SAT II Literature : Context-Based Meaning of a Word: Prose

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for SAT II Literature

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Example Questions

Example Question #11 : Context Based Meaning Of A Word: Prose

… The figure of that first ancestor, invested by family tradition with a dim and dusky grandeur, was present to my boyish imagination as far back as I can remember. It still haunts me, and induces a sort of home-feeling with the past, which I scarcely claim in reference to the present phase of the town. I seem to have a stronger claim to a residence here on account of this grave, bearded, sable-cloaked, and steeple-crowned progenitor—who came so early, with his Bible and his sword, and trode the unworn street with such a stately port, and made so large a figure, as a man of war and peace—a stronger claim than for myself, whose name is seldom heard and my face hardly known. He was a soldier, legislator, judge; he was a ruler in the Church; he had all the Puritanic traits, both good and evil. He was likewise a bitter persecutor; as witness the Quakers, who have remembered him in their histories, and relate an incident of his hard severity towards a woman of their sect, which will last longer, it is to be feared, than any record of his better deeds, although these were many. His son, too, inherited the persecuting spirit, and made himself so conspicuous in the martyrdom of the witches, that their blood may fairly be said to have left a stain upon him. So deep a stain, indeed, that his dry old bones, in the Charter-street burial-ground, must still retain it, if they have not crumbled utterly to dust! I know not whether these ancestors of mine bethought themselves to repent, and ask pardon of Heaven for their cruelties; or whether they are now groaning under the heavy consequences of them in another state of being.

(1850)

Based on context, what does “progenitor” (sentence 3) mean?

Possible Answers:

Hermit

Juror

Forebear

Adjudicator

Acolyte

Correct answer:

Forebear

Explanation:

Judging by the narrator’s focus on family traditions and ancestors and the specific reference in sentence 3 to the ancestor’s grave, we can guess that the narrator is referring to a specific person that he is a descendant of. Indeed, the definition of progenitor is forebear or ancestor. A hermit is a recluse, and an acolyte is a follower or disciple. While the ancestor in question was in fact a judge, adjudicator is not a synonym for progenitor (nor is juror).

Passage adapted from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. (1850)

Example Question #12 : Context Based Meaning Of A Word: Prose

  And first, truly, to all them that, professing learning, inveigh against poetry, may justly be objected that they go very near to ungratefulness, to seek to deface that which, in the noblest nations and languages that are known, hath been the first light-giver to ignorance, and first nurse, whose milk by little and little enabled them to feed afterwards of tougher knowledges. And will they now play the hedgehog, that, being received into the den, drave out his host? Or rather the vipers, that with their birth kill their parents?

Let learned Greece in any of her manifold sciences be able to show me one book before Musæus, Homer, and Hesiod, all three nothing else but poets. Nay, let any history be brought that can say any writers were there before them, if they were not men of the same skill, as Orpheus, Linus, and some other are named, who, having been the first of that country that made pens deliver of their knowledge to their posterity, may justly challenge to be called their fathers in learning. For not only in time they had this priority—although in itself antiquity be venerable—but went before them, as causes to draw with their charming sweetness the wild untamed wits to an admiration of knowledge. So as Amphion was said to move stones with his poetry to build Thebes, and Orpheus to be listened to by beasts,—indeed stony and beastly people. So among the Romans were Livius Andronicus and Ennius; so in the Italian language the first that made it aspire to be a treasure-house of science were the poets Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch; so in our English were Gower and Chaucer, after whom, encouraged and delighted with their excellent fore-going, others have followed to beautify our mother tongue, as well in the same kind as in other arts. 

(1595)

The word "inveigh" at the beginning of the first paragraph most closely means _______________.

Possible Answers:

encourage

bring to court

attack physically

dislike

attack verbally

Correct answer:

attack verbally

Explanation:

"Inveigh" means to attack in speech or writing.

 It cannot be "attack physically" because the thing being "inveighed against" is poetry in general, which cannot be attacked physically. There is no evidence in the passage that we are talking about a court case, and once again, one could not bring "poetry" to court. Dislike is both too mild and too inactive to be a good match, especially considering the comparisons to the violence of creatures in nature at the end of the paragraph. The hedgehog or viper does not merely "dislike" its victims in that section; it actively attacks them. And finally, given the context, "inveigh" cannot possibly mean a word with such a positive connotation as "encourage."

Passage adapted from Sir Philip Sidney's The Defense of Poesy (1595).

Example Question #13 : Context Based Meaning Of A Word: Prose

After considering the historic page, and viewing the living world with anxious solicitude, the most melancholy emotions of sorrowful indignation have depressed my spirits, and I have sighed when obliged to confess, that either nature has made a great difference between man and man, or that the civilization which has hitherto taken place in the world has been very partial. I have turned over various books written on the subject of education, and patiently observed the conduct of parents and the management of schools; but what has been the result?—a profound conviction that the neglected education of my fellow-creatures is the grand source of the misery I deplore; and that women, in particular, are rendered weak and wretched by a variety of concurring causes, originating from one hasty conclusion. The conduct and manners of women, in fact, evidently prove that their minds are not in a healthy state; for, like the flowers which are planted in too rich a soil, strength and usefulness are sacrificed to beauty; and the flaunting leaves, after having pleased a fastidious eye, fade, disregarded on the stalk, long before the season when they ought to have arrived at maturity.—One cause of this barren blooming I attribute to a false system of education, gathered from the books written on this subject by men who, considering females rather as women than human creatures, have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than wives; and the understanding of the sex has been so bubbled by this specious homage, that the civilized women of the present century, with a few exceptions, are only anxious to inspire love, when they ought to cherish a nobler ambition, and by their abilities and virtues exact respect.

