SSAT Middle Level Reading : Determining Authorial Tone in Narrative Science Passages

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

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Example Questions

Example Question #51 : Psat Critical Reading

Adapted from Volume Four of The Natural History of Animals: The Animal Life of the World in Its Various Aspects and Relations by James Richard Ainsworth Davis (1903)

The examples of protective resemblance so far quoted are mostly permanent adaptations to one particular sort of surrounding. There are, however, numerous animals which possess the power of adjusting their color more or less rapidly so as to harmonize with a changing environment.

Some of the best known of these cases are found among those mammals and birds that inhabit countries more or less covered with snow during a part of the year. A good instance is afforded by the Irish or variable hare, which is chiefly found in Ireland and Scotland. In summer, this looks very much like an ordinary hare, though rather grayer in tint and smaller in size, but in winter it becomes white with the exception of the black tips to the ears. Investigations that have been made on the closely allied American hare seem to show that the phenomenon is due to the growth of new hairs of white hue. 

The common stoat is subject to similar color change in the northern parts of its range. In summer it is of a bright reddish brown color with the exception of the under parts, which are yellowish white, and the end of the tail, which is black. But in winter, the entire coat, save only the tip of the tail, becomes white, and in that condition the animal is known as an ermine. A similar example is afforded by the weasel. The seasonal change in the vegetarian Irish hare is purely of protective character, but in such an actively carnivorous creature as a stoat or weasel, it is aggressive as well, rendering the animal inconspicuous to its prey.

The tone of this passage is best described as __________.

Possible Answers:






Correct answer:



The author’s tone in this passage is one that you may not even have noticed when reading the passage. Science passages like this one often employ a detached, impersonal, and neutral tone that can be called “objective.” This type of tone doesn’t involve the writer’s opinion or take sides with one or another of the topics being discussed. For instance, if the writer made the hares seem pitiable and the stoats seem like mean, bloodthirsty predators, his tone could not be said to be “objective.” However, the writer treats the stoats and hares in much the same way, discussing them in terms of their changing coat colors. “Objective” is the best answer for this question because we cannot support the assertions that the author’s tone is “angry,” “optimistic,” “considerate,” or “judgmental.”

Example Question #1 : Analyzing Tone, Style, And Figurative Language In Science Passages

Adapted from Cassell’s Natural History by Francis Martin Duncan (1913)

The penguins are a group of birds inhabiting the southern ocean, for the most part passing their lives in the icy waters of the Antarctic seas. Like the ratitae, penguins have lost the power of flight, but the wings are modified into swimming organs and the birds lead an aquatic existence and are scarcely seen on land except in the breeding season. They are curious-looking creatures that appear to have no legs, as the limbs are encased in the skin of the body and the large flat feet are set so far back that the birds waddle along on land in an upright position in a very ridiculous manner, carrying their long narrow flippers held out as if they were arms. When swimming, penguins use their wings as paddles while the feet are used for steering.

Penguins are usually gregarious—in the sea, they swim together in schools, and on land, assemble in great numbers in their rookeries. They are very methodical in their ways, and on leaving the water, the birds always follow well-defined tracks leading to the rookeries, marching with much solemnity one behind the other in soldierly order

The largest species of penguins are the king penguin and the emperor penguin, the former being found in Kerguelen Land, the Falklands, and other southern islands, and the latter in Victoria Land and on the pack ice of the Antarctic seas. As they are unaccustomed from the isolation of their haunts to being hunted and persecuted by man, emperor penguins are remarkably fearless, and Antarctic explorers invading their territory have found themselves objects of curiosity rather than fear to the strange birds who followed them about as if they were much astonished at their appearance. 

The emperor penguin lays but a single egg and breeds during the intense cold and darkness of the Antarctic winter. To prevent contact with the frozen snow, the bird places its egg upon its flat webbed feet and crouches down upon it so that it is well covered with the feathers. In spite of this precaution, many eggs do not hatch and the mortality amongst the young chicks is very great.

