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 #21 : Context Based Meaning Of A Word: Prose

As I ponder'd in silence,

  Returning upon my poems, considering, lingering long,

  A Phantom arose before me with distrustful aspect,

  Terrible in beauty, age, and power,

  The genius of poets of old lands,    (5)

  As to me directing like flame its eyes,

  With finger pointing to many immortal songs,

  And menacing voice, What singest thou? it said,

  Know'st thou not there is but one theme for ever-enduring bards?

  And that is the theme of War, the fortune of battles,    (10)

  The making of perfect soldiers.

(1855)

In line 3, what could we interpret the “Phantom” as?

Possible Answers:

A wrathful god

A dead soldier

A clever military enemy

The poet’s conscience

The poet’s contemporaries

Correct answer:

The poet’s conscience

Explanation:

In line 5, we see the Phantom described in other terms: “The genius of poets of old lands.” Moreover, at the end of the passage, the Phantom delivers poetic advice to the writer and tries to ascertain whether the writer is discussing fitting topics. In other words, the Phantom can stand in for the poet’s own sense of self-criticism or conscience.

Passage adapted from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” Leaves of Grass (1855).

Example Question #22 : Context Based Meaning Of A Word: Prose

"Well, then," said he, "this is the berth for me. Here you, matey," he cried to the man who trundled the barrow; "bring up alongside and help up my chest. I'll stay here a bit," he continued. "I'm a plain man; rum and bacon and eggs is what I want, and that head up there for to watch ships off. What you mought call me? You mought call me captain. Oh, I see what you're at—there"; and he threw down three or four gold pieces on the threshold. "You can tell me when I've worked through that," says he, looking as fierce as a commander.

And indeed bad as his clothes were and coarsely as he spoke, he had none of the appearance of a man who sailed before the mast, but seemed like a mate or skipper accustomed to be obeyed or to strike. The man who came with the barrow told us the mail had set him down the morning before at the Royal George, that he had inquired what inns there were along the coast, and hearing ours well spoken of, I suppose, and described as lonely, had chosen it from the others for his place of residence. And that was all we could learn of our guest.

Based on context, what is meant by “head” (paragraph 1)?

Possible Answers:

Bluff

Slough

Skull

Dale

Visage

Correct answer:

Bluff

Explanation:

Based simply on the rest of this sentence (“for to watch ships off”), we can conclude that a “head” is a high vantage point overlooking water. This eliminates “dale” (valley) and “slough” (swamp) as well as the more common associations with “head” (visage and skull). We’re left with bluff, which is a synonym for escarpment or cliff.

Passage adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, 1883.

Example Question #23 : Context Based Meaning Of A Word: Prose

. . . Suffering is one very long moment. We cannot divide it by seasons. We can only record its moods, and chronicle their return. With us time itself does not progress. It revolves. It seems to circle round one centre of pain. The paralysing immobility of a life every circumstance of which is regulated after an unchangeable pattern, so that we eat and drink and lie down and pray, or kneel at least for prayer, according to the inflexible laws of an iron formula: this immobile quality, that makes each dreadful day in the very minutest detail like its brother, seems to communicate itself to those external forces the very essence of whose existence is ceaseless change. Of seed-time or harvest, of the reapers bending over the corn, or the grape gatherers threading through the vines, of the grass in the orchard made white with broken blossoms or strewn with fallen fruit: of these we know nothing and can know nothing.

For us there is only one season, the season of sorrow. The very sun and moon seem taken from us. Outside, the day may be blue and gold, but the light that creeps down through the thickly-muffled glass of the small iron-barred window beneath which one sits is grey and niggard. It is always twilight in one’s cell, as it is always twilight in one’s heart. And in the sphere of thought, no less than in the sphere of time, motion is no more. The thing that you personally have long ago forgotten, or can easily forget, is happening to me now, and will happen to me again to-morrow. Remember this, and you will be able to understand a little of why I am writing, and in this manner writing. . . .