(1792)

Judging by context the word "bubbled" near the end of the paragraph most likely means __________________.

Possible Answers:

confused

liquefied

ignored

pleased

improved

Correct answer:

confused

Explanation:

Here the word "bubbled" most closely means "confused." Within the context of the whole passage, it is clear that the author is writing about a confused and impoverished understanding of women and their capabilities. In the sentence preceding "bubbled," the author describes the highly defective education which women in her time received. Therefore, by the time we arrive at "the understanding of the sex has been so bubbled by this specious homage," it is clear that "bubbled" must mean this "understanding" is somehow obstructed or in error--in short, confused.

Passage adapted from Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).

Example Question #14 : Context Based Meaning Of A Word: Prose

One Saturday evening, at a time when he had not yet gone into housekeeping with Mademoiselle Mimi, who will shortly make her appearance, Rodolphe made the acquaintance at the table he frequented of a ladies' wardrobe keeper, named Mademoiselle Laure. Having learned that he was editor of "The Scarf of Iris" and of "The Beaver," two fashion papers, the milliner, in hope of getting her goods puffed, commenced a series of significant provocations. To these provocations Rodolphe replied by a pyrotechnical display of madrigals, sufficient to make Benserade, Voiture, and all other dealers in the fireworks of gallantry jealous; and at the end of the dinner, Mademoiselle Laure, having learned that he was a poet, gave him clearly to understand that she was not indisposed to accept him as her Petrarch. She even, without circumlocution, made an appointment with him for the next day.

Based on context, what word could be substituted for “provocations” (sentence 2)?

Possible Answers:

Instigations 

Rumors

Antagonisms

Warnings

Flirtations

Correct answer:

Flirtations

Explanation:

While provocation has several different meanings, it is used ironically in this passage. Mademoiselle Laure is perpetrating these “provocations” against Rodolphe, to whom she is clearly attracted, and the end result of them is that they set a date for the next day. Based on this interpretation, the only synonym that makes sense is “flirtations.”

Passage adapted from Henry Murger’s Bohemians of the Latin Quarter (1888).

Example Question #15 : Context Based Meaning Of A Word: Prose

 (1) During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. (2) I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. (3) I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. (4) I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium—the bitter lapse into every-day life—the hideous dropping off of the veil.

Based on context, what does “sedges” (sentence 4) mean?

Possible Answers:

Streams

Outbuildings

Reminiscences

Grasses

Onlookers

Correct answer:

Grasses

Explanation:

Even if you didn’t know that sedge was a type of long grass, you could eliminate the other answers based on context clues. The word comes in the midst of descriptions about the landscape around the house, and we know that it is described as “rank,” so it must be something that belongs to a landscape and that is capable of rotting and smelling bad. “Grasses” is the only logical answer left.

Passage adapted from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” (1839).

Example Question #51 : Context Based Meaning Of A Word

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness; that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of these colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former systems of government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.

(1776)

The context suggest that the word "candid" at the end of the second paragraph most closely means _________________.

Possible Answers:

not posed

unbiased

sympathetic

bright

unprepared

Correct answer:

unbiased

Explanation:

The context suggests that the author(s) of this passage would want to submit their declaration to an unprejudiced, fair judge. "Unbiased" is therefore a good equivalent for the word "candid" here.  

"Unprepared," "not posed," and "bright" are all possible meanings of the word "candid" in the English language, but none of them are supported by the context. "Sympathetic" is not appropriate because the author(s) are not making an emotional appeal, but a rational one. See, for instance, that they are presenting "facts" in the last sentence.

Passage adapted from The Declaration of Independence of the Continental Congress of the United States of America in 1776.

Example Question #16 : Context Based Meaning Of A Word: Prose

(1) From the listless repose of the place, and the peculiar character of its inhabitants, who are descendants from the original Dutch settlers, this sequestered glen has long been known by the name of Sleepy Hollow, and its rustic lads are called the Sleepy Hollow Boys throughout all the neighboring country. (2) A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere. (3) Some say that the place was bewitched by a High German doctor, during the early days of the settlement; others, that an old Indian chief, the prophet or wizard of his tribe, held his powwows there before the country was discovered by Master Hendrick Hudson. (4) Certain it is, the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie. (5) They are given to all kinds of marvelous beliefs, are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air. (6) The whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions; stars shoot and meteors glare oftener across the valley than in any other part of the country, and the nightmare, with her whole ninefold, seems to make it the favorite scene of her gambols.