The underlined portion of the passage makes the penguins seem __________.

Possible Answers:


not prepared for extremely cold weather




Correct answer:



The underlined portion of the passage is as follows:

“They are very methodical in their ways, and on leaving the water, the birds always follow well-defined tracks leading to the rookeries, marching with much solemnity one behind the other in soldierly order.”

The fact that the author describes the penguins as proceeding “in soldierly order” and as “marching,” which is something soldiers do, supports the answer that his description makes them seem “military.” Nothing about the underlined portion of the passage makes the penguins seem “predatory,” “bored,” “frantic,” “or “not prepared for extremely cold weather.”

Example Question #3 : Tone, Audience, And Point Of View In Natural Science Passages

"Cacti" by Ami Dave (2013)

Cacti are plants suited to the desert, and we must always keep this factor in mind when growing ornamental cacti in our gardens, for it helps us provide cacti with conditions that allow them to survive and thrive. For example, a cactus should never be watered over its body, as it will start to rot. This is because it is covered with a waxy coating which prevents water loss through evaporation. When one waters the cactus over its body, the waxy coating is washed away and the plant begins to rot. The amount of water that one must supply to the cactus is very much dependent upon the season and upon the climate of the place. During the summer season one should water cacti every four days, whereas in the rainy season, once every fifteen days is quite enough.

Cacti need a minimum of two and a half hours of sunlight per day; however, they should not be kept in the sun all day because they may wrinkle when exposed to too much bright sunlight. Unlike other plants, cacti produce carbon dioxide during the day and oxygen during the night, so they are ideal plants to be kept in bedrooms to freshen up the air at night.

If a cactus is to thrive and prosper, the size of the pot in which it is grown needs to be monitored carefully. The pot should always be a little smaller than the plant itself because it is only when the plant has to struggle to survive that it will thrive. If the pot is too spacious and the plant does not need to struggle, chances are that the cactus will die. Similarly, if a cactus shows no signs of growth, stop watering it. Watering should be resumed only when the plant begins to grow again.

The substrata of a cactus pot is ideally composed of pieces of broken bricks at the bottom, followed by a layer of charcoal above the bricks, and then coarse sand and pebbles above the charcoal. Leaf mould is the best manure.

Grafting cacti is very simple. A very small piece of the cactus plant should be stuck with tape to the plant that needs grafting. The smaller the piece, the easier it is to graft. To reproduce cacti, one has to simply cut off a piece of the cactus, allow it to dry for a few days, and then place it over the cacti substrate. It will automatically develop roots.

It is very easy to differentiate between cacti and other plants that look like cacti. All cacti have fine hair at the base of each thorn. The so-called “thorns” are in fact highly modified leaves which prevent loss of water through transpiration. If one ever gets pricked by cacti thorns, one should take tape, place it over the area where the thorns have penetrated the skin, and then peel it off. All of the thorns will get stuck to the tape and will be removed.

The tone of the passage can be described as __________.

Possible Answers:






Correct answer:



The passage is explanatory and does not offer an opinion on cacti, their growth, their nourishment, or any other factor. Thus, it can be considered "objective," having to do with facts instead of feelings and opinions. There is no evidence that the author is impassioned, cautious, critical, or indignant.

Example Question #41 : Language In Science Passages

Adapted from "The Wild Llama" by Charles Darwin in A Book of Natural History (1902, ed. David Starr Jordan)

The wild llama is the characteristic quadruped of the plains of Patagonia; it is the South American representative of the camel in the East. It is an elegant animal in a state of nature, with a long slender neck and fine legs. It is very common over the whole of the temperate parts of the continent, as far south as the islands near Cape Horn. It generally lives in small herds of from half a dozen to thirty in each, but on the banks of the St. Cruz we saw one herd which must have contained at least five hundred.

