MCAT Verbal : Understanding vocabulary from context

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for MCAT Verbal

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Example Questions

Example Question #11 : Understanding Vocabulary From Context

Adapted from "The Writing of History" in Political and Literary Essays 1908-1913 by the Earl of Cromer (1913)

What are the purposes of history, and in what spirit should it be written? Such, in effect, are the questions which Mr. Gooch propounds in this very interesting volume. He wisely abstains from giving any dogmatic answers to these questions, but in a work which shows manifest signs of great erudition and far-reaching research he ranges over the whole field of European and American literature, and gives us a very complete summary both of how, as a matter of fact, history has been written, and of the spirit in which the leading historians of the nineteenth century have approached their task.

Mr. Bryce, himself one of the most eminent of modern historians, recently laid down the main principle which, in his opinion, should guide his fellow-craftsmen. "Truth," he said, "and truth only is our aim." The maxim is one which would probably be unreservedly accepted in theory by the most ardent propagandist who has ever used history as a vehicle for the dissemination of his own views on political, economic, or social questions. For so fallible is human nature that the proclivities of the individual can rarely be entirely submerged by the judicial impartiality of the historian. It is impossible to peruse Mr. Gooch's work without being struck by the fact that, amongst the greatest writers of history, bias—often unconscious bias—has been the rule, and the total absence of preconceived opinions the exception. Generally speaking, the subjective spirit has prevailed amongst historians in all ages. The danger of following the scent of analogies—not infrequently somewhat strained analogies—between the present and the past is comparatively less imminent in cases where some huge upheaval, such as the French Revolution, has inaugurated an entirely new epoch, accompanied by the introduction of fresh ideals and habits of thought. It is, as Macaulay has somewhere observed, a more serious stumbling-block in the path of a writer who deals with the history of a country like England, which has through long centuries preserved its historical continuity. Hallam and Macaulay viewed history through Whig, and Alison through Tory spectacles.

Neither has the remoteness of the events described proved any adequate safeguard against the introduction of bias born of contemporary circumstances. Mitford, who composed his history of Greece during the stormy times of the French Revolution, thought it compatible with his duty as an historian to strike a blow at Whigs and Jacobins. Grote's sympathy with the democracy of Athens was unquestionably to some extent the outcome of the views which he entertained of events passing under his own eyes at Westminster. Mommsen, by inaugurating the publication of the Corpus of Latin Inscriptions, has earned the eternal gratitude of scholarly posterity, but Mr. Gooch very truly remarks that his historical work is tainted with the "strident partisanship" of a keen politician and journalist. Truth, as the old Greek adage says, is indeed the fellow-citizen of the gods; but if the standard of historical truth be rated too high, and if the authority of all who have not strictly complied with that standard is to be discarded on the ground that they stand convicted of partiality, we should be left with little to instruct subsequent ages beyond the dry records of men such as the laborious, the useful, though somewhat over-credulous Clinton, or the learned but arid Marquardt, whose "massive scholarship" Mr. Gooch dismisses somewhat summarily in a single line. Such writers are not historians, but rather compilers of records, upon the foundations of which others can build history.

Under the process we have assumed, Droysen, Sybel, and Treitschke would have to be cast down from their pedestals. They were the political schoolmasters of Germany during a period of profound national discouragement. They used history in order to stir their countrymen to action, but "if the supreme aim of history is to discover truth and to interpret the movement of humanity, they have no claim to a place in the first class." Patriotism, as the Portuguese historian, Herculano da Carvalho, said, is "a bad counsellor for historians."

Which of these best restates the meaning of the underlined text?

Possible Answers:

Obvious indications of scholarship

Mediocre displays of research

Concise use of language

Clever interpretation of sources

Youthful display of exuberance

Correct answer:

Obvious indications of scholarship

Explanation:

This question is more a test of vocabulary knowledge than it is asking you to restate an author's meaning. The context is, "in a work which shows manifest signs of great erudition and far-reaching research he ranges over the whole field of European and American literature, and gives us a very complete summary both of how, as a matter of fact, history has been written," which indicates that the author is discussing the scholarship and hard work that has gone into writing the piece he is reviewing. This eliminates the answer choices "youthful displays of exuberance" and "mediocre displays of research." However, this question is best answered by breaking down each of the words to find out their meaning. The word "manifest" means clear or obvious and the word "erudition" means scholarship or research. So the best answer choice is "obvious indications of scholarship." If you were forced to try and determine the meaning from context, you could reasonably eliminate "clever interpretation of sources," because this suggests a manipulation or subjectivity for which the author of this passage would be unlikely to praise Mr. Gooch. You could also eliminate the answer choice "concise use of language," because that would change the focus from historical to literary.

