SAT Critical Reading : Language in Humanities Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for SAT Critical Reading

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Example Questions

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

Adapted from Thoughts on Man (1831) by William Godwin

It is, in reality, obvious that man and woman, as they come from the hands of nature, are so much upon a par with each other as not to afford the best subjects between whom to graft a habit of entire, unalterable affection. In the scenes of vulgar and ordinary society, a permanent connection between persons of opposite sexes is too apt to degenerate into a scene of warfare, where each party is forever engaged in a struggle for superiority, and neither will give way. A penetrating observer, with whom in former days I used intimately to converse, was accustomed to say that there was generally more jarring and ill blood between the two parties in the first year of their marriage than during all the remainder of their lives. It is at length found necessary, as between equally matched belligerents on the theatre of history, that they should come to terms, make a treaty of peace, or at least settle certain laws of warfare that they may not waste their strength in idle hostilities.

There is nothing in which the superiority of modern times over the ancient has been more conspicuous than in our sentiments and practices on this subject. This superiority, as well as several other of our most valuable acquisitions, took its rise in what we call the dark ages. Chivalry was, for the most part, the invention of the eleventh century. Its principle was built upon a theory of the sexes, giving to each a relative importance, and assigning to both functions full of honor and grace. The knights (and every gentleman during that period in due time became a knight) were taught, as the main features of their vocation, the "love of God and the ladies." The ladies in return were regarded as the genuine censors of the deeds of knighthood. From these principles arose a thousand lessons of humanity. The ladies regarded it as their glory to assist their champions to arm and to disarm, to perform for them even menial services, to attend to them in sickness, and to dress their wounds. They bestowed on them their colors, and sent them forth to the field hallowed with their benedictions. The knights on the other hand considered any slight toward the fair sex as an indelible stain to their order; they contemplated the graceful patronesses of their valor with a feeling that partook of religious homage and veneration, and esteemed it as perhaps the first duty of their profession to relieve the wrongs and avenge the injuries of the less powerful sex.

This simple outline as to the relative position of the one sex and the other gave a new face to the whole scheme and arrangements of civil society. It is, like those admirable principles in the order of the material universe or those grand discoveries brought to light from time to time by superior genius, so obvious and simple that we wonder the most common understanding could have missed them, yet so pregnant with results that they seem at once to put a new life and inspire a new character into every part of a mighty and all-comprehensive mass.

The passion between the sexes, in its grosser sense, is a momentary impulse merely. There was danger that, when the fit and violence of the passion was over, the whole would subside into inconstancy and a roving disposition, or at least into indifference and almost brutal neglect. But the institutions of chivalry immediately gave a new face to this. Either sex conceived a deep and permanent interest in the other. In the unsettled state of society which characterized the period when these institutions arose, the defenseless were liable to assaults of multiplied kinds and the fair perpetually stood in need of a protector and a champion. The knights, on the other hand, were taught to derive their fame and their honor from the suffrages of the ladies. Each sex stood in need of the other and the basis of their union was mutual esteem.

As used in the third paragraph, the underlined word "pregnant" most nearly means __________.

Possible Answers:

significant

plausible

irrelevant

dogmatic

intangible

Correct answer:

significant

Explanation:

In context, the author is describing how the revelation of chivalry "put a new life and inspire a new character into every part of a mighty and all-comprehensive mass." Because it made a massive change, it is reasonable to assume that chivalry was "significant." The primary meaning of the word "pregnant" is with child; however, there is a secondary meaning often used in literature (particularly in the phrase "a pregnant pause") that means heavy-laden, significant, full of. To provide further help, "irrelevant" means not important, not relevant; "intangible" means untouchable or hard to identify; "plausible" means believeable; "dogmatic" means opinonated, assertive, inclined to lay down rigid laws.