They are generally wild and extremely wary. Mr. Stokes told me that he one day saw through a glass a herd of these animals which evidently had been frightened and were running away at full speed, although they were so far away that he could not distinguish them with his naked eye. The sportsman frequently receives the first notice of their presence by hearing from a long distance their peculiar shrill, neighing note of alarm. If he then looks attentively, he will probably see the herd standing in a line on the side of some distant hill. On approaching nearer, a few more squeals are given, and off they set at an apparently slow, but really quick canter, along some narrow beaten track to a neighboring hill. If, however, by chance, he abruptly meets a single animal, or several together, they will generally stand motionless and intently gaze at him, then perhaps move on a few yards, turn round, and look again. What is the cause of this difference in their shyness? Do they mistake a man in the distance for their chief enemy, the puma? Or does curiosity overcome their timidity?

In this passage, the author adopts a __________ attitude towards llamas.

Possible Answers:

curious and puzzled

abrasive and dismissive

humble and benign

welcoming and humorous

malicious and spiteful

Correct answer:

curious and puzzled


The author’s of this passage is clearly very “curious” about llamas. The fact that he goes to such lengths to provide basic information about them and then to investigate their modes of behavior tells you that he could never be accused of being “dismissive” or “malicious.” There is little evidence to suggest he is being “welcoming” or “humorous.” Both these words feel out of place with the academic and investigative tone of this piece. “Humble” means modest and “benign” means harmless; these words also feel out of touch with this piece. However, “puzzled” reflects the author's tone quite well, particularly at the very end of the passage, where he employs a series of questions to highlight what he does not know. To provide some final help, “abrasive” means rude, “dismissive” means saying something is worthless and not being concerned with it; “humorous” means funny; and “malicious” and “spiteful” both mean evil, full of hatred, and doing something for hatred or revenge.

Example Question #1 : Determining Authorial Tone In Narrative Science Passages

Adapted from "Birds’ Nests" by John Burroughs in A Book of Natural History (1902, ed. David Starr Jordan)

The woodpeckers all build in about the same manner, excavating the trunk or branch of a decayed tree, and depositing the eggs on the fine fragments of wood at the bottom of the cavity. Though the nest is not especially an artistic work, requiring strength rather than skill, yet the eggs and the young of few other birds are so completely housed from the elements, or protected from their natural enemies—the jays, crows, hawks, and owls. A tree with a natural cavity is never selected, but one which has been dead just long enough to have become soft and brittle throughout. The bird goes in horizontally for a few inches, making a hole perfectly round and smooth and adapted to his size, then turns downward, gradually enlarging the hole, as he proceeds, to the depth of ten, fifteen, twenty inches, according to the softness of the tree and the urgency of the mother bird to deposit her eggs. While excavating, male and female work alternately. After one has been engaged fifteen or twenty minutes, drilling and carrying out chips, it ascends to an upper limb, utters a loud call or two, when its mate soon appears, and, alighting near it on the branch, the pair chatter and caress a moment; then the fresh one enters the cavity and the other flies away.

The tone of this passage is primarily __________.

Possible Answers:






Correct answer:



Apart from a brief allusion to the close relationship between male and female woodpeckers at the end of the passage—that could perhaps be called “affectionate” or “whimsical”—the tone throughout this passage is primarily “academic.” “Academic” means relating to education and instruction. The author adopts a serious tone and tries to impart several precise lessons throughout the short text. This tone is most clearly seen in the middle of the passage, which reads, “The bird goes in horizontally for a few inches, making a hole perfectly round and smooth and adapted to his size, then turns downward, gradually enlarging the hole, as he proceeds, to the depth of ten, fifteen, twenty inches, according to the softness of the tree and the urgency of the mother bird to deposit her eggs.” To provide further help, “ominous” means threatening or suggesting bad things will happen; “outlandish” means extravagant and ridiculous; “affectionate” means loving; and “whimsical” means silly and quirky.

