MCAT Verbal : Comprehension

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for MCAT Verbal

varsity tutors app store varsity tutors android store

Example Questions

Example Question #61 : Comprehension

Adapted from "The Memorable Assassination" in What is Man? And Other Essays by Mark Twain (1906)

The more one thinks of the assassination, the more imposing and tremendous the event becomes. The destruction of a city is a large event, but it is one which repeats itself several times in a thousand years; the destruction of a third part of a nation by plague and famine is a large event, but it has happened several times in history; the murder of a king is a large event, but it has been frequent.

The murder of an empress is the largest of all large events. One must go back about two thousand years to find an instance to put with this one. The oldest family of unchallenged descent in Christendom lives in Rome and traces its line back seventeen hundred years, but no member of it has been present in the earth when an empress was murdered, until now. Many a time during these seventeen centuries members of that family have been startled with the news of extraordinary events—the destruction of cities, the fall of thrones, the murder of kings, the wreck of dynasties, the extinction of religions, the birth of new systems of government; and their descendants have been by to hear of it and talk about it when all these things were repeated once, twice, or a dozen times—but to even that family has come news at last which is not staled by use, has no duplicates in the long reach of its memory.

It is an event which confers a curious distinction upon every individual now living in the world: he has stood alive and breathing in the presence of an event such as has not fallen within the experience of any traceable or untraceable ancestor of his for twenty centuries, and it is not likely to fall within the experience of any descendant of his for twenty more.

Time has made some great changes since the Roman days. The murder of an empress then—even the assassination of Caesar himself—could not electrify the world as this murder has electrified it. For one reason, there was then not much of a world to electrify; it was a small world, as to known bulk, and it had rather a thin population, besides; and for another reason, the news traveled so slowly that its tremendous initial thrill wasted away, week by week and month by month, on the journey, and by the time it reached the remoter regions there was but little of it left. It was no longer a fresh event, it was a thing of the far past; it was not properly news, it was history. But the world is enormous now, and prodigiously populated—that is one change; and another is the lightning swiftness of the flight of tidings, good and bad. "The Empress is murdered!" When those amazing words struck upon my ear in this Austrian village last Saturday, three hours after the disaster, I knew that it was already old news in London, Paris, Berlin, New York, San Francisco, Japan, China, Melbourne, Cape Town, Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, and that the entire globe with a single voice, was cursing the perpetrator of it. Since the telegraph first began to stretch itself wider and wider about the earth, larger and increasingly larger areas of the world have, as time went on, received simultaneously the shock of a great calamity; but this is the first time in history that the entire surface of the globe has been swept in a single instant with the thrill of so gigantic an event.

The author’s attitude towards the assassin could primarily be described as __________.

Possible Answers:

Disgusted

Fearful

Condemning

Apathetic

Understanding

Correct answer:

Condemning

Explanation:

The author’s attitude towards the assassin is hard to determine because the author makes limited personal mention of the assassin or his opinions of him. However, by an evaluation of one sentence and a small amount of inference, one can determine that the author's attitude is best described as “condemning.” This is because, in the fourth paragraph, the author says, "the entire globe with a single voice, was cursing the perpetrator of it.” If the author believes everyone is united in “cursing the perpetrator,” he is probably also “condemning.” Although the author would be likely to feel “disgusted” as well, there is no direct evidence to support this. From the importance the author attaches to the event, it is extremely unlikely he would be “apathetic.”

Example Question #62 : Comprehension

Adapted from "William Dean Howells" published in The Nebraska State Journal by Willa Cather (July 14, 1895)

Certainly now in his old age Mr. Howells is selecting queer titles for his books. A while ago we had that feeble tale, The Coast of Bohemia, and now we have My Literary Passions. “Passions,” literary or otherwise, were never Mr. Howells’ forte and surely no man could be further from even the coast of Bohemia.

Apropos of My Literary Passions, which has so long strung out in The Ladies’ Home Journal along with those thrilling articles about how Henry Ward Beecher tied his necktie and what kind of coffee Mrs. Hall Cain likes, why did Mr. Howells write it? Doesn’t Mr. Howells know that at one time or another everyone raves over Don Quixote, imitates Heine, worships Tourgueneff and calls Tolstoy a prophet? Does Mr. Howells think that no one but he ever had youth and enthusiasm and aspirations? Doesn’t he know that the only thing that makes the world worth living in at all is that once, when we are young, we all have that great love for books and impersonal things, all reverence and dream? We have all known the time when Porthos, Athos and d’Artagnan were vastly more real and important to us than the folks who lived next door. We have all dwelt in that country where Anna Karenina and the Levins were the only people who mattered much. We have all known that intoxicating period when we thought we “understood life,” because we had read Daudet, Zola and Guy de Maupassant, and like Mr. Howells we all looked back rather fondly upon the time when we believed that books were the truth and art was all. After a while books grow matter of fact like everything else and we always think enviously of the days when they were new and wonderful and strange. That’s a part of existence. We lose our first keen relish for literature just as we lose it for ice cream and confectionery. The taste grows older, wiser and more subdued. We would all wear out of very enthusiasm if it did not. But why should Mr. Howells tell the world this common experience in detail as though it were his and his alone? He might as well write a detailed account of how he had the measles and the whooping cough. It was all right and proper for Mr. Howells to like Heine and Hugo, but, in the words of the circus clown, “We’ve all been there.”

