration of this view, he states that in the hotter parts of Hungary, when the people wish to cool their wine, they dig a hole two feet deep, and place in it the flagon of wine, and, after filling up the hole again, light a blazing fire upon the surface, which cools the wine as if the flagon had been laid in ice. He also suggests that possibly the cold winds from the Carpathians bring with them imperceptible particles of snow, which reach the water of the cave, and convert it into ice. Further, the rocks of the Carpathians abound in salts, niter, alum, etc., which may, perhaps, mingle with such snowy particles, and produce the ordinary effect of the snow and salt in the artificial production of ice.

In the third paragraph, the information about Bell's hypothesis serves to __________.

Possible Answers:

demonstrate the habits of the inhabitants of different European nations

vilify the author

demonstrate the exponential growth of ice in the cave

explain the phenomenon described in the second paragraph

discredit Bell

Correct answer:

explain the phenomenon described in the second paragraph

Explanation:

The third paragraph is a justification and explanation of the seemingly contradictory phenomenon of the second paragraph. The author is describing how the ice cave is able to retain its cold temperature in summer, as is mentioned in the second paragraph.

Example Question #1 : Purpose And Effect Of Phrases Or Sentences In Natural Science Passages

Adapted from The Effects of Cross & Self-Fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom by Charles Darwin (1876)

As it is impossible to exclude such minute pollen-carrying insects as Thrips, flowers which it was intended to fertilise with their own pollen may sometimes have been afterwards crossed with pollen brought by these insects from another flower on the same plant; but as we shall hereafter see, a cross of this kind does not produce any effect, or at most only a slight one. When two or more plants were placed near one another under the same net, as was often done, there is some real though not great danger of the flowers which were believed to be self-fertilised being afterwards crossed with pollen brought by Thrips from a distinct plant. I have said that the danger is not great because I have often found that plants which are self-sterile, unless aided by insects, remained sterile when several plants of the same species were placed under the same net. If, however, the flowers which had been presumably self-fertilised by me were in any case afterwards crossed by Thrips with pollen brought from a distinct plant, crossed seedlings would have been included amongst the self-fertilised; but it should be especially observed that this occurrence would tend to diminish and not to increase any superiority in average height, fertility, etc., of the crossed over the self-fertilised plants.

As the flowers which were crossed were never castrated, it is probable or even almost certain that I sometimes failed to cross-fertilise them effectually, and that they were afterwards spontaneously self-fertilised. This would have been most likely to occur with dichogamous species, for without much care it is not easy to perceive whether their stigmas are ready to be fertilised when the anthers open. But in all cases, as the flowers were protected from wind, rain, and the access of insects, any pollen placed by me on the stigmatic surface whilst it was immature, would generally have remained there until the stigma was mature; and the flowers would then have been crossed as was intended. Nevertheless, it is highly probable that self-fertilised seedlings have sometimes by this means got included amongst the crossed seedlings. The effect would be, as in the former case, not to exaggerate but to diminish any average superiority of the crossed over the self-fertilised plants.

Errors arising from the two causes just named, and from others,—such as some of the seeds not having been thoroughly ripened, though care was taken to avoid this error—the sickness or unperceived injury of any of the plants,—will have been to a large extent eliminated, in those cases in which many crossed and self-fertilised plants were measured and an average struck. Some of these causes of error will also have been eliminated by the seeds having been allowed to germinate on bare damp sand, and being planted in pairs; for it is not likely that ill-matured and well-matured, or diseased and healthy seeds, would germinate at exactly the same time. The same result will have been gained in the several cases in which only a few of the tallest, finest, and healthiest plants on each side of the pots were measured.

