PSAT Critical Reading : Context-Dependent Meaning of Words in Literary Fiction Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for PSAT Critical Reading

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Example Questions

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Example Question #31 : Context Dependent Meaning Of Words In Literary Fiction Passages

Adapted from Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens (1839)

There was a great bustle in Bishopsgate Street Within, as they drew up, and (it being a windy day) half-a-dozen men were tacking across the road under a press of paper, bearing gigantic announcements that a Public Meeting would be held at one o'clock precisely, to take into consideration the propriety of petitioning Parliament in favour of the United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company, capital five millions, in five hundred thousand shares of ten pounds each; which sums were duly set forth in fat black figures of considerable size. Mr. Bonney elbowed his way briskly upstairs, receiving in his progress many low bows from the waiters who stood on the landings to show the way; and, followed by Mr. Nickleby, dived into a suite of apartments behind the great public room: in the second of which was a business-looking table, and several business-looking people.

"Hear!" cried a gentleman with a double chin, as Mr. Bonney presented himself. "Chair, gentlemen, chair!"

The new-comers were received with universal approbation, and Mr. Bonney bustled up to the top of the table, took off his hat, ran his fingers through his hair, and knocked a hackney-coachman's knock on the table with a little hammer: whereat several gentlemen cried "Hear!" and nodded slightly to each other, as much as to say what spirited conduct that was. Just at this moment, a waiter, feverish with agitation, tore into the room, and throwing the door open with a crash, shouted "Sir Matthew Pupker!"

The committee stood up and clapped their hands for joy, and while they were clapping them, in came Sir Matthew Pupker, attended by two live members of Parliament, one Irish and one Scotch, all smiling and bowing, and looking so pleasant that it seemed a perfect marvel how any man could have the heart to vote against them. Sir Matthew Pupker especially, who had a little round head with a flaxen wig on the top of it, fell into such a paroxysm of bows, that the wig threatened to be jerked off, every instant. When these symptoms had in some degree subsided, the gentlemen who were on speaking terms with Sir Matthew Pupker, or the two other members, crowded round them in three little groups, near one or other of which the gentlemen who were NOT on speaking terms with Sir Matthew Pupker or the two other members, stood lingering, and smiling, and rubbing their hands, in the desperate hope of something turning up which might bring them into notice. All this time, Sir Matthew Pupker and the two other members were relating to their separate circles what the intentions of government were, about taking up the bill; with a full account of what the government had said in a whisper the last time they dined with it, and how the government had been observed to wink when it said so; from which premises they were at no loss to draw the conclusion, that if the government had one object more at heart than another, that one object was the welfare and advantage of the United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company.

Meanwhile, and pending the arrangement of the proceedings, and a fair division of the speechifying, the public in the large room were eyeing, by turns, the empty platform, and the ladies in the Music Gallery. In these amusements the greater portion of them had been occupied for a couple of hours before, and as the most agreeable diversions pall upon the taste on a too protracted enjoyment of them, the sterner spirits now began to hammer the floor with their boot-heels, and to express their dissatisfaction by various hoots and cries. These vocal exertions, emanating from the people who had been there longest, naturally proceeded from those who were nearest to the platform and furthest from the policemen in attendance, who having no great mind to fight their way through the crowd, but entertaining nevertheless a praiseworthy desire to do something to quell the disturbance, immediately began to drag forth, by the coat tails and collars, all the quiet people near the door; at the same time dealing out various smart and tingling blows with their truncheons, after the manner of that ingenious actor, Mr. Punch: whose brilliant example, both in the fashion of his weapons and their use, this branch of the executive occasionally follows.

Several very exciting skirmishes were in progress, when a loud shout attracted the attention even of the belligerents, and then there poured on to the platform, from a door at the side, a long line of gentlemen with their hats off, all looking behind them, and uttering vociferous cheers; the cause whereof was sufficiently explained when Sir Matthew Pupker and the two other real members of Parliament came to the front, amidst deafening shouts, and testified to each other in dumb motions that they had never seen such a glorious sight as that, in the whole course of their public career.

