SSAT Middle Level Reading : Finding Context-Dependent Meanings of Phrases in Literary Fiction Passages

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

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Example Questions

Example Question #4 : Analyzing The Text In Literature Passages

Adapted from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (1876)

Within two minutes, or even less, he had forgotten all his troubles. Not because his troubles were one whit less heavy and bitter to him than a man's are to a man, but because a new and powerful interest bore them down and drove them out of his mind for the time—just as men's misfortunes are forgotten in the excitement of new enterprises. This new interest was a valued novelty in whistling, which he had just acquired, and he was suffering to practice it undisturbed. It consisted in a peculiar bird-like turn, a sort of liquid warble, produced by touching the tongue to the roof of the mouth at short intervals in the midst of the music—the reader probably remembers how to do it, if he has ever been a boy. Diligence and attention soon gave him the knack of it, and he strode down the street with his mouth full of harmony and his soul full of gratitude. He felt much as an astronomer feels who has discovered a new planet—no doubt, as far as strong, deep, unalloyed pleasure is concerned, the advantage was with the boy, not the astronomer.

The summer evenings were long. It was not dark, yet. Presently Tom checked his whistle. A stranger was before him—a boy a shade larger than himself. A newcomer of any age or either sex was an impressive curiosity in the poor little shabby village of St. Petersburg. This boy was well-dressed, too—well-dressed on a weekday. This was simply astounding. His cap was a dainty thing, his close-buttoned blue cloth roundabout was new and natty, and so were his pantaloons. He had shoes on—and it was only Friday. He even wore a necktie, a bright bit of ribbon. He had a citified air about him that ate into Tom's vitals. The more Tom stared at the splendid marvel, the higher he turned up his nose at his finery and the shabbier and shabbier his own outfit seemed to him to grow. Neither boy spoke. If one moved, the other moved—but only sidewise, in a circle; they kept face to face and eye to eye all the time.

In context, the underlined phrase "the knack of it" most nearly means __________.

Possible Answers:

an upsetting experience with it

the skill to do it

a notch in it

a hard time with it

confusion about it

Correct answer:

the skill to do it

Explanation:

The phrase "the knack of it" appears in the following sentence in the passage's first paragraph, which discuss's Tom's experience learning to whistle: "Diligence and attention soon gave him the knack of it, and he strode down the street with his mouth full of harmony and his soul full of gratitude." We can tell that Tom successfully learned to whistle because the next sentence compares his happiness to that of an astronomer who has just discovered a new planet. So, based on the context in which the phrase is used in the passage, the correct answer is "the skill to do it."

Example Question #3 : Analyzing The Text In Literature Passages

Adapted from Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)

He was a very silent man by custom. All day he hung round the cove or upon the cliffs with a brass telescope; all evening he sat in a corner of the parlor next the fire and drank rum and water very strong. Mostly he would not speak when spoken to, only look up sudden and fierce and blow through his nose like a fog-horn; and we and the people who came about our house soon learned to let him be. Every day when he came back from his stroll he would ask if any seafaring men had gone by along the road. At first we thought it was the want of company of his own kind that made him ask this question, but at last we began to see he was desirous to avoid them. When a seaman did put up at the Admiral Benbow (as now and then some did, making by the coast road for Bristol) he would look in at him through the curtained door before he entered the parlor; and he was always sure to be as silent as a mouse when any such was present. For me, at least, there was no secret about the matter, for I was, in a way, a sharer in his alarms. He had taken me aside one day and promised me a silver fourpenny on the first of every month if I would only keep my "weather-eye open for a seafaring man with one leg" and let him know the moment he appeared. Often enough when the first of the month came round and I applied to him for my wage, he would only blow through his nose at me and stare me down, but before the week was out he was sure to think better of it, bring me my four-penny piece, and repeat his orders to look out for "the seafaring man with one leg.”

How that personage haunted my dreams, I need scarcely tell you. I would see him in a thousand forms, and with a thousand diabolical expressions. Now the leg would be cut off at the knee, now at the hip; now he was a monstrous kind of a creature who had never had but the one leg, and that in the middle of his body. To see him leap and run and pursue me over hedge and ditch was the worst of nightmares. And altogether I paid pretty dear for my monthly fourpenny piece, in the shape of these abominable fancies.

The man in the passage asks the writer if he will “keep [his] ‘weather-eye open for a seafaring man with one leg’.” Which of the following most accurately restates the meaning of “keep his weather eye open for” in this phrase?

