PSAT Critical Reading : Purpose and Effect of Word Choice in Literary Fiction Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for PSAT Critical Reading

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Example Questions

Example Question #38 : Word Meaning In Context

Adapted from "A Scandal in Bohemia" in Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1892 ed.)

To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise, but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer—excellent for drawing the veil from men’s motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results. Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his. And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.

I had seen little of Holmes lately. My marriage had drifted us away from each other. My own complete happiness, and the home-centred interests which rise up around the man who first finds himself master of his own establishment, were sufficient to absorb all my attention, while Holmes, who loathed every form of society with his whole Bohemian soul, remained in our lodgings in Baker Street, buried among his old books, and alternating from week to week between drugs and ambition, the drowsiness of drugs, and the fierce energy of his own keen nature. He was still, as ever, deeply attracted by the study of crime, and occupied his immense faculties and extraordinary powers of observation in following out those clues, and clearing up those mysteries which had been abandoned as hopeless by the official police. From time to time I heard some vague account of his doings: of his summons to Odessa in the case of the Trepoff murder, of his clearing up of the singular tragedy of the Atkinson brothers at Trincomalee, and finally of the mission which he had accomplished so delicately and successfully for the reigning family of Holland. Beyond these signs of his activity, however, which I merely shared with all the readers of the daily press, I knew little of my former friend and companion.

One night—it was on the twentieth of March, 1888—I was returning from a journey to a patient (for I had now returned to civil practice), when my way led me through Baker Street. As I passed the well-remembered door, which must always be associated in my mind with my wooing, and with the dark incidents of the mystery that was solved there, I was seized with a keen desire to see Holmes again, and to know how he was employing his extraordinary powers. His rooms were brilliantly lit, and, even as I looked up, I saw his tall, spare figure pass twice in a dark silhouette against the blind. He was pacing the room swiftly, eagerly, with his head sunk upon his chest and his hands clasped behind him. To me, who knew his every mood and habit, his attitude and manner told their own story. He was at work again. He had risen out of his drug-created dreams and was hot upon the scent of some new problem. I rang the bell and was shown up to the chamber which had formerly been in part my own.

His manner was not effusive. It seldom was; but he was glad, I think, to see me. With hardly a word spoken, but with a kindly eye, he waved me to an armchair, threw across his case of cigars. Then he stood before the fire and looked me over in his singular introspective fashion.

The underlined word "introspective," as it is used in the passage's last paragraph, most nearly means which of the following? 

Possible Answers:

Critical

Bold

Kindly

Outward-looking

Inward-looking

Correct answer:

Inward-looking

Explanation:

Given the earlier descriptions of Sherlock's solitary personal style, it is best to look at "introspective" as a term that refers to Sherlock's inward-looking manner. Also, while Sherlock is literally looking at the narrator at the end of the passage's last paragraph, the fact that he is consumed by some new problem and thinking about it is somewhat reflected in the term "introspective."

Example Question #1 : Purpose And Effect Of Word Choice In Literary Fiction Passages

Adapted from Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist (1838). 

The room in which the boys fed, was a large stone hall, with a copper at one end:  out of which the master, dressed in an apron for the purpose, and assisted by one or two women, ladled the gruel at meal-times.  Of this festive composition each boy had one porringer, and no more--except on occasions of great public rejoicing, when he had two ounces and a quarter of bread besides.  The bowls never wanted washing.  The boys polished them with their spoons till they shone again; and when they had performed this operation (which never took very long, the spoons being nearly as large as the bowls), they would sit staring at the copper, with such eager eyes, as if they could have devoured the very bricks of which it was composed; employing themselves, meanwhile, in sucking their fingers most assiduously, with the view of catching up any stray splashes of gruel that might have been cast thereon.  Boys have generally excellent appetites.  Oliver Twist and his companions suffered the tortures of slow starvation for three months:  at last they got so voracious and wild with hunger, that one boy, who was tall for his age, and hadn't been used to that sort of thing (for his father had kept a small cook-shop), hinted darkly to his companions, that unless he had another basin of gruel per diem, he was afraid he might some night happen to eat the boy who slept next him, who happened to be a weakly youth of tender age.  He had a wild, hungry eye; and they implicitly believed him.  A council was held; lots were cast who should walk up to the master after supper that evening, and ask for more; and it fell to Oliver Twist.

The evening arrived; the boys took their places.  The master, in his cook's uniform, stationed himself at the copper; his pauper assistants ranged themselves behind him; the gruel was served out; and a long grace was said over the short commons.  The gruel disappeared; the boys whispered each other, and winked at Oliver; while his next neighbours nudged him.  Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery.  He rose fromt he table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said:  somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:

'Please, sir, I want some more.'

The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale.  He gazed in stupefied astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper.  The assistants were paralysed with wonder; the boys with fear.

'What!' said the master at length, in a faint voice.

'Please, sir,' replied Oliver, 'I want some more.'

The master aimed a blow at Oliver's head with the ladle; pinioned him in his arms; and shrieked aloud for the beadle.

