PSAT Critical Reading : Analyzing Main Idea, Theme, and Purpose in Humanities Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for PSAT Critical Reading

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Example Questions

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Example Question #31 : Authorial Attitude, Tone, And Purpose In Argumentative Humanities Passages

Adapted from "Slang in America" in Vol. 141, No. 348 of The North American Review by Walt Whitman (November 1885)

View'd freely, the English language is the accretion and growth of every dialect, people, and range of time, and is both the free and compacted composition of all. From this point of view, it stands for Language in the largest sense, and is really the greatest of studies. It involves so much; is indeed a sort of universal absorber, combiner, and conqueror. The scope of its etymologies is the scope not only of man and civilization, but the history of Nature in all departments, and of the organic Universe, brought up to date; for all are comprehended in words, and their backgrounds. This is when words become vitalized, and stand for things, as they unerringly and soon come to do, in the mind that enters on their study with fitting spirit, grasp, and appreciation.

Slang, profoundly consider’d, is the lawless germinal element, below all words and sentences, and behind all poetry, and proves a certain perennial rankness and protestantism in speech. As the United States inherit by far their most precious possession—the language they talk and write—from the Old World, under and out of its feudal institutes, I will allow myself to borrow a simile even of those forms farthest removed from American Democracy. Considering Language then as some mighty potentate, into the majestic audience-hall of the monarch ever enters a personage like one of Shakespeare’s clowns, and takes position there, and plays a part even in the stateliest ceremonies. Such is Slang, or indirection, an attempt of common humanity to escape from bald literalism, and express itself illimitably, which in highest walks produces poets and poems, and doubtless in prehistoric times gave the start to, and perfected, the whole immense tangle of the old mythologies. For, curious as it may appear, it is strictly the same impulse-source, the same thing. Slang, too, is the wholesome fermentation or eructation of those processes eternally active in language, by which froth and specks are thrown up, mostly to pass away, though occasionally to settle and permanently crystallize.

Whitman's primary purpose in this passage is to __________.

Possible Answers:

explain how slang came to be in English

give examples of the use of slang

justify and praise the existence of slang

defend slang against those who speak out against it

Correct answer:

justify and praise the existence of slang

Explanation:

Most of Whitman's passage praises slang and explains the need for it rather than trying to defend it against those who would prefer "proper" English.

Example Question #481 : Literature Passages

Adapted from "Swift" in Volume III of Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets by Samuel Johnson (1781)

In Swift's works, he has given very different specimens both of sentiment and expression. His Tale of a Tub has little resemblance to his other pieces. It exhibits a vehemence and rapidity of mind, a copiousness of images, and vivacity of diction, such as he afterwards never possessed, or never exerted. It is of a mode so distinct and peculiar, that it must be considered by itself; what is true of that, is not true of any thing else which he has written.

In his other works is found an equable tenor of easy language, which rather trickles than flows. His delight was in simplicity. That he has in his works no metaphor, as has been said, is not true; but his few metaphors seem to be received rather by necessity than choice. He studied purity; and though perhaps all his strictures are not exact, yet it is not often that solecisms can be found; and whoever depends on his authority may generally conclude himself safe. His sentences are never too much dilated or contracted; and it will not be easy to find any embarrassment in the complication of his clauses, any inconsequence in his connections, or abruptness in his transitions.

His style was well suited to his thoughts, which are never subtilized by nice disquisitions, decorated by sparkling conceits, elevated by ambitious sentences, or variegated by far-sought learning. He pays no court to the passions; he excites neither surprise nor admiration; he always understands himself, and his readers always understand him. The peruser of Swift wants little previous knowledge; it will be sufficient that he is acquainted with common words and common things; he is neither required to mount elevations nor to explore profundities; his passage is always on a level, along solid ground, without asperities, without obstruction.

Johnson's primary purpose in writing this essay is __________.

