MCAT Verbal : Identifying assumptions

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for MCAT Verbal

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Example Question #1 : Identifying Assumptions

Adapted from “Federalist No. 14” by Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist Papers (1788) by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (1788)

If the states are united under one government, there will be but one national civil list to support; if they are divided into several confederacies, there will be as many different national civil lists to be provided for—and each of them, as to the principal departments, coextensive with that which would be necessary for a government of the whole. The entire separation of the States into thirteen unconnected sovereignties is a project too extravagant and too replete with danger to have many advocates. The ideas of men who speculate upon the dismemberment of the empire seem generally turned toward three confederacies—one consisting of the four Northern, another of the four Middle, and a third of the five Southern States. According to this distribution, each confederacy would comprise an extent of territory larger than that of the kingdom of Great Britain. No well-informed man will suppose that the affairs of such a confederacy can be properly regulated by a government less comprehensive in its organs or institutions than that which has been proposed by the convention. When the dimensions of a State attain to a certain magnitude, it requires the same energy of government and the same forms of administration which are requisite in one of much greater extent. This idea admits not of precise demonstration, because there is no rule by which we can measure the momentum of civil power necessary to the government of any given number of individuals; but when we consider that the island of Britain, nearly commensurate with each of the supposed confederacies, contains about eight millions of people, and when we reflect upon the degree of authority required to direct the passions of so large a society to the public good, we shall see no reason to doubt that the like portion of power would be sufficient to perform the same task in a society far more numerous.

The supposition that each confederacy into which the states would be likely to be divided would require a government not less comprehensive than the one proposed will be strengthened by another supposition, more probable than that which presents us with three confederacies as the alternative to a general Union. If we attend carefully to geographical and commercial considerations, in conjunction with the habits and prejudices of the different States, we shall be led to conclude that in case of disunion they will most naturally league themselves under two governments. The four Eastern states, from all the causes that form the links of national sympathy and connection, may with certainty be expected to unite. New York, situated as she is, would never be unwise enough to oppose a feeble and unsupported flank to the weight of that confederacy. New Jersey is too small a state to think of being a frontier, in opposition to this still more powerful combination. Even Pennsylvania would have strong inducements to join the Northern league. An active foreign commerce, on the basis of her own navigation, is her true policy, and coincides with the opinions and dispositions of her citizens. The more Southern States, from various circumstances, may not think themselves much interested in the encouragement of navigation. They may prefer a system which would give unlimited scope to all nations to be the carriers as well as the purchasers of their commodities. Pennsylvania may not choose to confound her interests in a connection so adverse to her policy. As she must at all events be a frontier, she may deem it most consistent with her safety to have her exposed side turned towards the weaker power of the Southern, rather than towards the stronger power of the Northern, Confederacy. This would give her the fairest chance to avoid being the Flanders of America. Whatever may be the determination of Pennsylvania, if the Northern Confederacy includes New Jersey, there is no likelihood of more than one confederacy to the south of that State.

Nothing can be more evident than that the thirteen States will be able to support a national government better than one half, or one third, or any number less than the whole. This reflection must have great weight in obviating that objection to the proposed plan, which is founded on the principle of expense; an objection, however, which, when we come to take a nearer view of it, will appear in every light to stand on mistaken ground. If we take into view the number of persons who must necessarily be employed to guard the inland communication between the different confederacies against illicit trade, and if we also take into view the military establishments which it has been shown would unavoidably result from the jealousies and conflicts of the several nations into which the states would be divided, we shall clearly discover that a separation would be not less detrimental to the economy, than to the tranquillity, commerce, revenue, and liberty of every part.

Which of these assumptions is the author guilty of making in this passage?

Possible Answers:

The American government would always protect the best interests of the people.

The actions of individual states in the event of a breakdown of the Union are predictable.

The future United States of America would develop nothing like the contemporary nation of Great Britain.

The North and South have different commercial interests.

There is some close relationship between the United States and the people of Europe.

Correct answer:

The actions of individual states in the event of a breakdown of the Union are predictable.


In the second paragraph, the author spends a lot of time considering what the states of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania would do in the event of the breakdown of the Union. He seems to assume that each of their decisions is obvious and can be easily predicted. Seeing as a large portion of his argument stems from these assumptions, we can declare that it is a reason why this passage might be criticized. An example of this is “New York, situated as she is, would never be unwise enough to oppose a feeble and unsupported flank to the weight of that confederacy. New Jersey is too small a state to think of being a frontier, in opposition to this still more powerful combination.” The answer choice “That the North and South have different commercial interests” is part of the essay as well, but is less an assumption and more a sort of obvious statement. If we were to say it is an assumption, then it would still not be the correct answer because the author draws fewer conclusions from it, so it is less relevant to the overall argument of the essay.

