SAT Critical Reading : Context-Dependent Meaning of Phrases or Sentences in Humanities Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for SAT Critical Reading

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Example Questions

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

Adapted from Self-Reliance (1841) by Ralph Waldo Emerson

There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, nothing can come to hit but through his own work. A man is relieved and overjoyed when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise, shall give him no peace. It is a deliverance which does not deliver. In the attempt his genius deserts him; no muse befriends; no invention, no hope.

Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, and the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.

What does the author mean by “imitation is suicide”?

Possible Answers:

Genius deserts chaotic men

Great men are rare

Joy comes from work

Man must make original work

Inspiration can be found in unlikely places

Correct answer:

Man must make original work

Explanation:

The author of this passage is describing the importance of self-reliance on the growth of man. When he states that “imitation is suicide” he means that man sacrifices his sense of self when he uses or copies the work of another. The author believes it is essential that man produced original work, as evidenced by the statement: “That though the wide universe is full of good, nothing can come to hit but through his own work.”

Example Question #2 : Context Dependent Meaning Of Phrases Or Sentences In Humanities Passages

Adapted from Self-Reliance (1841) by Ralph Waldo Emerson

There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, nothing can come to hit but through his own work. A man is relieved and overjoyed when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise, shall give him no peace. It is a deliverance which does not deliver. In the attempt his genius deserts him; no muse befriends; no invention, no hope.

Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, and the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.

What does the author most nearly mean by “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.”

Possible Answers:

Society is always moving forwards against the chaos and darkness.

Self-reliance can only take you so far.

No work can be accomplished without the help of others.

Work done in God’s name does the greatest good.

Believe in your work and ignore the criticism of others.

Correct answer:

Believe in your work and ignore the criticism of others.

Explanation:

The author introduces the second paragraph with the statement: “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” The purpose is to introduce the audience to the topic of that paragraph; the importance of self-reliance and individual confidence. The first part of the phrase focuses on commanding the reader to believe in his own abilities. The second part describes how every heart vibrates as it owns guidance, not the direction of others.

Example Question #6 : Specific Phrases And Sentences 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.

From the context of the whole passage what does the author most closely mean by “Secrecy, in fact, may be our salvation”?

Possible Answers:

Problems are made less manageable by sharing them.

God will come to one who is silent.

Suffering is alleviated through open discussion.

Silence is the root of all difficulties.

No man can function without sharing his suffering.

Correct answer:

Problems are made less manageable by sharing them.

Explanation:

The author’s concluding statement could easily be seen as a simplification of the man idea of the passage; that keeping one’s problems to oneself will likely lessen the severity of their impact. “Problems are made less manageable by sharing them” is the answer choice that best restates this thesis.

Example Question #1 : Drawing Conclusions

Adapted from “A Definition of a Gentleman” by John Henry Newman (1852)

It is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain. This description is both refined and, as far as it goes, accurate. He is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him; and he concurs with their movements rather than takes the initiative himself. His benefits may be considered as parallel to what are called comforts or conveniences in arrangements of a personal nature: like an easy chair or a good fire, which do their part in dispelling cold and fatigue, though nature provides both means of rest and animal heat without them. The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast;--all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make everyone at their ease and at home. He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome. He makes light of favors while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring. He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort, he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets everything for the best.

What does the author of this passage mean when he says that a gentleman “has his eyes on all his company?”

Possible Answers:

A gentleman must always be mindful of the threat others pose to him.

A gentleman is considerate of others.

A gentleman knows how to use and abuse others.

A gentleman is concerned what others think of him.

A gentleman must consider the emotions of women before men.

Correct answer:

A gentleman is considerate of others.

Explanation:

The expression to “have his eyes on all his company” means that a gentleman is always considerate of the needs and desires of others. If you were unable to determine the meaning of this phrase it would be most prudent to guess the answer based on an understanding of the passage as a whole. Throughout the passage the author focuses on expressing how a “gentleman” must be mindful to the needs of others at all times. The four incorrect answer choices are either opposite in meaning to the author’s overall argument or scarcely mentioned in the passage.

