SAT Critical Reading : Context-Dependent Meaning of Phrases or Sentences 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 : Determining Context Dependent Meanings Of Phrases And Clauses 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 learn how to write

never learn how to write an essay properly

never find the right wife

never find the best pen for themselves

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 #452 : Passage Based Questions

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

symbols

plot holes

plot contrivances

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 #453 : 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 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 the meaning of one of his works

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

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

An article by an author explaining how a work was finished

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 #454 : 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 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 article

A composition

An essay

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 #11 : Meaning In Context

Passage adapted from Maximilien Robespierre's Speech on Terror (1794)

What is the aim we want to achieve? The peaceful enjoyment of liberty and equality, the reign of that eternal justice whose laws have been engraved, not in stone and marble, but in the hearts of all men, even in the heart of the slave who forgets them or of the tyrant who denies them.

We want a state of affairs where all despicable and cruel passions are unknown and all kind and generous passions are aroused by the laws; where ambition is the desire to deserve glory and to serve the fatherland; where distinctions arise only from equality itself; where the citizen submits to the magistrate, the magistrate to the people and the people to justice; where the fatherland guarantees the well-being of each individual, and where each individual enjoys with pride the prosperity and glory of the fatherland; where all souls elevate themselves through constant communication of republican sentiments and through the need to deserve the esteem of a great people; whether the arts are the decorations of liberty that ennobles them, where commerce is the source of public wealth and not only of the monstrous opulence of a few houses.

In our country we want to substitute morality for egoism, honesty for honor, principles for customs, duties for decorum, the rate of reason for the tyranny of custom, the contempt of vice for the contempt of misfortune, pride for insolence, magnanimity for vanity, love of glory for love of money, good people for well-bred people, merit for intrigue, genius for wit, truth for pompous action, warmth of happiness for boredom of sensuality, greatness of man for pettiness of the great; a magnanimous, powerful, happy people for the polite, frivolous, despicable people— that is to say, all the virtues and all the miracles of the Republic for all the vices and all the absurdities of the monarchy.

In one word, we want to fulfill the wishes of nature, accomplish the destiny of humanity, keep the promises of philosophy, absolve Providence from the long reign of crime and tyranny.

What kind of government can realize these marvels? Only a democratic or republican government.

But what is the fundamental principle of the democratic or popular government, that is to say, the essential strength that sustains it and make it move. It is virtue: I am speaking of the public virtue which brought about so many marvels in Greece and Rome and which must bring about much more astonishing ones yet in republican France; of that virtue which is nothing more than love of fatherland and of its laws.

If the strength of popular government in peacetime is virtue, the strength of popular government in revolution is both virtue and terror; terror without virtue is disastrous, virtue without terror is powerless. Terror is nothing without prompt, severe, and inflexible justice; it is thus an emanation of virtue; but is less a particular principle than a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to the most urgent needs of the fatherland. It is said that terror is the strength of despotic government. Does ours then resemble despotism? Yes, as the sword that shines in the hands of the heroes of liberty resemble the one with which the satellites of tyranny are armed. Let the despot govern his brutalized subjects through terror and you will be right as founders of the Republic. The government of revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny.

The author's comment in the concluding sentence that "The government of revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny" primarily suggests that __________.

Possible Answers:

the author believes that despotism is always disastrous for liberty 

the author believes it is fruitless to rebel against tyranny

the author believes the quest for liberty can sometimes resemble despotism

the author believes that liberty is the best means of guaranteeing absolutism

Correct answer:

the author believes the quest for liberty can sometimes resemble despotism

Explanation:

The closest meaning of the author's statement that "The government of revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny" is that the quest for liberty can sometimes resemble despotism. The author reinforces that sentiment in the final paragraph when he notes that: "the sword that shines in the hands of the heroes of liberty resemble the one with which the satellites of tyranny are armed." The author clearly believes it is necessary to rebel against tyranny, but does not feel that liberty guarantees absolutism (which is the acceptance of absolute principles in politics, philosophy, etc.). Further, because the author argues that a revolution for liberty can sometimes appear despotic, the author does not believe that despotism is always disastrous for liberty. 

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