SSAT Upper Level Reading : Determining Authorial Purpose in Argumentative Humanities Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for SSAT Upper Level Reading

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Example Questions

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Example Question #11 : Determining Authorial Purpose In Argumentative Humanities Passages

"Commentaries" by Matthew Minerd (2013)

The idea of a commentary is not anywhere as simple as most people think. To the popular imagination, the commentator makes a few observations based on a text, not going far beyond its contents. This standard opinion completely misses the various types of commentaries that can be written. Indeed, even the notion of “literal commentary” is itself so variegated that it is incorrect to imagine that such “literal” work is merely a slavish repetition of an original text.

Some literal commentaries truly are “literal,” that is, based on the letters and words of the text. Such philological studies investigate the language structures and meanings of a text. The interpretation of the text proceeds based on these linguistic investigations. Often, this process will note the types of rhetoric being used, the dialects utilized, and any odd language structures that might imply something with regard to the text’s meaning. All of these methods remain very concerned with the “letter of the text” in a very direct manner.

Indeed, even the Medieval commentaries on Aristotle’s works could be considered “literal,” though they do differ from such linguistic approaches. Men like Thomas Aquinas would very carefully read Aristotle’s text, giving what was called a divisio textus for every section of the text in question. This “division of the text” sought to provide a succinct but correct outline of the text in question so that its literal meaning might be more easily noticed. Certainly, the commentary that followed this divisio textus did express some aspects of Aquinas’ own thought. However, he (like other literal commentators of this type) would attempt to remain as close to the literal meaning of the text as possible, always using the divisio textus as a guide for understanding the structure of the original author’s thought.

What is the overall purpose of this passage?

Possible Answers:

To call into question a modern hypothesis regarding commentaries

To show all of the different types of commentaries that one might write

To present a general idea and provide several examples in confirmation 

To contrast two different types of commenting on a text

To argue forcefully on behalf of a thesis

Correct answer:

To present a general idea and provide several examples in confirmation 

Explanation:

The general purpose of this passage is expressed in the first paragraph. Clearly, the text intends to remark that commentaries are more complex of a reality than many realize. Then, it cites two examples taken from the class of commentaries known as "literal commentaries." It does not claim to provide a complete set of examples. Thus, it introduces the general idea regarding the complexity of the notion "commentary" and then follows this with several examples.

Example Question #1 : Passage Wide Features Of Humanities Passages

Adapted from "The Philosophy of Composition" by Edgar Allan Poe (1846)

Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before any thing be attempted with the pen. It is only with the dénouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention.

There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story. Either history affords a thesis—or one is suggested by an incident of the day—or, at best, the author sets himself to work in the combination of striking events to form merely the basis of his narrative—designing, generally, to fill in with description, dialogue, or autorial comment, whatever crevices of fact, or action, may, from page to page, render themselves apparent.

I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view—for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest—I say to myself, in the first place, “Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?” Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can best be wrought by incident or tone—whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone—afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect.

By italicizing dénouement, Poe is most likely __________.

Possible Answers:

showing that the word is French rather than English

pointing out a word the reader may not know

making it easy for the reader to count how many times he uses the word

emphasizing it in the same way he emphasizes effect and always

Correct answer:

showing that the word is French rather than English

Explanation:

Since Poe repeats the word "dénouement" and italicizes it both times, it's more likely that he is using italics to show the word's foreign origin rather than using italics to merely emphasize it as he does with the later words like "effect" and "always."

Example Question #6 : Ideas In Contemporary Life Passages

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 primary purpose of this passage is to __________.

Possible Answers:

mock youthfulness

establish a precedent

compile a list

establish a counterargument

give unconventional advice

Correct answer:

give unconventional advice

Explanation:

The author establishes the purpose of this passage in the first paragraph. The first two sentences reveal that the author intends to use this passage to give advice. He says: “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.” From there you are required to understand the author’s tone to gather that the author feels this advice is in some way different from the advice that would more commonly be given to young people.