Possible Answers:

Be suspicious of

Be on the watch for

Leave a window open for

Do a favor for

Pay attention to the weather for

Correct answer:

Be on the watch for

Explanation:

To “keep a weather-eye open” for something means to look out carefully for that thing or person, or in other words, to be on the watch for him, her, or it. “Pay attention to the weather for” doesn’t make sense in the passage. “Do a favor for” and “be suspicious of” might seem like potentially correct answers, but since the man with the wooden leg isn’t actually a character in the same location as the man described in the passage and the narrator, neither of these answer choices make sense. If you thought that a “weather-eye” was a type of window, you may have chosen “leave a window open for,” but again, this makes no sense in the context of the passage.

Example Question #4 : Analyzing The Text In Literature Passages

Adapted from Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)

He was a very silent man by custom. All day he hung round the cove or upon the cliffs with a brass telescope; all evening he sat in a corner of the parlor next the fire and drank rum and water very strong. Mostly he would not speak when spoken to, only look up sudden and fierce and blow through his nose like a fog-horn; and we and the people who came about our house soon learned to let him be. Every day when he came back from his stroll he would ask if any seafaring men had gone by along the road. At first we thought it was the want of company of his own kind that made him ask this question, but at last we began to see he was desirous to avoid them. When a seaman did put up at the Admiral Benbow (as now and then some did, making by the coast road for Bristol) he would look in at him through the curtained door before he entered the parlor; and he was always sure to be as silent as a mouse when any such was present. For me, at least, there was no secret about the matter, for I was, in a way, a sharer in his alarms. He had taken me aside one day and promised me a silver fourpenny on the first of every month if I would only keep my "weather-eye open for a seafaring man with one leg" and let him know the moment he appeared. Often enough when the first of the month came round and I applied to him for my wage, he would only blow through his nose at me and stare me down, but before the week was out he was sure to think better of it, bring me my four-penny piece, and repeat his orders to look out for "the seafaring man with one leg.”

How that personage haunted my dreams, I need scarcely tell you. I would see him in a thousand forms, and with a thousand diabolical expressions. Now the leg would be cut off at the knee, now at the hip; now he was a monstrous kind of a creature who had never had but the one leg, and that in the middle of his body. To see him leap and run and pursue me over hedge and ditch was the worst of nightmares. And altogether I paid pretty dear for my monthly fourpenny piece, in the shape of these abominable fancies.

“That personage,” underlined in the second paragraph, refers to __________.

Possible Answers:

Admiral Benbow

the man who pays the speaker a fourpenny piece each month

the narrator

the seafaring man with one leg

the owner of the inn

Correct answer:

the seafaring man with one leg

Explanation:

You need to pay attention to the transition between the passage’s two paragraphs to get this question correct. At the end of the first passage, we are told, “Often enough when the first of the month came round and I applied to him for my wage, he would only blow through his nose at me and stare me down, but before the week was out he was sure to think better of it, bring me my four-penny piece, and repeat his orders to look out for "the seafaring man with one leg.” Then, the second paragraph begins, “How that personage haunted my dreams, I need scarcely tell you.” The past person mentioned in the first paragraph was “the seafaring man with one leg,” so that is the correct answer.

Example Question #3 : Language In Literature Passages

Adapted from Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)

He was a very silent man by custom. All day he hung round the cove or upon the cliffs with a brass telescope; all evening he sat in a corner of the parlor next the fire and drank rum and water very strong. Mostly he would not speak when spoken to, only look up sudden and fierce and blow through his nose like a fog-horn; and we and the people who came about our house soon learned to let him be. Every day when he came back from his stroll he would ask if any seafaring men had gone by along the road. At first we thought it was the want of company of his own kind that made him ask this question, but at last we began to see he was desirous to avoid them. When a seaman did put up at the Admiral Benbow (as now and then some did, making by the coast road for Bristol) he would look in at him through the curtained door before he entered the parlor; and he was always sure to be as silent as a mouse when any such was present. For me, at least, there was no secret about the matter, for I was, in a way, a sharer in his alarms. He had taken me aside one day and promised me a silver fourpenny on the first of every month if I would only keep my "weather-eye open for a seafaring man with one leg" and let him know the moment he appeared. Often enough when the first of the month came round and I applied to him for my wage, he would only blow through his nose at me and stare me down, but before the week was out he was sure to think better of it, bring me my four-penny piece, and repeat his orders to look out for "the seafaring man with one leg.”