Possible Answers:

to show what makes Swift one of the best writers

to teach the reader how to write like Swift

to praise what he sees as the best stylistic characteristics of Swift's writing

to explain what the best characteristics of style in writing are

Correct answer:

to praise what he sees as the best stylistic characteristics of Swift's writing

Explanation:

Johnson writes this essay primarily to show what he thinks are Swift's best stylistic qualities, not to show that Swift is a great writer or to show the reader how to emulate him.

Example Question #1 : Main Idea, Details, Opinions, And Arguments In Argumentative Humanities Passages

Adapted from "The Writing of Essays" in Certain Personal Matters by H.G. Wells (1901)

The art of the essayist is so simple, so entirely free from canons of criticism, and withal so delightful, that one must needs wonder why all men are not essayists. Perhaps people do not know how easy it is. Or perhaps beginners are misled. Rightly taught it may be learnt in a brief ten minutes or so, what art there is in it. And all the rest is as easy as wandering among woodlands on a bright morning in the spring.

Then sit you down if you would join us, taking paper, pens, and ink; and mark this, your pen is a matter of vital moment. For every pen writes its own sort of essay, and pencils also after their kind. The ink perhaps may have its influence too, and the paper; but paramount is the pen. This, indeed, is the fundamental secret of essay-writing. Wed any man to his proper pen, and the delights of composition and the birth of an essay are assured. Only many of us wander through the earth and never meet with her—futile and lonely men.

And, of all pens, your quill for essays that are literature. There is a subtle informality, a delightful easiness, perhaps even a faint immorality essentially literary, about the quill. The quill is rich in suggestion and quotation. There are quills that would quote you Montaigne and Horace in the hands of a trades-union delegate. And those quirky, idle noises this pen makes are delightful, and would break your easy fluency with wit. All the classical essayists wrote with a quill, and Addison used the most expensive kind the Government purchased. And the beginning of the inferior essay was the dawn of the cheap steel pen.

Wells suggests that the choice of writing instrument is important because __________.

Possible Answers:

one cannot write without a writing instrument

a good essay cannot be written with a typewriter

pens are better than pencils when it comes to writing

each writing instrument writes its own kind of essay

Correct answer:

each writing instrument writes its own kind of essay

Explanation:

Wells suggests that an essayist will write a different essay depending on the pen or pencil he uses, no doubt due to the difference in result that each instrument creates on the page and their ease of use. (Pencils do not have to be dipped in ink wells, whereas some pens would.)

Example Question #21 : Understanding The Content Of Humanities Passages

Adapted from "The Philosophy of Composition" by Edgar Allan Poe (1846)

Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before any thing be attempted with the pen. It is only with the dénouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention.

There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story. Either history affords a thesis—or one is suggested by an incident of the day—or, at best, the author sets himself to work in the combination of striking events to form merely the basis of his narrative—designing, generally, to fill in with description, dialogue, or autorial comment, whatever crevices of fact, or action, may, from page to page, render themselves apparent.

I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view—for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest—I say to myself, in the first place, “Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?” Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can best be wrought by incident or tone—whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone—afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect.

The purpose of this passage is to __________.

Possible Answers:

explain what Poe feels is wrong with most stories that are written

explain what Poe feels to be the correct way to construct a story

explain why plot is more important than anything else in a story

explain why a writer must always have the dénouement in mind

Correct answer:

explain what Poe feels to be the correct way to construct a story

Explanation:

Poe is attempting here to explain what he feels is the correct way to construct a story. While the first paragraph of the passage deals specifically with why a writer should always keep the dénouement in mind, this topic is only addressed in that paragraph, and the other two continue to discuss supposedly incorrect and correct ways of writing a story.

Example Question #121 : Textual Relationships In Literature Passages

Adapted from "The Philosophy of Composition" by Edgar Allan Poe (1846)

I have often thought how interesting a magazine paper might be written by any author who would—that is to say, who could—detail, step by step, the processes by which any one of his compositions attained its ultimate point of completion. Why such a paper has never been given to the world, I am much at a loss to say—but, perhaps, the authorial vanity has had more to do with the omission than any one other cause. Most writers—poets in especial—prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy—an ecstatic intuition—and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought—at the true purposes seized only at the last moment—at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view—at the fully-matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable—at the cautious selections and rejections—at the painful erasures and interpolations—in a word, at the wheels and pinions—the tackle for scene-shifting—the step-ladders, and demon-traps—the cock's feathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio.