What does the author believe changes in the approach of an individual to literature as he or she grows older?

Possible Answers:

The individual’s enthusiasm is lessened.

The individual’s ability to comprehend meaning improves.

The individual’s enthusiasm is heightened.

The author does not claim that the individual's approach to literature changes as the individual grows older.

The individual’s ability to comprehend meaning lessens. 

Correct answer:

The individual’s enthusiasm is lessened.

Explanation:

The author of this passage believes that in youth, an individual is more responsive and more enthusiastic about literature and the ideas that he or she reads. Evidence for this can be found throughout the passage, but can be most clearly seen in the following excerpt: “After a while books grow matter of fact like everything else and we always think enviously of the days when they were new and wonderful and strange. That’s a part of existence. We lose our first keen relish for literature just as we lose it for ice cream and confectionery. The taste grows older, wiser and more subdued.”

Example Question #63 : Comprehension

Adapted from "Concerning Tobacco" in What is Man? And Other Essays by Mark Twain (1906)

As concerns tobacco, there are many superstitions. And the chiefest is this—that there is a standard governing the matter, whereas there is nothing of the kind. Each man's own preference is the only standard for him, the only one which he can accept, the only one which can command him. A congress of all the tobacco-lovers in the world could not elect a standard which would be binding upon you or me, or would even much influence us.

The next superstition is that a man has a standard of his own. He hasn't. He thinks he has, but he hasn't. He thinks he can tell what he regards as a good cigar from what he regards as a bad one—but he can't. He goes by the brand, yet imagines he goes by the flavor. One may palm off the worst counterfeit upon him; if it bears his brand he will smoke it contentedly and never suspect.

Children of twenty-five, who have seven years of experience, try to tell me what is a good cigar and what isn't. Me, who never learned to smoke; me, who came into the world asking for a light.

No one can tell me what is a good cigar—for me. I am the only judge. People who claim to know say that I smoke the worst cigars in the world. They bring their own cigars when they come to my house. They betray an unmanly terror when I offer them a cigar; they tell lies and hurry away to meet engagements which they have not made when they are threatened with the hospitalities of my box. Now then, observe what superstition, assisted by a man's reputation, can do. I was to have twelve personal friends to supper one night. One of them was as notorious for costly and elegant cigars as I was for cheap and devilish ones. I called at his house and when no one was looking borrowed a double handful of his very choicest; cigars which cost him forty cents apiece and bore red-and-gold labels in sign of their nobility. I removed the labels and put the cigars into a box with my favorite brand on it—a brand which those people all knew, and which cowed them as men are cowed by an epidemic. They took these cigars when offered at the end of the supper, and lit them and sternly struggled with them—in dreary silence, for hilarity died when the fell brand came into view and started around—but their fortitude held for a short time only; then they made excuses and filed out, treading on one another's heels with indecent eagerness; and in the morning when I went out to observe results the cigars lay all between the front door and the gate. All except one—that one lay in the plate of the man from whom I had cabbaged the lot. One or two whiffs was all he could stand. He told me afterward that some day I would get shot for giving people that kind of cigars to smoke.

Am I certain of my own standard? Perfectly; yes, absolutely—unless somebody fools me by putting my brand on some other kind of cigar; for no doubt I am like the rest, and know my cigar by the brand instead of by the flavor. However, my standard is a pretty wide one and covers a good deal of territory. To me, almost any cigar is good that nobody else will smoke, and to me almost all cigars are bad that other people consider good. Nearly any cigar will do me, except a Havana. People think they hurt my feelings when they come to my house with their life preservers on—I mean, with their own cigars in their pockets. It is an error; I take care of myself in a similar way. When I go into danger—that is, into rich people's houses, where, in the nature of things, they will have high-tariff cigars, red-and-gilt girded and nested in a rosewood box along with a damp sponge, cigars which develop a dismal black ash and burn down the side and smell, and will grow hot to the fingers, and will go on growing hotter and hotter, and go on smelling more and more infamously and unendurably the deeper the fire tunnels down inside below the thimbleful of honest tobacco that is in the front end, the furnisher of it praising it all the time and telling you how much the deadly thing cost—yes, when I go into that sort of peril I carry my own defense along; I carry my own brand—twenty-seven cents a barrel—and I live to see my family again. I may seem to light his red-gartered cigar, but that is only for courtesy's sake; I smuggle it into my pocket for the poor, of whom I know many, and light one of my own; and while he praises it I join in, but when he says it cost forty-five cents I say nothing, for I know better.

