SSAT Upper Level Reading : Making Inferences in Narrative Humanities Passages

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

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Example Questions

Example Question #42 : Contemporary Life Passages

"Poetry and Philosophy" by Justin Bailey

As the logical positivism rose to ascendancy, poetic language was increasingly seen as merely emotive. Wittgenstein’s influential Tractatus argued that only language corresponding to observable states of affairs in the world was meaningful, thus ruling out the value of imaginative language in saying anything about the world. Poetry’s contribution was rather that it showed what could not be said, a layer of reality which Wittgenstein called the “mystical.” Despite Wittgenstein’s interest in the mystical value of poetry, his successors abandoned the mystical as a meaningful category, exiling poetry in a sort of no man’s land where its only power to move came through the empathy of shared feeling.

Yet some thinkers, like Martin Heidegger, reacted strongly to the pretensions of an instrumental theory of knowledge to make sense of the world. Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur all gave central value to poetry in their philosophical method; signifying a growing sense among continental thinkers that poetic knowing was an important key to recovering some vital way of talking about and experiencing the world that had been lost.

It can be inferred from the passage that __________.

Possible Answers:

most positivists followed Wittgenstein in arguing for poetic knowledge as a meaningful category in philosophy

Heidegger's complaint was that philosophers were taking poetic language too seriously in their philosophical method

poetry's power to move through empathetic feeling signifies that its claims about the world are true

some of Wittgenstein's successors used his work to exclude something that was important to Wittgenstein

philosophers agree that instrumental theories of knowledge are sufficient in understanding the world

Correct answer:

some of Wittgenstein's successors used his work to exclude something that was important to Wittgenstein


This answer is taken from the final sentence of the first paragraph. Wittgenstein wanted to make room for poetry in his category of the mystical, but his successors simply abandoned it, citing his work.

Example Question #1 : Making Inferences In Narrative Humanities Passages

Adapted from “A Definition of a Gentleman” by John Henry Newman (1852)

It is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain. This description is both refined and, as far as it goes, accurate. He is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him; and he concurs with their movements rather than takes the initiative himself. His benefits may be considered as parallel to what are called comforts or conveniences in arrangements of a personal nature: like an easy chair or a good fire, which do their part in dispelling cold and fatigue, though nature provides both means of rest and animal heat without them. The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast;--all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make everyone at their ease and at home. He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome. He makes light of favors while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring. He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort, he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets everything for the best.

It can be inferred from the passage that a gentleman __________.

Possible Answers:

cannot exist in modern society

is a dying breed

is more likely to be found among the poor than the wealthy

is easily irritated by the improper behavior of others

is more concerned with others than himself

Correct answer:

is more concerned with others than himself


Solving this question relies on understanding the author’s argument throughout the passage. The author focuses heavily on developing his reader’s understanding of what a gentleman is. Clearly the author feels that a gentleman is someone who is more concerned with others than himself. Evidence for this can be found in almost every sentence in the passage. One example: “His great concern being to make everyone at their ease and at home.”

Example Question #5 : Textual Relationships In Contemporary Life Passages

Adapted from “How I Conquered Stage Fright” by Mark Twain (1906)

My heart goes out in sympathy to anyone who is making his first appearance before an audience of human beings. I recall the occasion of my first appearance. San Francisco knew me then only as a reporter, and I was to make my bow to San Francisco as a lecturer. I knew that nothing short of compulsion would get me to the theater. So I bound myself by a hard-and-fast contract so that I could not escape. I got to the theater forty-five minutes before the hour set for the lecture. My knees were shaking so that I didn't know whether I could stand up. If there is an awful, horrible malady in the world, it is stage-fright--and seasickness. They are a pair. I had stage-fright then for the first and last time. I was only seasick once, too. It was on a little ship on which there were two hundred other passengers. I--was--sick. I was so sick that there wasn't any left for those other two hundred passengers.

It was dark and lonely behind the scenes in that theater, and I peeked through the little peek holes they have in theater curtains and looked into the big auditorium. That was dark and empty, too. By and by it lighted up, and the audience began to arrive. I had got a number of friends of mine, stalwart men, to sprinkle themselves through the audience armed with big clubs. Every time I said anything they could possibly guess I intended to be funny, they were to pound those clubs on the floor. Then there was a kind lady in a box up there, also a good friend of mine, the wife of the governor. She was to watch me intently, and whenever I glanced toward her she was going to deliver a gubernatorial laugh that would lead the whole audience into applause.

