SSAT Middle Level Reading : Determining Authorial Purpose in Argumentative Humanities Passages

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

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Example Questions

Example Question #1 : Authorial Purpose In Contemporary Life Passages

"Why Learning Multiple Languages in Graduate School is Important" by Matthew Minerd (2013)

In graduate school, students are often required to learn a number of foreign languages in addition to their regular coursework. This can be quite frustrating and difficult, for the normal courses in graduate school require significantly more reading and writing than do undergraduate courses. It is not unusual for graduate students to have regular reading assignments of several hundred pages for each course that they take. Likewise, they often write papers of much greater length than those that they wrote as undergraduate students. When language examinations are added to this difficult course load, it can be very frustrating for graduate students to try to find the time to prepare for these additional examinations.

Although these frustrations are understandable, this system has not been created solely to cause woe for graduate students. Much of the work for which these students are being prepared will focus on research. While much has been written in English about many topics, adequate research can only be done if one is able to read what people have written in other languages. For instance, there are many important articles and books written about almost every topic by European scholars. If a graduate student does not know any foreign languages, all of these article and books will be impossible to read, and hence useless to their research endeavors. This would be a great loss for a student's research. Therefore, in spite of its frustrating aspects, the language examination process is an important component of graduate school education.

What is the overall purpose of the passage?

Possible Answers:

To list frustrations that are felt about taking language examinations in graduate school

To defend the language examination system found in graduate schools

To summarize the state of language exams in graduate schools

To consider the antiquated methods of graduate school education

None of the other answers

Correct answer:

To defend the language examination system found in graduate schools

Explanation:

For this passage, it is necessary to pay attention to the whole text to find the overall purpose. The very last sentence is particularly revealing: "therefore, in spite of its frustrating aspects, the language examination process is an important component of graduate school education." In the second paragraph, author spends a significant amount of time defending the usefulness of learning other languages in graduate school. At the beginning of this paragraph, he admits that the frustrations are understandable, but nevertheless supports the helpfulness of this system; therefore, the best way to describe the author's purpose is "to defend the language examination system found in graduate schools."

Example Question #1 : Analyzing Passage Logic, Genre, And Organization In Literature Passages

Adapted from "The Eulogy of the Dog" by George Graham Vest (1870)

The best friend a man has in this world may turn against him and become his enemy. His son or daughter whom he has reared with loving care may prove ungrateful. Those who are nearest and dearest to us, those whom we trust with our happiness and our good name, may become traitors to their faith. The money that a man has, he may lose. It flies away from him, perhaps when he needs it the most. A man’s reputation may be sacrificed in a moment of ill-considered action. The people who are prone to fall on their knees to do us honor when success is with us may be the first to throw the stone of malice when failure settles its cloud upon our heads. The one absolutely unselfish friend that a man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him and the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous is his dog.

Gentlemen of the jury, a man’s dog stands by him in prosperity and in poverty, in health and in sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground, where the wintry winds blow and the snow drives fiercely, if only he can be near his master’s side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer, he will lick the wounds and sores that come in encounter with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince.

When all other friends desert, he remains. When riches take wings and reputation falls to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens. If fortune drives the master forth an outcast into the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of accompanying him, to guard him against danger, to fight against his enemies. And when the last scene of all comes, and death takes his master in its embrace and his body is laid in the cold ground, no matter if all other friends pursue their way, there by his graveside will the noble dog be found, his head between his paws, his eyes sad but open, in alert watchfulness, faithful and true, even unto death.

The description of the duplicity of man in the first paragraph is meant to highlight __________.

Possible Answers:

the loyalty of dogs

the impudence of some dog owners

the immorality of humans as opposed to animals

the brevity of a man’s reputation

the difficulty of owning pets

Correct answer:

the loyalty of dogs

Explanation:

The author highlights the common foibles, vices, and selfish actions of man to create a contrast with the loyalty and inherent goodness of dogs. You can infer this most obviously from the author’s conclusion to the first paragraph, “The one absolutely unselfish friend that a man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him and the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous is his dog.” The immorality of humans as opposed to animals seems partly right, but the author is expressly talking about just dogs, so there is a better answer choice.

