SAT Critical Reading : Language in Humanities Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for SAT Critical Reading

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Example Questions

Example Question #7 : Context Dependent Meaning Of Words In Humanities Passages

Adapted from Self Reliance (1841) by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say "I think; I am," but quotes some saint or sage. He is ashamed before the blade of grass or the blowing rose. These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God today. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence. Before a leaf-bud has burst, its whole life acts; in the full-blown flower there is no more; in the leafless root there is no less. Its nature is satisfied, and it satisfies nature, in all moments alike. But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.

The word "laments" most nearly means __________.

Possible Answers:

exonerate

celebrates

grieves

despises

discusses

Correct answer:

grieves

Explanation:

From the context of the passage that it is contained within you know that the author is implying something negative through the use of the word “lament.” This is because the author makes it clear that to live in the present is positive and that to be looking towards the past is negative. "Lament" means to mourn or express sorrow about something that has happened, which most closely resembles the answer choice grieves. "Despises" means hates, and "celebrates" means something like the opposite. "To discuss" means to talk about, and "exonerate" means to free someone of blame or guilt.

Example Question #8 : Context Dependent Meaning Of Words In Humanities Passages

Adapted from "Why a Classic is a Classic" in Literary Taste: How to Form It by Arnold Bennet (1909)

The large majority of our fellow-citizens care as much about literature as they care about airplanes or the policies of the Legislature. They do not ignore it; they are not quite indifferent to it. But their interest in it is faint and perfunctory; or, if their interest happens to be violent, it is spasmodic. Ask the two hundred thousand persons whose enthusiasm made the vogue of a popular novel ten years ago what they think of that novel now, and you will gather that they have utterly forgotten it, and that they would no more dream of reading it again than of reading Bishop Stubbs's Select Charters. Probably if they did read it again they would not enjoy it—not because the said novel is worse now than it was ten years ago; not because their taste has improved—but because they have not had sufficient practice to be able to rely on their taste as a means of permanent pleasure. They simply don't know from one day to the next what will please them.

In the face of this one may ask: Why does the great and universal fame of classical authors continue? The answer is that the fame of classical authors is entirely independent of the majority. Do you suppose that if the fame of Shakespeare depended on the man in the street it would survive a fortnight? The fame of classical authors is originally made, and it is maintained, by a passionate few. Even when a first-class author has enjoyed immense success during his lifetime, the majority have never appreciated him as sincerely as they have appreciated second-rate men. He has always been reinforced by the ardor of the passionate few. And in the case of an author who has emerged into glory after his death the happy sequel has been due solely to the obstinate perseverance of the few. They could not leave him alone; they would not. They kept on savoring him, and talking about him, and buying him, and they generally behaved with such eager zeal, and they were so authoritative and sure of themselves, that at last the majority grew accustomed to the sound of his name and placidly agreed to the proposition that he was a genius; the majority really did not care very much either way.

And it is by the passionate few that the renown of genius is kept alive from one generation to another. These few are always at work. They are always rediscovering genius. Their curiosity and enthusiasm are exhaustless, so that there is little chance of genius being ignored. And, moreover, they are always working either for or against the verdicts of the majority. The majority can make a reputation, but it is too careless to maintain it. If, by accident, the passionate few agree with the majority in a particular instance, they will frequently remind the majority that such and such a reputation has been made, and the majority will idly concur: "Ah, yes. By the way, we must not forget that such and such a reputation exists." Without that persistent memory-jogging the reputation would quickly fall into the oblivion which is death. The passionate few only have their way by reason of the fact that they are genuinely interested in literature, that literature matters to them. They conquer by their obstinacy alone, by their eternal repetition of the same statements. Do you suppose they could prove to the man in the street that Shakespeare was a great artist? The said man would not even understand the terms they employed. But when he is told ten thousand times, and generation after generation, that Shakespeare was a great artist, the said man believes--not by reason, but by faith. And he too repeats that Shakespeare was a great artist, and he buys the complete works of Shakespeare and puts them on his shelves, and he goes to see the marvelous stage-effects which accompany King Lear or Hamlet, and comes back religiously convinced that Shakespeare was a great artist. All because the passionate few could not keep their admiration of Shakespeare to themselves. This is not cynicism; but truth. And it is important that those who wish to form their literary taste should grasp it.

The word “authoritative” in the text most nearly means?