The author primarily characterizes the cigars of his wealthy friends by __________.

Possible Answers:

the effect they have on the inexperienced

the appeal they have to the poor

the manner in which they burn wildly

the dangers inherent in smoking them

the amount of money wasted to purchase them

Correct answer:

the dangers inherent in smoking them

Explanation:

The author primarily discusses his experience of smoking cigars with his wealthy friends in the last paragraph. In it, he goes into great detail to explain the unpleasantness he finds in the smoking of these cigars. He states, “When I go into danger—that is, into rich people's houses, where, in the nature of things, they will have high-tariff cigars, red-and-gilt girded and nested in a rosewood box along with a damp sponge, cigars which develop a dismal black ash and burn down the side and smell, and will grow hot to the fingers, and will go on growing hotter and hotter, and go on smelling more and more infamously and unendurably the deeper the fire tunnels down inside below the thimbleful of honest tobacco that is in the front end, the furnisher of it praising it all the time and telling you how much the deadly thing cost—yes, when I go into that sort of peril I carry my own defense along; I carry my own brand—twenty-seven cents a barrel—and I live to see my family again.” From the excerpts that read “When I go into danger,” “how much the deadly thing cost,” and “I live to see my family again,” it can be seen that he is characterizing them, in mockery, by the dangers involved in smoking them.

Example Question #64 : Comprehension

Adapted from "A Scrap of Curious History" in What is Man? And Other Essays by Mark Twain (1906)

At half past two in the morning the dead silence of the village was broken by a crashing explosion, and the town patrol saw the preacher's house spring in a wreck of whirling fragments into the sky. The preacher was killed. The town was paralyzed and with reason. To struggle against a visible enemy is a thing worth while, and there is a plenty of men who stand always ready to undertake it; but to struggle against an invisible one—an invisible one who sneaks in and does his awful work in the dark and leaves no trace—that is another matter. That is a thing to make the bravest tremble and hold back.

The cowed populace were afraid to go to the funeral. The man who was to have had a packed church to hear him expose and denounce the common enemy had but a handful to see him buried. The coroner's jury had brought in a verdict of "death by the visitation of God," for no witness came forward; if any existed they prudently kept out of the way. Nobody seemed sorry. Nobody wanted to see the terrible secret society provoked into the commission of further outrages. Everybody wanted the tragedy hushed up, ignored, forgotten, if possible.

And so there was a bitter surprise and an unwelcome one when Will Joyce, the itinerant blacksmith, came out and proclaimed himself the assassin! Plainly he was not minded to be robbed of his glory. He made his proclamation, and stuck to it. Stuck to it, and insisted upon a trial. Here was an ominous thing; here was a new and peculiarly formidable terror, for a motive was revealed here which society could not hope to deal with successfully—vanity, thirst for notoriety. If men were going to kill for notoriety's sake, and to win the glory of newspaper renown, a big trial, and a showy execution, what possible invention of man could discourage or deter them? The town was in a sort of panic; it did not know what to do.

However, the grand jury had to take hold of the matter—it had no choice. It brought in a true bill, and presently the case went to the county court. The trial was a fine sensation. The prisoner was the principal witness for the prosecution. He gave a full account of the assassination; he described even the minutest particulars: how he deposited his keg of powder and laid his train—from the house to such-and-such a spot; how George Ronalds and Henry Hart came along just then, smoking, and he borrowed Hart's cigar and fired the train with it, shouting, "Down with all slave-tyrants!" and how Hart and Ronalds made no effort to capture him, but ran away, and had never come forward to testify yet.

But they had to testify now, and they did—and pitiful it was to see how reluctant they were, and how scared. The crowded house listened to Joyce's fearful tale with a profound and breathless interest, and in a deep hush which was not broken till he broke it himself, in concluding, with a roaring repetition of his "Death to all slave-tyrants!"—which came so unexpectedly and so startlingly that it made everyone present catch his breath and gasp.

The trial was put in the paper, with biography and large portrait, with other slanderous and insane pictures, and the edition sold beyond imagination.

The execution of Joyce was a fine and picturesque thing. It drew a vast crowd. Good places in trees and seats on rail fences sold for half a dollar apiece; lemonade and gingerbread-stands had great prosperity. Joyce recited a furious and fantastic and denunciatory speech on the scaffold which had imposing passages of school-boy eloquence in it, and gave him a reputation on the spot as an orator, and his name, later, in the society's records, of the "Martyr Orator." He went to his death breathing slaughter and charging his society to "avenge his murder." If he knew anything of human nature he knew that to plenty of young fellows present in that great crowd he was a grand hero—and enviably situated.