How that personage haunted my dreams, I need scarcely tell you. I would see him in a thousand forms, and with a thousand diabolical expressions. Now the leg would be cut off at the knee, now at the hip; now he was a monstrous kind of a creature who had never had but the one leg, and that in the middle of his body. To see him leap and run and pursue me over hedge and ditch was the worst of nightmares. And altogether I paid pretty dear for my monthly fourpenny piece, in the shape of these abominable fancies.

The underlined sentence tells us that the man being described __________.

Possible Answers:

owns a fog-horn

blows his nose loudly

knows how to operate a fog-horn

looks like a fog-horn

is talkative

Correct answer:

blows his nose loudly

Explanation:

This question focuses a great deal on the phrase “blow through his nose like a fog-horn.” There is no literal fog-horn in the story; this description is a simile saying that the man blowing his nose is comparable to a fog-horn. So, the answer choice “owns a fog-horn” can be eliminated. The comparison is being made between the sound the man makes when he blows his nose and the sound a fog-horn makes, not anything to do with their appearances being similar, so “looks like a fog-horn” can be eliminated as well. “Knows how to operate a fog-horn” isn’t correct either, as “like a fog-horn” isn’t suggesting that the man blew his nose in the same manner as he might operate a fog horn; instead, “like a fog horn” is a use of figurative language making a comparison. This leaves us with “is talkative” and “blows his nose loudly.” We can tell that the man is not talkative because the sentence specifically says that “Mostly he would not speak when spoken to.” So, the correct answer is “blows his nose loudly.” This is the main point the comparison to a fog-horn is making.

Example Question #5 : Analyzing The Text In Literature Passages

Adapted from The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss (1879 Kingston ed.)

Thus talking, we pushed on until we came to a pleasant grove which stretched down to the water's edge. Here, we halted to rest, seating ourselves under a large tree, by a rivulet that murmured and splashed along its pebbly bed into the great ocean before us. A thousand gaily-plumaged birds flew twittering above us, and Fritz and I gazed up at them. 

My son suddenly started up.

"A monkey," he exclaimed. “I am nearly sure I saw a monkey." 

As he spoke, he sprang round to the other side of the tree, and in doing so, stumbled over a small round object. He handed it to me, remarking as he did so that it was a round bird's nest, of which he had often heard. "You may have done so," said I, laughing, "but this is a coconut."

We split open the nut, but, to our disgust, found the kernel dry and uneatable. 

"Hullo," cried Fritz, "I always thought a coconut was full of delicious sweet liquid, like almond milk."

"So it is," I replied, "when young and fresh, but as it ripens the milk becomes congealed, and in course of time is solidified into a kernel. This kernel then dries as you see here, but when the nut falls on favorable soil, the germ within the kernel swells until it bursts through the shell, and, taking root, springs up a new tree."

"I do not understand," said Fritz, "how the little germ manages to get through this great thick shell, which is not like an almond or hazelnut shell, which is divided down the middle already."

"Nature provides for all things," I answered, taking up the pieces. " Look here, do you see these three round holes near the stalk? It is through them that the germ obtains egress. Now let us find a good nut if we can." 

As coconuts must be overripe before they fall naturally from the tree, it was not without difficulty that we obtained one in which the kernel was not dried up. When we succeeded, however, we were so refreshed by the fruit that we could defer eating until later in the day, and so spare our stock of provisions.

Which of the following best restates the meaning of the underlined sentence, “As coconuts must be overripe before they fall naturally from the tree, it was not without difficulty that we obtained one in which the kernel was not dried up”?

Possible Answers:

Coconuts are only edible after they are overripe.

Coconuts that are too ripe don’t fall off of the trees, so it’s easy to gather the ones that are ripe.

Coconuts that are perfectly ripe don’t fall off of the trees, so it is difficult to gather them.

Coconuts that are underripe remain on the trees, so one must look for the ripe ones amongst the overripe ones on the ground.

Coconuts ripen quickly.

Correct answer:

Coconuts that are perfectly ripe don’t fall off of the trees, so it is difficult to gather them.

