SSAT Elementary Level Reading : How to Differentiate Between Literal and Figurative Language in Nonfiction Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for SSAT Elementary Level Reading

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Example Questions

Example Question #1 : How To Differentiate Between Literal And Figurative Language In Nonfiction Passages

Adapted from "Sea-slugs and Cuttlefish" by Charles Darwin in A Book of Natural History (1902, ed. David Starr Jordan)

I was much interested, on several occasions, by watching the habits of a cuttlefish. Although common in the pools of water left by the retiring tide, these animals were not easily caught. By means of their long arms and suckers, they could drag their bodies into very narrow crevices; and when thus fixed, it required great force to remove them. At other times they darted, with the rapidity of an arrow, from one side of the pool to the other, at the same instant discoloring the water with a dark chestnut-brown ink. These animals also escape detection by a very extraordinary, chameleon-like power of changing their color. They appear to vary their tints according to the nature of the ground over which they pass: when in deep water, their general shade was brownish-purple, but when placed on the land, or in shallow water, this dark tint changed into one of a yellowish green.

This cuttlefish displayed its chameleon-like power both during the act of swimming and whilst remaining stationary at the bottom. I was amused by the various arts to escape detection used by one individual, which seemed fully aware that I was watching it. Remaining for a time motionless, it would then stealthily advance an inch or two, like a cat after a mouse; sometimes changing its color, it proceeded, till having gained a deeper part, it darted away, leaving a dusky train of ink to hide the hole into which it had crawled.

What does the author compare to “like a cat after a mouse"?

Possible Answers:

The movement of the water that traps the cuttlefish

The attempts of the cuttlefish to hunt its prey

The stealthy movement of the cuttlefish

His own attempts to avoid the cuttlefish

His own attempts to catch a cuttlefish

Correct answer:

The stealthy movement of the cuttlefish

Explanation:

In context, the author says, "Remaining for a time motionless, it would then stealthily advance an inch or two, like a cat after a mouse." Although the expression “like a cat after a mouse” seems to indicate something hunting something else, the author is actually using it merely to describe the “stealthy” movement of the cuttlefish. The cuttlefish is moving slowly, an inch at a time, much like a cat that is hunting a mouse.

Example Question #2 : How To Differentiate Between Literal And Figurative Language In Nonfiction Passages

Adapted from The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Van Loon (1921)

I am going to take you to the top of the highest pyramid and I am going to ask that you imagine yourself possessed of the eyes of a hawk. Way, way off, in the distance, far beyond the yellow sands of the desert, you will see something green and shimmering. It is a valley situated between two rivers. It is the land of mystery and wonder which the Greeks called Mesopotamia—the "country between the rivers."

The names of the two rivers are the Euphrates and the Tigris. They begin their course amidst the snows of the mountains of Armenia and slowly they flow through the southern plain until they reach the muddy banks of the Persian gulf. They perform a very useful service. They turn the arid regions of Western Asia into a fertile garden.

The valley of the Nile had attracted people because it had offered them food upon fairly easy terms. The "land between the rivers" was popular for the same reason. It was a country full of promise and both the inhabitants of the northern mountains and the tribes which roamed through the southern deserts tried to claim this territory as their own and most exclusive possession. The constant rivalry between the mountaineers and the desert-nomads led to endless warfare. Only the strongest and the bravest could hope to survive, and that will explain why Mesopotamia became the home of very strong people.

When the author says he is “going to ask that you imagine yourself possessed of the eyes of a hawk,” he most nearly means __________.

Possible Answers:

He wants you to act as if you are as noble and wise as a hawk.

He wants you to act like you can see back into the past.

He wants you to act like you know what goes on inside the mind of a bird.

He wants you to pretend you can see over very long distances.

He wants you to pretend you can comprehend what it is like to fly.

Correct answer:

He wants you to pretend you can see over very long distances.

Explanation:

When the author says he is “going to ask that you imagine yourself possessed of the eyes of a hawk,” he means he wants you to “pretend you can see over very long distances.” Hawks have very good vision over long distances, and the author is creating a scenario whereby his audience is standing atop a pyramid in Egypt and looking all the way, across hundreds of miles, at the plains of Mesopotamia. This is most clearly shown in the sentence that follows the underlined text, where the author says, “Way, way off, in the distance, far beyond the yellow sands of the desert, you will see something green and shimmering.” The key phrase is “way, way off, in the distance."

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