(1897)

The word "chronicle" near the beginning of the first paragraph most closely means ____________________.

Possible Answers:

suffer

wait for

keep a record of

fight against

write poetry about

Correct answer:

keep a record of

Explanation:

A clue to the meaning of the word "chronicle" is that is appears in this parallel construction: "record its moods, and chronicle their return."  "Chronicle" does indeed mean something very similar to the word "record." Just as the speaker is saying he notices and takes note of the "moods" of suffering, so he notices and takes note of--"keep[s] a record of"--the return of these moods.  

Passage excerpted from Oscar Wilde's De Profundis (1897).

Example Question #1 : Word Meaning In Context

Adapted from "The Book of the Grotesque" in Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson (1919)

In his bed the writer rolled over on his side and lay quite still. For years he had been beset with notions concerning his heart. He was a hard smoker and his heart fluttered. The idea had got into his mind that he would some time die unexpectedly and always when he got into bed he thought of that. It did not alarm him. The effect in fact was quite a special thing and not easily explained. It made him more alive, there in bed, than at any other time. Perfectly still he lay and his body was old and not of much use any more, but something inside him was altogether young. He was like a pregnant woman, only that the thing inside him was not a baby but a youth. No, it wasn’t a youth, it was a woman, young, and wearing a coat of mail like a knight. It is absurd, you see, to try to tell what was inside the old writer as he lay on his high bed and listened to the fluttering of his heart. The thing to get at is what the writer, or the young thing within the writer, was thinking about.

. . .

In the bed the writer had a dream that was not a dream. As he grew somewhat sleepy but was still conscious, figures began to appear before his eyes. He imagined the young indescribable thing within himself was driving a long procession of figures before his eyes.

You see the interest in all this lies in the figures that went before the eyes of the writer. They were all grotesques. All of the men and women the writer had ever known had become grotesques.

The grotesques were not all horrible. Some were amusing, some almost beautiful, and one, a woman all drawn out of shape, hurt the old man by her grotesqueness. When she passed he made a noise like a small dog whimpering. Had you come into the room you might have supposed the old man had unpleasant dreams or perhaps indigestion.

For an hour the procession of grotesques passed before the eyes of the old man, and then, although it was a painful thing to do, he crept out of bed and began to write. Some one of the grotesques had made a deep impression on his mind and he wanted to describe it.

At his desk the writer worked for an hour. In the end he wrote a book which he called “The Book of the Grotesque.” It was never published, but I saw it once and it made an indelible impression on my mind. The book had one central thought that is very strange and has always remained with me. By remembering it I have been able to understand many people and things that I was never able to understand before. The thought was involved but a simple statement of it would be something like this:

That in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truths and they were all beautiful.

The old man had listed hundreds of the truths in his book. I will not try to tell you of all of them. There was the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of thrift and profligacy, of carelessness and abandon. Hundreds and hundreds were the truths and they were all beautiful.

And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them.

It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.

In the sixth paragraph, the word "indelible" most nearly means what?

Possible Answers:

Unforgettable

Ubiquitous

Disturbing

Remarkable

Ambiguous

Correct answer:

Unforgettable

Explanation:

"Indelible" means something that cannot be erased or forgotten. The narrator will never forget the ideas he encountered in "The Book of the Grotesque."

Example Question #1 : Word Meaning In Context

Adapted from "The Book of the Grotesque" in Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson (1919)

In his bed the writer rolled over on his side and lay quite still. For years he had been beset with notions concerning his heart. He was a hard smoker and his heart fluttered. The idea had got into his mind that he would some time die unexpectedly and always when he got into bed he thought of that. It did not alarm him. The effect in fact was quite a special thing and not easily explained. It made him more alive, there in bed, than at any other time. Perfectly still he lay and his body was old and not of much use any more, but something inside him was altogether young. He was like a pregnant woman, only that the thing inside him was not a baby but a youth. No, it wasn’t a youth, it was a woman, young, and wearing a coat of mail like a knight. It is absurd, you see, to try to tell what was inside the old writer as he lay on his high bed and listened to the fluttering of his heart. The thing to get at is what the writer, or the young thing within the writer, was thinking about.