Example Question #2 : Identifying Assumptions

Adapted from "Ringling Kids' Back Yard Show Grows into Mammoth Octopus." Fullerton, Hugh S. The day book. [Chicago, IL] 13 June 1914. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

Once upon a time (and that was only 33 years ago) there were five little boys who played circus in their back yards with a strip of rag carpet for a tent and a paper whale. They charged pins and then pennies.

Then they gave a real show in the barn, and then in the hall. And now they own elephants and camels and giraffes and hippopotamuses, and about forty eleven circuses.

When the bands blare and the horses “rare” and the big green and gold and silver wagons come past, and the clowns cut up such funny didoes, the chances are that you are seeing the men that the Ringling Brothers employ to amuse the boys and girls; yes, and the men and women of America during the summer.

For the circus business of America is the Ringling business.

They own the Ringling Brothers’ show, and Barnum’s, which was later Barnum and Bailey’s, the Forepaugh-Sells shows and what is left of the Hagenback’s and more of the dog and pony shows, and the remnants of Buffalo Bill’s and Pawnee Bill’s Wild West, and Ranch 101, and, oh, lots and lots of other shows.

And they are the boys who started in the barn loft at Baraboo, Wisconsin. They are the “Circus Trust” of America!

The chances are that the government never will complain because the Ringling boys (for they always will be boys, no matter how old they get) are a “trust.” They own lots and lots of circuses, but many of them they bought when they did not need or want them, out of sentiment when some of the competitors of the days when they rode in wagons were in hard luck.

Some they bought so that they might preserve the names of the famous old “shows.” Some they bought so that they might direct the routes, and send some circuses to some city or town their “big shows” could not reach. Some they wanted because from them they could get new acts and new performers for the “big shows,” and some they own because when the public has ceased to thrill over some famous “actor” in the big shows they can send him to the smaller ones where he may perform before those who never have felt the thrills.

There is too much sentiment in the circus business for it to be a destroyer or a menace. The Ringlings have bought shows, carried them, supplied them with acts and given the old owner full charge to buy them back and run them.

Just how many men and women, and horses and dogs these boys own now even they do not know exactly. Some idea of the vast expanse of creating and maintaining a great circus may be gained from the fact that the Ringling shows’ menagerie alone is valued and insured at more than $1,000,000; the forty performing elephants are worth $250,000. The robe worn by one elephant alone cost $12,000. The length of the Ringlings’ main tent is 580 feet, the largest ever erected; the menagerie contains 108 cages, and the parade is three miles long. The 4,500 costumes worn in the Solomon and the Queen of Sheba spectacle itself were produced at the cost of more than $1,000,000.

Double these latter figures—for the Barnum shows are about the same size, add one-third for the smaller shows controlled and you will have some idea of the magnitude of the “show” business.

The author makes which of the following assumptions about the Ringling brothers?

Possible Answers:

Their extravagance and expenditures have damaged their reputation with other circuses

They have become greedy and careless with their assets

Even with corporate success they remain enamored with the circus performance

As they have aged they have grown more interested in profit than in the welfare of the industry as a whole

Correct answer:

Even with corporate success they remain enamored with the circus performance


The author insists that "the Ringling boys . . . always will be boys, no matter how old they get."

The juxtaposition of the origin story of the brothers building a circus in their backyard to a profitable giant in the industry ought to also highlight the changes seen in how the brothers manage their business. The author, however, emphasizes how the Ringling brothers would buy other circuses to preserve their names or build their shows, and criticizes them for their sentiment. This indicates the brothers' investment in the industry as a whole. Furthermore, the author details the fine aspects of the Ringling circus performance in the third paragraph and the extravagant costs they invest into their shows in the tenth paragraph.

Clearly, the brothers are still interested in the spectacle of the circus and attempt to maintain the magic of the performance, even with their phenomenal financial success.

Example Question #3 : Assumptions

Adapted from Utilitarianism by John Stewart Mill (1863)

Only while the world is in a very imperfect state can it happen that anyone’s best chance of serving the happiness of others is through the absolute sacrifice of his own happiness; but while the world is in that imperfect state, I fully admit that the readiness to make such a sacrifice is the highest virtue that can be found in man. I would add something that may seem paradoxical: namely that in this present imperfect condition of the world, the conscious ability to do without happiness gives the best prospect of bringing about such happiness as is attainable. For nothing except that consciousness can raise a person above the chances of life by making him feel that fate and fortune—let them do their worst!—have no power to subdue him. Once he feels that, it frees him from excessive anxiety about the evils of life and lets him (like many a stoic in the worst times of the Roman empire) calmly develop the sources of satisfaction that are available to him, not concerning himself with the uncertainty regarding how long they will last or the certainty that they will end.