He was hanged. It was a mistake. Within a month from his death the society which he had honored had twenty new members, some of them earnest, determined men. They did not court distinction in the same way, but they celebrated his martyrdom. The crime which had been obscure and despised had become lofty and glorified.

Such things were happening all over the country. Wild-brained martyrdom was succeeded by uprising and organization. Then, in natural order, followed riot, insurrection, and the wrack and restitutions of war. It was bound to come, and it would naturally come in that way. It has been the manner of reform since the beginning of the world.

What is the most likely reason as to why the preacher was murdered?

Possible Answers:

The preacher stood in the way of social reform.

The preacher committed a personal affront against Will Joyce.

The preacher favored the abolitionist cause.

The preacher was an outsider in the community.

The preacher supported the institution of slavery.

Correct answer:

The preacher supported the institution of slavery.

Explanation:

It is clear from context that Will Joyce and his co-conspirators are committing their crimes for the cause of the abolition of slavery. This can be seen in the manner in which the author describes how Will Joyce shouts “death to all slave-tyrants.” We can therefore infer that he likely murdered the preacher because either the preacher supported the institution of slavery or he kept slaves himself. The answer choice that reads “the preacher stood in the way of social reform” is close to correct, but it is less directly correct than the right answer, which describes the actual type of social reform that Will Joyce was working for.

Example Question #65 : Comprehension

Adapted from “The Origin of Music” in Critical and Historical Essays by Edward Macdowell (1912)

Darwin's theory that music had its origin “in the sounds made by the half-human progenitors of man during the season of courtship” seems for many reasons to be inadequate and untenable. A much more plausible explanation, it seems to me, is to be found in the theory of Theophrastus, in which the origin of music is attributed to the whole range of human emotion.

When an animal utters a cry of joy or pain it expresses its emotions in more or less definite tones, and at some remote period of the earth's history all primeval mankind must have expressed its emotions in much the same manner. When this inarticulate speech developed into the use of certain sounds as symbols for emotions—emotions that otherwise would have been expressed by the natural sounds occasioned by them—then we have the beginnings of speech as distinguished from music, which is still the universal language. In other words, intellectual development begins with articulate speech, leaving music for the expression of the emotions.

To symbolize the sounds used to express emotion, if I may so put it, is to weaken that expression, and it would naturally be the strongest emotion that would first feel the inadequacy of the new-found speech. Now what is mankind's strongest emotion? Even in the nineteenth century Goethe could say, “'Tis fear that constitutes the god-like in man.” Certainly before the Christian era the soul of mankind had its roots in fear. In our superstition we were like children beneath a great tree of which the upper part was as a vague and fascinating mystery, but the roots holding it firmly to the ground were tangible, palpable facts. We feared—we knew not what. Love was human, all the other emotions were human; fear alone was indefinable.

The primeval man, looking at the world subjectively, was merely part of it. He might love, hate, threaten, kill, if he willed; every other creature could do the same. But the wind was a great spirit to him; lightning and thunder threatened him as they did the rest of the world; the flood would destroy him as ruthlessly as it tore the trees asunder. The elements were animate powers that had nothing in common with him; for what the intellect cannot explain the imagination magnifies.

Fear, then, was the strongest emotion. Therefore auxiliary aids to express and cause fear were necessary when the speech symbols for fear, drifting further and further away from expressing the actual thing, became words, and words were inadequate to express and cause fear. In that vague groping for sound symbols which would cause and express fear far better than mere words, we have the beginning of what is gradually to develop into music.

What is the primary function of the fourth paragraph?

Possible Answers:

It demonstrates the ways in which early man experienced natural phenomena.

It highlights how the primeval man experienced ignorance as fear.

It suggests that the origin of music lies in the inadequacy of spoken words for expressing fear.

It refutes earlier claims made by Darwin.

It explains the effects of nature on the origin of music.

Correct answer:

It highlights how the primeval man experienced ignorance as fear.

Explanation:

The primary function of the fourth paragraph is to “highlight how the primeval man experienced ignorance as fear.” The author spends most of the fourth paragraph talking about the natural forces that threatened early mankind and how man was incapable of understanding the causes of these things. Natural phenomena were a mystery to the primeval man; he had nothing in common with these threatening forces and so experienced this ignorance as fear. The answer choice “It explains the effects of nature on the origin of music” is incomplete, but as it is closely related to the overall thesis, this is a challenging incorrect answer to reject. The problem with it is that it misses a key step in the argument, namely the fact that mankind was ignorant to the causes behind natural disasters and so experienced a great fear of them. The answer choice “Suggest that the origin of music lies in the inadequacy of spoken words for expressing fear” is much closer to the argument of the whole passage than it is to the function of the fourth paragraph within that argument.