Example Question #12 : Narrative Science Passages

Adapted from "The Greatest Sea-Wave Ever Known" by R. A. Proctor in Wonders of Earth, Sea, and Sky (1902, ed. Edward Singleton Holden)

The inhabitants of the Sandwich Islands, which lie about six thousand three hundred miles from Arica—a city in Chile, might have imagined themselves safe from any effects that could be produced by an earthquake taking place so far away from them. But on the night between August 13th and 14th, the sea around this island group rose in a surprising manner, and many thought the islands were sinking, and would shortly subside altogether beneath the waves. Some of the smaller islands, indeed, were for a time completely submerged. Before long, however, the sea fell again, and as it did so the observers "found it impossible to resist the impression that the islands were rising bodily out of the water." For no less than three days this strange oscillation of the sea continued to be experienced, the most remarkable ebbs and floods being noticed at Honolulu, on the island of Woahoo.

But the sea-wave swept onward far beyond these islands. At Yokohama, in Japan, more than ten thousand five hundred miles from Arica, an enormous wave poured in on August 14th, but at what hour we have no satisfactory record. So far as distance is concerned, this wave affords most surprising evidence of the stupendous nature of the disturbance to which the waters of the Pacific Ocean had been subjected. The whole circumference of the earth is but twenty-five thousand miles, so that this wave had traveled over a distance considerably greater than two-fifths of the earth's circumference. A distance which the swiftest of our ships could not traverse in less than six or seven weeks had been swept over by this enormous undulation in the course of a few hours.

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

Possible Answers:

melancholy and somber

fearful and concerned

respectful, yet humorous

apathetic and dismissive

impressed and reverential

Correct answer:

impressed and reverential


The author’s tone in this passage and attitude toward his subject matter could best be described as “impressed and reverential.” The first key could be said to be in the title, as “The Greatest Sea-Wave Ever Known” certainly suggests a level of reverence on the part of the author. But, really, the evidence is clear throughout. The author comments upon the remarkable nature of the sea-wave on numerous occasions—he calls it “stupendous” and “most remarkable.” He focuses a great deal on conveying the impressive speed and distance traveled by the sea-wave to his audience. To provide further help, “concerned” means worried; “apathetic” means not caring; “dismissive” means expressing that something is unimportant; “melancholy” means pensive and sad; “somber”means sad, serious and grave; and “humorous” means funny.

Example Question #13 : Narrative Science Passages

Adapted from "What I Saw in an Ant’s Nest" by Andrew Wilson in A Book of Natural History (1902, ed. David Starr Jordan)

The workers appear to perform a never-ending round of duties. They build the nests, make the roads, attend to the wants of the young, train up the latter in the ways of ant existence, wait on the sovereigns of the nest, and like diplomatic courtiers, duly arrange for the royal marriages of the future. As Mr. Bates remarks, “The wonderful part in the history of the termites is that not only is there a rigid division of labor, but that nature has given to each class a structure of body adapting it to the kind of labor it has to perform. The males and females form a class apart; they do no kind of work, but in the course of growth, acquire wings to enable them to issue forth and disseminate their kind. The workers and soldiers are wingless, and differ solely in the shape and armature of the head. The head in the laborers is smooth and rounded, the mouth being adapted for the working of the materials in building the hive. In the soldier, the head is of very large size, and is provided in almost every kind with special organs of offense and defense in the form of horny processes resembling pikes, tridents, and so forth . . . The course of human events in our day seems, unhappily, to make it more than ever necessary for the citizens of industrious communities to set apart a numerous armed class for the protection of the rest; in this, nations only do what nature has of old done for the termites. The soldier termite, however, has not only the fighting instinct and function; he is constructed as a soldier, and carries his weapons not in his hand but growing out of his body.” When a colony of termites is disturbed, the ordinary citizens disappear and the military are called out. “The soldiers mounted the breach,” says Mr. Bates, “to cover the retreat of the workers,” when a hole was made in the archway of one of their covered roads, and with military precision the rear men fall into the vacant places in the front ranks as the latter are emptied by the misfortune of war.

The tone of this passage could best be described as __________.