Meanwhile, let utilitarians never cease to claim that they have as much right as the stoic or the transcendentalist to maintain the morality of devotion to a cause as something that belongs to them. The utilitarian morality does recognize that human beings can sacrifice their own greatest good for the good of others; it merely refuses to admit that the sacrifice is itself a good. It regards as wasted any sacrifice that doesn’t increase, or tend to increase, the sum total of happiness. The only self-renunciation that it applauds is devotion to the happiness, or to some of the means to happiness, of others. . . . I must again repeat something that the opponents of utilitarianism are seldom fair enough to admit, namely that the happiness that forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct is not the agent’s own happiness but that of all concerned. As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator. In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbor as yourself constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.

As the practical way to get as close as possible to this ideal, the ethics of utility would command two things. (1) First, laws and social arrangements should place the happiness (or what for practical purposes we may call the interest) of every individual as much as possible in harmony with the interest of the whole. (2) Education and opinion, which have such a vast power over human character, should use that power to establish in the mind of every individual an unbreakable link between his own happiness and the good of the whole; especially between his own happiness and the kinds of conduct (whether doing or allowing) that are conducive to universal happiness. If (2) is done properly, it will tend to have two results: (2a) The individual won’t be able to conceive the possibility of being personally happy while acting in ways opposed to the general good. (2b) In each individual a direct impulse to promote the general good will be one of the habitual motives of action, and the feelings connected with it will fill a large and prominent place in his sentient existence. This is the true character of the utilitarian morality. If those who attack utilitarianism see it as being like this, I don’t know what good features of some other moralities they could possibly say that utilitarianism lacks, what more beautiful or more elevated developments of human nature any other ethical systems can be supposed to encourage, or what motivations for action that aren’t available to the utilitarian those other systems rely on for giving effect to their mandates.

The author makes which of the following assumptions about the world?

Possible Answers:

It will continue to exist after people are extinct.

It is a place with measurable amount of happiness in it, and therefore a place where all moral decisions are easily weighed.

It is a morally imperfect place wherein many events are subject to random chance.

It has existed for less than 60,000 years.

It is a place people occupy only temporarily while on the moral soil.

Correct answer:

It is a morally imperfect place wherein many events are subject to random chance.


The author assumes, but does not justify the position, that the world is a morally imperfect place wherein many events are subject to the whims of "fate and fortune." This assumption directly influences the arguments about moral behavior and self-sacrifice made later in the piece. The author holds that self-sacrifice is sometimes necessary, but only necessary in an "imperfect world," therefore assuming the world is a morally imperfect place.

Example Question #3 : Identifying Assumptions

Adapted from Samuel Johnson's "Labor Necessary to Excellence" in No. 169 of The Rambler (1751)

No vanity can more justly incur contempt and indignation than that which boasts of negligence and hurry. For who can bear with patience the writer who claims such superiority to the rest of his species as to imagine mankind are at leisure for attention to his extemporary sallies and that posterity will reposit his casual effusions among the treasures of ancient wisdom?

Men have sometimes appeared of such transcendent abilities that their slightest and most cursory performances excel all that labor and study can enable meaner intellects to compose, as there are regions of which the spontaneous products cannot be equalled in other soils by care and culture. But it is no less dangerous for any man to place himself in this rank of understanding and fancy that he is born to be illustrious without labor than to omit the cares of husbandry and expect from his ground the blossoms of Arabia.

The greatest part of those who congratulate themselves upon their intellectual dignity and usurp the privileges of genius are men whom only themselves would ever have marked out as enriched by uncommon liberalities of nature, or entitled to veneration and immortality on easy terms. This ardor of confidence is usually found among those who, having not enlarged their notions by books or conversation, are persuaded, by the partiality which we all feel in our own favor, that they have reached the summit of excellence because they discover none higher than themselves; and who acquiesce in the first thoughts that occur, because their scantiness of knowledge allows them little choice; and the narrowness of their views affords them no glimpse of perfection, of that sublime idea which human industry has from the first ages been vainly toiling to approach. They see a little, and believe that there is nothing beyond their sphere of vision, as the Patuecos of Spain, who inhabited a small valley, conceived the surrounding mountains to be the boundaries of the world. In proportion as perfection is more distinctly conceived, the pleasure of contemplating our own performances will be lessened; it may therefore be observed, that they who most deserve praise are often afraid to decide in favor of their own performances; they know how much is still wanting to their completion, and wait with anxiety and terror the determination of the public. I please everyone else, says Tally, but never satisfy myself.

It has often been inquired, why, notwithstanding the advances of later ages in science and the assistance which the infusion of so many new ideas has given us, we fall below the ancients in the art of composition. Some part of their superiority may be justly ascribed to the graces of their language, from which the most polished of the present European tongues are nothing more than barbarous degenerations. Some advantage they might gain merely by priority, which put them in possession of the most natural sentiments and left us nothing but servile repetition or forced conceits. But the greater part of their praise seems to have been the just reward of modesty and labor. Their sense of human weakness confined them commonly to one study, which their knowledge of the extent of every science engaged them to prosecute with indefatigable diligence.