Kolreuter and Gartner have proved that with some plants several, even as many as from fifty to sixty, pollen-grains are necessary for the fertilisation of all the ovules in the ovarium. Naudin also found in the case of Mirabilis that if only one or two of its very large pollen-grains were placed on the stigma, the plants raised from such seeds were dwarfed. I was therefore careful to give an amply sufficient supply of pollen, and generally covered the stigma with it; but I did not take any special pains to place exactly the same amount on the stigmas of the self-fertilised and crossed flowers. After having acted in this manner during two seasons, I remembered that Gartner thought, though without any direct evidence, that an excess of pollen was perhaps injurious. It was therefore necessary to ascertain whether the fertility of the flowers was affected by applying a rather small and an extremely large quantity of pollen to the stigma. Accordingly a very small mass of pollen-grains was placed on one side of the large stigma in sixty-four flowers of Ipomoea purpurea, and a great mass of pollen over the whole surface of the stigma in sixty-four other flowers. In order to vary the experiment, half the flowers of both lots were on plants produced from self-fertilised seeds, and the other half on plants from crossed seeds. The sixty-four flowers with an excess of pollen yielded sixty-one capsules; and excluding four capsules, each of which contained only a single poor seed, the remainder contained on an average 5.07 seeds per capsule. The sixty-four flowers with only a little pollen placed on one side of the stigma yielded sixty-three capsules, and excluding one from the same cause as before, the remainder contained on an average 5.129 seeds. So that the flowers fertilised with little pollen yielded rather more capsules and seeds than did those fertilised with an excess; but the difference is too slight to be of any significance. On the other hand, the seeds produced by the flowers with an excess of pollen were a little heavier of the two; for 170 of them weighed 79.67 grains, whilst 170 seeds from the flowers with very little pollen weighed 79.20 grains. Both lots of seeds having been placed on damp sand presented no difference in their rate of germination. We may therefore conclude that my experiments were not affected by any slight difference in the amount of pollen used; a sufficiency having been employed in all cases.

In the fourth paragraph, the information about the work of Kolreuter and Gartner serves to __________.

Possible Answers:

begin a discussion on the appropriate amounts of pollen needed in the experiment 

continue a discourse on the most effective methods to rear healthy plants

show that the author has researched the subject

argue that further study of the effect of pollen quantity on the rate of fertilisation is necessary

support the information about errors in germination given in the previous paragraph

Correct answer:

begin a discussion on the appropriate amounts of pollen needed in the experiment 

Explanation:

It should be expected that the author would have researched the subject, so the purpose of the reference cannot be the demonstration of their research. The paragraph begins a discussion on the amount of pollen used and whether it has an adverse impact on seeds produced or plants produced. The work of Kolreuter and Gartner, as stated by the author, concerns the specific amount of pollen needed to fertilize all the ovules, so it allows the author to transition naturally into a new line of discussion.

Example Question #1 : Context Dependent Meaning Of Phrases Or Sentences In Natural Science Passages

Adapted from “Humming-Birds: As Illustrating the Luxuriance of Tropical Nature” in Tropical Nature, and Other Essays by Alfred Russel Wallace (1878)

The food of hummingbirds has been a matter of much controversy. All the early writers down to Buffon believed that they lived solely on the nectar of flowers, but since that time, every close observer of their habits maintains that they feed largely, and in some cases wholly, on insects. Azara observed them on the La Plata in winter taking insects out of the webs of spiders at a time and place where there were no flowers. Bullock, in Mexico, declares that he saw them catch small butterflies, and that he found many kinds of insects in their stomachs. Waterton made a similar statement. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of specimens have since been dissected by collecting naturalists, and in almost every instance their stomachs have been found full of insects, sometimes, but not generally, mixed with a proportion of honey. Many of them in fact may be seen catching gnats and other small insects just like fly-catchers, sitting on a dead twig over water, darting off for a time in the air, and then returning to the twig. Others come out just at dusk, and remain on the wing, now stationary, now darting about with the greatest rapidity, imitating in a limited space the evolutions of the goatsuckers, and evidently for the same end and purpose. Mr. Gosse also remarks, ” All the hummingbirds have more or less the habit, when in flight, of pausing in the air and throwing the body and tail into rapid and odd contortions. This is most observable in the Polytmus, from the effect that such motions have on the long feathers of the tail. That the object of these quick turns is the capture of insects, I am sure, having watched one thus engaged pretty close to me.”

