SAT Critical Reading : Context-Dependent Meaning of Words in Natural Science Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for SAT Critical Reading

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Example Questions

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Example Question #1 : Psat Critical Reading

Adapted from Essays on Early Ornithology and Kindred Subjects by James R. McClymont (1920)

The voyagers named it the Angra de Santa Elena, and it may have been the bay which is now known as St. Helen’s Bay. But it is worthy of note that the G. de Sta. Ellena of the Cantino Chart is laid down in a position which corresponds rather with that of Table Bay than with that of St. Helen’s Bay.

The Portuguese came into contact with the inhabitants of the country adjacent to the anchorage. These people had tawny complexions, and carried wooden spears tipped with horn—assagais of a kind—and bows and arrows. They also used foxes’ tails attached to short wooden handles. We are not informed for what purposes the foxes’ tails were used. Were they used to brush flies away, or were they insignia of authority? The food of the natives was the flesh of whales, seals, and antelopes (gazellas), and the roots of certain plants. Crayfish or ‘Cape lobsters’ abounded near the anchorage.

The author of the roteiro affirms that the birds of the country resembled the birds in Portugal, and that amongst them were cormorants, larks, turtle-doves, and gulls. The gulls are called "guayvotas," but "guayvotas" is probably another instance of the eccentric orthography of the author and equivalent to "gaivotas."

In December the squadron reached the Angra de São Bràs, which was either Mossel Bay or another bay in close proximity to Mossel Bay. Here penguins and seals were in great abundance. The author of the roteiro calls the penguins "sotelycairos," which is more correctly written "sotilicarios" by subsequent writers. The word is probably related to the Spanish "sotil" and the Latin "subtilis," and may contain an allusion to the supposed cunning of the penguins, which disappear by diving when an enemy approaches.

The sotilicarios, says the chronicler, could not fly because there were no quill-feathers in their wings; in size they were as large as drakes, and their cry resembled the braying of an ass. Castanheda, Goes, and Osorio also mention the sotilicario in their accounts of the first voyage of Vasco da Gama, and compare its flipper to the wing of a bat—a not wholly inept comparison, for the under-surface of the wings of penguins is wholly devoid of feathery covering. Manuel de Mesquita Perestrello, who visited the south coast of Africa in 1575, also describes the Cape penguin. From a manuscript of his Roteiro in the Oporto Library, one learns that the flippers of the sotilicario were covered with minute feathers, as indeed they are on the upper surface and that they dived after fish, upon which they fed, and on which they fed their young, which were hatched in nests constructed of fishbones. There is nothing to cavil at in these statements, unless it be that which asserts that the nests were constructed of fishbones, for this is not in accordance with the observations of contemporary naturalists, who tell us that the nests of the Cape Penguin (Spheniscus demersus) are constructed of stones, shells, and debris. It is, therefore, probable that the fishbones which Perestrello saw were the remains of repasts of seals.

Seals, says the roteiro, were in great number at the Angra de São Bràs. On one occasion the number was counted and was found to be three thousand. Some were as large as bears and their roaring was as the roaring of lions. Others, which were very small, bleated like kids. These differences in size and in voice may be explained by differences in the age and in the sex of the seals, for seals of different species do not usually resort to the same locality. The seal which formerly frequented the south coast of Africa—for it is, I believe, no longer a denizen of that region—was that which is known to naturalists as Arctocephalus delalandii, and, as adult males sometimes attain eight and a half feet in length, it may well be described as of the size of a bear. Cubs from six to eight months of age measure about two feet and a half in length. The Portuguese caught anchovies in the bay, which they salted to serve as provisions on the voyage. They anchored a second time in the Angra de São Bràs in March, 1499, on their homeward voyage.

Yet one more allusion to the penguins and seals of the Angra de São Bràs is of sufficient historical interest to be mentioned. The first Dutch expedition to Bantam weighed anchor on the 2nd of April, 1595, and on the 4th of August of the same year the vessels anchored in a harbor called "Ague Sambras," in eight or nine fathoms of water, on a sandy bottom. So many of the sailors were sick with scurvy—"thirty or thirty-three," said the narrator, "in one ship"—that it was necessary to find fresh fruit for them. "In this bay," runs the English translation of the narrative, "lieth a small Island wherein are many birds called Pyncuins and sea Wolves that are taken with men’s hands." In the original Dutch narrative by Willem Lodewyckszoon, published in Amsterdam in 1597, the name of the birds appears as "Pinguijns."