Which of the following is NOT an assumption made by the author?

Possible Answers:

Ancient writers produced better work than contemporary writers.

Ancient writers were aware of their own frailty.

People are upset by those who brag about how little effort they put into their work.

Ancient writers produced better work at a much faster pace than contemporary writers.

Ancient writers worked hard, and rarely bragged.

Correct answer:

Ancient writers produced better work at a much faster pace than contemporary writers.


The only assumption listed that the author does not make is that ancient writers produced better work at a faster rate than contemporary writers. While the author asserts and assumes the higher quality of the ancient writers' work, he makes no assumption that ancient writers worked quickly. In fact, his characterization of the ancients as more hard-working would better lend itself to the assumption that the ancients worked at a slower, more studied pace.

Example Question #2 : Assumptions

Adapted from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume (1748)

1. Moral philosophy, or the science of human nature, may be treated after two different manners, each of which has its peculiar merit and may contribute to the entertainment, instruction, and reformation of mankind. The one considers man chiefly as born for action and as influenced in his measures by taste and sentiment, pursuing one object and avoiding another according to the value that these objects seem to possess and according to the light in which they present themselves. As virtue, of all objects, is allowed to be the most valuable, this species of philosophers paint her in the most amiable colors, borrowing all helps from poetry and eloquence and treating their subject in an easy and obvious manner and such as is best fitted to please the imagination and engage the affections. They select the most striking observations and instances from common life; place opposite characters in a proper contrast; and alluring us into the paths of virtue by the views of glory and happiness, direct our steps in these paths by the soundest precepts and most illustrious examples. They make us feel the difference between vice and virtue; they excite and regulate our sentiments; and so they can but bend our hearts to the love of probity and true honor, they think, that they have fully attained the end of all their labors.

2. The other species of philosophers considers man in the light of a reasonable rather than an active being, and endeavors to form his understanding more than cultivate his manners. They regard human nature as a subject of speculation, and with a narrow scrutiny examine it in order to find those principles that regulate our understanding, excite our sentiments, and make us approve or blame any particular object, action, or behavior. They think it a reproach to all literature that philosophy should not yet have fixed, beyond controversy, the foundation of morals, reasoning, and criticism, and should forever talk of truth and falsehood, vice and virtue, beauty and deformity, without being able to determine the source of these distinctions. While they attempt this arduous task, they are deterred by no difficulties, but proceeding from particular instances to general principles, they still push on their enquiries to principles more general, and rest not satisfied ‘till they arrive at those original principles, by which, in every science, all human curiosity must be bounded. Though their speculations seem abstract, and even unintelligible to common readers, they aim at the approbation of the learned and the wise, and think themselves sufficiently compensated for the labor of their whole lives if they can discover some hidden truths that may contribute to the instruction of posterity.

3. It is certain that the easy and obvious philosophy will always, with the generality of mankind, have the preference above the accurate and abstruse, and by many will be recommended, not only as more agreeable, but more useful than the other. It enters more into common life; molds the heart and affections; and, by touching those principles which actuate men, reforms their conduct, and brings them nearer to that model of perfection that it describes. On the contrary, the abstruse philosophy, being founded on a turn of mind, which cannot enter into business and action, vanishes when the philosopher leaves the shade, and comes into open day; nor can its principles easily retain any influence over our conduct and behavior. The feelings of our hearts, the agitation of our passions, the vehemence of our affections, dissipate all its conclusions, and reduce the profound philosopher to the mere plebeian.

The author relies on which of the following assumptions?

Possible Answers:

Most people do not understand the difference between right and wrong.

The philosophical tasks of understanding human nature and outlining the best form of ethics are fundamentally separate.

All people prefer a complex moral philosophy based on a doctrine of rationality.

All people prefer a simpler, less abstract form of moral philosophy.

There are no significant schools of moral philosophy other than the two discussed in the passage.

Correct answer:

There are no significant schools of moral philosophy other than the two discussed in the passage.


The main assumption the author relies on in this passage is that there are no significant schools of moral philosophy other than the two discussed in the passage. If there were, in fact, another or several other significant schools of thought other than the two discussed, the nature and scope of the passage would be fundamentally changed.

The author makes no categorical statements about what ALL people think or believe, nor does he make any claims about what portion of the population understands the difference between right and wrong; his statements about "the generality of mankind" are instead focused on the kind of reasoning that appeals to most people. The author treats "moral philosophy" and "human nature" as synonymous.