Example Question #5 : Determining Context Dependent Meanings Of Words In Humanities Passages

Adapted from Thoughts on Man (1831) by William Godwin

It is, in reality, obvious that man and woman, as they come from the hands of nature, are so much upon a par with each other as not to afford the best subjects between whom to graft a habit of entire, unalterable affection. In the scenes of vulgar and ordinary society, a permanent connection between persons of opposite sexes is too apt to degenerate into a scene of warfare, where each party is forever engaged in a struggle for superiority, and neither will give way. A penetrating observer, with whom in former days I used intimately to converse, was accustomed to say that there was generally more jarring and ill blood between the two parties in the first year of their marriage than during all the remainder of their lives. It is at length found necessary, as between equally matched belligerents on the theatre of history, that they should come to terms, make a treaty of peace, or at least settle certain laws of warfare that they may not waste their strength in idle hostilities.

There is nothing in which the superiority of modern times over the ancient has been more conspicuous than in our sentiments and practices on this subject. This superiority, as well as several other of our most valuable acquisitions, took its rise in what we call the dark ages. Chivalry was, for the most part, the invention of the eleventh century. Its principle was built upon a theory of the sexes, giving to each a relative importance, and assigning to both functions full of honor and grace. The knights (and every gentleman during that period in due time became a knight) were taught, as the main features of their vocation, the "love of God and the ladies." The ladies in return were regarded as the genuine censors of the deeds of knighthood. From these principles arose a thousand lessons of humanity. The ladies regarded it as their glory to assist their champions to arm and to disarm, to perform for them even menial services, to attend to them in sickness, and to dress their wounds. They bestowed on them their colors, and sent them forth to the field hallowed with their benedictions. The knights on the other hand considered any slight toward the fair sex as an indelible stain to their order; they contemplated the graceful patronesses of their valor with a feeling that partook of religious homage and veneration, and esteemed it as perhaps the first duty of their profession to relieve the wrongs and avenge the injuries of the less powerful sex.

This simple outline as to the relative position of the one sex and the other gave a new face to the whole scheme and arrangements of civil society. It is, like those admirable principles in the order of the material universe or those grand discoveries brought to light from time to time by superior genius, so obvious and simple that we wonder the most common understanding could have missed them, yet so pregnant with results that they seem at once to put a new life and inspire a new character into every part of a mighty and all-comprehensive mass.

The passion between the sexes, in its grosser sense, is a momentary impulse merely. There was danger that, when the fit and violence of the passion was over, the whole would subside into inconstancy and a roving disposition, or at least into indifference and almost brutal neglect. But the institutions of chivalry immediately gave a new face to this. Either sex conceived a deep and permanent interest in the other. In the unsettled state of society which characterized the period when these institutions arose, the defenseless were liable to assaults of multiplied kinds and the fair perpetually stood in need of a protector and a champion. The knights, on the other hand, were taught to derive their fame and their honor from the suffrages of the ladies. Each sex stood in need of the other and the basis of their union was mutual esteem.

As used in the second paragraph, the underlined word ”injuries” most nearly means __________.

Possible Answers:

wounds

afflictions

affronts

traumas

cuts

Correct answer:

affronts

Explanation:

Here “injuries” is not used in the physical sense of "wounds," "cuts," or "traumas," but instead to denote personal injuries, such as insults to a woman's person. The best word to use out of the remaining choices is “affronts,” as "afflictions" can suggest injuries resulting in poor health.

Example Question #51 : Language In Humanities Passages

Adapted from Strength and Decency by Theodore Roosevelt (1903)

There is always a tendency among very young men and among boys who are not quite young men as yet to think that to be wicked is rather smart; to think it shows that they are men. Oh, how often you see some young fellow who boasts that he is going to "see life," meaning by that that he is going to see that part of life which it is a thousand fold better should remain unseen!

I ask that every man here constitute himself his brother's keeper by setting an example to that younger brother which will prevent him from getting such a false estimate of life. Example is the most potent of all things. If any one of you in the presence of younger boys, and especially the younger people of our own family, misbehave yourself, if you use coarse and blasphemous language before them, you can be sure that these younger people will follow your example and not your precept. Remember that the preaching does not count if it is not backed up by practice. There is no good in your preaching to your boys to be brave if you run away. There is no good in your preaching to them to tell the truth if you do not. There is no good in your preaching to them to be unselfish if they see you selfish with your wife, disregardful of others. You must feel that the most effective way in which you can preach is by your practice.