Example Question #3 : Context Dependent Meaning Of Phrases Or Sentences In Humanities Passages

Adapted from "Nature" by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1836)

Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines to-day also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.

Undoubtedly we have no questions to ask which are unanswerable. We must trust the perfection of the creation so far, as to believe that whatever curiosity the order of things has awakened in our minds, the order of things can satisfy. Every man's condition is a solution in hieroglyphic to those inquiries he would put. He acts it as life, before he apprehends it as truth. In like manner, nature is already, in its forms and tendencies, describing its own design. Let us interrogate the great apparition, that shines so peacefully around us. Let us inquire, to what end is nature?

 

 

In stating that “There is more wool and flax in the fields" near the end of the first paragraph, the author is expressing that __________.

Possible Answers:

hard labor will be more productive than useless thinking

it is easier to find knowledge by examining nature

people need to get outside more for their health

farmers are more knowledgeable than scholars

agriculture is the most important field of study

Correct answer:

it is easier to find knowledge by examining nature

Explanation:

Emerson is using a rhetorical device to explain that more personal intellectual development (the “wool and flax” of the passage) can be achieved by going outside and examining nature, rather than rigorously studying the written work of previous generations of scholars. While the author probably does believe that "people need to get outside more for their health" is correct, that is not the point of this specific passage.

Example Question #2 : Specific Phrases And Sentences In Humanities Passages

Adapted from “Genius and Individuality” by John Stuart Mill (1859)

It will not be denied by anybody that originality is a valuable element in human affairs. There is always need of persons not only to discover new truths, and point out when what were once truths are true no longer, but also to commence new practices, and set the example of more enlightened conduct, and better taste and sense in human life. This cannot well be said by anybody who does not believe that the world has already attained perfection in all its ways and practices. It is true that this benefit is not capable of being rendered by everybody alike; there are but few persons, in comparison with the whole of mankind, whose experiments, if adopted by others, would be likely to be any improvement on established practice. But these few are the salt of the earth; without them, human life would become a stagnant pool. Not only is it they who introduce good things which did not before exist, it is they who keep the life in those which already existed. If there were nothing new to be done, would human intellect cease to be necessary? Would it cause people to forget how best to go about their business, and instead to do things like cattle, not like human beings? There is a tendency in the best beliefs and practices to degenerate into the mechanical. Persons of genius are a small minority, but in order to have them, it is necessary to preserve the soil in which they grow. Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom.

I insist thus emphatically on the importance of genius, and the necessity of allowing it to unfold itself freely both in thought and in practice, being well aware that no one will deny the position in theory, but knowing also that almost everyone, in reality, is totally indifferent to it. People think genius a fine thing if it enables a man to write an exciting poem, or paint a picture. But in its true sense, that of originality in thought and action, though no one says that it is not a thing to be admired, nearly all, at heart, think they can do very well without it. Unhappily this is too natural to be wondered at. Originality is the one thing which unoriginal minds cannot feel the use of. They cannot see what it is to do for them: how should they? If they could see what it would do for them, it would not be originality. The first service which originality has to render them is the opening of their eyes; once this is done, they would have a chance of being themselves original.

From the context of the first paragraph, what does the author mean by describing certain individuals as “the salt of the earth”?

Possible Answers:

Individual genius is dangerous to the well-being of the collective.

No man can account for the impact of original genius.

Individuality is overrated.

Individuality keeps humans well fed.

Geniuses with original ideas preserve humanity and keep it moving forward.

Correct answer:

Geniuses with original ideas preserve humanity and keep it moving forward.

Explanation:

From the context of the sentence in which the phrase “salt of the earth” is contained, you know that the author is attributing a positive quality to the individuals being described. This rules out two of the answer choices (“Individual genius is dangerous to the well-being of the collective” and “Individuality is overrated”) as these have negative implications. The idea that individuality keeps humans well fed is too literal in meaning, and is nowhere else in the passage inferred. The idea that no man can account for the impact of original genius is not supported at all by the rest of the passage. Only the idea that geniuses with original ideas preserve and advance humanity is supported. For example, the author says “without [original geniuses], human life would become a stagnant pool.”