Example Question #4 : Identifying Assumptions

Adapted from "A Criticism on the English Historians" by Samuel Johnson in The Rambler #122 (1751)

Of the various kinds of speaking or writing, which serve necessity, or promote pleasure, none appears so artless or easy as simple narration; for what should make him who knows the whole order and progress of an affair unable to relate it? Yet we hourly find such as endeavor to entertain or instruct us by recitals, clouding the facts that they intend to illustrate, and losing themselves and their auditors in wilds and mazes, in digression and confusion. When we have congratulated ourselves upon a new opportunity of inquiry, and new means of information, it often happens, that without designing either deceit or concealment, without ignorance of the fact, or unwillingness to disclose it, the relator fills the ear with empty sounds, harasses the attention with fruitless impatience, and disturbs the imagination by a tumult of events, without order of time, or train of consequence.

It is natural to believe, upon the same principle, that no writer has a more easy task than the historian. The philosopher has the works of omniscience to examine, and is therefore engaged in disquisitions, to which finite intellects are utterly unequal. The poet trusts to his invention, and is not only in danger of those inconsistencies, to which every one is exposed by departure from truth, but may be censured as well for deficiencies of matter, as for irregularity of disposition, or impropriety of ornament. But the happy historian has no other labor than of gathering what tradition pours down before him, or records treasure for his use. He has only the actions and designs of men like himself to conceive and to relate; he is not to form, but copy characters, and therefore is not blamed for the inconsistency of statesmen, the injustice of tyrants, or the cowardice of commanders. The difficulty of making variety consistent, or uniting probability with surprise, needs not to disturb him; the manners and actions of his personages are already fixed; his materials are provided and put into his hands, and he is at leisure to employ all his powers in arranging and displaying them.

Yet, even with these advantages, very few in any age have been able to raise themselves to reputation by writing histories; and among the innumerable authors who fill every nation with accounts of their ancestors, or undertake to transmit to futurity the events of their own time, the greater part, when fashion and novelty have ceased to recommend them, are of no other use than chronological memorials, which necessity may sometimes require to be consulted, but which fright away curiosity and disgust delicacy.

It is observed that our nation, which has produced so many authors eminent for almost every other species of literary excellence, has been hitherto remarkably barren of historical genius; and so far has this defect raised prejudices against us, that some have doubted whether an Englishman can stop at that mediocrity of style, or confine his mind to that even tenor of imagination that narrative requires.

They who can believe that nature has so capriciously distributed understanding, have surely no claim to the honor of serious confutation. The inhabitants of the same country have opposite characters in different ages; the prevalence or neglect of any particular study can proceed only from the accidental influence of some temporary cause; and if we have failed in history, we can have failed only because history has not hitherto been diligently cultivated.

But how is it evident, that we have not historians among us, whom we may venture to place in comparison with any that the neighboring nations can produce? The attempt of Raleigh is deservedly celebrated for the labor of his researches, and the elegance of his style; but he has endeavored to exert his judgment more than his genius, to select facts, rather than adorn them; and has produced an historical dissertation, but seldom risen to the majesty of history.

The author makes which of the following assumptions?

Possible Answers:

That most people would say that narrating an actual event seems much more difficult than writing a poem or a play

That all foreign historians are more esteemed than any British historian

That most people would say that narrating an actual event seemed easier than writing a poem or play

That his audience is familiar with the entire canon of English letters

That most people do not read books, especially not histories

Correct answer:

That most people would say that narrating an actual event seemed easier than writing a poem or play


The author assumes that MOST people would characterize narrating an actual event as easier than other forms of literary writing. This assumption is used to characterize and provide context to color his description of historical writers and their relative lack of prominence when compared to other kinds of literary authors.

Example Question #5 : Identifying Assumptions

Adapted from Bacon by R. W. Church (1884)

The life of Francis Bacon is one that it is a pain to write or to read. It is the life of a man endowed with as rare a combination of noble gifts as ever was bestowed on a human intellect; the life of one with whom the whole purpose of living and of every day's work was to do great things to enlighten and elevate humanity; it was the life of a man who had high thoughts of the ends and methods of law and government, and with whom the general and public good was regarded as the standard by which the use of public power was to be measured. All his life long his first and never-sleeping passion was the romantic and splendid ambition after knowledge, for the conquest of nature and for the service of humankind. It is difficult to imagine a grander and more magnificent career, and his name ranks among the few chosen examples of human achievement. And yet it was not only an unhappy life; it was a poor life. We expect that such an overwhelming weight of glory should be borne up by a character corresponding to it in strength and nobleness. But that is not what we find. He cringed to such a man as Buckingham. He sold himself to the corrupt and ignominious government of James I. He was willing to be employed to hunt to death a friend like Essex, guilty, deeply guilty, to the State, but to Bacon the most loving and generous of benefactors. With his eyes open he gave himself up without resistance to a system unworthy of him; he would not see what was evil in it, and chose to call its evil good, and he was its first and most signal victim.