Example Question #1 : Identifying Relevant Supporting Information

Adapted from "Hallam" in Volume 1 of Critical and Historical Essays by Thomas Babbington Macaulay (1828)

History, at least in its state of ideal perfection, is a compound of poetry and philosophy. It impresses general truths on the mind by a vivid representation of particular characters and incidents. But, in fact, the two hostile elements of which it consists have never been known to form a perfect amalgamation, and at length, in our own time, they have been completely and professedly separated. The problem seems only to be getting worse. Good histories, in the proper sense of the word, we have not. But we have good historical romances, and good historical essays. The imagination and the reason, if we may use a legal metaphor, have made partition of a province of literature of which they were formerly seized per my et per tout, and now they hold their respective portions in severalty, instead of holding the whole in common.

To make the past present, to bring the distant near, to place us in the society of a great man or on the eminence which overlooks the field of a mighty battle, to invest with the reality of human flesh and blood beings whom we are too much inclined to consider as personified qualities in an allegory, to call up our ancestors before us with all their peculiarities of language, manners, and garb, to show us over their houses, to seat us at their tables, to rummage their old-fashioned wardrobes, to explain the uses of their ponderous furniture, these parts of the duty which properly belongs to the historian have been appropriated by the historical novelist. On the other hand, to extract the philosophy of history, to direct on judgment of events and men, to trace the connection of cause and effects, and to draw from the occurrences of former time general lessons of moral and political wisdom has become the business of a distinct class of writers.

Of the two kinds of composition into which history has been thus divided, the one may be compared to a map, the other to a painted landscape. The picture, though it places the country before us, does not enable us to ascertain with accuracy the dimensions, the distances, and the angles. The map is not a work of imitative art. It presents no scene to the imagination, but it gives us exact information as to the bearings of the various points, and is a more useful companion to the traveller or the general than the painted landscape could be, though it were the grandest that ever Rosa peopled with outlaws, or the sweetest over which Claude ever poured the mellow effulgence of a setting sun.

It is remarkable that the practice of separating the two ingredients of which history is composed has become prevalent on the Continent as well as in this country. Italy has already produced a historical novel, of high merit and of still higher promise. In France, the practice has been carried to a length somewhat whimsical. M. Sismondi publishes a grave and stately history of the Merovingian kings, very valuable, and a little tedious. He then sends forth as a companion to it a novel, in which he attempts to give a lively representation of characters and manners. This course, as it seems to us, has all the disadvantages of a division of labour, and none of its advantages.

What is the primary function of the second paragraph?

Possible Answers:

To develop the respective subject matter of the two distinct branches of historical writing

To explain why historical writing has been so neatly divided in recent years

To suggest that history has suffered from the division of historical writing into two distinct branches

To highlight why philosophical recording of history is more useful than poetic recording of history

To question the impact of historical storytelling on our understanding of history

Correct answer:

To develop the respective subject matter of the two distinct branches of historical writing

Explanation:

In the second paragraph, the author describes the function and utilities of the two types of historical writing. He does not explain why historical writing has become divided, and he does not question the impact of historical storytelling on our understanding of history until later in the essay. The answer choice “To suggest that history has suffered from the division of historical writing into two distinct branches” is closer to the overall thesis of the essay than to the primary function of its second paragraph. The author does not highlight why philosophical recording of history is more useful than poetic recording until later in the essay. The primary function of the second paragraph is merely to describe and develop the differences between the subject matter of the two branches of historical writing that he wishes to discuss. We can see this to be the case by analyzing the way in which he creates two lists and then ends them both with the following comments: “these parts of the duty which properly belongs to the historian have been appropriated by the historical novelist" and “has become the business of a distinct class of writers.”

Example Question #67 : Comprehension

Adapted from “Federalist No.19” in The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison (1788)

Among the confederacies of antiquity, the most considerable was that of the Grecian republics, associated under the Amphictyonic council. From the best accounts transmitted of this celebrated institution, it bore a very instructive analogy to the present Confederation of the American States. The members retained the character of independent and sovereign states, and had equal votes in the federal council. This council had a general authority to propose and resolve whatever it judged necessary for the common welfare of Greece; to declare and carry on war; to decide, in the last resort, all controversies between the members; to fine the aggressing party; to employ the whole force of the confederacy against the disobedient; and to admit new members. The Amphictyons were the guardians of religion, and of the immense riches belonging to the temple of Delphos, where they had the right of jurisdiction in controversies between the inhabitants and those who came to consult the oracle. As a further provision for the efficacy of the federal powers, they took an oath mutually to defend and protect the united cities, to punish the violators of this oath, and to inflict vengeance on sacrilegious despoilers of the temple.

In theory, and upon paper, this apparatus of powers seems amply sufficient for all general purposes. In several material instances, they exceed the powers enumerated in the Articles of Confederation. The Amphictyons had in their hands the superstition of the times, one of the principal engines by which government was then maintained; they had a declared authority to use coercion against refractory cities, and were bound by oath to exert this authority on the necessary occasions.