I am aware, on the other hand, that the case is by no means common, in which an author is at all in condition to retrace the steps by which his conclusions have been attained. In general, suggestions, having arisen pell-mell are pursued and forgotten in a similar manner.

The main purpose of this passage is __________.

Possible Answers:

to justify why Poe is writing an article about the composing process

to explain why writers have so much trouble writing

to list the reasons why writers write what they do

to explain why an article by an author about the composing process has not been written before

Correct answer:

to explain why an article by an author about the composing process has not been written before

Explanation:

The primary purpose of the passage is to explain why an article by an author explaining the composition process has not been written before.

Example Question #811 : Sat Critical Reading

Adapted from “A Defense of Slang” in The Romance of the Commonplace by Gelett Burgess (1902)

Could Shakespeare come to Chicago and listen curiously to "the man in the street," he would find himself more at home than in London. In the mouths of messenger boys and clerks he would find the English language used with all the freedom of unexpected metaphor and the plastic, suggestive diction that was the privilege of the Elizabethan dramatists; he would say, no doubt, that he had found a nation of poets. There was hardly any such thing as slang in his day, for no graphic trope was too virile or uncommon for acceptance, if its meaning were patent. His own heroes often spoke what corresponds to the slang of today.

The word, indeed, needs precise definition, before we condemn all unconventional talk with vigor. Slang has been called "poetry in the rough," and it is not all coarse or vulgar. There is a prosaic as well as a poetic license. The man in the street calls a charming girl, for instance, a "daisy." Surely this is not inelegant, and such a reference will be understood a century from now. Slang, to prove adjuvant to our speech, which is growing more and more rigid and conventional, should be terse; it should make for force and clarity, without any sacrifice of beauty.

The primary purpose of this passage is to __________.

Possible Answers:

explain a situation

establish an argument

refute an argument

honor an accomplishment

predict an outcome

Correct answer:

establish an argument

Explanation:

When approaching questions that ask you to identify the author’s primary purpose, it is important to consider the passage as a whole. There are two useful ways in which this problem could be solved if you did not immediately know the answer. The first is to identify a thesis or topic sentence. In this passage, the topic is laid out in the first two sentences. The author states that had Shakespeare found himself in contemporary Chicago, he would recognize a nation of poets using slang in creative and useful ways. This topic should lead you to believe that this passage is establishing an argument. The second way to solve a “primary purpose” question is to look for key words that provide clues as to the author’s direction. In this passage, the author uses the word “surely” to begin a point and “should” to convey a perceived truth. This is argumentative but affirmative language. If, for example, the passage featured heavy usage of words such as “however” or “nonetheless” it would be more likely that the primary purpose was the refutation of an argument.

Example Question #12 : Contemporary Life Passages

"Commentaries" by Matthew Minerd (2013)

The idea of a commentary is not anywhere as simple as most people think. To the popular imagination, the commentator makes a few observations based on a text, not going far beyond its contents. This standard opinion completely misses the various types of commentaries that can be written. Indeed, even the notion of “literal commentary” is itself so variegated that it is incorrect to imagine that such “literal” work is merely a slavish repetition of an original text.

Some literal commentaries truly are “literal,” that is, based on the letters and words of the text. Such philological studies investigate the language structures and meanings of a text. The interpretation of the text proceeds based on these linguistic investigations. Often, this process will note the types of rhetoric being used, the dialects utilized, and any odd language structures that might imply something with regard to the text’s meaning. All of these methods remain very concerned with the “letter of the text” in a very direct manner.

Indeed, even the Medieval commentaries on Aristotle’s works could be considered “literal,” though they do differ from such linguistic approaches. Men like Thomas Aquinas would very carefully read Aristotle’s text, giving what was called a divisio textus for every section of the text in question. This “division of the text” sought to provide a succinct but correct outline of the text in question so that its literal meaning might be more easily noticed. Certainly, the commentary that followed this divisio textus did express some aspects of Aquinas’ own thought. However, he (like other literal commentators of this type) would attempt to remain as close to the literal meaning of the text as possible, always using the divisio textus as a guide for understanding the structure of the original author’s thought.