Explanation:

Let’s break up the indicated sentence into pieces and analyze those to figure out which answer choice is correct. In the first part of the sentence, “As coconuts must be overripe before they fall naturally from the tree,” the “as” is functioning like “because” or “since.” So, it is saying that “Since coconuts must be “overripe”—that is, too ripe—before they fall off of the trees, something occurred. This something is the rest of the sentence: “it was not without difficulty that we obtained one in which the kernel was not dried up.” The negative construction may seem difficult, but we can tell that “it was not without difficulty” means “it was difficult.” So, the narrator is saying that it was hard for them to find one without a dried-up kernel. Putting the parts of the sentence together, we have, paraphrased: “Since coconuts have to be too ripe before they fall off of the tree, it was hard for us to find one without a dried-up kernel.”

So, which answer choice matches that meaning? We can discard the answer choices that begin with “Coconuts that are too ripe don’t fall off trees,” because this is the opposite of the meaning we figured out. “Coconuts ripen quickly” has nothing to do with the meaning we figured out, so it can’t be correct either. “Coconuts are only edible after they are overripe” can’t be correct either, since the narrator said the overripe coconuts fall off of the trees, meaning they would be easy to find on the ground, yet they had a hard time finding one in which the kernel wasn’t dried-up. We can tell that the coconuts with the dried-up kernels are inedible from the conversation the narrator has with Fritz earlier in the passage as well. Considering the answer choice “coconuts that are underripe remain on the trees, so one must look for the ripe ones amongst the overripe ones on the ground,” we can tell that this doesn’t match the meaning of the indicated sentence, which says that only the coconuts that are too ripe fall off the trees, meaning that the ripe ones remain on the tree. This means that the correct answer is “Coconuts that are perfectly ripe don’t fall off of the trees, so it is difficult to gather them.” This matches the meaning of our paraphrase of the indicated sentence.

Example Question #11 : Determining Context Dependent Meanings Of Phrases And Clauses In Prose Fiction Passages

Adapted from "The Three Musketeers" in Volume Sixteen of The Romances of Alexandre Dumas (1844; 1893 ed.)

As they rode along, the duke endeavored to draw from d'Artagnan not all that had happened, but what d'Artagnan himself knew. By adding all that he heard from the mouth of the young man to his own remembrances, he was enabled to form a pretty exact idea of a position of the seriousness of which, for the rest, the queen's letter, short but explicit, gave him the clue. But that which astonished him most was that the cardinal, so deeply interested in preventing this young man from setting his foot in England, had not succeeded in arresting him on the road. It was then, upon the manifestation of this astonishment, that d'Artagnan related to him the precaution taken, and how, thanks to the devotion of his three friends, whom he had left scattered and bleeding on the road, he had succeeded in coming off with a single sword thrust, which had pierced the queen's letter and for which he had repaid Monsieur de Wardes with such terrible coin. While he was listening to this recital, delivered with the greatest simplicity, the duke looked from time to time at the young man with astonishment, as if he could not comprehend how so much prudence, courage, and devotedness could be allied with a countenance which indicated not more than twenty years.

The horses went like the wind, and in a few minutes they were at the gates of London. D'Artagnan imagined that on arriving in town the duke would slacken his pace, but it was not so. He kept on his way at the same rate, heedless about upsetting those whom he met on the road. In fact, in crossing the city two or three accidents of this kind happened; but Buckingham did not even turn his head to see what became of those he had knocked down. D'Artagnan followed him amid cries which strongly resembled curses.

On entering the court of his hotel, Buckingham sprang from his horse, and without thinking what became of the animal, threw the bridle on his neck, and sprang toward the vestibule. D'Artagnan did the same, with a little more concern, however, for the noble creatures, whose merits he fully appreciated; but he had the satisfaction of seeing three or four grooms run from the kitchens and the stables, and busy themselves with the steeds.

What can we infer from the underlined phrase in the first paragraph, “and for which he had repaid Monsieur de Wardes with such terrible coin”?

Possible Answers:

D'Artagnan cursed his attacker vehemently.

Monsieur de Wardes wanted to help d'Artagnan, but d'Artagnan injured him.

D'Artagnan repaid Monsieur de Wardes the money he owed him, but d'Artagnan stole that money.

D'Artagnan snuck away before Monsieur de Wardes could demand he keep his end of a promise the two men had made.

D'Artagnan greatly injured or killed his attacker.

Correct answer:

D'Artagnan greatly injured or killed his attacker.