As it is used in the fourth paragraph, the underlined word “paroxysm” most nearly means __________.

Possible Answers:

short pronouncement

vibration

sequence

convulsion

ailment

Correct answer:

convulsion

Explanation:

A “paroxysm” is most nearly a fit, convulsion or attack. When the author writes that “Sir Matthew Pupker . . . fell into such a paroxysm of bows,” he means that Sir Matthew Pupker fell into a convulsion of bows. To help you, "ailment" means sickness, and a "pronouncement" is a declaration.

Example Question #25 : Literary Fiction Passages

Adapted from Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens (1839)

There was a great bustle in Bishopsgate Street Within, as they drew up, and (it being a windy day) half-a-dozen men were tacking across the road under a press of paper, bearing gigantic announcements that a Public Meeting would be held at one o'clock precisely, to take into consideration the propriety of petitioning Parliament in favour of the United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company, capital five millions, in five hundred thousand shares of ten pounds each; which sums were duly set forth in fat black figures of considerable size. Mr. Bonney elbowed his way briskly upstairs, receiving in his progress many low bows from the waiters who stood on the landings to show the way; and, followed by Mr. Nickleby, dived into a suite of apartments behind the great public room: in the second of which was a business-looking table, and several business-looking people.

"Hear!" cried a gentleman with a double chin, as Mr. Bonney presented himself. "Chair, gentlemen, chair!"

The new-comers were received with universal approbation, and Mr. Bonney bustled up to the top of the table, took off his hat, ran his fingers through his hair, and knocked a hackney-coachman's knock on the table with a little hammer: whereat several gentlemen cried "Hear!" and nodded slightly to each other, as much as to say what spirited conduct that was. Just at this moment, a waiter, feverish with agitation, tore into the room, and throwing the door open with a crash, shouted "Sir Matthew Pupker!"

The committee stood up and clapped their hands for joy, and while they were clapping them, in came Sir Matthew Pupker, attended by two live members of Parliament, one Irish and one Scotch, all smiling and bowing, and looking so pleasant that it seemed a perfect marvel how any man could have the heart to vote against them. Sir Matthew Pupker especially, who had a little round head with a flaxen wig on the top of it, fell into such a paroxysm of bows, that the wig threatened to be jerked off, every instant. When these symptoms had in some degree subsided, the gentlemen who were on speaking terms with Sir Matthew Pupker, or the two other members, crowded round them in three little groups, near one or other of which the gentlemen who were NOT on speaking terms with Sir Matthew Pupker or the two other members, stood lingering, and smiling, and rubbing their hands, in the desperate hope of something turning up which might bring them into notice. All this time, Sir Matthew Pupker and the two other members were relating to their separate circles what the intentions of government were, about taking up the bill; with a full account of what the government had said in a whisper the last time they dined with it, and how the government had been observed to wink when it said so; from which premises they were at no loss to draw the conclusion, that if the government had one object more at heart than another, that one object was the welfare and advantage of the United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company.

Meanwhile, and pending the arrangement of the proceedings, and a fair division of the speechifying, the public in the large room were eyeing, by turns, the empty platform, and the ladies in the Music Gallery. In these amusements the greater portion of them had been occupied for a couple of hours before, and as the most agreeable diversions pall upon the taste on a too protracted enjoyment of them, the sterner spirits now began to hammer the floor with their boot-heels, and to express their dissatisfaction by various hoots and cries. These vocal exertions, emanating from the people who had been there longest, naturally proceeded from those who were nearest to the platform and furthest from the policemen in attendance, who having no great mind to fight their way through the crowd, but entertaining nevertheless a praiseworthy desire to do something to quell the disturbance, immediately began to drag forth, by the coat tails and collars, all the quiet people near the door; at the same time dealing out various smart and tingling blows with their truncheons, after the manner of that ingenious actor, Mr. Punch: whose brilliant example, both in the fashion of his weapons and their use, this branch of the executive occasionally follows.