Example Question #2 : Argumentative Humanities Passages

"Newton's Mistakes" by Daniel Morrison (2014)

Isaac Newton has often been thought of as the greatest thinker in human history. His insight into the role that gravity plays in existence and physics completely changed our collective understanding of the universe and our place in it. He was understood in his own time as a genius. One famous quote by Alexander Pope (himself quite an intelligent man) demonstrates the deep affection felt for Newton: “Nature, and nature’s mysteries, lay bathed in night, God said 'Let there be Newton,’ and all was light.”

Yet, when the famous economist John Kenneth Galbraith purchased Newton’s journals and diaries at auction, he found to his astonishment, and partial dismay, that more than half of Newton’s work was dedicated to the practice of alchemy—the pursuit of turning ordinary materials into precious metals. Our current understanding of science tells us that this is impossible and that Newton was wasting a significant proportion of his time.

Another famous story about Newton tells of his attempts to figure out the effect of direct exposure to sunlight on the human eye. To carry out this experiment he decided to stare at the sun for as long as humanly possible to see what would happen. The effect, as you might have guessed, was that he very nearly went permanently blind and was indeed completely unable to see for two days.

One might determine from these stories that Newton was not the genius we consider him to be—that he was, in fact, a fool; however, it should tell us something about the nature of genius. It is not merely deep intelligence, but the willingness to try new things and the rejection of the fear of failure. Newton was not a genius in spite of his mistakes, but because of them.

What is Alexander Pope trying to highlight about Isaac Newton in the underlined quotation in the first paragraph?

Possible Answers:

The illuminating impact of Newton’s revelations

The inherent foolishness in Isaac Newton’s genius

The reverence for Newton held by historical scientific scholars

The impact of Newton’s theories about gravity on the field of architecture

The high esteem in which Newton was held by his contemporaries

Correct answer:

The illuminating impact of Newton’s revelations

Explanation:

“Illuminating” means shedding light on or making an idea clear. So, when Alexander Pope said that Newton gave “light” to “nature’s mysteries,” he is referring to the “illuminating impact of Newton’s revelations.” The answer choice that reads “the inherent foolishness in Isaac Newton’s genius” is incorrect and is only brought up later in the passage, and the answer choice that reads “the high esteem with which Newton was held by his contemporaries” is closer to the reason why the author employs Alexander Pope’s quote.

Example Question #1 : Argumentative Humanities Passages

"Newton's Mistakes" by Daniel Morrison (2014)

Isaac Newton has often been thought of as the greatest thinker in human history. His insight into the role that gravity plays in existence and physics completely changed our collective understanding of the universe and our place in it. He was understood in his own time as a genius. One famous quote by Alexander Pope (himself quite an intelligent man) demonstrates the deep affection felt for Newton: “Nature, and nature’s mysteries, lay bathed in night, God said 'Let there be Newton,’ and all was light.”

Yet, when the famous economist John Kenneth Galbraith purchased Newton’s journals and diaries at auction, he found to his astonishment, and partial dismay, that more than half of Newton’s work was dedicated to the practice of alchemy—the pursuit of turning ordinary materials into precious metals. Our current understanding of science tells us that this is impossible and that Newton was wasting a significant proportion of his time.

Another famous story about Newton tells of his attempts to figure out the effect of direct exposure to sunlight on the human eye. To carry out this experiment he decided to stare at the sun for as long as humanly possible to see what would happen. The effect, as you might have guessed, was that he very nearly went permanently blind and was indeed completely unable to see for two days.

One might determine from these stories that Newton was not the genius we consider him to be—that he was, in fact, a fool; however, it should tell us something about the nature of genius. It is not merely deep intelligence, but the willingness to try new things and the rejection of the fear of failure. Newton was not a genius in spite of his mistakes, but because of them.

What is the author trying to highlight about Isaac Newton by employing Alexander Pope’s saying in the underlined quote in the first paragraph?