Example Question #12 : Understanding Vocabulary From Context

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.

The underlined word “supposition” most nearly means __________.

Possible Answers:

remonstration

suggestion

speculation

fear

hunch

Correct answer:

speculation

Explanation:

The word “supposition” means an uncertain belief. In context, the author is talking about the uncertain understanding he outlines in the previous paragraph. It is certainly not correct to say he means a “fear,” a “suggestion,” or a “remonstration.” However, it could reasonably be answered as either a “hunch” or a “speculation.” You therefore have to determine which of these is closest to the author’s meaning. The word “hunch” suggests a piece of guesswork unsupported by evidence, whereas “speculation” suggests an uncertain notion that has evidence to support it. Seeing as the author spends much of the first paragraph laying out his evidence, the best answer is “speculation.”

Example Question #101 : Comprehension

Adapted from “Disraeli” in Political and Literary Essays 1908-1913 by Evelyn Baring Cromer (1913)

Whatever views one may adopt of Disraeli's character and career, it is impossible not to be fascinated in watching the moral and intellectual development of this very remarkable man, whose conduct throughout life, far from being wayward and erratic, as has at times been somewhat superficially supposed, was in reality in the highest degree methodical, being directed with unflagging persistence to one end, the gratification of his own ambition—an ambition, it should always be remembered, which, although it was honorable, inasmuch as it was directed to no ignoble ends, was wholly personal. If ever there was a man to whom Milton's well-known lines could fitly be applied it was Disraeli. He scorned delights. He lived laborious days. In his youth he eschewed pleasures which generally attract others whose ambition only soars to a lower plane. In the most intimate relations of life he subordinated all private inclinations to the main object he had in view. He avowedly married, in the first instance, for money, although at a later stage his wife was able to afford herself the consolation, and to pay him the graceful compliment of obliterating the sordid reproach by declaring that "if he had the chance again he would marry her for love"—a statement confirmed by his passionate, although somewhat histrionic love-letters. The desire of fame, which may easily degenerate into a mere craving for notoriety, was unquestionably the spur which in his case raised his "clear spirit." So early as 1833, on being asked upon what principles he was going to stand at a forthcoming election, he replied, "On my head." He cared, in fact, little for principles of any kind, provided the goal of his ambition could be reached. Throughout his career his main object was to rule his countrymen, and that object he attained by the adoption of methods which, whether they be regarded as tortuous or straightforward, morally justifiable or worthy of condemnation, were of a surety eminently successful.

From earliest youth to green old age his confidence in his own powers was never shaken. He persistently acted up to the sentiment—slightly paraphrased from Terence—which he had characteristically adopted as his family motto, Forti nihil difficile; neither could there be any question as to the genuine nature either of his strength or his courage, although hostile critics might seek to confound the latter quality with sheer impudence. He abhorred the commonplace, and it is notably this abhorrence which gives a vivid, although somewhat meretricious sparkle to his personality. For although truth is generally dull, and although probably most of the reforms and changes which have really benefited mankind partake largely of the commonplace, the attraction of unconventionality and sensationalism cannot be denied. Disraeli made English politics interesting, just as Ismail Pasha gave at one time a spurious interest to the politics of Egypt. No one could tell what would be the next step taken by the juggler in Cairo or by that meteoric statesman in London whom John Bright once called "the great wizard of Buckinghamshire." When Disraeli disappeared from the stage, the atmosphere may have become clearer, and possibly more healthy for the body politic in the aggregate, but the level of interest fell, whilst the barometer of dulness rose.

If the saying generally attributed to Buffon that "the style is the man" is correct, an examination of Disraeli's style ought to give a true insight into his character. There can be no question of the readiness of his wit or of his superabundant power of sarcasm. Besides the classic instances which have almost passed into proverbs, others, less well known, are recorded in these pages. The statement that "from the Chancellor of the Exchequer to an Under Secretary of State is a descent from the sublime to the ridiculous" is very witty. The well-known description of Lord Derby as "the Rupert of debate" is both witty and felicitous, whilst the sarcasm in the context, which is less well known, is both witty and biting. The noble lord, Disraeli said, was like Prince Rupert, because "his charge was resistless, but when he returned from the pursuit he always found his camp in the possession of the enemy." Much has at times been said and written of the solecisms for which Disraeli was famous. They came naturally to him. At the same time there can be little doubt that his practice of indulging in carefully prepared solecisms, which became more daring as he advanced in power, was part of a deliberate and perfectly legitimate plan, conceived with the object of arresting the attention and stimulating the interest of his audience.

