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

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for SAT 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:

defend slang against those who speak out against it

give examples of the use of slang

justify and praise the existence of slang

explain how slang came to be in English

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 #21 : Understanding The Content Of Humanities 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 explain what the best characteristics of style in writing are

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

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 : Determining Authorial Purpose In Argumentative 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 why plot is more important than anything else in a story

explain why a writer must always have the dénouement in mind

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

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

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 #521 : Passage Based Questions

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

to explain why writers have so much trouble writing

to list the reasons why writers write what they do

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 #1 : Critical Comprehension

Adapted from Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads by John A. Lomax (1910)

The big ranches of the West are now being cut up into small farms. The nester has come, and come to stay. Gone is the buffalo and the free grass of the open plain—even the stinging lizard, the horned frog, the centipede, the prairie dog, the rattlesnake, are fast disappearing. Save in some of the secluded valleys of southern New Mexico, the old-time round-up is no more; the trails to Kansas and to Montana have become grass-grown or lost in fields of waving grain; the maverick steer, the regal longhorn, has been supplanted by his unpoetic but more beefy and profitable Polled Angus, Durham, and Hereford cousins from across the seas. The changing and romantic West of the early days lives mainly in story and in song. The last figure to vanish is the cowboy, the animating spirit of the vanishing era. He sits his horse easily as he rides through a wide valley, enclosed by mountains, clad in the hazy purple of coming night,—with his face turned steadily down the long, long road, "the road that the sun goes down." Dauntless, reckless, without the unearthly purity of Sir Galahad though as gentle to a woman as King Arthur, he is truly a knight of the twentieth century. A vagrant puff of wind shakes a corner of the crimson handkerchief knotted loosely at his throat; the thud of his pony's feet mingling with the jingle of his spurs is borne back; and as the careless, gracious, lovable figure disappears over the divide, the breeze brings to the ears, faint and far yet cheery still, the refrain of a cowboy song.

Which of the following does NOT fit with the author’s description of the cowboy?

Possible Answers:

Romantic

Symbolic

Heroic

Hot-headed

Daring

Correct answer:

Hot-headed

Explanation:

The author describes the cowboy in a very positive light: “Dauntless, reckless . . . he is truly a knight of the twentieth century.” From that passage alone, we can tell that the author thinks of the cowboy not only as daring, but also as a romantic hero and a symbol of the era. He does not mention anything about the cowboys’ temper, and “hot-headed” does not fit with this description.

Example Question #31 : Content Of Humanities Passages

Passage adapted from Henry David Thoreau's Walden (1854).

The shore is irregular enough not to be monotonous. I have in my mind's eye the western, indented with deep bays, the bolder northern, and the beautifully scalloped southern shore, where successive capes overlap each other and suggest unexplored coves between. The forest has never so good a setting, nor is so distinctly beautiful, as when seen from the middle of a small lake amid hills which rise from the water's edge; for the water in which it is reflected not only makes the best foreground in such a case, but, with its winding shore, the most natural and agreeable boundary to it. There is no rawness or imperfection in its edge there, as where the axe has cleared a part, or a cultivated field abuts on it. The trees have ample room to expand on the water side, and each sends forth its most vigorous branch in that direction. There Nature has woven a natural selvage, and the eye rises by just gradations from the low shrubs of the shore to the highest trees. There are few traces of man's hand to be seen. The water laves the shore as it did a thousand years ago.

A lake is the landscape's most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth's eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature. The fluviatile trees next to the shore are the slender eyelashes which fringe it, and the wooded hills and cliffs around are its overhanging brows. 

Standing on the smooth sandy beach at the east end of the pond, in a calm September afternoon, when a slight haze makes the opposite shore-line indistinct, I have seen whence came the expression, "the glassy surface of a lake." When you invert your head, it looks like a thread of finest gossamer stretched across the valley, and gleaming against the distant pine woods, separating one stratum of the atmosphere from another. You would think that you could walk dry under it to the opposite hills, and that the swallows which skim over might perch on it. Indeed, they sometimes dive below the line, as it were by mistake, and are undeceived. As you look over the pond westward you are obliged to employ both your hands to defend your eyes against the reflected as well as the true sun, for they are equally bright; and if, between the two, you survey its surface critically, it is literally as smooth as glass, except where the skater insects, at equal intervals scattered over its whole extent, by their motions in the sun produce the finest imaginable sparkle on it, or, perchance, a duck plumes itself, or, as I have said, a swallow skims so low as to touch it. It may be that in the distance a fish describes an arc of three or four feet in the air, and there is one bright flash where it emerges, and another where it strikes the water; sometimes the whole silvery arc is revealed; or here and there, perhaps, is a thistle-down floating on its surface, which the fishes dart at and so dimple it again. It is like molten glass cooled but not congealed, and the few motes in it are pure and beautiful like the imperfections in glass. You may often detect a yet smoother and darker water, seperated from the rest as if by an invisible cobweb, boom of the water nymphs, resting on it. From a hilltop you can see a fish leap in almost any part; for not a pickerel or shiner picks an insect from this smooth surface but it manifestly disturbs the equilibrium of the whole lake. It is wonderful with what elaborateness this simple fact is advertised--this piscine murder will out--and from my distant perch I distinguish the circling undulations when they are half a dozen rods in diameter. You can even detect a water-bug ceaselessly progressing over the smooth surface a quarter of a mile off; for they furrow the water slightly, making a conspicuous ripple bounded by two diverging lines, but the skaters glide over it without rippling it perceptibly. When the surface is considerably agitated there are no skaters nor water-bugs on it, but apparently, in calm days, they leave their havens and adventurously glide forth from the shore by short impulses till they completely cover it. It is a soothing employment, on one of those fine days in the fall when all the warmth of the sun is fully appreciated, to sit on a stump on such a height as this, overlooking the pond, and study the dimpling circles which are incessantly inscribed on its otherwise invisible surface amid the reflected skies and trees.