Example Question #31 : Authorial Attitude, Tone, And Purpose In Argumentative Humanities Passages

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 third paragraph best captures the author’s __________.

Possible Answers:

emphasis on humor

point of view

opinion on animals

misgivings

frustrations

Correct answer:

emphasis on humor

Explanation:

The third paragraph appears right in the middle of the passage and compared to the other paragraphs offers relatively little practical or serious advice. Because it offers comparably little it is unlikely that the third paragraph is being used to capture the author’s point of view. Although an animal is mentioned, the author makes no reference to his opinions on animals so that answer choice can be eliminated. Likewise, the author expresses neither his frustrations nor his misgivings. This leaves only the answer choice “emphasis on humor” which is the correct answer. The author uses the description of how to train a lark to wake up late in order that its trainer can sleep in late to humor the audience and solidify the comedic tone of the passage.

Example Question #5 : Identifying And Analyzing Supporting Ideas In History Passages

"Newton's Mistakes" by Daniel Morrison (2014)

Isaac Newton has often been thought of as the greatest thinker in human history. His insight into the role that gravity plays in existence and physics completely changed our collective understanding of the universe and our place in it. He was understood in his own time as a genius. One famous quote by Alexander Pope (himself quite an intelligent man) demonstrates the deep affection felt for Newton: “Nature, and nature’s mysteries, lay bathed in night, God said 'Let there be Newton,’ and all was light.”

Yet, when the famous economist John Kenneth Galbraith purchased Newton’s journals and diaries at auction, he found to his astonishment, and partial dismay, that more than half of Newton’s work was dedicated to the practice of alchemy—the pursuit of turning ordinary materials into precious metals. Our current understanding of science tells us that this is impossible and that Newton was wasting a significant proportion of his time.

Another famous story about Newton tells of his attempts to figure out the effect of direct exposure to sunlight on the human eye. To carry out this experiment he decided to stare at the sun for as long as humanly possible to see what would happen. The effect, as you might have guessed, was that he very nearly went permanently blind and was indeed completely unable to see for two days.

One might determine from these stories that Newton was not the genius we consider him to be—that he was, in fact, a fool; however, it should tell us something about the nature of genius. It is not merely deep intelligence, but the willingness to try new things and the rejection of the fear of failure. Newton was not a genius in spite of his mistakes, but because of them.

What is Alexander Pope trying to highlight about Isaac Newton in the underlined quotation in the first paragraph?

Possible Answers:

The high esteem in which Newton was held by his contemporaries

The illuminating impact of Newton’s revelations

The impact of Newton’s theories about gravity on the field of architecture

The reverence for Newton held by historical scientific scholars

The inherent foolishness in Isaac Newton’s genius

Correct answer:

The illuminating impact of Newton’s revelations

Explanation:

“Illuminating” means shedding light on or making an idea clear. So, when Alexander Pope said that Newton gave “light” to “nature’s mysteries,” he is referring to the “illuminating impact of Newton’s revelations.” The answer choice that reads “the inherent foolishness in Isaac Newton’s genius” is incorrect and is only brought up later in the passage, and the answer choice that reads “the high esteem with which Newton was held by his contemporaries” is closer to the reason why the author employs Alexander Pope’s quote.

Example Question #1 : Main Idea

"Newton's Mistakes" by Daniel Morrison (2014)

Isaac Newton has often been thought of as the greatest thinker in human history. His insight into the role that gravity plays in existence and physics completely changed our collective understanding of the universe and our place in it. He was understood in his own time as a genius. One famous quote by Alexander Pope (himself quite an intelligent man) demonstrates the deep affection felt for Newton: “Nature, and nature’s mysteries, lay bathed in night, God said 'Let there be Newton,’ and all was light.”

Yet, when the famous economist John Kenneth Galbraith purchased Newton’s journals and diaries at auction, he found to his astonishment, and partial dismay, that more than half of Newton’s work was dedicated to the practice of alchemy—the pursuit of turning ordinary materials into precious metals. Our current understanding of science tells us that this is impossible and that Newton was wasting a significant proportion of his time.