What does the author most nearly mean when he uses the underlined word “see” in the phrase "see life"?

Possible Answers:

Witness

Observe

Watch 

Experience

Attend

Correct answer:

Experience

Explanation:

The author uses the expression to “see life” to mean to “experience life.” So the correct answer is experience. All the incorrect answers are more literal, or primary, definitions of the word “see.” As “see” is a relatively simple word you can assume that the SAT will generally be asking you about a secondary definition of the word.

Example Question #51 : Humanities Passages

Adapted from Strength and Decency by Theodore Roosevelt (1903)

There is always a tendency among very young men and among boys who are not quite young men as yet to think that to be wicked is rather smart; to think it shows that they are men. Oh, how often you see some young fellow who boasts that he is going to "see life," meaning by that that he is going to see that part of life which it is a thousand fold better should remain unseen!

I ask that every man here constitute himself his brother's keeper by setting an example to that younger brother which will prevent him from getting such a false estimate of life. Example is the most potent of all things. If any one of you in the presence of younger boys, and especially the younger people of our own family, misbehave yourself, if you use coarse and blasphemous language before them, you can be sure that these younger people will follow your example and not your precept. Remember that the preaching does not count if it is not backed up by practice. There is no good in your preaching to your boys to be brave if you run away. There is no good in your preaching to them to tell the truth if you do not. There is no good in your preaching to them to be unselfish if they see you selfish with your wife, disregardful of others. You must feel that the most effective way in which you can preach is by your practice.

The word “precept” most nearly means __________.

Possible Answers:

illustration 

instruction 

example 

preference 

demonstration

Correct answer:

instruction 

Explanation:

The word “precept” means instruction or teaching. If you did not know this definition it would be necessary to read-in-context to determine the correct answer. From the whole of the passage you know that the author is comparing the significance of example versus instruction as they relate to improving the conduct of young people. The sentence that includes “precept” reads as follows: “. . . you can be sure that these younger people will follow your example and not your precept.” This shows you that “precept” is being contrasted against “example” and the correct answer is therefore “instruction.”

Example Question #51 : Humanities Passages

Adapted from Manual of Gardening by Liberty Hyde Bailey (ed. 1910)

Having now discussed the most essential elements of gardening, we may give attention to such minor features as the actual way in which a satisfying garden is to be planned and executed.

Speaking broadly, a person will get from a garden what he puts into it; and it is of the first importance, therefore, that a clear conception of the work be formulated at the outset. I do not mean to say that the garden will always turn out what it was desired that it should be; but the failure to turn out properly is usually some fault in the first plan or some neglect in execution.

Sometimes the disappointment in an ornamental garden is a result of confusion of ideas as to what a garden is for. One of my friends was greatly disappointed on returning to his garden early in September to find that it was not so full and floriferous as when he left it in July. He had not learned the simple lesson that even a flower-garden should exhibit the natural progress of the season. If the garden begins to show ragged places and to decline in late August or early September, it is what occurs in all surrounding vegetation. The year is maturing. The garden ought to express the feeling of the different months. The failing leaves and expended plants are therefore to be looked on, to some extent at least, as the natural order and destiny of a good garden.

As it is used in the passage, the underilned term “floriferous” in the last paragraph can best be described as meaning __________.

Possible Answers:

complex

blooming

fecund

verdant

voluminous

Correct answer:

blooming

Explanation:

Given the sentence, the term most likely means flowering or full of flowers, and only the answer "blooming" is the closest in meaning. “Verdant” means lush and green, and “fecund” simply means producing new growth.

