PSAT Critical Reading : Context-Dependent Meaning of Phrases or Sentences in Humanities Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for PSAT Critical Reading

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Example Questions

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Example Question #1 : Context Dependent Meaning Of Phrases Or Sentences In Humanities Passages

Adapted from “Genius and Individuality” by John Stuart Mill (1859)

It will not be denied by anybody that originality is a valuable element in human affairs. There is always need of persons not only to discover new truths, and point out when what were once truths are true no longer, but also to commence new practices, and set the example of more enlightened conduct, and better taste and sense in human life. This cannot well be said by anybody who does not believe that the world has already attained perfection in all its ways and practices. It is true that this benefit is not capable of being rendered by everybody alike; there are but few persons, in comparison with the whole of mankind, whose experiments, if adopted by others, would be likely to be any improvement on established practice. But these few are the salt of the earth; without them, human life would become a stagnant pool. Not only is it they who introduce good things which did not before exist, it is they who keep the life in those which already existed. If there were nothing new to be done, would human intellect cease to be necessary? Would it cause people to forget how best to go about their business, and instead to do things like cattle, not like human beings? There is a tendency in the best beliefs and practices to degenerate into the mechanical. Persons of genius are a small minority, but in order to have them, it is necessary to preserve the soil in which they grow. Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom.

I insist thus emphatically on the importance of genius, and the necessity of allowing it to unfold itself freely both in thought and in practice, being well aware that no one will deny the position in theory, but knowing also that almost everyone, in reality, is totally indifferent to it. People think genius a fine thing if it enables a man to write an exciting poem, or paint a picture. But in its true sense, that of originality in thought and action, though no one says that it is not a thing to be admired, nearly all, at heart, think they can do very well without it. Unhappily this is too natural to be wondered at. Originality is the one thing which unoriginal minds cannot feel the use of. They cannot see what it is to do for them: how should they? If they could see what it would do for them, it would not be originality. The first service which originality has to render them is the opening of their eyes; once this is done, they would have a chance of being themselves original.

From the context of the first paragraph, what does the author mean by describing certain individuals as “the salt of the earth”?

Possible Answers:

Individuality is overrated.

Geniuses with original ideas preserve humanity and keep it moving forward.

Individual genius is dangerous to the well-being of the collective.

No man can account for the impact of original genius.

Individuality keeps humans well fed.

Correct answer:

Geniuses with original ideas preserve humanity and keep it moving forward.

Explanation:

From the context of the sentence in which the phrase “salt of the earth” is contained, you know that the author is attributing a positive quality to the individuals being described. This rules out two of the answer choices (“Individual genius is dangerous to the well-being of the collective” and “Individuality is overrated”) as these have negative implications. The idea that individuality keeps humans well fed is too literal in meaning, and is nowhere else in the passage inferred. The idea that no man can account for the impact of original genius is not supported at all by the rest of the passage. Only the idea that geniuses with original ideas preserve and advance humanity is supported. For example, the author says “without [original geniuses], human life would become a stagnant pool.”

Example Question #1 : Context Dependent Meaning Of Phrases Or Sentences In Humanities Passages

Adapted from “Genius and Individuality” by John Stuart Mill (1859)

It will not be denied by anybody that originality is a valuable element in human affairs. There is always need of persons not only to discover new truths, and point out when what were once truths are true no longer, but also to commence new practices, and set the example of more enlightened conduct, and better taste and sense in human life. This cannot well be said by anybody who does not believe that the world has already attained perfection in all its ways and practices. It is true that this benefit is not capable of being rendered by everybody alike; there are but few persons, in comparison with the whole of mankind, whose experiments, if adopted by others, would be likely to be any improvement on established practice. But these few are the salt of the earth; without them, human life would become a stagnant pool. Not only is it they who introduce good things which did not before exist, it is they who keep the life in those which already existed. If there were nothing new to be done, would human intellect cease to be necessary? Would it cause people to forget how best to go about their business, and instead to do things like cattle, not like human beings? There is a tendency in the best beliefs and practices to degenerate into the mechanical. Persons of genius are a small minority, but in order to have them, it is necessary to preserve the soil in which they grow. Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom.