At last I began. I had the manuscript tucked under a United States flag in front of me where I could get at it in case of need. But I managed to get started without it. I walked up and down--I was young in those days and needed the exercise--and talked and talked. Right in the middle of the speech I had placed a gem. I had put in a moving, pathetic part which was to get at the hearts and souls of my hearers. When I delivered it they did just what I hoped and expected. They sat silent and awed. I had touched them. Then I happened to glance up at the box where the Governor's wife was--you know what happened.

Well, after the first agonizing five minutes, my stage fright left me, never to return. I know if I was going to be hanged I could get up and make a good showing, and I intend to. But I shall never forget my feelings before the agony left me, and I got up here to thank you for her for helping my daughter, by your kindness, to live through her first appearance. And I want to thank you for your appreciation of her singing, which is, by the way, hereditary.

From this passage it can be inferred that __________ is most responsible for stage-fright.

Possible Answers:



the audience 



Correct answer:



From the conclusion of this passage you know that the author is giving this speech to thank an audience for treating his daughter with such kindness and understanding during her first appearance on stage. From the introduction you know that the passage is focused on describing the difficulties of speaking on stage when it is your first experience with public-speaking. From these two clues it is clear that the author believes uncertainty (or not knowing what to expect from a novel experience) is most responsible for stage-freight.

Example Question #2 : Making Inferences In Narrative Humanities Passages

Adapted from "How to Make History Dates Stick" in What is Man? by Mark Twain (1914)

I will give you a valuable hint. When a man is making a speech and you are to follow him don't jot down notes to speak from, jot down PICTURES. It is awkward and embarrassing to have to keep referring to notes; and besides it breaks up your speech and makes it ragged and non-coherent; but you can tear up your pictures as soon as you have made them—they will stay fresh and strong in your memory in the order and sequence in which you scratched them down. And many will admire to see what a good memory you are furnished with, when perhaps your memory is not any better than mine.

Sixteen years ago when my children were little creatures the governess was trying to hammer some primer histories into their heads. Part of this fun--if you like to call it that--consisted in the memorizing of the accession dates of the thirty-seven personages who had ruled over England from the Conqueror down. These little people found it a bitter, hard contract. It was all dates, they all looked alike, and they wouldn't stick. Day after day of the summer vacation dribbled by, and still the kings held the fort; the children couldn't conquer any six of them.

With my lecture experience in mind I was aware that I could invent some way out of the trouble with pictures, but I hoped a way could be found which would let them romp in the open air while they learned the kings. I found it, and then they mastered all the monarchs in a day or two.

The idea was to make them SEE the reigns with their eyes; that would be a large help. We were at the farm then. From the house-porch the grounds sloped gradually down to the lower fence and rose on the right to the high ground where my small work-den stood. A carriage-road wound through the grounds and up the hill. I staked it out with the English monarchs, beginning with the Conqueror, and you could stand on the porch and clearly see every reign and its length, from the Conquest down to Victoria, then in the forty-sixth year of her reign—EIGHT HUNDRED AND SEVENTEEN YEARS of English history under your eye at once!

What does Mark Twain imply in this passage about his own memory?

Possible Answers:

The passage does not mention Twain's memory at all.

His long-term memory is strong, but he has trouble with his short-term memory.

He is incapable of remembering anything.

It is quite average.

He has a near-photographic memory.

Correct answer:

It is quite average.


Twain states that, by using his picture technique, anyone can appear to have an excellent memory, even "when perhaps your memory is not any better than" his. This suggests that his own memory is average.

