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

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

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Example Questions

Example Question #65 : Language In History 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.

The author’s tone in this passage could best be described as __________.

Possible Answers:

funny and dismissive

lighthearted and edifying

eloquent and reserved

abrasive and cold

whimsical and unpredictable

Correct answer:

lighthearted and edifying

Explanation:

The author’s tone is primarily “lighthearted and edifying.” Before we go into detail about why, let us just briefly define all the options here so as to avoid confusion. “Lighthearted” means happy and not focusing on anxiety or worries and “edifying” means giving moral or intellectual instruction, or teaching; “whimsical” means quirky; “eloquent” means well-spoken; “reserved” means shy and not outgoing; “dismissive” means not considering or declaring as unimportant; and “abrasive” means rude, harsh and unpleasant. So, when we say the author’s tone is “lighthearted and edifying,” we mean that it is carefree and aims to teach. An example of the “lighthearted” tone can be seen with the author’s description of Newton’s attempts to test the impact of the sun on human vision: “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.” And, an example of the author’s “edifying” tone can be seen in the conclusion where the author attempts to impart some lesson to the reader: “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.”

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