Example Question #3 : Specific Phrases And Sentences In Humanities Passages

Adapted from “Genius and Individuality” by John Stuart Mill (1859)

It will not be denied by anybody that originality is a valuable element in human affairs. There is always need of persons not only to discover new truths, and point out when what were once truths are true no longer, but also to commence new practices, and set the example of more enlightened conduct, and better taste and sense in human life. This cannot well be said by anybody who does not believe that the world has already attained perfection in all its ways and practices. It is true that this benefit is not capable of being rendered by everybody alike; there are but few persons, in comparison with the whole of mankind, whose experiments, if adopted by others, would be likely to be any improvement on established practice. But these few are the salt of the earth; without them, human life would become a stagnant pool. Not only is it they who introduce good things which did not before exist, it is they who keep the life in those which already existed. If there were nothing new to be done, would human intellect cease to be necessary? Would it cause people to forget how best to go about their business, and instead to do things like cattle, not like human beings? There is a tendency in the best beliefs and practices to degenerate into the mechanical. Persons of genius are a small minority, but in order to have them, it is necessary to preserve the soil in which they grow. Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom.

I insist thus emphatically on the importance of genius, and the necessity of allowing it to unfold itself freely both in thought and in practice, being well aware that no one will deny the position in theory, but knowing also that almost everyone, in reality, is totally indifferent to it. People think genius a fine thing if it enables a man to write an exciting poem, or paint a picture. But in its true sense, that of originality in thought and action, though no one says that it is not a thing to be admired, nearly all, at heart, think they can do very well without it. Unhappily this is too natural to be wondered at. Originality is the one thing which unoriginal minds cannot feel the use of. They cannot see what it is to do for them: how should they? If they could see what it would do for them, it would not be originality. The first service which originality has to render them is the opening of their eyes; once this is done, they would have a chance of being themselves original.

When the author says that most people are “totally indifferent” to the importance of genius, what does he most closely mean?

Possible Answers:

Individual genius cannot overcome the apathy of common men.

People care too much about superficial things.

The common man generally laments his lack of genius.

People do not much care about the protection of genius.

People think too much about the value of individuality.

Correct answer:

People do not much care about the protection of genius.

Explanation:

This question mostly relies on your ability to understand the attitude of the author demonstrated throughout the passage. The author states that almost “all [people], at heart, think they can do very well without [genius and individuality].” From this you can infer that the author is most likely saying that people do not much care about the protection of genius. You could also focus on the meaning of the word "indifferent" (showing no care or interest) and that too would help you solve the question.

Example Question #2 : Language In Contemporary Life Passages

Adapted from “Advice to Youth” by Mark Twain (1882)

Being told I would be expected to talk here, I inquired what sort of talk I ought to make. They said it should be something suitable to youth--something didactic, instructive, or something in the nature of good advice. Very well. I have a few things in my mind which I have often longed to say for the instruction of the young; for it is in one’s tender early years that such things will best take root and be most enduring and most valuable. First, then I will say to you my young friends--and I say it beseechingly, urgently-- Always obey your parents, when they are present. This is the best policy in the long run, because if you don’t, they will make you. Most parents think they know better than you do, and you can generally make more by humoring that superstition than you can by acting on your own better judgment.

Be respectful to your superiors, if you have any, also to strangers, and sometimes to others. If a person offends you and you are in doubt as to whether it was intentional or not, do not resort to extreme measures; simply watch your chance and hit him with a brick. That will be sufficient. If you shall find that he had not intended any offense, come out frankly and confess yourself in the wrong when you struck him; acknowledge it like a man and say you didn’t mean to. 

Go to bed early, get up early--this is wise. Some authorities say get up with the sun; some say get up with one thing, others with another. But a lark is really the best thing to get up with. It gives you a splendid reputation with everybody to know that you get up with the lark; and if you get the right kind of lark, and work at him right, you can easily train him to get up at half past nine, every time--it’s no trick at all.