Possible Answers:

melancholy and academic

outlandish and whimsical

educational and optimistic

somber and funereal

caustic and aggressive

Correct answer:

melancholy and academic


The tone of this passage could best be described as “melancholy and academic.” The “academic” part of the tone comes from the scholarly consideration of the behavior and types of termites and the fact that the author makes numerous references to a clearly noted expert and scholar (Mr. Bates.) The “melancholy” aspect of the tone is a little more difficult to pick up on, but it is clearly present throughout the passage. To clarify, “melancholy” means sad in a thoughtful and pensive sort of way. So, the “melancholy” tone can be seen, for example, in the author’s consideration of the similarities between humans and termites, when he says, “The course of human events in our day seems, unhappily, to make it more than ever necessary for the citizens of industrious communities to set apart a numerous armed class for the protection of the rest." The important word here in terms of identifying the author's tone is “unhappily.” The author's sad tone can also be seen at the very end of the passage, when he says, "with military precision the rear men fall into the vacant places in the front ranks as the latter are emptied by the misfortune of war.” The key word here is “misfortune.” To provide further help, “somber” means grave and serious; “funereal” means gloomy and mournful; “outlandish” means weird and extraordinary; “whimsical” means silly and quirky; “caustic” means harsh and critical; “educational” means instructive and teaching; and “optimistic” means hopeful.

Example Question #2 : Determining Authorial Tone In Narrative Science Passages

Adapted from "The Stars" by Sir Robert S. Ball in Wonders of Earth, Sea, and Sky (1902, ed. Edward Singleton Holden)

We are about to discuss one of the grandest truths in the whole of nature. We have had occasion to see that this sun of ours is a magnificent globe immensely larger than the greatest of its planets, while the greatest of these planets is immensely larger than this earth; but now we are to learn that our sun is, indeed, only a star not nearly so bright as many of those that shine over our heads every night. We are comparatively close to the sun, so that we are able to enjoy its beautiful light and cheering heat. Each of those other myriads of stars is a sun, and the splendor of those distant suns is often far greater than that of our own. We are, however, so enormously far from them that they appear dwindled down to insignificance.

To judge impartially between our sun or star and such a sun or star as Sirius, we should stand halfway between the two; it is impossible to make a fair estimate when we find ourselves situated close to one star and a million times as far from the other. After allowance is made for the imperfections of our point of view, we are enabled to realize the majestic truth that the sun is no more than a star, and that the other stars are no less than suns. This gives us an imposing idea of the extent and magnificence of the universe in which we are situated. Look up at the sky at night—you will see a host of stars; try to think that every one of them is itself a sun. It may be that those suns have planets circling round them, but it is hopeless for us to expect to see such planets. Were you standing on one of those stars and looking towards our system, you would not perceive the sun to be the brilliant and gorgeous object that we know so well. If you could see it at all, it would merely seem like a star, not nearly as bright as many of those you can see at night. Even if you had the biggest of telescopes to aid your vision, you could never discern from one of these bodies the planets which surround the sun; no astronomer in the stars could see Jupiter, even if his sight were a thousand times as powerful as any sight or telescope that we know. So minute an object as our Earth would, of course, be still more hopelessly beyond the possibility of vision.

The author’s tone in this passage is primarily __________.

Possible Answers:

remote and distant

instructive and amazed

enthusiastic and optimistic

humorous and scathing

pessimistic and reflective

Correct answer:

instructive and amazed


The author’s tone in this passage is best described as “instructive and amazed.” It is best described as “instructive” because the author goes to great lengths to teach and give a lesson. He wishes his audience to learn about the universe and the nature of stars. It can be described as “amazed” because the author constantly expresses his wonderment and amazement at the realities of the universe. To provide further help, “remote” and “distant” mean far away, or detached from other people and not really caring; “reflective” means thoughtful; “humorous” means funny; “enthusiastic” means excited; “scathing” means harsh and critical; “optimistic” means believing good things will happen; and “pessimistic” means believing bad things will happen.

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