Several very exciting skirmishes were in progress, when a loud shout attracted the attention even of the belligerents, and then there poured on to the platform, from a door at the side, a long line of gentlemen with their hats off, all looking behind them, and uttering vociferous cheers; the cause whereof was sufficiently explained when Sir Matthew Pupker and the two other real members of Parliament came to the front, amidst deafening shouts, and testified to each other in dumb motions that they had never seen such a glorious sight as that, in the whole course of their public career.

Which of these is the best antonym of the underlined word “approbation” in the third paragraph?

Possible Answers:

Misunderstood

Disapproval

Cheer

Lust

Gratification

Correct answer:

Disapproval

Explanation:

“Universal approbation” means all round approval. We can infer this from the cheers Bonney receives from the members after knocking on the table. An antonym of "approval" is "disapproval."

Example Question #57 : Language In Humanities Passages

Adapted from Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851)

The fact is, that among his hunters at least, the whale would, by all hands, be considered a noble dish were there not so much of him; but when you come to sit down before a meat-pie nearly one hundred feet long, it takes away your appetite. Only the most unprejudiced of men, like Stubb, nowadays partake of cooked whales; but the Esquimaux are not so fastidious. We all know how they live upon whales and have rare old vintages of prime old train oil. Zogranda, one of their most famous doctors, recommends strips of blubber for infants as being exceedingly juicy and nourishing. And this reminds me that certain Englishmen, who long ago were accidentally left in Greenland by a whaling vessel—that these men actually lived for several months on the moldy scraps of whales which had been left ashore after trying out the blubber. Among the Dutch whalemen, these scraps are called “fritters,” which, indeed, they greatly resemble, being brown and crisp, and smelling something like old Amsterdam housewives’ dough-nuts or oly-cooks when fresh. They have such an eatable look that the most self-denying stranger can hardly keep his hands off.

But what further depreciates the whale as a civilized dish is his exceeding richness. He is the great prize ox of the sea, too fat to be delicately good. Look at his hump, which would be as fine eating as the buffalo’s (which is esteemed a rare dish), were it not such a solid pyramid of fat. But the spermaceti itself, how bland and creamy that is, like the transparent, half-jellied, white meat of a coconut in the third month of its growth, yet far too rich to supply a substitute for butter. Nevertheless, many whale men have a method of absorbing it into some other substance and then partaking of it. In the long try watches of the night, it is a common thing for the seamen to dip their ship-biscuit into the huge oil-pots and let them fry there awhile. Many a good supper have I thus made.

In the context of the passage, what does the underlined word "depreciates" mean?

Possible Answers:

Causes the value to increase

Lowers the cost or price of an item significantly

Lessens the worth of an item

Causes the material to decay faster

Correct answer:

Lessens the worth of an item

Explanation:

"Depreciate" means to lessen the price or value of or to think or speak of as being of little worth. In the context of the passage, it refers to the overall worth of an item, not its monetary value.

Example Question #51 : Humanities Passages

Adapted from Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851)

The fact is, that among his hunters at least, the whale would, by all hands, be considered a noble dish were there not so much of him; but when you come to sit down before a meat-pie nearly one hundred feet long, it takes away your appetite. Only the most unprejudiced of men, like Stubb, nowadays partake of cooked whales; but the Esquimaux are not so fastidious. We all know how they live upon whales and have rare old vintages of prime old train oil. Zogranda, one of their most famous doctors, recommends strips of blubber for infants as being exceedingly juicy and nourishing. And this reminds me that certain Englishmen, who long ago were accidentally left in Greenland by a whaling vessel—that these men actually lived for several months on the moldy scraps of whales which had been left ashore after trying out the blubber. Among the Dutch whalemen, these scraps are called “fritters,” which, indeed, they greatly resemble, being brown and crisp, and smelling something like old Amsterdam housewives’ dough-nuts or oly-cooks when fresh. They have such an eatable look that the most self-denying stranger can hardly keep his hands off.