Possible Answers:

Combative

Reductive

Irreducible 

Confident 

Derisive

Correct answer:

Confident 

Explanation:

The word “authoritative” usually means backed by or showing control. In this instance, however, it refers to the confidence of the minority that comes from their self-recognized authority on literary matters. Confidence is a secondary meaning of the word “authoritative.” If you did not know the meaning of the word it is possible to solve the problem by reading-in-context. The phrase immediately succeeding “authoritative” says that the minority are “sure of themselves," being sure of oneself is a synonym for confidence. "Derisive" means mocking; Irreducible means cannot be further broken down; "combative" means seeking conflict; "reductive" means oversimplifying.

Example Question #130 : Ssat Upper Level Reading Comprehension

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.

The word “hold” most nearly means __________.

Possible Answers:

grasp 

contain 

embrace

claim 

reserve 

Correct answer:

claim 

Explanation:

The author uses the word “hold” to mean maintain or claim. Answering this question requires you to recognize firstly that hold is a very simple word and therefore the SAT most likely is asking you to recall a secondary meaning of the word. You can therefore eliminate the words that resemble the primary meaning of “hold” like “embrace” or “grasp.”After that you need to recognize that the sentence describes how some authorities believe or say something; the correct answer is therefore that the authorities “claim” something to be true.

Example Question #126 : Ssat Upper Level Reading Comprehension

Adapted from “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” in Walden by Henry David Thoreau (1845)

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to "glorify God and enjoy him forever."

The underlined word “practice” most nearly means __________.

Possible Answers:

attempt 

observe

ritualize

rehearse 

study 

Correct answer:

observe

Explanation:

This is a difficult question that requires you to know the secondary definition for more than one word. The word “practice” is most commonly used to mean study or rehearse for something; however, in this context, it is being used to describe doing something as a custom or habit. Out of the five answer choices, it is most similar to "observe." The primary meaning of "observe" is to see or witness; however, it also can mean to do something habitually. These types of questions are rare; usually you will only have to know the secondary meaning of one word. But, it is important to study and remember the secondary definitions of numerous words. Or, failing that, remember that if you see a word that seems particularly easy or obviously defined, it is highly likely that the test may be asking you to remember a secondary meaning.

Example Question #11 : Language In Humanities Passages

The following passage is taken from Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. In this excerpt, Rilke gives advice to a poet who is starting his writing career.

        Read as little as possible of literary criticism. Such things are either partisan opinions, which have become petrified and meaningless, hardened and empty of life, or else they are clever word-games, in which one view wins, and tomorrow the opposite view. Works of art are of an infinite solitude, and no means of approach is so useless as criticism. Only love can touch and hold them and be fair to them. Always trust yourself and your own feeling, as opposed to argumentation, discussions, or introductions of that sort; if it turns out that you are wrong, then the natural growth of your inner life will eventually guide you to other insights. Allow your judgments their own silent, undisturbed development, which, like all progress,  must come from deep within and cannot be forced or hastened.  To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one's own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born: this alone is what it means to live as an artist: in understanding as in creating.

        In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything.

In the passage, "petrified" most nearly means __________.

Possible Answers:

pliable

astute

insignificant

rigid

inept

Correct answer:

rigid

Explanation:

Rilke notes that literary criticism is petrified and goes on to define the term in the next clause following the appearance of the word petrified. He defines "petrified" as hardened or rigid.

Example Question #12 : Language In Humanities Passages

Adapted from “Aristotle at Afternoon Tea” by Oscar Wilde (1887)

In society, says Mr. Mahaffy, every civilized man and woman ought to feel it their duty to say something, even when there is hardly anything to be said, and, in order to encourage this delightful art of brilliant chatter, he has published a social guide without which no debutante or dandy should ever dream of going out to dine. Not that Mr. Mahaffy's book can be said to be, in any sense of the word, popular. In discussing this important subject of conversation, he has not merely followed the scientific method of Aristotle which is, perhaps, excusable, but he has adopted the literary style of Aristotle for which no excuse is possible. There is, also, hardly a single anecdote, hardly a single illustration, and the reader is left to put the professor's abstract rules into practice, without either the examples or the warnings of history to encourage or to dissuade him in his reckless career. Still, the book can be warmly recommended to all who propose to substitute the vice of verbosity for the stupidity of silence. It fascinates in spite of its form and pleases in spite of its pedantry, and is the nearest approach, that we know of, in modern literature to meeting Aristotle at an afternoon tea.

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

Possible Answers:

rehearsal 

training 

application

repetition

habit

Correct answer:

application

Explanation:

The word “practice” is most commonly used to refer to training for something by repeating one's actions to improve one's skills; however, in this context you have to know the secondary meaning of the word "practice." More specifically, you have to know what is meant by “to put something into practice.” It means to apply something or to put something into application; therefore, "application" is the correct answer.