Now as to the matter of lying. You want to be very careful about lying; otherwise you are nearly sure to get caught. Once caught, you can never again be in the eyes to the good and the pure, what you were before. Many a young person has injured himself permanently through a single clumsy and ill finished lie, the result of carelessness born of incomplete training. Some authorities hold that the young ought not to lie at all. That of course, is putting it rather stronger than necessary; still while I cannot go quite so far as that, I do maintain, and I believe I am right, that the young ought to be temperate in the use of this great art until practice and experience shall give them that confidence, elegance, and precision which alone can make the accomplishment graceful and profitable. Patience, diligence, painstaking attention to detail--these are requirements; these in time, will make the student perfect; upon these only, may he rely as the sure foundation for future eminence. 

But I have said enough. I hope you will treasure up the instructions which I have given you, and make them a guide to your feet and a light to your understanding. Build your character thoughtfully and painstakingly upon these precepts, and by and by, when you have got it built, you will be surprised and gratified to see how nicely and sharply it resembles everybody else’s.

What does the author mean in the conclusion when he says “Build your character thoughtfully . . . you will be surprised and gratified to see how nicely and sharply it resembles everybody else’s?”

Possible Answers:

If the reader follows the author’s advice he/she will grow up to be a virtuous and hardworking member of society.

Most people have lived their lives as if they were following the advice of the author.

The author does not actually wish his advice to be taken seriously.

It is surprising how frequently individuals are deceitful.

Most parents are beacons of immorality.

Correct answer:

Most people have lived their lives as if they were following the advice of the author.

Explanation:

The author concludes this passage in a somewhat whimsical and mocking tone. The author intimates that most people live their lives by the precepts laid out throughout the passage. Two of the incorrect answer choices might seem correct, but are flawed in one obvious manner. Firstly, the author does not indicate that he believes following his advice will cause individuals to grow up to be virtuous and hardworking. And, secondly, the author, although employing a slightly mocking and ironic tone throughout does seem genuine in his insistence that young people should take his ideas seriously. You can therefore rule out both these answer choices: Remember it is very important to accept only the best answer choice, not one that seems partially or slightly correct.

Example Question #42 : Contemporary Life Passages

Adapted from The Spoiled Children of Civilization (1912) by Samuel McChord Crothers

To spoil a child is no easy task, for Nature is all the time working on behalf of the childish virtues and veracities, and is gently correcting the abnormalities of education. Still it can be done. The secret of it is never to let the child alone, and to insist on doing for him all that he would otherwise do for himself—and more.

In that "more" is the spoiling power. The child must be early made acquainted with the feeling of satiety. There must be too much of everything. If he were left to himself to any extent, this would be an unknown experience. For he is a hungry little creature, with a growing appetite, and naturally is busy ministering to his own needs. He is always doing something for himself, and enjoys the exercise. The little egoist, even when he has "no language but a cry," uses that language to make known to the world that he wants something and wants it very much. As his wants increase, his exertions increase also. Arms and legs, fingers and toes, muscles and nerves and busy brain are all at work to get something which he desires. He is a mechanic fashioning his little world to his own uses. He is a despot who insists on his divine right to rule the subservient creatures around him. He is an inventor devising ways and means to secure all the ends which he has the wit to see. That these great works on which he has set his heart end in self is obvious enough, but we forgive him. Altruism will come in its own time if we can train ourselves.

The “virtues and veracities” of childish nature most literally correspond to __________.

Possible Answers:

laziness and temerity

respectfulness and godliness

goodness and honesty

hunger and desire

wants and needs

Correct answer:

goodness and honesty

Explanation:

The easiest manner by which to solve this question is matching definitions. Virtue refers to the quality of goodness and veracity means honesty; however, if you were not aware of the definitions you can still solve the question by understand the context within which “virtues and veracities” are discussed. In the first paragraph the author constructs a contrast between the “correcting” aspect of nature and the spoiling “abnormalities” of education and human interference. This means the description of the affects of nature have to be positive. Of the answer choices goodness and honesty represent the best match for a positive description.