But what further depreciates the whale as a civilized dish is his exceeding richness. He is the great prize ox of the sea, too fat to be delicately good. Look at his hump, which would be as fine eating as the buffalo’s (which is esteemed a rare dish), were it not such a solid pyramid of fat. But the spermaceti itself, how bland and creamy that is, like the transparent, half-jellied, white meat of a coconut in the third month of its growth, yet far too rich to supply a substitute for butter. Nevertheless, many whale men have a method of absorbing it into some other substance and then partaking of it. In the long try watches of the night, it is a common thing for the seamen to dip their ship-biscuit into the huge oil-pots and let them fry there awhile. Many a good supper have I thus made.

In the context of the passage, what does the underlined word “fastidious” mean? 

Possible Answers:

Hard to please

Full of pride

Not very smart

Grumpy

Correct answer:

Hard to please

Explanation:

"Fastidious" means choosy, picky, or hard to please. Because the Equimaux are not choosy or picky, they do not mind eating whales.

Example Question #2 : Purpose And Effect Of Word Choice In Literary Fiction Passages

Adapted from Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy (1895)

He sounded the clacker till his arm ached, and at length his heart grew sympathetic with the birds' thwarted desires. They seemed, like himself, to be living in a world which did not want them. Why should he frighten them away? They took upon more and more the aspect of gentle friends and pensioners—the only friends he could claim as being in the least degree interested in him, for his aunt had often told him that she was not. He ceased his rattling, and they alighted anew.

"Poor little dears!" said Jude, aloud. "You shall have some dinner—you shall. There is enough for us all. Farmer Troutham can afford to let you have some. Eat, then my dear little birdies, and make a good meal!"

They stayed and ate, inky spots on the nut-brown soil, and Jude enjoyed their appetite. A magic thread of fellow-feeling united his own life with theirs. Puny and sorry as those lives were, they much resembled his own.

His clacker he had by this time thrown away from him, as being a mean and sordid instrument, offensive both to the birds and to himself as their friend. All at once he became conscious of a smart blow upon his buttocks, followed by a loud clack, which announced to his surprised senses that the clacker had been the instrument of offense used. The birds and Jude started up simultaneously, and the dazed eyes of the latter beheld the farmer in person, the great Troutham himself, his red face glaring down upon Jude's cowering frame, the clacker swinging in his hand.

"So it's 'Eat my dear birdies,' is it, young man? 'Eat, dear birdies,' indeed! I'll tickle your breeches, and see if you say, 'Eat, dear birdies' again in a hurry! And you've been idling at the schoolmaster's too, instead of coming here, ha'n't ye, hey? That's how you earn your sixpence a day for keeping the rooks off my corn!"

As it is used in the passage, the underlined word “alighted” most nearly means __________.

Possible Answers:

perched 

fell

descended

lighted

ablaze

Correct answer:

descended

Explanation:

In the first paragraph, Jude is scaring the birds away from the field where they keep landing. In the sentence, “He ceased his rattling, and they alighted anew,” alighting is synonymous with landing or descending. Whilst all of the words are different synonyms of “alighted,” “descended” is the best answer. To help you, “ablaze” means on fire, and “perched” means sat on and often refers to birds sitting on things.

Example Question #32 : Context Dependent Meaning Of Words In Literary Fiction Passages

Adapted from Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy (1895)

He sounded the clacker till his arm ached, and at length his heart grew sympathetic with the birds' thwarted desires. They seemed, like himself, to be living in a world which did not want them. Why should he frighten them away? They took upon more and more the aspect of gentle friends and pensioners—the only friends he could claim as being in the least degree interested in him, for his aunt had often told him that she was not. He ceased his rattling, and they alighted anew.

"Poor little dears!" said Jude, aloud. "You shall have some dinner—you shall. There is enough for us all. Farmer Troutham can afford to let you have some. Eat, then my dear little birdies, and make a good meal!"