Example Question #1 : Language In Humanities Passages

Adapted from “Gin-Shops” by Charles Darwin (1836)

We will endeavor to sketch the bar of a large gin-shop, and its ordinary customers, for the edification of such of our readers as may not have had opportunities of observing such scenes; and on the chance of finding one well suited to our purpose, we will make for Drury-Lane. The filthy and miserable appearance of this part of London can hardly be imagined by those have not witnessed it. Wretched houses with broken windows patched with rags and paper: every room let out to a different family, and in many instances to two or even three; fruit manufacturers in the cellars, barbers and red-herring vendors in the front parlors, cobblers in the back; a bird-fancier in the first floor, three families on the second, starvation in the attics, Irishmen in the passage, a "musician" in the front kitchen, and a charwoman and five hungry children in the back one; filth everywhere, a gutter before the houses and a drain behind, clothes drying and slops emptying, from the windows; girls of fourteen or fifteen, with matted hair, walking about barefoot, and with only white coats to cover them; boys of all ages, in coats of all sizes and no coats at all; men and women, in every variety of scanty and dirty apparel, lounging, scolding, drinking, smoking, squabbling, fighting, and swearing.

You turn the corner. What a change! All is light and brilliancy. The hum of many voices issues from that splendid gin-shop which forms the commencement of the two streets opposite; and the gay building with the fantastically ornamented parapet, the illuminated clock, the plate-glass windows surrounded by stucco rosettes, and its profusion of gas-lights in richly-gilt burners, is perfectly dazzling when contrasted with the darkness and dirt we have just left. Yet, the gin shop is dazzling in appearances only. Soon it grows late and the throng of men, women, and children, who have been constantly going in and out, dwindles down to two or three occasional stragglers--cold, wretched-looking creatures, in the last stage of emaciation and disease. The knot of Irish laborers at the lower end of the place, who have been alternately shaking hands with, and threatening the life of each other, for the last hour, become furious in their disputes, and finding it impossible to silence one man, who is particularly anxious to adjust the difference, they resort to the expedient of knocking him down and jumping on him afterwards. The man in the fur cap, and the potboy rush out; a scene of riot and confusion ensues; half the Irishmen get shut out, and the other half get shut in; the potboy is knocked among the tubs in no time; the landlord hits everybody, and everybody hits the landlord; the barmaids scream; the police come in; the rest is a confused mixture of arms, legs, staves, torn coats, shouting, and struggling. Some of the party are borne off to the station-house, and the remainder slink home to beat their wives for complaining, and kick the children for daring to be hungry.

Gin-drinking is a great vice in England, but wretchedness and dirt are a greater; and until you improve the homes of the poor, or persuade a half-famished wretch not to seek relief in the temporary oblivion of his own misery gin-shops will increase in number and splendor. If Temperance Societies would suggest an antidote against hunger and filth gin-palaces would vanish. In the meantime, they shall only grow in prominence.

The word “edification” most nearly means __________.

Possible Answers:

building 

excess

comfort

whimsy 

instruction 

Correct answer:

instruction 

Explanation:

The word edification refers to instruction, teaching or enlightenment. The author employs the word in the first sentence when he describes how his description of gin-shops is intended to provide edification for his readership. If you were unsure as to the meaning of edification you could simply try the various answer choices and see which one works. Building and excess would make little sense in-context. Likewise, whimsy and comfort are almost opposite in intention to the thoughts and emotions the author hopes to engender in his audience. Therefore, instruction is the only viable answer choice.

Example Question #1 : How To Find The Meaning Of A Word

Adapted from “A Definition of a Gentleman” by John Henry Newman (1852)

It is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain. This description is both refined and, as far as it goes, accurate. He is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him; and he concurs with their movements rather than takes the initiative himself. His benefits may be considered as parallel to what are called comforts or conveniences in arrangements of a personal nature: like an easy chair or a good fire, which do their part in dispelling cold and fatigue, though nature provides both means of rest and animal heat without them. The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast;--all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make everyone at their ease and at home. He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome. He makes light of favors while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring. He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort, he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets everything for the best.

The word “hinder” most nearly means __________.

Possible Answers:

obstruct 

advance

condemn 

facilitate

imagine

Correct answer:

obstruct 

Explanation:

To hinder something is to obstruct or prevent. In order to solve this problem without knowing the meaning of the word “hinder” you would need to look at the preceding and succeeding clauses to identify the context. In this instance the author is saying that it is “obstacles” that are hindering something. Well obstacles generally get in the way more than anything else, so obstruct should stand out as the most likely answer.