Example Question #1 : Specific Phrases And Sentences In Humanities Passages

Passage adapted from “Utopia” by Thomas More (1516) in Ideal CommonwealthsComprising More's Utopia, Bacon's New Atlantis, Campanella's City of the Sun, and Harrington's Oceans (1901)

Thus have I described to you, as particularly as I could, the constitution of that commonwealth, which I do not only think the best in the world, but indeed the only commonwealth that truly deserves that name. In all other places it is visible that, while people talk of a commonwealth, every man only seeks his own wealth; but there, where no man has any property, all men zealously pursue the good of the public, and, indeed, it is no wonder to see men act so differently, for in other commonwealths every man knows that unless he provides for himself, how flourishing soever the commonwealth may be, he must die of hunger, so that he sees the necessity of preferring his own concerns to the public; but in Utopia, where every man has a right to everything, they all know that if care is taken to keep the public stores full no private man can want anything, for among them there is no unequal distribution, so that no man is poor, none in necessity, and though no man has anything, yet they are all rich; for what can make a man so rich as to lead a serene and cheerful life, free from anxieties, neither apprehending want himself, nor vexed with the endless complaints of his wife? He is not afraid of the misery of his children, nor is he contriving how to raise a portion for his daughters, but is secure in this, that both he and his wife, his children and grandchildren, to as many generations as he can fancy, will all live both plentifully and happily, since, among them, there is no less care taken of those who were once engaged in labor, but grow afterwards unable to follow it, than there is, elsewhere, of these that continue still employed. I would gladly hear any man compare the justice that is among them with that of all other nations;among whom may I perish if I see anything that looks either like justice or equity; for what justice is there in this: that a nobleman, a goldsmith, a banker, or any other man, who either does nothing at all, or, at best, is employed in things that are of no use to the public, should live in great luxury and splendor upon what is so ill acquired, and a mean man, a carter, a smith, or a plowman, who works harder even than the beasts themselves, and is employed in labors so necessary, that no commonwealth could hold out a year without them, can only earn so poor a livelihood and must lead so miserable a life, that the condition of the beasts is much better than theirs? For as the beasts do not work so constantly, so they feed almost as well, and with more pleasure, and have no anxiety about what is to come, whilst these men are depressed by a barren and fruitless employment, and tormented with the apprehensions of want in their old age; since that which they get by their daily labour does but maintain them at present, and is consumed as fast as it comes in, there is no overplus left to lay up for old age.

What does the narrator mean when, in the underlined quotation, he says that Utopia is “indeed the only commonwealth that truly deserves that name”?

Possible Answers:

Utopia is the only country that is accessible only to those who can pay for entrance.

Utopia is the only society in which wealth is less important than how one gets along with other people.

Utopia is the only city which is completely ruled by trade.

Utopia is the only country which can be properly called independent.

Utopia is the only country in which riches are completely shared.

Correct answer:

Utopia is the only country in which riches are completely shared.

Explanation:

The quotation at hand appears in the context of the passage's first sentence: "Thus have I described to you, as particularly as I could, the constitution of that commonwealth, which I do not only think the best in the world, but indeed the only commonwealth that truly deserves that name." While we can't get much from simply reading this sentence, the next sentence sheds some more light on the narrator's meaning: "In all other places it is visible that, while people talk of a commonwealth, every man only seeks his own wealth; but there, where no man has any property, all men zealously pursue the good of the public." The idea that people in other countries live in "commonwealths," which suggest that in those places "wealth" should be "common," or shared, is contrasted with the reality that in those countries "every man only seeks his own wealth," the opposite of what the name "commonwealth" would lead us to expect. Returning to the quotation, then, the narrator is saying that Utopia is the only "commonwealth" (country) that deserves to be called that because there the "wealth" is actually "common," meaning shared or public.

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