They stayed and ate, inky spots on the nut-brown soil, and Jude enjoyed their appetite. A magic thread of fellow-feeling united his own life with theirs. Puny and sorry as those lives were, they much resembled his own.

His clacker he had by this time thrown away from him, as being a mean and sordid instrument, offensive both to the birds and to himself as their friend. All at once he became conscious of a smart blow upon his buttocks, followed by a loud clack, which announced to his surprised senses that the clacker had been the instrument of offense used. The birds and Jude started up simultaneously, and the dazed eyes of the latter beheld the farmer in person, the great Troutham himself, his red face glaring down upon Jude's cowering frame, the clacker swinging in his hand.

"So it's 'Eat my dear birdies,' is it, young man? 'Eat, dear birdies,' indeed! I'll tickle your breeches, and see if you say, 'Eat, dear birdies' again in a hurry! And you've been idling at the schoolmaster's too, instead of coming here, ha'n't ye, hey? That's how you earn your sixpence a day for keeping the rooks off my corn!"

As it is used in the passage, the underlined word “thwarted” most nearly means __________.

Possible Answers:

embarrassed

unfulfilled 

foiled

completed 

distorted 

Correct answer:

foiled

Explanation:

“Thwarted” in this case means stopped or “foiled"; all three verbs mean prevented from attaining an end. The birds were stopped in their attempts to feed on the corn. To help you, “distorted” means twisted out of shape, “completed” means finished, and “unfulfilled” means unhappy with one’s accomplishments

Example Question #3 : Purpose And Effect Of Word Choice In Literary Fiction Passages

Adapted from Jude The Obscure by Thomas Hardy (1895)

He sounded the clacker till his arm ached, and at length his heart grew sympathetic with the birds' thwarted desires. They seemed, like himself, to be living in a world which did not want them. Why should he frighten them away? They took upon more and more the aspect of gentle friends and pensioners—the only friends he could claim as being in the least degree interested in him, for his aunt had often told him that she was not. He ceased his rattling, and they alighted anew.

"Poor little dears!" said Jude, aloud. "You shall have some dinner—you shall. There is enough for us all. Farmer Troutham can afford to let you have some. Eat, then my dear little birdies, and make a good meal!"

They stayed and ate, inky spots on the nut-brown soil, and Jude enjoyed their appetite. A magic thread of fellow-feeling united his own life with theirs. Puny and sorry as those lives were, they much resembled his own.

His clacker he had by this time thrown away from him, as being a mean and sordid instrument, offensive both to the birds and to himself as their friend. All at once he became conscious of a smart blow upon his buttocks, followed by a loud clack, which announced to his surprised senses that the clacker had been the instrument of offense used. The birds and Jude started up simultaneously, and the dazed eyes of the latter beheld the farmer in person, the great Troutham himself, his red face glaring down upon Jude's cowering frame, the clacker swinging in his hand.

"So it's 'Eat my dear birdies,' is it, young man? 'Eat, dear birdies,' indeed! I'll tickle your breeches, and see if you say, 'Eat, dear birdies,' again in a hurry! And you've been idling at the schoolmaster's too, instead of coming here, ha'n't ye, hey? That's how you earn your sixpence a day for keeping the rooks off my corn!"

Which of these is the best antonym to the underlined word “conscious” as used in this passage?

Possible Answers:

Insensitive 

Offended 

Comatose 

Self-aware 

Nonchalant

Correct answer:

Insensitive 

Explanation:

The most direct antonym of “conscious” would be “unconscious.” A synonym of “unconscious” in this context is insensitive as Jude in the passage is becoming aware, or sensitive, to the beating the opposite would be to become “insensitive.” To help you, “comatose” means passed out, in a coma; “nonchalant” means apathetic, not caring

Example Question #1061 : Sat Critical Reading

Adapted From "Tony Kytes, The Arch-Deceiver" in Life's Little Ironies: A Set of Tales, with some colloquial sketches, entitled, A Few Crusted Characters by Thomas Hardy (1905 ed.)