The underlined word “cavil” most nearly means __________.

Possible Answers:

guess 

write about 

comprehend 

believe

nitpick 

Correct answer:

nitpick 

Explanation:

In the fifth paragraph, the author states, "There is nothing to cavil at in these statements, unless it be that which asserts that the nests were constructed of fishbones, for this is not in accordance with the observations of contemporary naturalists, who tell us that the nests of the Cape Penguin (Spheniscus demersus) are constructed of stones, shells, and debris." The argument is that the description of the penguins’ behaviour is fine apart from one detail. So, the author is saying there is nothing to nitpick or challenge apart from the assumption that the nests are made from fish bones.

Example Question #1 : Determining Context Dependent Meanings Of Words In Natural Science Passages

Adapted from Essays on Early Ornithology and Kindred Subjects by James R. McClymont (1920)

The voyagers named it the Angra de Santa Elena, and it may have been the bay which is now known as St. Helen’s Bay. But it is worthy of note that the G. de Sta. Ellena of the Cantino Chart is laid down in a position which corresponds rather with that of Table Bay than with that of St. Helen’s Bay.

The Portuguese came into contact with the inhabitants of the country adjacent to the anchorage. These people had tawny complexions, and carried wooden spears tipped with horn—assagais of a kind—and bows and arrows. They also used foxes’ tails attached to short wooden handles. We are not informed for what purposes the foxes’ tails were used. Were they used to brush flies away, or were they insignia of authority? The food of the natives was the flesh of whales, seals, and antelopes (gazellas), and the roots of certain plants. Crayfish or ‘Cape lobsters’ abounded near the anchorage.

The author of the roteiro affirms that the birds of the country resembled the birds in Portugal, and that amongst them were cormorants, larks, turtle-doves, and gulls. The gulls are called "guayvotas," but "guayvotas" is probably another instance of the eccentric orthography of the author and equivalent to "gaivotas."

In December the squadron reached the Angra de São Bràs, which was either Mossel Bay or another bay in close proximity to Mossel Bay. Here penguins and seals were in great abundance. The author of the roteiro calls the penguins "sotelycairos," which is more correctly written "sotilicarios" by subsequent writers. The word is probably related to the Spanish "sotil" and the Latin "subtilis," and may contain an allusion to the supposed cunning of the penguins, which disappear by diving when an enemy approaches.

The sotilicarios, says the chronicler, could not fly because there were no quill-feathers in their wings; in size they were as large as drakes, and their cry resembled the braying of an ass. Castanheda, Goes, and Osorio also mention the sotilicario in their accounts of the first voyage of Vasco da Gama, and compare its flipper to the wing of a bat—a not wholly inept comparison, for the under-surface of the wings of penguins is wholly devoid of feathery covering. Manuel de Mesquita Perestrello, who visited the south coast of Africa in 1575, also describes the Cape penguin. From a manuscript of his Roteiro in the Oporto Library, one learns that the flippers of the sotilicario were covered with minute feathers, as indeed they are on the upper surface and that they dived after fish, upon which they fed, and on which they fed their young, which were hatched in nests constructed of fishbones. There is nothing to cavil at in these statements, unless it be that which asserts that the nests were constructed of fishbones, for this is not in accordance with the observations of contemporary naturalists, who tell us that the nests of the Cape Penguin (Spheniscus demersus) are constructed of stones, shells, and debris. It is, therefore, probable that the fishbones which Perestrello saw were the remains of repasts of seals.

Seals, says the roteiro, were in great number at the Angra de São Bràs. On one occasion the number was counted and was found to be three thousand. Some were as large as bears and their roaring was as the roaring of lions. Others, which were very small, bleated like kids. These differences in size and in voice may be explained by differences in the age and in the sex of the seals, for seals of different species do not usually resort to the same locality. The seal which formerly frequented the south coast of Africa—for it is, I believe, no longer a denizen of that region—was that which is known to naturalists as Arctocephalus delalandii, and, as adult males sometimes attain eight and a half feet in length, it may well be described as of the size of a bear. Cubs from six to eight months of age measure about two feet and a half in length. The Portuguese caught anchovies in the bay, which they salted to serve as provisions on the voyage. They anchored a second time in the Angra de São Bràs in March, 1499, on their homeward voyage.

