PSAT Critical Reading : Purpose and Effect of Word Choice in Humanities Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for PSAT Critical Reading

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Example Questions

Example Question #5 : Interpreting Literary Devices

Adapted from Walden by Henry Thoreau (1854)

Still we live meanly, like ants; it is error upon error, and clout upon clout, and our best virtue has for its occasion a superfluous and evitable wretchedness. Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumbnail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.

Our life is like a German Confederacy, made up of petty states, with its boundary forever fluctuating, so that even a German cannot tell you how it is bounded at any moment. The nation itself, with all its so-called internal improvements, which, by the way are all external and superficial, is just such an unwieldy and overgrown establishment, cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense, by want of calculation and a worthy aim, as the million households in the land; and the only cure for it, as for them, is in a rigid economy, a stern and more than Spartan simplicity of life and elevation of purpose. It lives too fast. Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not, but whether we should live like baboons or like men is a little uncertain. If we do not get out sleepers, and forge rails, and devote days and nights to the work, but go to tinkering upon our lives to improve them, who will build railroads? And if railroads are not built, how shall we get to heaven in season? But if we stay at home and mind our business, who will want railroads? We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man, an Irishman, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you.

The author repeats the words “simplicity” and “simplify” in the first paragraph in order to __________.

Possible Answers:

suggest that this is the only solution that has been put forward, and it is ineffective

imply that modern society is too simple

convey that working toward simplicity takes a lot of hard work

emphasize what he sees as the solution to a problem

mimic his critics in a derogatory way

Correct answer:

emphasize what he sees as the solution to a problem


The author’s repetition of “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” and “Simplify, simplify” in the first paragraph add emphasis exhorting the audience to make their lives simpler, a change Thoreau sees as the solution to many of the excesses of modern life and the problems they cause. There is no mention of any critics in the passage, and his repetition does not suggest simplicity is an ineffective solution. He certainly does not imply that there is too much simplicity in modern society—one might read this into the line out of context, but throughout the passage, once can tell that the author is writing in favor of simplifying. Finally, while repetition can often make something seem as if it is difficult or takes time (e.g. “Digging, digging, digging—all that digging and they were only a few feet closer to the center of the earth.”), that is not what is going on here.

Example Question #1 : Specific Words In Humanities Passages

Adapted from "On the Death of Marie Antoinette" by Edmund Burke (1793)

It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the Queen of France, then the Dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she had just begun to move in, glittering like the morning star full of life and splendor and joy.

Oh, what a revolution! and what a heart must I have, to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! Little did I dream, when she added titles of veneration to those of enthusiastic, distant, respectful love, that she should ever be obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace concealed in that bosom; little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her, in a nation of gallant men and of cavaliers! I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards, to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult.

But the age of chivalry is gone; that of sophistry, economists, and calculators has succeeded, and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom! The unsought grace of life, the cheap defense of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise is gone. It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness.

In context, the reference to “cavaliers” conveys a sense of __________.

Possible Answers:






Correct answer:



The word “cavalier” is traditionally used in English language to convey either as an adjective meaning conveying a sense of arrogance or jaunty disregard or as a noun meaning a gallant and chivalrous gentleman. The reference to “gallant men” in the phrase immediately preceding “cavalier” should also clue you in that when the author uses “cavalier,” it is to convey a sense of chivalry or heroism.

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