I shall never forget Tony’s face. It was a little, round, firm, tight face, with a seam here and there left by the small-pox, but not enough to hurt his looks in a woman's eye, though he'd had it baddish when he was a boy. So very serious looking and unsmiling 'a was, that young man, that it really seemed as if he couldn't laugh at all without great pain to his conscience. He looked very hard at a small speck in your eye when talking to 'ee. And there was no more sign of a whisker or beard on Tony Kytes's face than on the palm of my hand. He used to sing "The Tailor's Breeches," with all its scandelous lyrics, in a religious manner, as if it were a hymn. He was quite the women's favorite.

But in course of time Tony got fixed down to one in particular, Milly Richards – a nice, light, small, tender little thing; and it was soon said that they were engaged to be married. One Saturday he had been to market to do business for his father, and was driving home the wagon in the afternoon. When he reached the foot of the hill, who should he see waiting for him at the top but Unity Sallet, a handsome girl, one of the young women he'd been very tender towards before he'd got engaged to Milly.

As soon as Tony came up to her she said, "My dear Tony, will you give me a lift home?"

"That I will, darling," said Tony. "You don't suppose I could refuse 'ee?"

She smiled a smile, and up she hopped, and on drove Tony.

"Tony," she says, in a sort of tender chide, "Why did ye desert me for that other one? In what is she better than I? I should have made 'ee a finer wife, and a more loving one, too. 'Tisn't girls that are so easily won at first that are the best. Think how long we've known each other—ever since we were children almost—now haven't we, Tony?"

"Yes, that we have," says Tony, struck with the truth o't.

"And you've never seen anything in me to complain of, have ye, Tony? Now tell the truth to me."

"I never have, upon my life," says Tony.

"And—can you say I'm not pretty, Tony? Now look at me.

He let his eyes light upon her for a long while. "I really can't," says he. "In fact, I never knowed you was so pretty before!"

Which of these is the best antonym of the underlined word “tender”?

Possible Answers:

Caring

Insensible

Besotted

Apathetic

Broken

Correct answer:

Apathetic

Explanation:

The passage uses the word “tender” to mean fond, as Tony was previously fond of Unity. The best antonym for “tender” in this context would be “apathetic,” as this would suggest he showed limited or no interest towards Unity. "Apathetic" means not caring, and "besotted" means in love with.

Example Question #1063 : Sat Critical Reading

Adapted from Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life by George Eliot (1874)

Dorothea trembled while she read this letter; then she fell on her knees, buried her face, and sobbed. She could not pray; under the rush of solemn emotion in which thoughts became vague and images floated uncertainly, she could but cast herself, with a childlike sense of reclining, in the lap of a divine consciousness which sustained her own. She remained in that attitude till it was time to dress for dinner.

How could it occur to her to examine the letter, to look at it critically as a profession of love? Her whole soul was possessed by the fact that a fuller life was opening before her: she was a neophyte about to enter on a higher grade of initiation. She was going to have room for the energies which stirred uneasily under the dimness and pressure of her own ignorance and the petty peremptoriness of the world’s habits.

Now she would be able to devote herself to large yet definite duties; now she would be allowed to live continually in the light of a mind that she could reverence. This hope was not unmixed with the glow of proud delight—the joyous maiden surprise that she was chosen by the man whom her admiration had chosen. All Dorothea’s passion was transfused through a mind struggling towards an ideal life; the radiance of her transfigured girlhood fell on the first object that came within its level. The impetus with which inclination became resolution was heightened by those little events of the day which had roused her discontent with the actual conditions of her life. 

The underlined word “attitude” in the first paragraph most nearly means __________

Possible Answers:

hostile manner

feelings about a particular subject

dreamlike trance

bodily position

inability to pray

Correct answer:

bodily position

Explanation:

While readers may be tempted to choose answers that reflect more contemporary definitions of the word "attitude" ("hostile manner" or "feelings about a particular subject"), the correct answer is the now-antiquated definition of the word that reflects body posture. Context clues include the reference to Dorothea's “reclining” posture in the previous sentence.

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