Possible Answers:

The illuminating impact of Newton’s revelations

The reverence that Newton is held in by historical scientific scholars

The impact of Newton’s theories about gravity on the field of architecture

The high esteem in which Newton was held by his contemporaries

The inherent foolishness in Isaac Newton’s genius

Correct answer:

The high esteem in which Newton was held by his contemporaries

Explanation:

It is clear that Alexander Pope himself is highlighting the “illuminating impact of Newton’s revelations” from his use of the word “light.” But, this question is asking you why the author employs Alexander Pope’s quotation, which is a much different question. To understand why the author employs this quotation, you have to go consider what the author says directly before sharing the quotation. He says, “He was understood in his own time as a genius; one famous quote by Alexander Pope (himself quite an intelligent man) demonstrates the deep affection felt for Newton . . . “ This suggests that the author employs Alexander Pope’s famous quotation to demonstrate “the high esteem in which Newton was held by his contemporaries.”

Example Question #11 : Isee Middle Level (Grades 7 8) Reading Comprehension

"Newton's Mistakes" by Daniel Morrison (2014)

Isaac Newton has often been thought of as the greatest thinker in human history. His insight into the role that gravity plays in existence and physics completely changed our collective understanding of the universe and our place in it. He was understood in his own time as a genius. One famous quote by Alexander Pope (himself quite an intelligent man) demonstrates the deep affection felt for Newton: “Nature, and nature’s mysteries, lay bathed in night, God said 'Let there be Newton,’ and all was light.”

Yet, when the famous economist John Kenneth Galbraith purchased Newton’s journals and diaries at auction, he found to his astonishment, and partial dismay, that more than half of Newton’s work was dedicated to the practice of alchemy—the pursuit of turning ordinary materials into precious metals. Our current understanding of science tells us that this is impossible and that Newton was wasting a significant proportion of his time.

Another famous story about Newton tells of his attempts to figure out the effect of direct exposure to sunlight on the human eye. To carry out this experiment he decided to stare at the sun for as long as humanly possible to see what would happen. The effect, as you might have guessed, was that he very nearly went permanently blind and was indeed completely unable to see for two days.

One might determine from these stories that Newton was not the genius we consider him to be—that he was, in fact, a fool; however, it should tell us something about the nature of genius. It is not merely deep intelligence, but the willingness to try new things and the rejection of the fear of failure. Newton was not a genius in spite of his mistakes, but because of them.

What is most likely the author’s purpose in writing this article?

Possible Answers:

To make his audience laugh

To tell a story

To describe a historical figure

To refute an argument

To impart a lesson

Correct answer:

To impart a lesson

Explanation:

When you are asked to determine the purpose of an article, it is sort of like being asked to consider the main argument of the article, as well as the manner in which it is concluded and the author’s tone throughout. The bulk of this article is describing the historical figure Isaac Newton, but this is not the author’s purpose in writing the article. Isaac Newton is used as a means for the author to “impart a lesson," namely the lesson that genius is not exclusive from foolishness, and that some people are geniuses not because they never make mistakes or know everything, but because they are not afraid to try new things and make mistakes along the way. This is how the passage concludes, which always gives a significant clue into the author’s primary purpose.

Example Question #2 : Authorial Attitude, Tone, And Purpose In Argumentative Humanities Passages

"The Pets of the Elderly" by Matthew Minerd (2013)

Many younger people think that it is a bit strange to see elderly widows and widowers fussing greatly over their pet dogs and cats. While it is perhaps amusing to see a mature adult babying an animal, this aspect of life often is of crucial importance for the health and happiness of these aging persons. Although they have lost their spouses and often have a dwindling number of friends, these people often have a social network outside of the house that can be deceptively large and active. All of this activity can hide the great loneliness that these people experience when they return home. Often having been the shared refuge with the loving presence of a spouse, the widow’s house or apartment can become a lonely isolation cell, no matter how active he or she might be. Pets often are a solution to this loneliness, becoming dear companions in a life that would otherwise be very devoid of personal contact every morning and night. They offer great joy and consolation to these elderly people. It is therefore understandable that their owners often give them such large amounts of attention.

What is the purpose of the two underlined sentences?