Bacon has been judged with merciless severity. But he has also been defended by an advocate whose name alone is almost a guarantee for the justness of the cause which he takes up, and the innocency of the client for whom he argues. Mr. Spedding devoted nearly a lifetime, and all the resources of a fine intellect and an earnest conviction, to make us revere as well as admire Bacon. But it is vain. It is vain to fight against the facts of his life: his words, his letters. "Men are made up," says a keen observer, "of professions, gifts, and talents; and also of themselves." With all his greatness, his splendid genius, his magnificent ideas, his enthusiasm for truth, his passion to be the benefactor of his kind; with all the charm that made him loved by good and worthy friends, amiable, courteous, patient, delightful as a companion, ready to take any trouble—there was in Bacon's "self" a deep and fatal flaw. He was a pleaser of men. He was one of the men—there are many of them—who are unable to release their imagination from the impression of present and immediate power, face-to-face with themselves. It seems as if he carried into conduct the leading rule of his philosophy of nature, parendo vincitur. In both worlds, moral and physical, he felt himself encompassed by vast forces, irresistible by direct opposition. Men whom he wanted to bring round to his purposes were as strange, as refractory, as obstinate, as impenetrable as the phenomena of the natural world. It was no use attacking in front, and by a direct trial of strength, people like Elizabeth or Cecil or James; he might as well think of forcing some natural power in defiance of natural law. The first word of his teaching about nature is that she must be won by observation of her tendencies and demands; the same radical disposition of temper reveals itself in his dealings with men: they, too, must be won by yielding to them, by adapting himself to their moods and ends; by spying into the drift of their humor, by subtly and pliantly falling in with it, by circuitous and indirect processes, the fruit of vigilance and patient thought. He thought to direct, while submitting apparently to be directed. But he mistook his strength. Nature and man are different powers, and under different laws. He chose to please man, and not to follow what his soul must have told him was the better way. He wanted, in his dealings with men, that sincerity on which he insisted so strongly in his dealings with nature and knowledge. And the ruin of a great lifetime was the consequence.

Which of these assumptions can most reliably be made about the underlined “Mr. Spedding”?

Possible Answers:

He has an acrimonious relationship with the author of this passage.

He was a contemporary of Bacon; and the two mutually admired one another.

He was a contemporary of Bacon; but the two did not like one another.

He was an academic with a comprehensive understanding of Bacon.

None of these assumptions can reliably be made about Mr. Spedding.

Correct answer:

He was an academic with a comprehensive understanding of Bacon.


The author clearly does not have an acrimonious relationship with Mr. Spedding because, although the author disagrees with him, the author employs favorable and kind language to describe Mr. Spedding, such as “fine intellect” and “earnest conviction.” There is also no evidence to suggest Mr. Spedding was a contemporary of Bacon; however, there is ample evidence to suggest that Mr. Spedding was an academic who studied Bacon’s life. The author says, “Mr. Spedding “devoted nearly a lifetime . . . to make us revere and admire Bacon.”

Example Question #6 : Identifying Assumptions

Adapted from “Robespierre” in Critical Miscellanies by John Morley (1904)

M. D'Héricault does not belong to the school of writers who treat the course of history as a great high road, following a firmly traced line, and set with plain and ineffaceable landmarks. The French Revolution has nearly always been handled in this way, alike by those who think it fruitful in blessings, and by their adversaries, who pronounce it a curse inflicted by the wrath of Heaven. Historians have looked at the Revolution as a plain landsman looks at the sea. To the landsman the ocean seems one huge immeasurable flood, obeying a simple law of ebb and flow, and offering to the navigator a single uniform force. Yet in truth we know that the oceanic movement is the product of many forces; the seeming uniformity covers the energy of a hundred currents and counter-currents; the sea-floor is not even nor the same, but is subject to untold conditions of elevation and subsidence; the sea is not one mass, but many masses moving along definite lines of their own. It is the same with the great tides of history. Wise men shrink from summing them up in single propositions. That the French Revolution led to an immense augmentation of happiness, both for the French and for mankind, can only be denied by the Pope. That it secured its beneficent results untempered by any mixture of evil, can only be maintained by men as mad as Doctor Pangloss. The Greek poetess Corinna said to the youthful Pindar, when he had interwoven all the gods and goddesses in the Theban mythology into a single hymn, that we should sow with the hand and not with the sack. Corinna's monition to the singer is proper to the interpreter of historical truth: he should cull with the hand, and not sweep in with the scythe. It is doubtless mere pedantry to abstain from the widest conception of the sum of a great movement. A clear, definite, and stable idea of the meaning in the history of human progress of such vast groups of events as the Reformation or the Revolution, is indispensable for anyone to whom history is a serious study of society. It is just as important, however, not to forget that they were really groups of events, and not in either case a single uniform movement. A sensible man learns, in everyday life, to abstain from praising and blaming character by wholesale; he becomes content to say of this trait that it is good, and of that act that it was bad.