Very different, nevertheless, was the experiment from the theory. The powers, like those of the present Congress, were administered by deputies appointed wholly by the cities in their political capacities, and exercised over them in the same capacities. Hence the weakness, the disorders, and finally the destruction of the confederacy. The more powerful members, instead of being kept in awe and subordination, tyrannized successively over all the rest. Athens, as we learn from Demosthenes, was the arbiter of Greece seventy-three years. The Lacedaemonians next governed it twenty-nine years; at a subsequent period, after the battle of Leuctra, the Thebans had their turn of domination. It happened but too often, according to Plutarch, that the deputies of the strongest cities awed and corrupted those of the weaker; and that judgment went in favor of the most powerful party. Even in the midst of defensive and dangerous wars with Persia and Macedon, the members never acted in concert, and were, more or fewer of them, eternally the dupes or the hirelings of the common enemy. The intervals of foreign war were filled up by domestic vicissitudes, convulsions, and carnage.

After the conclusion of the war with Xerxes, it appears that the Lacedaemonians required that a number of the cities should be turned out of the confederacy for the unfaithful part they had acted. The Athenians, finding that the Lacedaemonians would lose fewer partisans by such a measure than themselves, and would become masters of the public deliberations, vigorously opposed and defeated the attempt. This piece of history proves at once the inefficiency of the union, the ambition and jealousy of its most powerful members, and the dependent and degraded condition of the rest. The smaller members, though entitled by the theory of their system to revolve in equal pride and majesty around the common center, had become, in fact, satellites of the orbs of primary magnitude.

Had the Greeks, says the Abbe Milot, been as wise as they were courageous, they would have been admonished by experience of the necessity of a closer union, and would have availed themselves of the peace which followed their success against the Persian arms to establish such a reformation. Instead of this obvious policy, Athens and Sparta, inflated with the victories and the glory they had acquired, became first rivals and then enemies, and did each other infinitely more mischief than they had suffered from Xerxes. Their mutual jealousies, fears, hatreds, and injuries ended in the celebrated Peloponnesian war, which itself ended in the ruin and slavery of the Athenians who had begun it.

What is the primary function of the third paragraph?

Possible Answers:

To elaborate on an earlier point regarding the impact that rule by the minority has on the liberty and wealth of the majority

To suggest a solution to the problems faced by the ancient Greeks in maintaining their confederacy

To demonstrate the negative effect that a confederacy has on the prosperity and freedom of its smaller members

To explain why an American confederacy would function differently than the confederacy of the ancient Greeks

To highlight the aggression and audacity of the Athenian and Lacedaemonians states

Correct answer:

To demonstrate the negative effect that a confederacy has on the prosperity and freedom of its smaller members

Explanation:

The primary function of the third paragraph is to use the example of the behavior of the Athenians and Lacedaemonians to demonstrate the negative effect that a confederacy has on the prosperity and freedom of its smaller members. This can be seen in the part of the text that follows the description of the conduct of Athens and Lacedaemonia: “This piece of history proves at once the inefficiency of the union, the ambition and jealousy of its most powerful members, and the dependent and degraded condition of the rest. The smaller members, though entitled by the theory of their system to revolve in equal pride and majesty around the common center, had become, in fact, satellites of the orbs of primary magnitude.”

Example Question #68 : Comprehension

Adapted from “On the Art of Fiction” in The Borzoi by Willa Cather (1920)

One is sometimes asked about the “obstacles” that confront young writers who are trying to do good work. I should say the greatest obstacles that writers today have to get over are the dazzling journalistic successes of twenty years ago, stories that surprised and delighted by their sharp photographic detail and that were really nothing more than lively pieces of reporting. The whole aim of that school of writing was novelty—never a very important thing in art. They gave us, altogether, poor standards—taught us to multiply our ideas instead of to condense them. They tried to make a story out of every theme that occurred to them and to get returns on every situation that suggested itself. They got returns, of a kind. But their work, when one looks back on it, now that the novelty upon which they counted so much is gone, is journalistic and thin. The especial merit of a good reportorial story is that it shall be intensely interesting and pertinent today and shall have lost its point by tomorrow.

Art, it seems to me, should simplify. That, indeed, is very nearly the whole of the higher artistic process; finding what conventions of form and what detail one can do without and yet preserve the spirit of the whole—so that all that one has suppressed and cut away is there to the reader’s consciousness as much as if it were in type on the page. Millet had done hundreds of sketches of peasants sowing grain, some of them very complicated and interesting, but when he came to paint the spirit of them all into one picture, The Sower, the composition is so simple that it seems inevitable. All the discarded sketches that went before made the picture what it finally became, and the process was all the time one of simplifying, of sacrificing many conceptions good in themselves for one that was better and more universal.