(1820)

Based on context, what word could be substituted for “glare” (sentence 6)?

Possible Answers:

Appear

Fade

Glower

Scowl

Fall

Correct answer:

Appear

Explanation:

The meaning of the sentence is that strange celestial appearances happen more frequently above Sleepy Hollow than in other places. Based on this meaning, “appear” is the only choice that makes sense. "Glower" and "scowl" are both synonyms for glare, but they don’t make sense in the context of celestial bodies. Stars and meteors do sometimes fall and fade, but there is nothing in the passage to indicate that these particular stars and meteors are doing so.

Passage adapted from Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820)

Example Question #17 : Context Based Meaning Of A Word: Prose

(1) From the listless repose of the place, and the peculiar character of its inhabitants, who are descendants from the original Dutch settlers, this sequestered glen has long been known by the name of Sleepy Hollow, and its rustic lads are called the Sleepy Hollow Boys throughout all the neighboring country. (2) A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere. (3) Some say that the place was bewitched by a High German doctor, during the early days of the settlement; others, that an old Indian chief, the prophet or wizard of his tribe, held his powwows there before the country was discovered by Master Hendrick Hudson. (4) Certain it is, the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie. (5) They are given to all kinds of marvelous beliefs, are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air. (6) The whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions; stars shoot and meteors glare oftener across the valley than in any other part of the country, and the nightmare, with her whole ninefold, seems to make it the favorite scene of her gambols.

(1820)

Based on context, what does “gambols” (sentence 6) mean?

Possible Answers:

Frolicking

Harvesting

Gambling

Philosophizing

Scrutinizing

Correct answer:

Frolicking

Explanation:

The personified nightmare in sentence 6 makes Sleepy Hollow “the favorite scene” of these “gambols,” so we know that the word describes an action that a nightmare would enjoy doing in a spooky place. “Frolicking” is the best choice, since it’s both enjoyable and general enough to suit the sentence. (And indeed, to "gambol" is to frolic, cavort, or romp.) All the other choices are too specific or random to fit.

Passage adapted from Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820)

Example Question #18 : Context Based Meaning Of A Word: Prose

(1) The Baron's lady weighed about three hundred and fifty pounds, and was therefore a person of great consideration, and she did the honours of the house with a dignity that commanded still greater respect. (2) Her daughter Cunegonde was seventeen years of age, fresh-coloured, comely, plump, and desirable. (3) The Baron’s son seemed to be in every respect worthy of his father. (4) The Preceptor Pangloss was the oracle of the family, and little Candide heard his lessons with all the good faith of his age and character. (5)

Pangloss was professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. (6) He proved admirably that there is no effect without a cause, and that, in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron's castle was the most magnificent of castles, and his lady the best of all possible Baronesses.

(1759)

Based on context, what does the term “fresh-coloured” (sentence 2) likely mean?

Possible Answers:

Rosy-cheeked

Lovely

Very pale

Unsightly

Impertinent

Correct answer:

Rosy-cheeked

Explanation:

Although “fresh” can mean impertinent in other settings, we need to consider the context of this sentence. In sentence 2, we see various physical descriptions of the daughter, so we can surmise that “fresh-coloured” must also describe a physical quality. “Lovely” is too broad, and “unsightly” contradicts the other positive descriptions, but “rosy-cheeked” captures the implied vivacity and youth.

Passage adapted from Voltaire’s Candide (1759)

Example Question #19 : Context Based Meaning Of A Word: Prose

The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.

From the corner of the divan of Persian saddlebags on which he was lying, smoking, as was his custom, innumerable cigarettes, Lord Henry Wotton could just catch the gleam of the honey-sweet and honey-coloured blossoms of a laburnum, whose tremulous branches seemed hardly able to bear the burden of a beauty so flame-like as theirs; and now and then the fantastic shadows of birds in flight flitted across the long tussore-silk curtains that were stretched in front of the huge window, producing a kind of momentary Japanese effect, and making him think of those pallid jade-faced painters of Tokio who, through the medium of an art that is necessarily immobile, seek to convey the sense of swiftness and motion. The sullen murmur of the bees shouldering their way through the long unmown grass, or circling with monotonous insistence round the dusty gilt horns of the straggling woodbine, seemed to make the stillness more oppressive. The dim roar of London was like the bourdon note of a distant organ.

In the centre of the room, clamped to an upright easel, stood the full-length portrait of a young man of extraordinary personal beauty, and in front of it, some little distance away, was sitting the artist himself, Basil Hallward, whose sudden disappearance some years ago caused, at the time, such public excitement, and gave rise to so many strange conjectures.

Based on context, what is a “divan” (paragraph 2)?

Possible Answers:

Bed

Easel

Pommel horse

Sofa

Drapery

Correct answer:

Sofa

Explanation:

We know that Lord Henry Wotton is lying and smoking upon this object, so it stands to reason that it is not a "pommel horse," "an easel," or "drapery." Because the room is a studio that also contains an easel, it’s more likely that a "divan" is a "sofa" than a "bed." In fact, a "divan" is a long, stylish sofa, usually lacking a back.

Passage adapted from The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1890)

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