I insist thus emphatically on the importance of genius, and the necessity of allowing it to unfold itself freely both in thought and in practice, being well aware that no one will deny the position in theory, but knowing also that almost everyone, in reality, is totally indifferent to it. People think genius a fine thing if it enables a man to write an exciting poem, or paint a picture. But in its true sense, that of originality in thought and action, though no one says that it is not a thing to be admired, nearly all, at heart, think they can do very well without it. Unhappily this is too natural to be wondered at. Originality is the one thing which unoriginal minds cannot feel the use of. They cannot see what it is to do for them: how should they? If they could see what it would do for them, it would not be originality. The first service which originality has to render them is the opening of their eyes; once this is done, they would have a chance of being themselves original.

When the author says that most people are “totally indifferent” to the importance of genius, what does he most closely mean?

Possible Answers:

People do not much care about the protection of genius.

People think too much about the value of individuality.

The common man generally laments his lack of genius.

People care too much about superficial things.

Individual genius cannot overcome the apathy of common men.

Correct answer:

People do not much care about the protection of genius.

Explanation:

This question mostly relies on your ability to understand the attitude of the author demonstrated throughout the passage. The author states that almost “all [people], at heart, think they can do very well without [genius and individuality].” From this you can infer that the author is most likely saying that people do not much care about the protection of genius. You could also focus on the meaning of the word "indifferent" (showing no care or interest) and that too would help you solve the question.

Example Question #81 : Language In Humanities Passages

Adapted from “Economy” in Walden by Henry David Thoreau (1854)

On the whole, I think that it cannot be maintained that dressing has in this or any country risen to the dignity of an art. At present men make shift to wear what they can get. Like shipwrecked sailors, they put on what they can find on the beach, and at a little distance, whether of space or time, laugh at each other's masquerade. Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new. We are amused at beholding the costume of Henry VIII, or Queen Elizabeth, as much as if it was that of the King and Queen of the Cannibal Islands. All costume off a man is pitiful or grotesque. It is only the serious eye peering from and the sincere life passed within it which restrain laughter and consecrate the costume of any people. Let Harlequin be taken with a fit of the colic and his trappings will have to serve that mood too. When the soldier is hit by a cannonball, rags are as becoming as purple. 

The childish and savage taste of men and women for new patterns keeps how many shaking and squinting through kaleidoscopes that they may discover the particular figure which this generation requires today. The manufacturers have learned that this taste is merely whimsical. Of two patterns which differ only by a few threads more or less of a particular color, the one will be sold readily, the other lie on the shelf, though it frequently happens that after the lapse of a season the latter becomes the most fashionable. Comparatively, tattooing is not the hideous custom which it is called. It is not barbarous merely because the printing is skin-deep and unalterable.

I cannot believe that our factory system is the best mode by which men may get clothing. The condition of the operatives is becoming every day more like that of the English; and it cannot be wondered at, since, as far as I have heard or observed, the principal object is, not that mankind may be well and honestly clad, but, unquestionably, that corporations may be enriched. In the long run men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high. 

What is meant by the underlined expression “but follows religiously the new”?

Possible Answers:

That fashion senses are mostly for the masses who believe things without question

That fashion has close ties with religious sensibilities

That people follow current fashion without questioning

That people often despise former ways of dressing because of religious reasons

That people pay careful attention to current fashions

Correct answer:

That people pay careful attention to current fashions

Explanation:

The adverb "religiously" can be used in a transferred sense that has nothing directly to do with religion. It indicates a way of acting that is like that of people engaging in religious practices—with great care and concern. Someone may "religiously" watch a TV show, meaning that he or she never misses it. In this sentence, the sense is that people laugh at previous generations' fashion but pay quite close attention to current fashion, taking it to be a "serious" matter.

Example Question #1 : Fact / Fiction

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.

The phrase "mark this" as Wells uses it in the first sentence of the second paragraph most likely means __________.