What can we infer from the author’s use of the underlined phrase, “sometimes, but not generally”?

Possible Answers:

Hummingbirds can be found with insects in their stomachs, but this is rare.

Hummingbirds can be found with only honey in their stomachs quite often.

None of the other answers

Hummingbirds can be found with honey in their stomachs, but it is not common.

Hummingbirds can be found with both honey and insects in their stomachs, and this is what scientists observe most often.

Correct answer:

Hummingbirds can be found with honey in their stomachs, but it is not common.

Explanation:

The phrase “sometimes, but not generally” is found in the sentence, “Hundreds and perhaps thousands of specimens have since been dissected by collecting naturalists, and in almost every instance their stomachs have been found full of insects, sometimes, but not generally, mixed with a proportion of honey.” The phrase is specifically talking about the presence of honey in hummingbirds’ stomachs, not of insects, so we can eliminate the answer choice “Hummingbirds can be found with insects in their stomachs, but this is rare.” Since “not generally” means “not most of the time,” the author is saying “sometimes, but not most of the time, hummingbirds have honey in their stomachs.” This is only accurately stated by the answer choice “Hummingbirds can be found with honey in their stomachs, but it is not common.” The answer choices “Hummingbirds can be found with both honey and insects in their stomachs, and this is what scientists observe most often” and “Hummingbirds can be found with only honey in their stomachs quite often” are incorrect because neither suggests that finding a hummingbird with honey in its stomach is rare, which is what the author is saying.

Example Question #1 : Purpose And Effect Of Phrases Or Sentences In Natural Science Passages

Adapted from Volume Four of The Natural History of Animals: The Animal Life of the World in Its Various Aspects and Relations by James Richard Ainsworth Davis (1903)

The examples of protective resemblance so far quoted are mostly permanent adaptations to one particular sort of surrounding. There are, however, numerous animals which possess the power of adjusting their color more or less rapidly so as to harmonize with a changing environment.

Some of the best known of these cases are found among those mammals and birds that inhabit countries more or less covered with snow during a part of the year. A good instance is afforded by the Irish or variable hare, which is chiefly found in Ireland and Scotland. In summer, this looks very much like an ordinary hare, though rather grayer in tint and smaller in size, but in winter it becomes white with the exception of the black tips to the ears. Investigations that have been made on the closely allied American hare seem to show that the phenomenon is due to the growth of new hairs of white hue. 

The common stoat is subject to similar color change in the northern parts of its range. In summer it is of a bright reddish brown color with the exception of the under parts, which are yellowish white, and the end of the tail, which is black. But in winter, the entire coat, save only the tip of the tail, becomes white, and in that condition the animal is known as an ermine. A similar example is afforded by the weasel. The seasonal change in the vegetarian Irish hare is purely of protective character, but in such an actively carnivorous creature as a stoat or weasel, it is aggressive as well, rendering the animal inconspicuous to its prey.

Why is the American hare mentioned in the passage?

Possible Answers:

It is better at hiding than the Scottish hare.

Scientists have studied it to find out how a hare’s fur changes color.

It is another name for the Scottish hare.

It is a predator of the Scottish hare.

It is a type of hare that does not change color.

Correct answer:

Scientists have studied it to find out how a hare’s fur changes color.

Explanation:

The American hare is mentioned in the last line of the passage’s second paragraph, “Investigations that have been made on the closely allied American hare seem to show that the phenomenon is due to the growth of new hairs of white hue.” Here, the American hare is mentioned because “investigations” “have been made” on it, and those “investigations” “seem to show that the phenomenon is due to” something. We can tell from this context that in these “investigations,” scientists have studied how a hare’s fur changes color, since they are about what “the phenomenon is due to.” This means that “Scientists have studied it to find out how a hare’s fur changes color.” None of the other answer choices are supported by the passage.