Any first rate novel or story must have in it the strength of a dozen fairly good stories that have been sacrificed to it. A good workman can’t be a cheap workman; he can’t be stingy about wasting material, and he cannot compromise. Writing ought either to be the manufacture of stories for which there is a market demand—a business as safe and commendable as making soap or breakfast foods—or it should be an art, which is always a search for something for which there is no market demand, something new and untried, where the values are intrinsic and have nothing to do with standardized values. The courage to go on without compromise does not come to a writer all at once—nor, for that matter, does the ability. Both are phases of natural development. In the beginning the artist, like his public, is wedded to old forms, old ideals, and his vision is blurred by the memory of old delights he would like to recapture.

With which of these statements would the author of this passage most likely disagree?

Possible Answers:

Journalism is too focused on novelty.

Hard work and dedication is more important to writers than to most other professions. 

Young writers face many obstacles in their life.

It is possible to write a novel in a short space of time.

Good artists are born, not made.

Correct answer:

Good artists are born, not made.

Explanation:

Some of these statements the author would plainly agree with. The most obvious answer choice that can be eliminated is that “journalism is too focused on novelty.” The author would certainly agree with this statement, as is evidenced by the quotation, “The whole aim of that school of writing was novelty—never a very important thing in art.” It is true that the author does put quotation marks around the word "obstacles" in the beginning, suggesting she might not actually believe that young writers face many obstacles. But, considering that she goes on to discuss some of the difficulties of being a young writer, it is fair to discount that answer quickly as well. The answer choice “Hard work and dedication is more important to writers than to most other professions” is probably something the author would agree with, although there is little comparison between writing and other professions. We can just assume that because the author so heavily emphasizes the importance of dedication in the art of writing, she would agree with that aforementioned statement.

Now, the answer choice “It is possible to write a novel in a short space of time” is probably something the author would disagree with, but not definitely and certainly not the most likely. The author discusses how the writing of a novel requires the sacrifice of many short stories and says “A good workman can’t be a cheap workman; he can’t be stingy about wasting material, and he cannot compromise.” But, she does not explicitly say that it is impossible to write a novel in a short space of time. What she would almost certainly disagree with is that “good artists are born, not made.” She implies that one can only become a talented writer and artist by dedicating oneself to the profession. This would suggest it is something you can become, but not something you can be born with. Therefore, this is the most likely answer choice. The evidence for this is most clearly seen in the concluding lines, which read, “The courage to go on without compromise does not come to a writer all at once—nor, for that matter, does the ability. Both are phases of natural development. In the beginning the artist, like his public, is wedded to old forms, old ideals, and his vision is blurred by the memory of old delights he would like to recapture.”

Example Question #69 : Comprehension

Adapted from “On the Art of Fiction” in The Borzoi by Willa Cather (1920)

One is sometimes asked about the “obstacles” that confront young writers who are trying to do good work. I should say the greatest obstacles that writers today have to get over are the dazzling journalistic successes of twenty years ago, stories that surprised and delighted by their sharp photographic detail and that were really nothing more than lively pieces of reporting. The whole aim of that school of writing was novelty—never a very important thing in art. They gave us, altogether, poor standards—taught us to multiply our ideas instead of to condense them. They tried to make a story out of every theme that occurred to them and to get returns on every situation that suggested itself. They got returns, of a kind. But their work, when one looks back on it, now that the novelty upon which they counted so much is gone, is journalistic and thin. The especial merit of a good reportorial story is that it shall be intensely interesting and pertinent today and shall have lost its point by tomorrow.

Art, it seems to me, should simplify. That, indeed, is very nearly the whole of the higher artistic process; finding what conventions of form and what detail one can do without and yet preserve the spirit of the whole—so that all that one has suppressed and cut away is there to the reader’s consciousness as much as if it were in type on the page. Millet had done hundreds of sketches of peasants sowing grain, some of them very complicated and interesting, but when he came to paint the spirit of them all into one picture, The Sower, the composition is so simple that it seems inevitable. All the discarded sketches that went before made the picture what it finally became, and the process was all the time one of simplifying, of sacrificing many conceptions good in themselves for one that was better and more universal.

Any first rate novel or story must have in it the strength of a dozen fairly good stories that have been sacrificed to it. A good workman can’t be a cheap workman; he can’t be stingy about wasting material, and he cannot compromise. Writing ought either to be the manufacture of stories for which there is a market demand—a business as safe and commendable as making soap or breakfast foods—or it should be an art, which is always a search for something for which there is no market demand, something new and untried, where the values are intrinsic and have nothing to do with standardized values. The courage to go on without compromise does not come to a writer all at once—nor, for that matter, does the ability. Both are phases of natural development. In the beginning the artist, like his public, is wedded to old forms, old ideals, and his vision is blurred by the memory of old delights he would like to recapture.

The author views journalistic writing as __________.