Possible Answers:

To show the absolute dejection of elderly widows and widowers

To show the limitations of our presumptions regarding the social lives of elderly widows and widowers

To indicate the specific kind of loneliness potentially experienced by elderly widows and widowers

To show that it is a lie to say that elderly widows and widowers have no friends

To show the regular awareness of mortality experienced by elderly widows and widowers

Correct answer:

To indicate the specific kind of loneliness potentially experienced by elderly widows and widowers

Explanation:

The first of the two bold sentences states that the elderly do have a somewhat active and large social network outside the house—and this in spite of the dwindling number of friends that they have. The key word in this first sentence is "deceptively;" however, we must look at the second sentence to understand the manner in which it is "deceptive." It is not a matter of the elderly people deceiving others about their social lives. Instead, it is such insofar as it might convince others that these people are not lonely; however, the second sentence states that this activity can hide the loneliness that these people experience at home. The purpose of this statement is to indicate the specific kind of loneliness potentially experienced by elderly widows and widowers. This distinction helps us to understand what kind of loneliness pets help to cure.

Example Question #1 : Analyzing Details In Humanities 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 was the purpose of the so-called divisio textus mentioned in the third paragraph above?

Possible Answers:

To provide a religious manner to understand a questionable pagan text.

To correct the errors found in longer commentaries on the same text.

To provide an outline to be used for interpreting the text in question.

To extract the interesting portions from the text in question.

To remove any questionable passages from the text in question.

Correct answer:

To provide an outline to be used for interpreting the text in question.

Explanation:

The key sentence to note is: "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." The divisio textus, this "division of the text," was meant to provide a short but correct outline for the sake of finding and interpreting the text's literal meaning.

Example Question #1 : Determining Authorial Purpose In Argumentative Humanities Passages

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

Early humans did not know what time meant, but in a general way they kept track of the seasons. They had noticed that the cold winter was invariably followed by the mild spring—that spring grew into the hot summer when fruits ripened and the wild ears of corn were ready to be eaten and that summer ended when sudden gusts of wind swept the leaves from the trees and a number of animals were getting ready for the long hibernal sleep.

But now, something was the matter with the weather. The warm days of summer had come very late. All the time the days grew shorter and the nights grew colder than they ought to have been.

It began to snow. It snowed for months and months. All the plants died and the animals fled in search of the southern sun. The early humans hoisted their young upon their backs and followed them. But they could not travel as fast as the wilder creatures and he were forced to choose between quick thinking or quick dying. They seem to have preferred the former, for they have managed to survive the terrible glacial periods which threatened to kill every human being on the face of the earth.

First, it was necessary that early humans clothe themselves lest they freeze to death. They learned how to dig holes and cover them with branches and leaves, and in these traps they caught animals, which they then killed with heavy stones and whose skins they used as coats for himself and their families.

Next came the housing problem. This was simple. Many animals were in the habit of sleeping in dark caves. The early humans now followed their example, drove the animals out of their warm homes and claimed them for their own.

In this way thousands of years passed. Only the people with the cleverest brains survived. They had to struggle day and night against cold and hunger. They discovered fire. They were forced to invent tools. They learned how to sharpen stones into axes and how to make hammers. They were obliged to put up large stores of food for the endless days of the winter and they found that clay could be made into bowls and jars and hardened in the rays of the sun. And so the glacial period, which had threatened to destroy humanity, became its greatest teacher because it forced humans to use their brains.

The primary purpose of this passage is __________.

Possible Answers:

to outline the importance of struggle in the development of mankind

to question the existing understanding of human advancement

to undermine a religious interpretation of human existence

to highlight the destructive impact of nature

to reinforce a scientific understanding of human development

Correct answer:

to outline the importance of struggle in the development of mankind

Explanation:

Although the author is arguing in favor of a scientific understanding of human development, there is no evidence to support an answer choice that suggests he is arguing against religion, questioning existing understanding, or even primarily reinforcing a scientific understanding. The evidence primarily points to “outline the importance of struggle in the development of mankind” being the correct answer. This is most clearly seen in the conclusion, but indeed is the purpose of the essay throughout, to show how struggle might not be beneficial to the individual, but is greatly beneficial to the species as a whole because “only the cleverest survive.”

Example Question #2 : Determining Authorial Purpose In Argumentative Humanities Passages

"Addictions" by Matthew Minerd (2013)

Addictions come in many forms, often quite hidden from those who should be aware of them. It is helpful to be aware of how hidden these obsessive behaviors can be. Often, they appear to be harmless, but this appearance is deceptive.  Perhaps several examples can assist in increasing the reader’s awareness of these potentially problematic habits. 