Example Question #51 : Context Dependent Meaning Of Words In Humanities Passages

Adapted from Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851)

The fact is, that among his hunters at least, the whale would, by all hands, be considered a noble dish were there not so much of him; but when you come to sit down before a meat-pie nearly one hundred feet long, it takes away your appetite. Only the most unprejudiced of men, like Stubb, nowadays partake of cooked whales; but the Esquimaux are not so fastidious. We all know how they live upon whales and have rare old vintages of prime old train oil. Zogranda, one of their most famous doctors, recommends strips of blubber for infants as being exceedingly juicy and nourishing. And this reminds me that certain Englishmen, who long ago were accidentally left in Greenland by a whaling vessel—that these men actually lived for several months on the moldy scraps of whales which had been left ashore after trying out the blubber. Among the Dutch whalemen, these scraps are called “fritters,” which, indeed, they greatly resemble, being brown and crisp, and smelling something like old Amsterdam housewives’ dough-nuts or oly-cooks when fresh. They have such an eatable look that the most self-denying stranger can hardly keep his hands off.

But what further depreciates the whale as a civilized dish is his exceeding richness. He is the great prize ox of the sea, too fat to be delicately good. Look at his hump, which would be as fine eating as the buffalo’s (which is esteemed a rare dish), were it not such a solid pyramid of fat. But the spermaceti itself, how bland and creamy that is, like the transparent, half-jellied, white meat of a coconut in the third month of its growth, yet far too rich to supply a substitute for butter. Nevertheless, many whale men have a method of absorbing it into some other substance and then partaking of it. In the long try watches of the night, it is a common thing for the seamen to dip their ship-biscuit into the huge oil-pots and let them fry there awhile. Many a good supper have I thus made.

In the context of the passage, what does the underlined word “fastidious” mean? 

Possible Answers:

Full of pride

Hard to please

Not very smart

Grumpy

Correct answer:

Hard to please

Explanation:

"Fastidious" means choosy, picky, or hard to please. Because the Equimaux are not choosy or picky, they do not mind eating whales.

Example Question #51 : Humanities Passages

Adapted from Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851)

The fact is, that among his hunters at least, the whale would, by all hands, be considered a noble dish were there not so much of him; but when you come to sit down before a meat-pie nearly one hundred feet long, it takes away your appetite. Only the most unprejudiced of men, like Stubb, nowadays partake of cooked whales; but the Esquimaux are not so fastidious. We all know how they live upon whales and have rare old vintages of prime old train oil. Zogranda, one of their most famous doctors, recommends strips of blubber for infants as being exceedingly juicy and nourishing. And this reminds me that certain Englishmen, who long ago were accidentally left in Greenland by a whaling vessel—that these men actually lived for several months on the moldy scraps of whales which had been left ashore after trying out the blubber. Among the Dutch whalemen, these scraps are called “fritters,” which, indeed, they greatly resemble, being brown and crisp, and smelling something like old Amsterdam housewives’ dough-nuts or oly-cooks when fresh. They have such an eatable look that the most self-denying stranger can hardly keep his hands off.

But what further depreciates the whale as a civilized dish is his exceeding richness. He is the great prize ox of the sea, too fat to be delicately good. Look at his hump, which would be as fine eating as the buffalo’s (which is esteemed a rare dish), were it not such a solid pyramid of fat. But the spermaceti itself, how bland and creamy that is, like the transparent, half-jellied, white meat of a coconut in the third month of its growth, yet far too rich to supply a substitute for butter. Nevertheless, many whale men have a method of absorbing it into some other substance and then partaking of it. In the long try watches of the night, it is a common thing for the seamen to dip their ship-biscuit into the huge oil-pots and let them fry there awhile. Many a good supper have I thus made.

In the context of the passage, what does the underlined word "depreciates" mean?

Possible Answers:

Causes the material to decay faster

Lowers the cost or price of an item significantly

Causes the value to increase

Lessens the worth of an item

Correct answer:

Lessens the worth of an item

Explanation:

"Depreciate" means to lessen the price or value of or to think or speak of as being of little worth. In the context of the passage, it refers to the overall worth of an item, not its monetary value.