. . .

In the bed the writer had a dream that was not a dream. As he grew somewhat sleepy but was still conscious, figures began to appear before his eyes. He imagined the young indescribable thing within himself was driving a long procession of figures before his eyes.

You see the interest in all this lies in the figures that went before the eyes of the writer. They were all grotesques. All of the men and women the writer had ever known had become grotesques.

The grotesques were not all horrible. Some were amusing, some almost beautiful, and one, a woman all drawn out of shape, hurt the old man by her grotesqueness. When she passed he made a noise like a small dog whimpering. Had you come into the room you might have supposed the old man had unpleasant dreams or perhaps indigestion.

For an hour the procession of grotesques passed before the eyes of the old man, and then, although it was a painful thing to do, he crept out of bed and began to write. Some one of the grotesques had made a deep impression on his mind and he wanted to describe it.

At his desk the writer worked for an hour. In the end he wrote a book which he called “The Book of the Grotesque.” It was never published, but I saw it once and it made an indelible impression on my mind. The book had one central thought that is very strange and has always remained with me. By remembering it I have been able to understand many people and things that I was never able to understand before. The thought was involved but a simple statement of it would be something like this:

That in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truths and they were all beautiful.

The old man had listed hundreds of the truths in his book. I will not try to tell you of all of them. There was the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of thrift and profligacy, of carelessness and abandon. Hundreds and hundreds were the truths and they were all beautiful.

And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them.

It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.

In paragraph eight, the word "profligacy" most nearly means what?

Possible Answers:

Profundity

Opulence

Extravagance

Miserliness

Degeneracy

Correct answer:

Extravagance

Explanation:

"Profligacy" means reckless extravagance and disregard for accepted boundaries and norms. This can be gleaned from context, as the word must offer a contrast to "thrift," meaning frugality and economy. "Opulence" (meaning wealth) may be seen as a good option, but it is not a definition of "profligacy" and does not offer a true contrast to "thrift," as a wealthy person may still be thrifty.

Example Question #61 : Overall Language Or Specific Words, Phrases, Or Sentences

Passage adapted from “Reconstruction” by Frederick Douglass (1866)

Without attempting to settle here the metaphysical and somewhat theological question (about which so much has already been said and written), whether once in the Union means always in the Union—agreeably to the formula, “Once in grace always in grace”—it is obvious to common sense that the rebellious States stand today, in point of law, precisely where they stood when, exhausted, beaten, conquered, they fell powerless at the feet of Federal authority. Their State governments were overthrown, and the lives and property of the leaders of the Rebellion were forfeited. In reconstructing the institutions of these shattered and overthrown States, Congress should begin with a clean slate, and make clean work of it.

Let there be no hesitation. It would be a cowardly deference to a defeated and treacherous President, if any account were made of the illegitimate, one-sided, sham governments hurried into existence for a malign purpose in the absence of Congress. These pretended governments, which were never submitted to the people, and from participation in which four millions of the loyal people were excluded by Presidential order, should now be treated according to their true character, as shams and impositions, and supplanted by true and legitimate governments, in the formation of which loyal men, black and white, shall participate.

It is not, however, within the scope of this paper to point out the precise steps to be taken, and the means to be employed. The people are less concerned about these than the grand end to be attained. They demand such a reconstruction as shall put an end to the present anarchical state of things in the late rebellious States—where frightful murders and wholesale massacres are perpetrated in the very presence of Federal soldiers. This horrible business they require shall cease. They want a reconstruction such as will protect loyal men, black and white, in their persons and property; such a one as will cause Northern industry, Northern capital, and Northern civilization to flow into the South, and make a man from New England as much at home in Carolina as elsewhere in the Republic. No Chinese wall can now be tolerated. The South must be opened to the light of law and liberty, and this session of Congress is relied upon to accomplish this important work.