A very simple example of such an apparently innocuous addiction is the addiction that many people have to a beverage like coffee. While not as destructive as an addiction to alcohol, an extreme need for caffeine often covers a need for more sleep or an overzealous desire to be completely energetic at every waking moment. Also, a great deal of caffeine can potentially do damage to one’s heart due to the stress caused by its stimulating effects. 

Another example of a seemingly harmless addiction can be found in the case of people who are addicted to work. It is very tempting to praise such obsessive behavior, as it provides many benefits for others and even for the one doing the work. The advancement of a career certainly seems beneficial and often allows for great personal and financial fulfillment. Nevertheless, constant work often hides some sadness, insecurity, or fear that should be confronted by the person who slaves away without cessation. Likewise, over time, such continuous work often can be greatly destructive of important personal relationships.

Of course, many more examples could be brought forth, for one can obsess over almost anything. Still, even these two simple examples should make clear to the reader that it is possible for there to be apparently harmless—indeed, seemingly helpful—life practices that in reality can pose a potential harm to one’s physical or mental well-being.

What is the purpose of the second and third paragraphs?

Possible Answers:

To explain the meaning of the notion of "harmless addictions"

To provide examples of several extremely harmful addictions

To provide specific examples of addictions that appear to be harmless at first glance

To explain how deceptive addictions hide their harmfulness

To provide examples of several addictions that ultimately are not harmful

Correct answer:

To provide specific examples of addictions that appear to be harmless at first glance

Explanation:

The beginnings of these paragraphs' sentences express their purpose very well:

(1) "A very simple example of such an apparently innocuous addiction . . ."

(2) "Another example of a seemingly harmless addiction . . ."

The key words are "apparently innocuous" and "seemingly harmless."  These show that the addictions being enumerated appear harmless (though they actually are). This was also implied in the opening paragraph.

Example Question #2 : Contemporary Life Passages

"Addictions" by Matthew Minerd (2013)

Addictions come in many forms, often quite hidden from those who should be aware of them. It is helpful to be aware of how hidden these obsessive behaviors can be. Often, they appear to be harmless, but this appearance is deceptive. Perhaps several examples can assist in increasing the reader’s awareness of these potentially problematic habits. 

A very simple example of such an apparently innocuous addiction is the addiction that many people have to a beverage like coffee. While not as destructive as an addiction to alcohol, an extreme need for caffeine often covers a need for more sleep or an overzealous desire to be completely energetic at every waking moment. Also, a great deal of caffeine can potentially do damage to one’s heart due to the stress caused by its stimulating effects. 

Another example of a seemingly harmless addiction can be found in the case of people who are addicted to work. It is very tempting to praise such obsessive behavior, as it provides many benefits for others and even for the one doing the work. The advancement of a career certainly seems beneficial and often allows for great personal and financial fulfillment. Nevertheless, constant work often hides some sadness, insecurity, or fear that should be confronted by the person who slaves away without cessation. Likewise, over time, such continuous work often can be greatly destructive of important personal relationships.

Of course, many more examples could be brought forth, for one can obsess over almost anything. Still, even these two simple examples should make clear to the reader that it is possible for there to be apparently harmless—indeed, seemingly helpful—life practices that in reality can pose a potential harm to one’s physical or mental well-being.

What is the intention of the author of this passage?

Possible Answers:

To overcome social stereotypes regarding addiction

To condemn certain types of behaviors

To raise awareness regarding potentially hidden but dangerous behaviors

To express dissatisfaction with the psychological community's treatment of psychological disorders

To note the crassness of a society that overlooks the suffering and addiction experienced by others

Correct answer:

To raise awareness regarding potentially hidden but dangerous behaviors

Explanation:

The key sentence for discerning the author's purpose is: "Perhaps several examples can assist in increasing the reader’s awareness of these potentially problematic habits." This helps to interpret the first three sentences in the opening paragraph. The author is not merely intending to provide information about hidden types of addiction. In addition, the author wishes to "increase the reader's awareness." Thus, the best answer regarding the purpose is "to raise awareness regarding potentially hidden but dangerous behaviors."

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