Example Question #31 : Finding Context Dependent Meanings Of Words In Argumentative Humanities Passages

Adapted from "The Eulogy of the Dog" by George Graham Vest (1870)

The best friend a man has in this world may turn against him and become his enemy. His son or daughter whom he has reared with loving care may prove ungrateful. Those who are nearest and dearest to us, those whom we trust with our happiness and our good name, may become traitors to their faith. The money that a man has, he may lose. It flies away from him, perhaps when he needs it the most. A man’s reputation may be sacrificed in a moment of ill-considered action. The people who are prone to fall on their knees to do us honor when success is with us may be the first to throw the stone of malice when failure settles its cloud upon our heads. The one absolutely unselfish friend that a man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him and the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous is his dog.

Gentlemen of the jury, a man’s dog stands by him in prosperity and in poverty, in health and in sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground, where the wintry winds blow and the snow drives fiercely, if only he can be near his master’s side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer, he will lick the wounds and sores that come in encounter with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince.

When all other friends desert, he remains. When riches take wings and reputation falls to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens. If fortune drives the master forth an outcast into the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of accompanying him, to guard him against danger, to fight against his enemies. And when the last scene of all comes, and death takes his master in its embrace and his body is laid in the cold ground, no matter if all other friends pursue their way, there by his graveside will the noble dog be found, his head between his paws, his eyes sad but open, in alert watchfulness, faithful and true, even unto death.

In the second paragraph, the underlined word “encounter” most nearly means __________.

Possible Answers:

contact 

avoidance 

fortune 

misfortune 

exercise 

Correct answer:

contact 

Explanation:

In context the word “encounter” means come into contact with. The author describes how a man’s dog “will lick the wounds and sores that come in encounter with the roughness of the world.” Of the five answer choices, “contact” fits most naturally.

Example Question #52 : Context Dependent Meaning Of Words In Humanities Passages

"Not Just Brains Can Be Smart: Why You Should Educate Your Body Too" by Megan Simon (2013)

Several years ago, a communications professor of mine was discussing the unequal opportunities that are available to African American students in America. Many students, she said, were told by society that the only way they could succeed and go on to a higher education was if they excelled at athletics. Discouraged from the hope of excelling in an intellectual field, they resorted to “selling their bodies.”

This comment, although obviously well-meant and addressed towards an unacceptable situation of racial inequality, disturbed me in a way that I was not able to articulate at the time. Reflecting upon it, however, it becomes obvious why I find this type of attitude deeply concerning. I am a dancer. The primary instrument in my field is the human body. I use my body everyday to gain creative, academic, and professional success. Am I selling myself?

Let’s say that I am. But now think about other professions, like literature or mathematics. Novelists, what do they do? They sell their words. Mathematicians? They sell their reasoning. And this exchange is socially acceptable. We strive to sell our brains, to place them on the open market. When it comes to the body, on the other hand, things become dirty, cheap—comparable to prostitution.

Academia does the best that it can to separate the mind from the body, to keep pure intellectualism free from the superficiality of the physical body. So proud are we of our human ability to think and reflect that we value the abstract world of reason more than corporeal one around us. We think that by doing so we remove physical limitations and supersede physical prejudices. But limitations and prejudices exist just as much in the realm of the mind as that of the body.

How is dance affected by this fierce devotion to the mind/body dichotomy? It has been forced to fight its way into academic institutions, even more so than the other arts. Visual arts and music are clearly products of the creative mind, but dance is tainted by its association with the body. Before gaining academic legitimacy, it has had to prove that it can be notated, theorized, and philosophized.

While I recognize the great value in these more mind-based approaches to dance, it worries me that so few people recognize the existence of a physical intelligence. Dancers know that movement communicates in a way that is not possible to articulate with words and logic. They know that they can train their bodies to be aware and communicate more effectively, that they can discover new approaches to movement and physical being, and that they can create a bodily discourse. I believe that everyone realizes the power of this communication on some level, but it is so often relegated to the role of interesting afterthought—If you are bored by the actual content of the presidential debates, here’s how to analyze the candidates’ gestures! We have an attitude that if we can’t come up with a consensus of how to describe it in words, it must not be worth studying. And with this attitude, we exclude so much of the world from the ivory tower.