The underlined word “meretricious” most nearly means __________.

Possible Answers:

honorable

worthless

menacing

attractive

laudable

Correct answer:

worthless

Explanation:

In context, the author says, “[Disraeli] abhorred the commonplace, and it is notably this abhorrence which gives a vivid, albeit somewhat meretricious sparkle to his personality.” This sentence is contained with a portion of the text in which the author is mentioning the hostile criticisms sometimes directed at Disraeli. So, the use of the word “although” can be seen as a sort of slight concession to the critics. The answer choice must therefore be negative and cannot be “honorable,” “laudable,” or “attractive.” The word “menacing” is a bit too farfetched, as neither the author nor the critics suggest that Disraeli is in any way threatening. So, the best answer choice is “worthless.” This is a difficult question to answer because the word “meretricious” seems to look like “merit,” but in fact means without merit. Additionally, from the context of the rest of the passage, it would appear that the author would be describing Disraeli favorably, but the exact context makes it clear that he is offering a small concession to the critics.

Example Question #31 : Ap English Language

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.

In context, the underlined word "conducive" most closely means __________.

Possible Answers:

making certain that an event or situation will occur

making an event or situation more likely to occur

acting as an organizing force

acting as a chaotic, disorganzing force

making an event or situation less likely to occur

Correct answer:

making an event or situation more likely to occur

Explanation:

In context, the word "conducive" most closely means making an event or situation more likely to occur. Note that the "kinds of conduct" to which the author refers are only encouraging and making the situation of universal happiness more likely; they are not guarenteeing any result.

Example Question #11 : Understanding Vocabulary From Context

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.

In context, the underlined word "cursory" means which of the following?

Possible Answers:

profane

well-considered and thoughtful

rushed and insufficiently careful

aggressive

bewildering

Correct answer:

rushed and insufficiently careful

Explanation:

In this context, "cursory" most closely means rushed and insufficiently careful. "The cursory performances" that the author is referring to are only considered viable by the misinformed, immodest people performing them. Others would consider their efforts hasty, rushed, and as a result, insufficiently carefully attended to.

Example Question #12 : Understanding Vocabulary From Context

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.

In the context of the passage, "partiality" most closely means __________.

Possible Answers:

the impartial nature of something

existing in part or incomplete

the unfinished nature of something

the unprejudiced nature of something

a preference for or bias toward

Correct answer:

a preference for or bias toward

Explanation:

In this context, "partiality" refers to a preference for, or bias toward, an individual "in [their] own favor." "The unprejudiced nature of something" and "The impartial nature of something" are both antonyms of "partiality," and "existing in part" is a definition of "partial," not "partiality."

Example Question #13 : Understanding Vocabulary From Context

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.

In the context of the passage, the underlined word "cultivate" in the first sentence of the second paragraph most closely means __________.

Possible Answers:

neglect

trick or deceive

conceal

develop

prepare a crop of land for harvesting

Correct answer:

develop

Explanation:

In this context, the word "cultivate" most closely means to develop a skill, quality, or sentiment, in this case, "manners." Cultivate can also be used in an agricultural context, but since the topic of this section of text was concerned with human reason and behavior, this meaning is not relevant to this context.

Example Question #14 : Understanding Vocabulary From Context

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.

In the context of the passage, the highlighted word "plebeian" most closely means __________.

Possible Answers:

a household servant

a common or undistinguished person

a politician

a wild animal

a nobleman

Correct answer:

a common or undistinguished person

Explanation:

The answer which most closely defines "plebeian" in this context is "a common, or undistinguished person." "Plebeian" has its roots in a Latin term that refers to common people. In this context, the additional meaning of "undistinguished" is rendered relevant by "plebian" being used in direct contrast to the distinguished position of a "profound philosopher."

Example Question #11 : Understanding Vocabulary From Context

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 underlined and bolded word "eminent" at the beginning of fourth paragraph most closely means which of the following?