M. D'Héricault's volume naturally suggests such reflections as these. Of all the men of the Revolution, Robespierre has suffered most from the audacious idolatry of some writers, and the splenetic impatience of others. M. Louis Blanc and M. Ernest Hamel talk of him as an angel or a prophet, and the Ninth Thermidor is a red day indeed in their martyrology. Michelet and M. D'Héricault treat him as a mixture of Cagliostro and Caligula, both a charlatan and a miscreant. We are reminded of the commencement of an address of the French Senate to the first Bonaparte: 'Sire,' they began, 'the desire for perfection is one of the worst maladies that can afflict the human mind.' This bold aphorism touches one of the roots of the judgments we pass both upon men and events. It is because people so irrationally think fit to insist upon perfection, that Robespierre's admirers would fain deny that he ever had a fault, and the tacit adoption of the same impracticable standard makes it easier for Robespierre's wholesale detractors to deny that he had a single virtue or performed a single service. The point of view is essentially unfit for history. It is folly for the historian, as it is for the statesman, to strain after the imaginative unity of the dramatic creator. Social progress is an affair of many small pieces and slow accretions, and the interest of historic study lies in tracing, amid the immense turmoil of events and through the confusion of voices, the devious course of the sacred torch, as it shifts from bearer to bearer. And it is not the bearers who are most interesting, but the torch.

What can we assume happened on the underlined “Ninth Thermidor”?

Possible Answers:

M. D’Héricault wrote his history of the French Revolution.

The French Revolution came to an end.

Robespierre was born.

The French Revolution began.

Robespierre was executed.

Correct answer:

Robespierre was executed.


The author notes that two historians talk of Robespierre “as an angel or a prophet," essentially that they idolize him and view him as a hero. He then says that for these two historians the “Ninth Thermidor is a red day . . . in their martyrology.” The use of the term “martyrology” suggests that Robespierre was executed (made a martyr) on the Ninth Thermidor.

Example Question #7 : Identifying Assumptions

Adapted from The Story of Eclipses by George F. Chambers (1900)

Among the auxiliary agencies which have been brought into use in recent years to enable astronomers the better to carry out systematic observations of eclipses of the Sun, the electric telegraph occupies a place which may hereafter become prominent. As it is not likely that this little book will fall into the hands of any persons who would be able to make much use of telegraphy in connection with eclipse observations, it will not be necessary to give much space to the matter, but a few outlines will certainly be interesting. When the idea of utilizing the telegraph wire first came into men’s minds, it was with the object of enabling observers who saw the commencement of an eclipse at one end of the line of totality to give cautionary notices to observers farther on, or towards the far end, of special points which had been seen at the beginning of the totality, and as to which confirmatory observations, at a later hour, were evidently very desirable. It is obvious that a scheme of this kind depends for its success upon each end (or something like it) of the line of totality being in telegraphic communication with the other end, and this involves a combination of favorable circumstances not likely to exist at every occurrence of a total eclipse, and in general only likely to prevail in the case of eclipses visible over inhabited territory, such as the two Americas, Europe, and parts of Asia. This use of the telegraph was, I think, first proposed as far back as 1878, by an American astronomer, in connection with the total eclipse of that year. His proposal fell upon sympathetic ears, with the result that arrangements were concluded with the Western Union Telegraph Company of North America for the expeditious forwarding of messages from northern stations on the eclipse line to southern stations. Some attention was being given at that time to the question of Intra-Mercurial planets, and it was thought that if by good fortune any such objects were unexpectedly found at the northern station, and observers at a southern station could be advised of the fact, there might be a better chance of procuring an accurate and precise record of the discovery. As it happened, nothing came of it on that occasion, but the idea of utilizing the telegraph having once taken possession of men’s minds, it was soon seen what important possibilities were opened up.

Which of these assumptions does the author most clearly make in this passage?

Possible Answers:

That his audience is comprised of people who do not have access to the electric telegraph.

That astronomy is only practicable to the extremely wealthy.  

That his audience is composed of people who work in the field of astronomy.

That people only live in North America, Europe, and parts of East Asia.

That average people are not much interested in the electric telegraph or in eclipse observation.

Correct answer:

That his audience is comprised of people who do not have access to the electric telegraph.


To identify which of these assumptions the author most clearly makes, you have to read carefully and examine critically. The author does say “in general only likely to prevail in the case of eclipses visible over inhabited territory, such as the two Americas, Europe, and parts of Asia.” But when the author says “inhabited,” we may understand that he means “inhabited by people who have the means and time to conduct astronomical observations with the aid of modern technology.” The author also says, “As it is not likely that this little book will fall into the hands of any persons who would be able to make much use of telegraphy in connection with eclipse observations, it will not be necessary to give much space to the matter." This is a clear assumption: the author believes his audience does not contain people who have access to the electric telegraph, so he does not feel the need to cover the subject matter in detail.