I understand what that communications professor was trying to say. No one should think that their mind is not worthy of higher education. No one should be excluded from that type of intellectual endeavor. But focusing on training the body, whether it be athletics or dance or even everyday, physical communication, should not be seen as a less desirable alternative. The mind and the body could not exist without one another. It is past time that we threw away this arbitrary separation and embraced the entire human experience.

As used in the fifth paragraph, the underlined word “tainted” most nearly means __________.

Possible Answers:

affected

colored

made poisonous

made undesirable

supported

Correct answer:

made undesirable

Explanation:

In this case, dance is not literally poisoned by its association with the body. It is made to seem undesirable. “Affected” works in context but is not specific enough of an answer.

Example Question #51 : Humanities Passages

"Not Just Brains Can Be Smart: Why You Should Educate Your Body Too" by Megan Simon (2013)

Several years ago, a communications professor of mine was discussing the unequal opportunities that are available to African American students in America. Many students, she said, were told by society that the only way they could succeed and go on to a higher education was if they excelled at athletics. Discouraged from the hope of excelling in an intellectual field, they resorted to “selling their bodies.”

This comment, although obviously well-meant and addressed towards an unacceptable situation of racial inequality, disturbed me in a way that I was not able to articulate at the time. Reflecting upon it, however, it becomes obvious why I find this type of attitude deeply concerning. I am a dancer. The primary instrument in my field is the human body. I use my body everyday to gain creative, academic, and professional success. Am I selling myself?

Let’s say that I am. But now think about other professions, like literature or mathematics. Novelists, what do they do? They sell their words. Mathematicians? They sell their reasoning. And this exchange is socially acceptable. We strive to sell our brains, to place them on the open market. When it comes to the body, on the other hand, things become dirty, cheap—comparable to prostitution.

Academia does the best that it can to separate the mind from the body, to keep pure intellectualism free from the superficiality of the physical body. So proud are we of our human ability to think and reflect that we value the abstract world of reason more than corporeal one around us. We think that by doing so we remove physical limitations and supersede physical prejudices. But limitations and prejudices exist just as much in the realm of the mind as that of the body.

How is dance affected by this fierce devotion to the mind/body dichotomy? It has been forced to fight its way into academic institutions, even more so than the other arts. Visual arts and music are clearly products of the creative mind, but dance is tainted by its association with the body. Before gaining academic legitimacy, it has had to prove that it can be notated, theorized, and philosophized.

While I recognize the great value in these more mind-based approaches to dance, it worries me that so few people recognize the existence of a physical intelligence. Dancers know that movement communicates in a way that is not possible to articulate with words and logic. They know that they can train their bodies to be aware and communicate more effectively, that they can discover new approaches to movement and physical being, and that they can create a bodily discourse. I believe that everyone realizes the power of this communication on some level, but it is so often relegated to the role of interesting afterthought—If you are bored by the actual content of the presidential debates, here’s how to analyze the candidates’ gestures! We have an attitude that if we can’t come up with a consensus of how to describe it in words, it must not be worth studying. And with this attitude, we exclude so much of the world from the ivory tower.

I understand what that communications professor was trying to say. No one should think that their mind is not worthy of higher education. No one should be excluded from that type of intellectual endeavor. But focusing on training the body, whether it be athletics or dance or even everyday, physical communication, should not be seen as a less desirable alternative. The mind and the body could not exist without one another. It is past time that we threw away this arbitrary separation and embraced the entire human experience.

As used in the final paragraph, the underlined word “arbitrary” most nearly means __________.

Possible Answers:

authoritarian

random

casual

traditional

unjustified

Correct answer:

unjustified

Explanation:

“Arbitrary,” in this context, means that the separation does not have a justified cause or motivation. “Unjustified” is therefore the best answer. “Random,” “casual,” and “authoritarian” are words that are similar to other uses of “arbitrary,” but don’t work in this context.

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