Example Question #11 : Tone, Structure, And Purpose Of Science Passages

Adapted from "Recent Views as to Direct Action of Light on the Colors of Flowers and Fruits" in Tropical Nature, and Other Essays by Alfred Russel Wallace (1878)

The theory that the brilliant colors of flowers and fruits is due to the direct action of light has been supported by a recent writer by examples taken from the arctic instead of from the tropical flora. In the arctic regions, vegetation is excessively rapid during the short summer, and this is held to be due to the continuous action of light throughout the long summer days. "The further we advance towards the north, the more the leaves of plants increase in size as if to absorb a greater proportion of the solar rays. M. Grisebach says that during a journey in Norway he observed that the majority of deciduous trees had already, at the 60th degree of latitude, larger leaves than in Germany, while M. Ch. Martins has made a similar observation as regards the leguminous plants cultivated in Lapland.” The same writer goes on to say that all the seeds of cultivated plants acquire a deeper color the further north they are grown, white haricots becoming brown or black, and white wheat becoming brown, while the green color of all vegetation becomes more intense. The flowers also are similarly changed: those which are white or yellow in central Europe becoming red or orange in Norway. This is what occurs in the Alpine flora, and the cause is said to be the same in both—the greater intensity of the sunlight. In the one the light is more persistent, in the other more intense because it traverses a less thickness of atmosphere.

Admitting the facts as above stated to be in themselves correct, they do not by any means establish the theory founded on them; and it is curious that Grisebach, who has been quoted by this writer for the fact of the increased size of the foliage, gives a totally different explanation of the more vivid colors of Arctic flowers. He says, “We see flowers become larger and more richly colored in proportion as, by the increasing length of winter, insects become rarer, and their cooperation in the act of fecundation is exposed to more uncertain chances.” (Vegetation du Globe, col. i. p. 61—French translation.) This is the theory here adopted to explain the colors of Alpine plants, and we believe there are many facts that will show it to be the preferable one. The statement that the white and yellow flowers of temperate Europe become red or golden in the Arctic regions must we think be incorrect. By roughly tabulating the colors of the plants given by Sir Joseph Hooker as permanently Arctic, we find among fifty species with more or less conspicuous flowers, twenty-five white, twelve yellow, eight purple or blue, three lilac, and two red or pink; showing a very similar proportion of white and yellow flowers to what obtains further south.

What role does the underlined sentence play in the passage as a whole?

Possible Answers:

It provides evidence that the phenomenon being discussed exists, but does not support one theory more than the other.

It demonstrates that the "recent writer" quoted in the first paragraph is unreliable.

It provides a counterargument opposing the theory of the "recent writer" quoted in the first paragraph.

It provides evidence that supports the theory of the writer quoted in the first paragraph, but casts doubt on other theories.

It offers an opinion as to the validity of the theory of the "recent writer" quoted in the first paragraph.

Correct answer:

It provides evidence that the phenomenon being discussed exists, but does not support one theory more than the other.

Explanation:

The sentence underlined is "The further we advance towards the north, the more the leaves of plants increase in size as if to absorb a greater proportion of the solar rays." To answer this question correctly, you have to pay a great deal of attention to the way in which it is presented in the passage. It is quoted as evidence that the "recent writer" uses to support his or her theory that leaf size differs in this way due to a change in the intensity of the sunlight. So, neither"It provides a counterargument opposing the theory of the 'recent writer' quoted in the first paragraph" nor "It demonstrates that the 'recent writer' quoted in the first paragraph is unreliable" can be the correct answer. Since the statement in question is just presenting evidence, and not an opinion, "It offers an opinion as to the validity of the theory of the 'recent writer' quoted in the first paragraph" cannot be the correct answer either. 

This leaves us with two possible answer choices: "It provides evidence that supports the theory of the writer quoted in the first paragraph, but casts doubt on other theories," and "It provides evidence that the phenomenon being discussed exists, but does not support one theory more than the other." The author of the passage, in the second paragraph, says that "the facts as above stated" are "in themselves correct, they do not by any means establish the theory founded on them." Given this, along with the fact that the underlined sentence's evidence never casts doubt on any theories in the passage, the correct answer is "It provides evidence that the phenomenon being discussed exists, but does not support one theory more than the other."

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