Another famous story about Newton tells of his attempts to figure out the effect of direct exposure to sunlight on the human eye. To carry out this experiment he decided to stare at the sun for as long as humanly possible to see what would happen. The effect, as you might have guessed, was that he very nearly went permanently blind and was indeed completely unable to see for two days.

One might determine from these stories that Newton was not the genius we consider him to be—that he was, in fact, a fool; however, it should tell us something about the nature of genius. It is not merely deep intelligence, but the willingness to try new things and the rejection of the fear of failure. Newton was not a genius in spite of his mistakes, but because of them.

What is the author trying to highlight about Isaac Newton by employing Alexander Pope’s saying in the underlined quote in the first paragraph?

Possible Answers:

The reverence that Newton is held in by historical scientific scholars

The impact of Newton’s theories about gravity on the field of architecture

The inherent foolishness in Isaac Newton’s genius

The illuminating impact of Newton’s revelations

The high esteem in which Newton was held by his contemporaries

Correct answer:

The high esteem in which Newton was held by his contemporaries

Explanation:

It is clear that Alexander Pope himself is highlighting the “illuminating impact of Newton’s revelations” from his use of the word “light.” But, this question is asking you why the author employs Alexander Pope’s quotation, which is a much different question. To understand why the author employs this quotation, you have to go consider what the author says directly before sharing the quotation. He says, “He was understood in his own time as a genius; one famous quote by Alexander Pope (himself quite an intelligent man) demonstrates the deep affection felt for Newton . . . “ This suggests that the author employs Alexander Pope’s famous quotation to demonstrate “the high esteem in which Newton was held by his contemporaries.”

Example Question #111 : Ssat Middle Level Reading Comprehension

"Newton's Mistakes" by Daniel Morrison (2014)

Isaac Newton has often been thought of as the greatest thinker in human history. His insight into the role that gravity plays in existence and physics completely changed our collective understanding of the universe and our place in it. He was understood in his own time as a genius. One famous quote by Alexander Pope (himself quite an intelligent man) demonstrates the deep affection felt for Newton: “Nature, and nature’s mysteries, lay bathed in night, God said 'Let there be Newton,’ and all was light.”

Yet, when the famous economist John Kenneth Galbraith purchased Newton’s journals and diaries at auction, he found to his astonishment, and partial dismay, that more than half of Newton’s work was dedicated to the practice of alchemy—the pursuit of turning ordinary materials into precious metals. Our current understanding of science tells us that this is impossible and that Newton was wasting a significant proportion of his time.

Another famous story about Newton tells of his attempts to figure out the effect of direct exposure to sunlight on the human eye. To carry out this experiment he decided to stare at the sun for as long as humanly possible to see what would happen. The effect, as you might have guessed, was that he very nearly went permanently blind and was indeed completely unable to see for two days.

One might determine from these stories that Newton was not the genius we consider him to be—that he was, in fact, a fool; however, it should tell us something about the nature of genius. It is not merely deep intelligence, but the willingness to try new things and the rejection of the fear of failure. Newton was not a genius in spite of his mistakes, but because of them.

What is most likely the author’s purpose in writing this article?

Possible Answers:

To refute an argument

To tell a story

To make his audience laugh

To describe a historical figure

To impart a lesson

Correct answer:

To impart a lesson

Explanation:

When you are asked to determine the purpose of an article, it is sort of like being asked to consider the main argument of the article, as well as the manner in which it is concluded and the author’s tone throughout. The bulk of this article is describing the historical figure Isaac Newton, but this is not the author’s purpose in writing the article. Isaac Newton is used as a means for the author to “impart a lesson," namely the lesson that genius is not exclusive from foolishness, and that some people are geniuses not because they never make mistakes or know everything, but because they are not afraid to try new things and make mistakes along the way. This is how the passage concludes, which always gives a significant clue into the author’s primary purpose.

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