Possible Answers:

Likely to occur at any moment

Obscure or long-forgotten

Inherent

Famous or esteemed in a specific field of study or work

Arrogant or pretentious

Correct answer:

Famous or esteemed in a specific field of study or work

Explanation:

In the context of the passage, "eminent" most closely means famous or esteemed in a specific field or discipline. "Eminent" carries connotations of both notoriety and respect and is often applied to work or fields of study, as in this case with authors.

Example Question #12 : Understanding Vocabulary From Context

Adapted from ‘Mark Twain’ published in The Nebraska State Journal (May 5th, 1895) by Willa Cather.

It is rather a pity that Paul Bourget should have written “Outre Mer,” thoroughly credible book though it is. Mr. Bourget is a novelist, and he should not content himself with being an essayist, there are far too many of them in the world already. He can develop strong characters, invent strong situations, he can write the truth and he should not drift into penning opinions and platitudes. When God has made a man a creator, it is a great mistake for him to turn critic. It is rather an insult to God and certainly a very great wrong to man.

If there is anything which should make an American sick and disgusted at the literary taste of his country, and almost swerve his allegiance to his flag it is that controversy between Mark Twain and Max O’Rell, in which the Frenchman proves himself a wit and a gentleman and the American shows himself little short of a clown and an all around tough. The squabble arose apropos of Paul Bourget’s new book on America, “Outre Mer,” a book which deals more fairly and generously with this country than any book yet written in a foreign tongue. Mr. Clemens did not like the book, and like all men of his class, and limited mentality, he cannot criticise without becoming personal and insulting. He cannot be scathing without being a blackguard. He tried to demolish a serious and well considered work by publishing a scurrilous, slangy and loosely written article about it. In this article Mr. Clemens proves very little against Mr. Bourget and a very great deal against himself. He demonstrates clearly that he is neither a scholar, a reader or a man of letters and very little of a gentleman. His ignorance of French literature is something appalling. Why, in these days it is as necessary for a literary man to have a wide knowledge of the French masterpieces as it is for him to have read Shakespeare or the Bible. What man who pretends to be an author can afford to neglect those models of style and composition. George Meredith, Thomas Hardy and Henry James excepted, the great living novelists are Frenchmen.

Mr. Clemens asks what the French sensualists can possibly teach the great American people about novel writing or morality? Well, it would not seriously hurt the art of the classic author of “Puddin’ Head Wilson” to study Daudet, De Maupassant, Hugo and George Sand, whatever it might do to his morals. Mark Twain is a humorist of a kind. His humor is always rather broad, so broad that the polite world can justly call it coarse. He is not a reader nor a thinker nor a man who loves art of any kind. He is a clever Yankee who has made a “good thing” out of writing. He has been published in the  North American Review and in the Century, but he is not and never will be a part of literature. The association and companionship of cultured men has given Mark Twain a sort of professional veneer, but it could not give him fine instincts or nice discriminations or elevated tastes. His works are pure and suitable for children, just as the work of most shallow and mediocre fellows. House dogs and donkeys make the most harmless and chaste companions for young innocence in the world. Mark Twain’s humor is of the kind that teamsters use in bantering with each other, and his laugh is the gruff “haw-haw” of the backwoodsman. He is still the rough, awkward, good-natured boy who swore at the deckhands on the river steamer and chewed uncured tobacco when he was three years old. Thoroughly likeable as a good fellow, but impossible as a man of letters. It is an unfortunate feature of American literature that a hostler with some natural cleverness and a great deal of assertion receives the same recognition as a standard American author that a man like Lowell does. The French academy is a good thing after all. It at least divides the sheep from the goats and gives a sheep the consolation of knowing that he is a sheep.

The underlined word “scurrilous” most nearly means __________.

Possible Answers:

dismissive

offensive

subversive

defamatory

cretinous

Correct answer:

defamatory

Explanation:

In context, the author is describing the type of writing released by Mark Twain in response to something that he (Twain) wishes to undermine and criticize; however, most of these words relate in some manner or another to undermining and criticizing. The word “scurrilous” generally means slanderous or libelous, which would mean the correct answer is “defamatory.” If you did not know this definition, it would become necessary to read more closely in context. The author says that “he tried to demolish a serious and well considered work by publishing a scurrilous, slangy and loosely written article about it.” All of these answer choices could work in this context, but only one of them works very well—“defamatory.” The key is to understand that Twain is trying to “demolish a serious and well considered work.” “Defamatory” means damaging the good reputation of someone or something. This is a very neat rephrasing and so is the best possible answer choice.

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