Yet one more allusion to the penguins and seals of the Angra de São Bràs is of sufficient historical interest to be mentioned. The first Dutch expedition to Bantam weighed anchor on the 2nd of April, 1595, and on the 4th of August of the same year the vessels anchored in a harbor called "Ague Sambras," in eight or nine fathoms of water, on a sandy bottom. So many of the sailors were sick with scurvy—"thirty or thirty-three," said the narrator, "in one ship"—that it was necessary to find fresh fruit for them. "In this bay," runs the English translation of the narrative, "lieth a small Island wherein are many birds called Pyncuins and sea Wolves that are taken with men’s hands." In the original Dutch narrative by Willem Lodewyckszoon, published in Amsterdam in 1597, the name of the birds appears as "Pinguijns."

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

Possible Answers:

explorer

force 

inhabitant 

predator 

menace 

Correct answer:

inhabitant 

Explanation:

“Denizen” means inhabitant; the author does not believe that species of seal is an inhabitant of the region any more. "Menace" means threat.

Example Question #12 : How To Find Word Meaning From Context

Adapted from “Birds in Retreat” in “Animal Defences—Active Defence” in Volume Four of The Natural History of Animals: The Animal Life of the World in Its Various Aspects and Relations by James Richard Ainsworth Davis (1903)

Among the large running birds are forms, like the African ostrich, in which the absence of powers of flight is largely compensated by the specialization of the legs for the purpose of rapid movement on the ground. For straightforward retreat in open country nothing could be more effective; but another kind of adaptation is required in birds like rails, which are deficient in powers of flight, and yet are able to run through thickly-growing vegetation with such rapidity as to commonly elude their enemies. This is rendered possible by the shape of their bodies, which are relatively narrow and flattened from side to side, so as to easily slip between the stems of grasses, rushes, and similar plants. Anyone who has pursued our native land-rail or corn-crake with intent to capture will have noted how extremely difficult it is even to get within sight of a bird of this sort. 

Certain birds, unfortunately for themselves, have lost the power of flight without correspondingly increased powers of running, and have paid the penalty of extinction. Such an arrangement, as might be anticipated, was the result of evolution in islands devoid of any predatory ground-animals, and a classic example of it is afforded by the dodo and its allies, birds related to the pigeons. The dodo itself was a large and clumsy-looking species that at one time abounded in the island of Mauritius, which, like oceanic islands generally, possessed no native mammals, while its indigenous reptiles were only represented by lizards. The ubiquitous sailor, however, and the animals (especially swine) which he introduced, brought about the extinction of this helpless bird in less than a century after its first discovery in 1598. Its memory is now only kept green by a few contemporary drawings and descriptions, certain museum remains, and the proverb "as extinct as a dodo.” A similar fate must overtake any organism suddenly exposed to new and unfavorable conditions, if devoid of sufficient plasticity to rapidly accommodate itself to the altered environment.

Based on the way in which it is used in the passage, what is the meaning of the underlined word “ubiquitous”?

Possible Answers:

staying in one place

traveling everywhere

careful

not widely known

brave

Correct answer:

traveling everywhere

Explanation:

Even if you don’t know what the word “ubiquitous” means, you can work out its meaning from the way it is used in the passage. “Ubiquitous” is used in the following line in the second paragraph:

“The ubiquitous sailor, however, and the animals (especially swine) which he introduced, brought about the extinction of this helpless bird in less than a century after its first discovery in 1598.”

Let’s consider each of the answer choices. “Staying in one place” doesn’t make sense, as the sailor clearly visited New Zealand. “Careful” doesn’t seem correct in that the sailors brought animals that hurt the indigenous species, and neither “brave” nor “not widely known” are supported at all. The only answer choice that makes sense is “traveling everywhere.” If sailors traveled everywhere, it would make sense that they would travel to New Zealand.

Note: "ubiquitous" is defined as located or existing everywhere, but "traveling everywhere" is in line with the author's use of the term in the passage.