The word "copper," as it is used in the first and fourth paragraphs, most nearly means __________.

Possible Answers:

cooking pot

penny

shelves

oven

Correct answer:

cooking pot

Explanation:

The first sentence of the first paragraph, is rich with context to determine the meaning of the word "copper." "The room in which the boys fed, was a large stone hall, with a copper at one end: out of which the master, dressed in an apron for the purpose, and assisted by one or two women, ladled the gruel at meal-times." Because the boys are being fed and the master is wearing an apron, the reader can assume that "copper" must have something to do with food. The master ladles the gruel from the copper. Gruel is a thin porridge; kind of like a combination of broth and oatmeal. Since the master uses a ladle to scoop gruel from the copper, the copper must be a cooking pot.

Example Question #2 : Purpose And Effect Of Word Choice In Literary Fiction Passages

Passage adapted from Louisa May Alcott's  "A Modern Cinderella, or The Little Old Shoe" (1860).

The old man went away into his imaginary paradise, and Nan into that domestic purgatory on a summer day,--the kitchen. There were vines about the windows, sunshine on the floor, and order everywhere; but it was haunted by a cooking-stove, that family altar whence such varied incense rises to appease the appetite of household gods, before which such dire incantations are pronounced to ease the wrath and woe of the priestess of the fire, and about which often linger saddest memories of wasted temper, time, and toil.

Nan was tired, having risen with the birds,--hurried, having many cares those happy little housewives never know,--and disappointed in a hope that hourly "dwindled, peaked, and pined." She was too young to make the anxious lines upon her forehead seem at home there, too patient to be burdened with the labor others should have shared, too light of heart to be pent up when earth and sky were keeping a blithe holiday. But she was one of that meek sisterhood who, thinking humbly of themselves, believe they are honored
by being spent in the service of less conscientious souls, whose careless thanks seem quite reward enough.

To and fro she went, silent and diligent, giving the grace of willingness to every humble or distasteful task the day had brought her; but some malignant sprite seemed to have taken possession of her kingdom, for rebellion broke out everywhere. The kettles would boil over most obstreperously,-- the mutton refused to cook with the meek alacrity to be expected from the nature of a sheep,--the stove, with unnecessary warmth of temper, would glow like a fiery furnace,--the irons would scorch,--the linens would dry,--and spirits would fail, though patience never.

As used in the third paragraph, "obstreperously" most nearly means ___________.

Possible Answers:

rebelliously

selfishly

uncontrollably

violently

Correct answer:

uncontrollably

Explanation:

The entire passage discusses how everything seems to go wrong for Nan. The entire situation is out of her control. The sentence immediately preceding the word "obstreperously" states, "...but some malignant sprite seemed to have taken possession of her kingdom, for rebellion broke out everywhere." Rebellion is another way of losing control.  Other examples of losing control are listed: mutton not cooking properly, linens not drying, the stove was too hot. It is a logical assumption, then, that the kettle boiling over is another example of something being uncontrollable.

Example Question #3 : Purpose And Effect Of Word Choice In Literary Fiction Passages

Passage adapted from J.M Barrie's Peter and Wendy (1911)

Mrs. Darling loved to have everything just so, and Mr. Darling had a passion for being exactly like his neighbours; so, of course, they had a nurse. As they were poor, owing to the amount of milk the children drank, this nurse was a prim Newfoundland dog, called Nana, who had belonged to no one in particular until the Darlings engaged her. She had always thought children important, however, and the Darlings had become acquainted with her in Kensington Gardens, where she spent most of her spare time peeping into perambulators, and was much hated by careless nursemaids, whom she followed to their homes and complained of to their mistresses. She proved to be quite a treasure of a nurse. How thorough she was at bath-time, and up at any moment of the night if one of her charges made the slightest cry. Of course her kennel was in the nursery. She had a genius for knowing when a cough is a thing to have no patience with and when it needs stocking around your throat. She believed to her last day in old-fashioned remedies like rhubarb leaf, and made sounds of contempt over all this new-fangled talk about germs, and so on. It was a lesson in propriety to see her escorting the children to school, walking sedately by their side when they were well behaved, and butting them back into line if they strayed. On John's footer [in England soccer was called football, "footer for short] days she never once forgot his sweater, and she usually carried an umbrella in her mouth in case of rain. There is a room in the basement of Miss Fulsom's school where the nurses wait. They sat on forms, while Nana lay on the floor, but that was the only difference. They affected to ignore her as of an inferior social status to themselves, and she despised their light talk. She resented visits to the nursery from Mrs. Darling's friends, but if they did come she first whipped off Michael's pinafore and put him into the one with blue braiding, and smoothed out Wendy and made a dash at John's hair.

As used in this paragraph, the word "perambulator" most nearly means ___________.