What is the overall purpose of this passage?

Possible Answers:

To present a general idea and provide several examples in confirmation 

To call into question a modern hypothesis regarding commentaries

To contrast two different types of commenting on a text

To argue forcefully on behalf of a thesis

To show all of the different types of commentaries that one might write

Correct answer:

To present a general idea and provide several examples in confirmation 

Explanation:

The general purpose of this passage is expressed in the first paragraph. Clearly, the text intends to remark that commentaries are more complex of a reality than many realize. Then, it cites two examples taken from the class of commentaries known as "literal commentaries." It does not claim to provide a complete set of examples. Thus, it introduces the general idea regarding the complexity of the notion "commentary" and then follows this with several examples.

Example Question #831 : Sat Critical Reading

Adapted from “Advice to Youth” by Mark Twain (1882)

Being told I would be expected to talk here, I inquired what sort of talk I ought to make. They said it should be something suitable to youth--something didactic, instructive, or something in the nature of good advice. Very well. I have a few things in my mind which I have often longed to say for the instruction of the young; for it is in one’s tender early years that such things will best take root and be most enduring and most valuable. First, then I will say to you my young friends--and I say it beseechingly, urgently-- Always obey your parents, when they are present. This is the best policy in the long run, because if you don’t, they will make you. Most parents think they know better than you do, and you can generally make more by humoring that superstition than you can by acting on your own better judgment.

Be respectful to your superiors, if you have any, also to strangers, and sometimes to others. If a person offends you and you are in doubt as to whether it was intentional or not, do not resort to extreme measures; simply watch your chance and hit him with a brick. That will be sufficient. If you shall find that he had not intended any offense, come out frankly and confess yourself in the wrong when you struck him; acknowledge it like a man and say you didn’t mean to. 

Go to bed early, get up early--this is wise. Some authorities say get up with the sun; some say get up with one thing, others with another. But a lark is really the best thing to get up with. It gives you a splendid reputation with everybody to know that you get up with the lark; and if you get the right kind of lark, and work at him right, you can easily train him to get up at half past nine, every time--it’s no trick at all.

Now as to the matter of lying. You want to be very careful about lying; otherwise you are nearly sure to get caught. Once caught, you can never again be in the eyes to the good and the pure, what you were before. Many a young person has injured himself permanently through a single clumsy and ill finished lie, the result of carelessness born of incomplete training. Some authorities hold that the young ought not to lie at all. That of course, is putting it rather stronger than necessary; still while I cannot go quite so far as that, I do maintain, and I believe I am right, that the young ought to be temperate in the use of this great art until practice and experience shall give them that confidence, elegance, and precision which alone can make the accomplishment graceful and profitable. Patience, diligence, painstaking attention to detail--these are requirements; these in time, will make the student perfect; upon these only, may he rely as the sure foundation for future eminence. 

But I have said enough. I hope you will treasure up the instructions which I have given you, and make them a guide to your feet and a light to your understanding. Build your character thoughtfully and painstakingly upon these precepts, and by and by, when you have got it built, you will be surprised and gratified to see how nicely and sharply it resembles everybody else’s.

According to the author parental ideas of superiority are __________.

Possible Answers:

incomprehensible

confusing 

mitigating 

inherent 

unfounded 

Correct answer:

unfounded 

Explanation:

The author disparages the overconfidence of parents throughout this passage, but the most pertinent piece of evidence can be found in lines 6-8 where the author says: “Most parents think they know better than you do, and you can generally make more by humoring that superstition than you can by acting on your own better judgment.” Here the author is expressing how parents confidence is born out of “superstition” and goes against the “better judgment” of the child. This indicates that the author believes parental superiority is unfounded (which means unsupported). Inherent means innate; incomprehensible means impossible to understand; mitigating means make existing circumstances less severe.

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