Possible Answers:

impermanent and lacking artistic merit

waning in influence in the past twenty years

suitable for imitation by developing writers

the highest literary achievement of the previous generation

an unfortunate, but necessary, obstacle for young writers

Correct answer:

impermanent and lacking artistic merit

Explanation:

In the opening paragraph, the author discusses how she believes that journalistic writing lacks artistic merit. The purpose is to contrast journalism with artistic writing so that the reader can appreciate writing that is an art form by identifying what it involves that journalism lacks. This can be most clearly seen in the excerpt that reads, “The especial merit of a good reportorial story is that it shall be intensely interesting and pertinent today and shall have lost its point by tomorrow.”

Example Question #70 : Comprehension

Adapted from “Federalist No. 29” by Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (1788)

That there may happen cases in which the national government may be necessitated to resort to force cannot be denied. Our own experience has corroborated the lessons taught by the examples of other nations: that emergencies of this sort will sometimes arise in all societies, however constituted; that seditions and insurrections are, unhappily, maladies as inseparable from the body politic as tumors and eruptions from the natural body; that the idea of governing at all times by the simple force of law (which we have been told is the only admissible principle of republican government) has no place but in the reveries of those political doctors whose sagacity disdains the admonitions of experimental instruction.

Should such emergencies at any time happen under the national government, there could be no remedy but force. The means to be employed must be proportioned to the extent of the mischief. If it should be a slight commotion in a small part of a state, the militia of the residue would be adequate to its suppression, and the national presumption is that they would be ready to do their duty. An insurrection, whatever may be its immediate cause, eventually endangers all government. Regard to the public peace, if not to the rights of the Union, would engage the citizens to whom the contagion had not communicated itself to oppose the insurgents, and if the general government should be found in practice conducive to the prosperity and felicity of the people, it were irrational to believe that they would be disinclined to its support.

If, on the contrary, the insurrection should pervade a whole state, or a principal part of it, the employment of a different kind of force might become unavoidable. It appears that Massachusetts found it necessary to raise troops for repressing the disorders within that state; that Pennsylvania, from the mere apprehension of commotions among a part of her citizens, has thought proper to have recourse to the same measure. Suppose the State of New York had been inclined to reestablish her lost jurisdiction over the inhabitants of Vermont; could she have hoped for success in such an enterprise from the efforts of the militia alone? Would she not have been compelled to raise and to maintain a more regular force for the execution of her design? If it must then be admitted that the necessity of recurring to a force different from the militia, in cases of this extraordinary nature, is applicable to the state governments themselves, why should the possibility that the national government might be under a like necessity in similar extremities be made an objection to its existence? Is it not surprising that men who declare an attachment to the Union in the abstract should urge as an objection to the proposed Constitution what applies with tenfold weight to the plan for which they contend and what, as far as it has any foundation in truth, is an inevitable consequence of civil society upon an enlarged scale? Who would not prefer that possibility to the unceasing agitations and frequent revolutions which are the continual scourges of petty republics?

Let us pursue this examination in another light. Suppose, in lieu of one general system, two, or three, or even four confederacies were to be formed; would not the same difficulty oppose itself to the operations of either of these confederacies? Would not each of them be exposed to the same casualties, and when these happened, be obliged to have recourse to the same expedients for upholding its authority which are objected to in a government for all the states? Would the militia, in this supposition, be more ready or more able to support the federal authority than in the case of a general union? All candid and intelligent men must, upon due consideration, acknowledge that the principle of the objection is equally applicable to either of the two cases, and that whether we have one government for all the states, or different governments for different parcels of them, or even if there should be an entire separation of the states, there might sometimes be a necessity to make use of a force constituted differently from the militia to preserve the peace of the community and to maintain the just authority of the laws against those violent invasions of them which amount to insurrections and rebellions.

The underlined “political doctors” are characterized as __________.

Possible Answers:

malcontents

wise administers

foolish day-dreamers

winsome gentlemen

ridiculous figures

Correct answer:

foolish day-dreamers

Explanation:

In context, the author says, “the idea of governing at all times by the simple force of law (which we have been told is the only admissible principle of republican government), has no place but in the reveries of those political doctors whose sagacity disdains the admonitions of experimental instruction.” The author uses extremely verbose language in this excerpt, so it takes a little time to understand, but once broken down, it becomes quite clear. The most important contextual clue is that the author is talking about an idea that he dismisses, namely that a government might govern solely on the rule of law and without ever resorting to force. This is an idea that in his mind is only realistic “in the reveries of political doctors.” The word “reveries” means day-dreams or unrealistic fantasies. Because the author is dismissing an idea as unrealistic, a sort of misguided fantasy, we can infer that when he describes them as being “sagacious” (wise) he is being sarcastic and that therefore the underlined “political doctors” are characterized as “foolish day-dreamers.”

Learning Tools by Varsity Tutors