Example Question #31 : Context Dependent Meaning Of Words In Natural Science Passages

Adapted from "Taking a Second Look: An Analysis of Genetic Markers in Species Relatedness" by Joseph Ritchie (2014)

Phylogenetics is the study of genetic composition in various species and is used by evolutionary biologists to investigate similarities in the molecular sequences of proteins in varying organisms. The amino acid sequences that build proteins are used to construct mathematical matrices that aid in determining evolutionary ties through the investigation of percentage similarities. The study of these matrices helps to expose evolutionary relationships between species that may not have the same overt characteristics.

Species adapt and evolve based on the pressures that exist in their environment. Climate, food source, and habitat availability are only a few factors that act on species adaptation. These stressors can alter the physical characteristics of organisms. This divergence in evolution has made it difficult to determine the interrelatedness of organisms by analyzing their physical characteristics alone.

For instance, looking only at physical characteristics, the ghost bat resembles a pigeon more than a spider monkey; however, phylogenetics has found that the amino acid sequences that construct the beta hemoglobin molecules of bats are twenty percent more similar to those of mammalian primates than those of birds. This helps reject the assumption that common physical characteristics between species are all that is needed to determine relatedness. 

The differences produced by divergent evolution observed in the forest-dwelling, arboreal spider monkey and the nocturnal, airborne ghost bat can be reconciled through homology. Homologous characteristics are anatomical traits that are similar in two or more different species. For instance, the bone structure of a spider monkey’s wrist and fingers greatly resembles that of a bat’s wing or even a whale’s fin. These similarities are reinforced by phylogenetic evidence that supports the idea that physically dissimilar species can be evolutionarily related through anatomical and genetic similarities.

The underlined word "divergent" in paragraph four most nearly means which of the following?

Possible Answers:

Similiar

Congruent

Dividing

Indirect

Correct answer:

Dividing

Explanation:

The different appendages mentioned were all resultant from divergent evolution, or evolution that caused differences to emerge as distinct. It is suggested that the two organisms mentioned started out very similar to one another, then changed greatly in physical appearance over the years, yet still maintained some similarities to one another. Thus, "dividing" is the best answer choice. 

Example Question #582 : Act Reading

Adapted from "Taking a Second Look: An Analysis of Genetic Markers in Species Relatedness" by Joseph Ritchie (2014)

Phylogenetics is the study of genetic composition in various species and is used by evolutionary biologists to investigate similarities in the molecular sequences of proteins in varying organisms. The amino acid sequences that build proteins are used to construct mathematical matrices that aid in determining evolutionary ties through the investigation of percentage similarities. The study of these matrices helps to expose evolutionary relationships between species that may not have the same overt characteristics.

Species adapt and evolve based on the pressures that exist in their environment. Climate, food source, and habitat availability are only a few factors that act on species adaptation. These stressors can alter the physical characteristics of organisms. This divergence in evolution has made it difficult to determine the interrelatedness of organisms by analyzing their physical characteristics alone.

For instance, looking only at physical characteristics, the ghost bat resembles a pigeon more than a spider monkey; however, phylogenetics has found that the amino acid sequences that construct the beta hemoglobin molecules of bats are twenty percent more similar to those of mammalian primates than those of birds. This helps reject the assumption that common physical characteristics between species are all that is needed to determine relatedness. 

The differences produced by divergent evolution observed in the forest-dwelling, arboreal spider monkey and the nocturnal, airborne ghost bat can be reconciled through homology. Homologous characteristics are anatomical traits that are similar in two or more different species. For instance, the bone structure of a spider monkey’s wrist and fingers greatly resembles that of a bat’s wing or even a whale’s fin. These similarities are reinforced by phylogenetic evidence that supports the idea that physically dissimilar species can be evolutionarily related through anatomical and genetic similarities.

The underlined word "overt" in paragraph one most nearly means which of the following?

Possible Answers:

Familial

Genetic

Inner

Outward

Correct answer:

Outward

Explanation:

In the passage, "overt" most nearly means outward or physical characteristics. The sentence suggests the meaning of this word coincides with characteristics that are obvious and significant to the illustration of this subject matter. The word "overt," in this situation, also helps to show the difference between these species and others. 

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