What is the meaning of the underlined word "pretended"?

Possible Answers:

That the governments in question were mostly based upon mythical tales

That the governments did not follow the general rules for government laid out in political philosophy

That the leaders did not know how to lead

That the governments in question were mere play-things

That the governments were false governments

Correct answer:

That the governments were false governments

Explanation:

The word "pretend," of course, can deal with imaginary matters or with things that are "made up." This general meaning is at play in this usage, though it must be understood aright. The idea is that the governments in question "pretended" to have authority. The meaning is akin to that of "pretense," meaning a false claim. Clearly, based on Douglass's strong words, these governments falsely claimed to be real governments when, in fact, they were not at all such!

Example Question #24 : Context Based Meaning Of A Word: Prose

The fundamental source of all your errors, sophisms, and false reasonings, is a total ignorance of the natural rights of mankind. Were you once to become acquainted with these, you could never entertain a thought, that all men are not, by nature, entitled to a parity of privileges. You would be convinced that natural liberty is a gift of the beneficent Creator to the whole human race, and that civil liberty is founded in that, and cannot be wrested from any people without the most manifest violation of justice. Civil liberty is only natural liberty, modified and secured by the sanctions of civil society. It is not a thing, in its own nature, precarious and dependent on human will and caprice, but it is conformable to the constitution of man, as well as necessary to the well-being of society.

....

Thus Sir, I have taken a pretty general survey of the American Charters; and proved to the satisfaction of every unbiassed person, that they are intirely, discordant with that sovereignty of parliament, for which you are an advocate. The disingenuity of your extracts (to give it no harsher name) merits the severest censure; and will no doubt serve to discredit all your former, as well as future labours, in your favourite cause of despotism.

It is true, that New-York has no Charter. But, if it could support it’s claim to liberty in no other way, it might, with justice, plead the common principles of colonization: for, it would be unreasonable, to seclude one colony, from the enjoyment of the most important privileges of the rest. There is no need, however, of this plea: The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records. They are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.

 

(1775)

Based on context, what is a likely meaning of the word "sophisms" in the first paragraph?

Possible Answers:

Violations of natural rights

Military action

Inability to understand

Untrue arguments

Political antagonism

Correct answer:

Untrue arguments

Explanation:

There is a strong contextual clue to understanding what "sophisms" means at the beginning of the first paragraph. It appears in a list of similar things: "The fundamental source of all your errors, sophisms, and false reasonings, is..." From this it is possible to conclude that "sophisms" must mean something that is similar to both "errors" and "false reasonsings." "Untrue arguments" fits in best with these, and in fact, "sophisms," sometimes termed "sophistry," is a word that describes false (and often intentionally false) argumentation.

Passage adapted from Alexander Hamilton's The Farmer Refuted (1775).

Example Question #25 : Context Based Meaning Of A Word: Prose

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.  This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”

… The speaker, and the schoolmaster, and the third grown person present, all backed a little, and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.

Based on the context of paragraph 2, what are the “vessels”?

Possible Answers:

Schoolchildren

Principles

Glasses

Barrels

Facts

Correct answer:

Schoolchildren

Explanation:

Given the mention of the “schoolmaster” in paragraph 2 and the clear allusions to education in paragraph 1, we can surmise that this scene takes place in a classroom. We can also notice that these “vessels” are “ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them,” which hints that they’re not literal vessels but rather receptacles for learning. Schoolchildren is the only choice that makes sense in this context.