Explanation:

Interpreting the sentence literally might lead you to select as the correct answer "D'Artagnan repaid Monsieur de Wardes the money he owed him, but d'Artagnan stole that money." However, figurative speech is being used; recognizing this, and considering how the "sword thrust" that injured d'Artagnan is mentioned immediately before the underlined phrase, you can come to the conclusion that "D'Artagnan greatly injured or killed his attacker." While the answer choice "Monsieur de Wardes wanted to help d'Artagnan, but d'Artagnan injured him" may look potentially correct because it does involve D'Artagnan injuring Monsieur de Wardes, we can tell that Monsieur de Wardes did not want to help d'Artagnan, because we can infer that he is the one who injured d'Artagnan from the use of the verb "repaid."

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

Adapted from Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll (1871)

One thing was certain, that the white kitten had had nothing to do with it—it was the black kitten's fault entirely. For the white kitten had been having its face washed by the old cat for the last quarter of an hour (and bearing it pretty well, considering); so you see that it COULDN'T have had any hand in the mischief.

The way Dinah washed her children's faces was this: first she held the poor thing down by its ear with one paw, and then with the other paw she rubbed its face all over, the wrong way, beginning at the nose: and just now, as I said, she was hard at work on the white kitten, which was lying quite still and trying to purr—no doubt feeling that it was all meant for its good.

But the black kitten had been finished with earlier in the afternoon, and so, while Alice was sitting curled up in a corner of the great arm-chair, half talking to herself and half asleep, the kitten had been having a grand game of romps with the ball of worsted Alice had been trying to wind up, and had been rolling it up and down till it had all come undone again; and there it was, spread over the hearth-rug, all knots and tangles, with the kitten running after its own tail in the middle.

'Oh, you wicked little thing!' cried Alice, catching up the kitten, and giving it a little kiss to make it understand that it was in disgrace. 'Really, Dinah ought to have taught you better manners! You OUGHT, Dinah, you know you ought!' she added, looking reproachfully at the old cat, and speaking in as cross a voice as she could manage—and then she scrambled back into the arm-chair, taking the kitten and the worsted with her, and began winding up the ball again. But she didn't get on very fast, as she was talking all the time, sometimes to the kitten, and sometimes to herself. Kitty sat very demurely on her knee, pretending to watch the progress of the winding, and now and then putting out one paw and gently touching the ball, as if it would be glad to help, if it might.

In the first paragraph, what does the underlined phrase “the mischief” refer to?

Possible Answers:

Something the white kitten did that made it get dirty

The fact that the black kitten tore apart a lace doily

A practical joke Alice is planning

The fact that the black kitten made Alice worry by hiding all morning

The fact that the black kitten unwound the ball of worsted

Correct answer:

The fact that the black kitten unwound the ball of worsted

Explanation:

This is a somewhat tricky question because the passage jumps right into its discussion of “the mischief” in its first paragraph, and the reader only figures out what this is in the passage’s third paragraph. The first paragraph offers no clue as to what “the mischief” is, besides the fact that it’s solely the black kitten’s fault; you have to consider the rest of the passage in order to figure out what is being referenced. If you only consider the first paragraph, three answer choices may seem correct: “The fact that the black kitten unwound the ball of worsted,” “The fact that the black kitten tore apart a lace doily,” and “The fact that the black kitten made Alice worry by hiding all morning.” However, considering the third paragraph, which describes how the black kitten unwound the ball of worsted, should help you infer that “the mischief” being referenced in the first paragraph is actually “the fact that the black kitten unwound the ball of worsted.”

Example Question #1 : Finding Context Dependent Meanings Of Phrases In Literary Fiction Passages

Passage adapted from The Tell-Tale Heart (1838) by Edgar Allen Poe

True!--nervous--very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses--not destroyed--not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily--how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

It is impossible to say how the idea first entered my brain: but, once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes it was this! One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture--a pale, blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so, by degrees--very gradually--I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.

In the context of this passage, the phrase "to take the life of the old man" is closest in meaning to ___________.

Possible Answers:

to steal the old man's fortune

to impersonate the old man

to mimic the old man

to murder the old man

Correct answer:

to murder the old man

Explanation:

The key to this question lies in the phrase "and thus rid myself of the eye forever." We're looking for a phrase that's closest in meaning to "take the life of" and would also result in getting rid of the old man "forever." Neither impersonating the old man, mimicking the old man, or stealing from the old man would have this result. "To murder the old man" has the closest meaning. 

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