Example Question #44 : Contemporary Life Passages

Adapted from Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads by John A. Lomax (1910)

The big ranches of the West are now being cut up into small farms. The nester has come, and come to stay. Gone is the buffalo and the free grass of the open plain—even the stinging lizard, the horned frog, the centipede, the prairie dog, the rattlesnake, are fast disappearing. Save in some of the secluded valleys of southern New Mexico, the old-time round-up is no more; the trails to Kansas and to Montana have become grass-grown or lost in fields of waving grain; the maverick steer, the regal longhorn, has been supplanted by his unpoetic but more beefy and profitable Polled Angus, Durham, and Hereford cousins from across the seas. The changing and romantic West of the early days lives mainly in story and in song. The last figure to vanish is the cowboy, the animating spirit of the vanishing era. He sits his horse easily as he rides through a wide valley, enclosed by mountains, clad in the hazy purple of coming night,—with his face turned steadily down the long, long road, "the road that the sun goes down." Dauntless, reckless, without the unearthly purity of Sir Galahad though as gentle to a woman as King Arthur, he is truly a knight of the twentieth century. A vagrant puff of wind shakes a corner of the crimson handkerchief knotted loosely at his throat; the thud of his pony's feet mingling with the jingle of his spurs is borne back; and as the careless, gracious, lovable figure disappears over the divide, the breeze brings to the ears, faint and far yet cheery still, the refrain of a cowboy song.

As can be inferred from the passage, the author most values __________.

Possible Answers:

the profitability of farms and ranches

the ranching culture of the American West

supporting local farms and ranches

preserving the natural ecosystem

a scholarly approach to legends

Correct answer:

the ranching culture of the American West


By describing the cowboy as a homegrown hero, the author presents him as a cultural figure instead of a historical or political one. He says that the legends are carried through stories and songs, both cultural art forms. It is therefore reasonable to say that he most values the ranching culture of the American West, as opposed to, say, the economic value of ranching or the ecosystem of the prairies.

Example Question #3 : Making Inferences In Narrative Humanities Passages

Passage adapted from Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain (1883)

The pilot-house was full of pilots, going down to "look at the river." What is called the "upper river" (the two hundred miles between St. Louis and Cairo, where the Ohio comes in) was low; and the Mississippi changes its channel so constantly that the pilots used to always find it necessary to run down to Cairo to take a fresh look, when their boats were to lie in port a week; that is, when the water was at a low stage. A deal of this "looking at the river" was done by poor fellows who seldom had a berth, and whose only hope of getting one lay in their being always freshly posted and therefore ready to drop into the shoes of some reputable pilot, for a single trip, on account of such pilot's sudden illness, or some other necessity. And a good many of them constantly ran up and down inspecting the river, not because they ever really hoped to got a berth, but because (they being guests of the boat) it was cheaper to "look at the river" than stay ashore and pay board. In time these fellows grew dainty in their tastes, and only infested boats that had an established reputation for setting good tables.

All visiting pilots were useful, for they were always ready and willing, winter or summer, night or day, to go out in the yawl and help buoy the channel or assist the boat's pilots in any way they could. They were likewise welcome because all pilots are tireless talkers, when gathered together, and as they talk only about the river they are always understood and are always interesting. Your true pilot cares nothing about anything on earth but the river, and his pride in his occupation surpasses the pride of kings.

We had a fine company of these river-inspectors along, this trip. There were eight or ten; and there was abundance of room for them in our great pilot-house. Two or three of them wore polished silk hats, elaborate shirt-fronts, diamond breastpins, kid gloves, and patent-leather boots. They were choice in their English, and bore themselves with a dignity proper to men of solid means and prodigious reputation as pilots. The others were more or less loosely clad, and wore upon their heads tall felt cones that were suggestive of the days of the Commonwealth.

I was a cipher in this august company, and felt subdued, not to say torpid. I was not even of sufficient consequence to assist at the wheel when it was necessary to put the tiller hard down in a hurry; the guest that stood nearest did that when occasion required--and this was pretty much all the time, because of the crookedness of the channel and the scant water. I stood in a corner; and the talk I listened to took the hope all out of me.

It can reasonably inferred from the passage that the narrator _________________.

Possible Answers:

believed that he knew more about piloting a riverboat than most of the people on board

had been forced into working on a riverboat against his will

was hoping to become a riverboat pilot one day

believed that the days of travel on riverboats was soon going to be ending

had no respect for the river inspectors

Correct answer:

was hoping to become a riverboat pilot one day


The writer describes riverboat pilots in very complimentary terms, such as, "his pride in his occupation surpasses that of kings"  In the last paragraph, the writer describes standing near the wheel and listening to the talk around him, implying that he his trying to learn the craft of a riverboat pilot.

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