Possible Answers:

write notes on this

make sure to do this

make a note of this

place a mark on this

Correct answer:

make a note of this

Explanation:

The phrase "mark this" means remark this or make a note of this, which is what Wells intends his reader to do here. (This meaning of "mark" has also led to the phrase "mark my words.")

Example Question #1 : Analyzing Details In 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 describes as "futile and lonely men" those people who __________.

Possible Answers:

never find the best pen for themselves

never learn how to write an essay properly

never find the right wife

never learn how to write

Correct answer:

never find the best pen for themselves

Explanation:

Wells speaks of the writer being "wed to his proper pen" as if the pen were a wife, but he's still talking about finding the proper pen.

Example Question #81 : 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.

Poe's phrase "crevices of fact, or action," underlined in the passage's second paragraph, might today be more simply called __________.

Possible Answers:

deus ex machina

plot holes

plot contrivances

symbols

Correct answer:

plot holes

Explanation:

Poe refers to "filling in" these "crevices," which suggests the idea that these are holes in the plot that the writer is attempting to cover with the various literary devices Poe lists: "description, dialogue, or autorial comment."

Example Question #2 : Making Inferences And Predictions 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 autorial 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.

In the first sentence, Poe says he would be interested in seeing what?

Possible Answers:

An article by an author explaining how a work was finished

An article by an author explaining the meaning of one of his works

An article by an author explaining how a work came to be written

An article by a literary critic explaining how authors go about writing works

Correct answer:

An article by an author explaining how a work came to be written

Explanation:

Poe is stating that an article by an author explaining how a work came to be written would be interesting to him.

Example Question #41 : Determining Context Dependent Meanings Of Phrases And Clauses In Humanities 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 autorial 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.

What is Poe referring to with the phrase "a magazine paper"?

Possible Answers:

An essay

A composition

An article

A theme

Correct answer:

An article

Explanation:

Poe's phrase is nearest in meaning to the word "article" since it refers specifically to a short work published in a periodical.

Example Question #1 : Context Dependent Meaning Of Phrases Or Sentences In Humanities Passages

Adapted from Self-Reliance (1841) by Ralph Waldo Emerson

There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, nothing can come to hit but through his own work. A man is relieved and overjoyed when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise, shall give him no peace. It is a deliverance which does not deliver. In the attempt his genius deserts him; no muse befriends; no invention, no hope.

Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, and the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.

What does the author mean by “imitation is suicide”?

Possible Answers:

Genius deserts chaotic men

Inspiration can be found in unlikely places

Great men are rare

Man must make original work

Joy comes from work

Correct answer:

Man must make original work

Explanation:

The author of this passage is describing the importance of self-reliance on the growth of man. When he states that “imitation is suicide” he means that man sacrifices his sense of self when he uses or copies the work of another. The author believes it is essential that man produced original work, as evidenced by the statement: “That though the wide universe is full of good, nothing can come to hit but through his own work.”

Example Question #1 : Context Dependent Meaning Of Phrases Or Sentences In Humanities Passages

Adapted from Self-Reliance (1841) by Ralph Waldo Emerson

There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, nothing can come to hit but through his own work. A man is relieved and overjoyed when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise, shall give him no peace. It is a deliverance which does not deliver. In the attempt his genius deserts him; no muse befriends; no invention, no hope.

Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, and the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.

What does the author most nearly mean by “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.”

Possible Answers:

Work done in God’s name does the greatest good.

Self-reliance can only take you so far.

Society is always moving forwards against the chaos and darkness.

No work can be accomplished without the help of others.

Believe in your work and ignore the criticism of others.

Correct answer:

Believe in your work and ignore the criticism of others.

Explanation:

The author introduces the second paragraph with the statement: “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” The purpose is to introduce the audience to the topic of that paragraph; the importance of self-reliance and individual confidence. The first part of the phrase focuses on commanding the reader to believe in his own abilities. The second part describes how every heart vibrates as it owns guidance, not the direction of others.

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