Example Question #13 : Language In Humanities Passages

Adapted from “Coddling in Education” by Henry Seidel Canby (1922)

American minds have been coddled in school and college for at least a generation. There are two kinds of mental coddling. The first belongs to the public schools, and is one of the defects of our educational system that we abuse privately and largely keep out of print. It is democratic coddling. I mean, of course, the failure to hold up standards, the willingness to let youth wobble upward, knowing little and that inaccurately, passing nothing well, graduating with an education that hits and misses like an old typewriter with a torn ribbon. America is full of "sloppy thinking," of inaccuracy, of half-baked misinformation, of sentimentalism, especially sentimentalism, as a result of coddling by schools that cater to an easy-going democracy.

A dozen causes are responsible for this condition, and among them, I suspect, one, which if not major, at least deserves careful pondering. The teacher and the taught have somehow drifted apart. His function in the large has been to teach an ideal, a tradition. He is content, he has to be content, with partial results. In the mind of the student a dim conception has entered, that this education--all education--is a garment merely, to be doffed for the struggle with realities. The will is dulled. Interest slackens.

But it is in aristocratic coddling that the effects of our educational attitude gleam out to the least observant understanding. The teaching in the best American preparatory schools and colleges is as careful and as conscientious as any in the world. That one gladly asserts. Indeed, an American boy in a good boarding-school is handled like a rare microbe in a research laboratory. He is ticketed; every instant of his time is planned and scrutinized; he is dieted with brain food, predigested, and weighed before application. I sometimes wonder if a moron could not be made into an Abraham Lincoln by such a system--if the system were sound.

It is not sound. The boys and girls, especially the boys, are coddled for entrance examinations, coddled through freshman year, coddled oftentimes for graduation. And they too frequently go out into the world fireproof against anything but intellectual coddling. Such men and women can read only writing especially prepared for brains that will take only selected ideas. They can think only on simple lines. They can live happily only in a life where no intellectual or esthetic experience lies too far outside the range of their curriculum. A world where one reads the news and skips the editorials; goes to musical comedies, but omits the plays; looks at illustrated magazines, but seldom at books; talks business, sports, and politics, but never economics, social welfare, and statesmanship--that is the world for which we coddle the best of our youth. Many indeed escape the evil effects by their own innate originality; more bear the marks to the grave.

The word “fireproof” most nearly means __________.

Possible Answers:

susceptible

resistant

inflammable

enamored 

ignorant 

Correct answer:

resistant

Explanation:

The word "fireproof" most literally refers to something that is very resistant to fire. In the context of the sentence it is apparent that the author is using it in a slightly different manner. He describes how men and women who are educated frequently go out into the world coddled against certain forms of thinking. If you replaced the word fireproof with each of the five answer choices only resistant would keep the meaning of the sentence the same.

Example Question #14 : Language In Humanities Passages

Adapted from “Talking About Our Troubles” by Mark Rutherford (1901)

We may talk about our troubles to those persons who can give us direct help, but even in this case we ought as much as possible to come to a provisional conclusion before consultation; to be perfectly clear to ourselves within our own limits. Some people have a foolish trick of applying for aid before they have done anything whatever to aid themselves, and in fact try to talk themselves into perspicuity. The only way in which they can think is by talking, and their speech consequently is not the expression of opinion already and carefully formed, but the manufacture of it.

We may also tell our troubles to those who are suffering if we can lessen their own. It may be a very great relief to them to know that others have passed through trials equal to theirs and have survived. There are obscure, nervous diseases, hypochondriac fancies, almost uncontrollable impulses, which terrify by their apparent singularity. If we could believe that they are common, the worst of the fear would vanish.

But, as a rule, we should be very careful for our own sake not to speak much about what distresses us. Expression is apt to carry with it exaggeration, and this exaggerated form becomes henceforth that under which we represent our miseries to ourselves, so that they are thereby increased. By reserve, on the other hand, they are diminished, for we attach less importance to that which it was not worthwhile to mention. Secrecy, in fact, may be our salvation.

 

The word “singularity” most nearly means __________.

Possible Answers:

Uniqueness 

Condemnation

Spectacle 

Implausibility

Miraculous 

Correct answer:

Uniqueness 

Explanation:

The author describes certain diseases and nervous afflictions as being terrifying by their singularity, and suggests that in these instances discovering that other people have been afflicted by similar afflictions might lessen the terror felt by the individual experiencing those problems for the first time. This should make it apparent that the word “singularity” refers to uniqueness, for in knowing that their suffering is not unique, people are made more comfortable.

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