Possible Answers:

baby carriage

flower beds

picnic baskets

trash bins

Correct answer:

baby carriage

Explanation:

The entire paragraph is devoted to detailing how much Nana loves children and how she is an outstanding nanny. It makes sense, then, that this word has something to do with children. The context of the sentence provides additional clues. "She had always thought children important, however, and the Darlings had become acquainted with her in Kensington Gardens, where she spent most of her spare time peeping into perambulators, and was much hated by careless nursemaids, whom she followed to their homes and complained of to their mistresses." Kensington Gardens is a park where it is common for parents or nannies to walk children in baby carriages. Nana is hated by "careless nursemaids" after looking into the perambulator which further indicates that it is a baby carriage.

Example Question #4 : Purpose And Effect Of Word Choice In Literary Fiction Passages

Passage adapted from J.M Barrie's Peter and Wendy (1911)

Mrs. Darling loved to have everything just so, and Mr. Darling had a passion for being exactly like his neighbours; so, of course, they had a nurse. As they were poor, owing to the amount of milk the children drank, this nurse was a prim Newfoundland dog, called Nana, who had belonged to no one in particular until the Darlings engaged her. She had always thought children important, however, and the Darlings had become acquainted with her in Kensington Gardens, where she spent most of her spare time peeping into perambulators, and was much hated by careless nursemaids, whom she followed to their homes and complained of to their mistresses. She proved to be quite a treasure of a nurse. How thorough she was at bath-time, and up at any moment of the night if one of her charges made the slightest cry. Of course her kennel was in the nursery. She had a genius for knowing when a cough is a thing to have no patience with and when it needs stocking around your throat. She believed to her last day in old-fashioned remedies like rhubarb leaf, and made sounds of contempt over all this new-fangled talk about germs, and so on. It was a lesson in propriety to see her escorting the children to school, walking sedately by their side when they were well behaved, and butting them back into line if they strayed. On John's footer [in England soccer was called football, "footer for short] days she never once forgot his sweater, and she usually carried an umbrella in her mouth in case of rain. There is a room in the basement of Miss Fulsom's school where the nurses wait. They sat on forms, while Nana lay on the floor, but that was the only difference. They affected to ignore her as of an inferior social status to themselves, and she despised their light talk. She resented visits to the nursery from Mrs. Darling's friends, but if they did come she first whipped off Michael's pinafore and put him into the one with blue braiding, and smoothed out Wendy and made a dash at John's hair.

As used in this paragraph, the word "propriety" most nearly means __________.

Possible Answers:

lunacy

property

proper behavior

duty

Correct answer:

proper behavior

Explanation:

The context clue is within the same sentence. "It was a lesson in propriety to see her escorting the children to school, walking sedately by their side when they were well behaved, and butting them back into line if they strayed." When the children are well behaved, Nana walks sedately, or calmly. When the children stray, she butts them back into line. She and the children are all behaving properly when the children behave themselves.

Example Question #5 : Purpose And Effect Of Word Choice In Literary Fiction Passages

Passage adapted from HG Wells's "The Inexperienced Ghost" (1902).

The scene amidst which Clayton told his last story comes back very vividly to my mind. There he sat, for the greater part of the time, in the corner of the authentic settle by the spacious open fire, and Sanderson sat beside him smoking the Broseley clay that bore his name. There was Evans, and that marvel among actors, Wish, who is also a modest man. We had all come down to the Mermaid Club that Saturday morning, except Clayton, who had slept there overnight--which indeed gave him the opening of his story. We had golfed until golfing was invisible; we had dined, and we were in that mood of tranquil kindliness when men will suffer a story. When Clayton began to tell one, we naturally supposed he was lying. It may be that indeed he was lying--of that the reader will speedily be able to judge as well as I. He began, it is true, with an air of matter-of-fact anecdote, but that we thought was only the incurable artifice of the man.

"I say!" he remarked, after a long consideration of the upward rain of sparks from the log that Sanderson had thumped, "you know I was alone here last night?"

"Except for the domestics," said Wish.

"Who sleep in the other wing," said Clayton. "Yes. Well--" He pulled at his cigar for some little time as though he still hesitated about his confidence. Then he said, quite quietly, "I caught a ghost!"

As it is used in the last sentence of the first paragraph, the word "artifice" is used to ___________.

Possible Answers:

suggest that Clayton is being perfectly forthcoming and truthful

suggest that Clayton is imitating one of the other men

suggest that Clayton is ill

suggest an element of skillful exaggeration in Clayton's story

Correct answer:

suggest an element of skillful exaggeration in Clayton's story

Explanation:

Earlier in the paragraph, the narrator implies that Clayton's friends were only willing to listen to his story because they were all in a good mood. The five men seem to know each other well and the narrator states that everyone thought Clayton was lying when he began to tell the story. It can be assumed that he may often lie when telling stories. Clayton began his story as though simply telling them about something interesting that had happened to him, an anecdote. The narrator, however, says that they all believed this to be Clayton's "incurable artifice." It can be inferred that "artifice" means "skillful exaggeration" because Clayton obviously likes to tell stories and is good at it. Storytellers often exaggerate to make the story more interesting.

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