Passage adapted from Charles Dickens’s Hard Times (1854)

Example Question #26 : Context Based Meaning Of A Word: Prose

Be not alarmed, Madam, on receiving this letter, by the apprehension of its containing any repetition of those sentiments, or renewal of those offers, which were last night so disgusting to you. I write without any intention of paining you, or humbling myself, by dwelling on wishes, which, for the happiness of both, cannot be too soon forgotten; and the effort which the formation and the perusal of this letter must occasion should have been spared, had not my character required it to be written and read. You must, therefore, pardon the freedom with which I demand your attention; your feelings, I know, will bestow it unwillingly, but I demand it of your justice.

.....

This, madam, is a faithful narrative of every event in which we have been concerned together; and if you do not absolutely reject it as false, you will, I hope, acquit me henceforth of cruelty towards Mr. Wickham. I know not in what manner, under what form of falsehood, he has imposed on you; but his success is not, perhaps, to be wondered at. Ignorant as you previously were of every thing concerning either, detection could not be in your power, and suspicion certainly not in your inclination. You may possibly wonder why all this was not told you last night. But I was not then master enough of myself to know what could or ought to be revealed. For the truth of every thing here related, I can appeal more particularly to the testimony of Colonel Fitzwilliam, who from our near relationship and constant intimacy, and still more as one of the executors of my father's will, has been unavoidably acquainted with every particular of these transactions. If your abhorrence of me should make my assertions valueless, you cannot be prevented by the same cause from confiding in my cousin; and that there may be the possibility of consulting him, I shall endeavour to find some opportunity of putting this letter in your hands in the course of the morning. I will only add, God bless you.

 

(1813)

What is the context-based meaning of the word "faithful" at the beginning of the second paragraph?

Possible Answers:

Loyal

Possessing the virtue of Faith

Hopeful

Having faith in God, religious

True to what really happened, accurate

Correct answer:

True to what really happened, accurate

Explanation:

At the beginning of the second paragraph, "faithful" is used as a descriptor for the "narrative." It is the story, the written account of events, that the speaker describes as "faithful." A written account of events cannot have faith in God, or possess the virtue of Faith, or be hopeful or loyal; these are qualities of human beings, who have minds and hearts. The word "faithful" here, then, most sensibly means accurate, correct, or "true to what really happened."

Passage adapted from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813).

Example Question #27 : Context Based Meaning Of A Word: Prose

"Monseigneur, one of the great lords in power at the Court, held his fortnightly reception in his grand hotel in Paris. Monseigneur was in his inner room, his sanctuary of sanctuaries, the Holiest of Holiests to the crowd of worshippers in the suite rooms without. Monseigneur was about to take his chocolate. Monseigneur could swallow a great many things with ease, and was by some few sullen minds supposed to be rather rapidly swallowing France; but, his morning's chocolate could not so much as get into the throat of Monseigneur without the aid of four strong men besides the cook.

Yes. It took four men, all four a-blaze with gorgeous decoration, and the chief of them unable to exist with fewer than two gold watches in his pocket, emulative of the noble and caste fashion set by Monseigneur, to conduct the happy chocolate to Monseigneur's lips. One lacquey carried the chocolate-pot into the sacred presence; a second milled and frothed the chocolate with the little instrument he bore for that function; a third presented his favorite napkin; a fourth (he of two gold watches) poured the chocolate out. It was impossible for Monseigneur to dispense with one of these attendants on the chocolate and hold his high place under the admiring heavens. Deep would have been the blot upon his escutcheon if his chocolate had been ignobly waited on by only three men; he must have died of two."

(1859)

Which of the following is most likely the definition of the bolded and underlined word in the passage?

Possible Answers:

A merchant

A noble

Servant

A French peasant

Chocolate-server

Correct answer:

Servant

Explanation:

From the context of the passage, which describes the characters' job roles, the reader can infer that a "lacquey" is an employee, or servant of the Monseigneur. "Chocolate-server" is too specific and doesn't reflect the content of the sentence. The other responses do not accurately reflect the context of the passage.

Passage adapted from Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

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