What is the main idea of the first paragraph?

Possible Answers:

That the shoreline is beautiful because it is natural and untouched by mankind.

That the woods in the paragraph are purely imaginary

That natural beauty should be preserved by the state

That the labor of humans makes nature more beautiful

That the author does not feel comfortable in the woods

Correct answer:

That the shoreline is beautiful because it is natural and untouched by mankind.

Explanation:

The passage states that where "the axe has cleared a part, or [where] a cultivated field abuts on it..." there is rawness and imperfection. The fact that mankind has not yet ruined the beauty of this landscape is the central idea of the first paragraph.

The paragraph does not suggest that the author feels uncomfortable in the woods, nor does the author mention that the state should protect the land. The author is remembering the woods in his "mind's eye," so the woods are real and not imaginary. The paragraph states that where human labor is evident, there is a rawness and imperfection not found in untouched nature.

Example Question #251 : Humanities Passages

Passage adapted from Edmund Morel's King Leopold’s Rule in Africa (1904)

Everywhere [in the Congo] we see the same policy [of forced labor] at work, with the same results. What are the chief symptoms of the effects of that policy upon native life?

Outwardly the most striking effect is depopulation: slaughter, mutilation, emigration, sickness, largely aggravated by cruel and systematic oppression; poverty, and even positive starvation, induced by unlimited taxation in food-stuffs and live stocks; a hopeless despair, and mental depression engendered by ears of grinding tyranny; neglect of children by the general maltreatment of women, one of the most odious and disgraceful features of the system— these are some of the many recorded cases of depopulation which, in certain districts, has assumed gigantic proportions…

What a sum total of human wretchedness does not lie behind that bald word “depopulation”! To my mind, the horror of this curse which has come upon the Congo peoples reaches its maximum of intensity when we force ourselves to consider its everyday concomitants; the crushing weight of perpetual, remorseless oppression; the gradual elimination of everything in the daily life of the natives which makes that life worth living. Under a prevailing system, every village is a penal settlement. Armed soldiers are quartered in every hamlet; the men pass nearly their whole lives in satisfying the ceaseless demands of the “Administration,” or its affiliates the Trusts…

The cumulative effects of depopulation and infantile mortality by dragging women away from their homes for forced labour requisitions— seizing them as “hostages,” and “tying them up,” whether virgins, wives, mothers, or those about to become mothers, in order to bring pressure to bear upon brothers, husbands, and fathers for the adequate supply of rubber or food taxes; flinging them into “prison,” together with their children, often to die of starvation and neglect…

What has come over the civilized people of the globe that they can allow their government to remain inactive and apathetic in the face of incidents which recall in aggravated form the worst horrors of the over-sea slave trade, which surpass the exploits of Arab slave catchers? What could be worse than scenes such as these, which can be culled by the dozen…

The Congo Government boasts that, in stopping the intertribal warfare, it has stopped the selling of tribal prisoners of war into domestic slavery. The condition of the domestic slave under the African system is blissful beyond words, if you compare his lot with that of the degraded serf under the Leopoldian system…

Enough has been said to show that under this system of “moral and material regeneration,” constituting a monstrous invasion of primitive rights which has no parallel in the whole world, the family life and social ties of the people are utterly destroyed…

Why are these people allowed to suffer thus cruelly? What crime have they collectively committed in past ages that they should undergo to-day so terrible an expiation? Are they “groaning and dying” under this murderous system as a great object-lesson to Europe?... Belgium, technically unconcerned, is morally responsible, and Belgium will suffer…  If the Congo Basin were capable of being colonized by the Caucasian race, the policy we condemn and reprobate would still be a crime against humanity, an outrage upon civilization. But the Congo territories can never be a white man’s country; the “Congo State” is naught but a collection of individuals— with one supreme above the all— working for their own selfish ends, caring nothing for posterity, callous of the present, indifferent of the future, as of the past, animated by no fanaticism other than the fanaticism of dividends— and so upon the wickedness of this thing is grafted the fatuous stupidity and inhumanity of the Powers in allowing the extermination of the Congo races to go on unchecked, barely, if at all, reproved. 

Which of the following best describes the author's purpose in writing this passage?

Possible Answers:

To illuminate and pass judgment on the plight of a group of people 

To provide objective analysis on policy decisions in the Congo

To persuade readers to travel to the Congo and intervene

To expose the horrors of European government's involvement in social situations

Correct answer:

To illuminate and pass judgment on the plight of a group of people 

Explanation:

The author's purpose in writing this passage is "to illuminate and pass judgment on the plight of a group of people." In no uncertain terms, the author seeks to inform his readers and describe what is occurring to them as immoral; however, the author does not seek to persuade readers to intervene, particularly not by traveling to the Congo. Because the author passes moral judgment on the situation, he is not providing an objective analysis. Finally, the author does not extrapolate beyond the Congo to provide analysis on European government's involvement in social situations in general.

Example Question #61 : Act 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

mitigating 

inherent 

unfounded 

confusing 

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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