Example Question #8 : Identifying Assumptions

Adapted from Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey (1918)

Let us consider the popular conception of Florence Nightingale. The saintly, self-sacrificing woman, the delicate maiden of high degree who threw aside the pleasures of a life of ease to succor the afflicted; the Lady with the Lamp, gliding through the horrors of the hospital at Scutari, and consecrating with the radiance of her goodness the dying soldier's couch. The vision is familiar to all—but the truth was different. The Miss Nightingale of fact was not as facile as fancy painted her. It happens that in the real Miss Nightingale there was more that was interesting than in the legendary one; there was also less that was agreeable.

Her family was extremely well-to-do, and connected by marriage with a spreading circle of other well-to-do families. Brought up among such advantages, it was only natural to suppose that Florence would show a proper appreciation of them by doing her duty—in other words, by marrying. It was inconceivable that Florence should dream of anything else; yet dream she did.

As the years passed, a restlessness began to grow upon her. She was unhappy, and at last she knew it. Mrs. Nightingale, too, began to notice that there was something wrong. It was very odd—what could be the matter with dear Flo? Mr. Nightingale suggested that a husband might be advisable; but the curious thing was that she seemed to take no interest in husbands. She would think of nothing but how to satisfy that singular craving of hers to be doing something.

Florence announced an extreme desire to go to Salisbury Hospital for several months as a nurse; and she confessed to some visionary plan of eventually setting up in a house of her own in a neighboring village, and there founding “something like a Protestant Sisterhood, without vows, for women of educated feelings.” The difficulties in her path were great. For not only was it an almost unimaginable thing in those days for a woman of means to make her own way in the world and to live in independence, but the particular profession for which Florence was clearly marked out both by her instincts and her capacities was at that time a peculiarly disreputable one. A “nurse” meant then a coarse old woman, always ignorant, usually dirty, often brutal, in bunched-up sordid garments.

Yet the want, absurd and impracticable as it was, not only remained fixed immovably in her heart, but grew in intensity day by day. Her wretchedness deepened into a morbid melancholy. A weaker spirit would have been overwhelmed by the load of such distresses—would have yielded or snapped. But this extraordinary young woman held firm, and fought her way to victory. In secret she devoured the reports of medical commissions, the pamphlets of sanitary authorities, the histories of hospitals and homes. She spent the intervals of the London season in ragged schools and workhouses.

But one other trial awaited her. It appeared in the shape of a desirable young man. Hitherto, her lovers had been nothing to her but an added burden and a mockery; but now—for a moment—she wavered. She knew in her heart that it could not be. “To be nailed to a continuation and exaggeration of my present life … to put it out of my power ever to be able to seize the chance of forming for myself a true and rich life”—that would be a suicide. She made her choice, and refused what was at least a certain happiness for a visionary good which might never come to her at all. And so she returned to her old life of waiting and bitterness.

“The thoughts and feelings that I have now,” she wrote, “I can remember since I was six years old. A profession, a trade, a necessary occupation, something to fill and employ all my faculties, I have always felt essential to me, I have always longed for. The first thought I can remember, and the last, was nursing work. My God! What is to become of me?”

A desirable young man? Dust and ashes! What was there desirable in such a thing as that? “In my thirty-first year. I see nothing desirable but death.”

Three more years passed, and then at last the pressure of time told; her family seemed to realize that she was old enough and strong enough to have her way; and she became the superintendent of a charitable nursing home in Harley Street. She had gained her independence, though it was in a meagre sphere enough; and her mother was still not quite resigned: surely Florence might at least spend the summer in the country. At times, indeed, among her intimates, Mrs. Nightingale almost wept. “We are ducks,” she said with tears in her eyes, “who have hatched a wild swan.” But the poor lady was wrong; it was not a swan that they had hatched—it was an eagle.

Which of these assumptions does the author most clearly make?

Possible Answers:

The author does not make any of these assumptions.

That his audience is quite familiar with Florence Nightingale

That his audience is unfamiliar with the rigors of nursing and medical practice in general

That his audience is wealthy and capable of comprehending Florence’s upbringing

That his audience disproves of a woman’s attempt to make her own way in the world

Correct answer:

That his audience is quite familiar with Florence Nightingale


In the introduction it is apparent that the author assumes that his audience is already quite familiar with much of the life story of Florence Nightingale. He begins the passage by stating, “Let us consider the popular conception of Florence Nightingale . . . The vision is familiar to all—but the truth was different.” “Popular conception” and “familiar to all” reveal to us that the author assumes we already know who Florence Nightingale is.

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