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How to Determine Attitude and Purpose on the PSAT/NMSQT Reading-Comprehension Sections

Questions about the author’s attitude and purpose are closely related to tone. Imagine that your PSAT/NMSQT reading-comprehension section has a passage about a polluted river. The tone is angry: Polluters are pouring toxic (poisonous) chemicals into the water, and officials can’t be bothered to stop them.

Depending upon the content of the rest of the passage, the author’s attitude may be characterized as pro-environment or anti-government or both. The author’s purpose may be to persuade citizens to take action (boycott the company that’s polluting the river or protest at city hall, perhaps). To discover attitude and purpose, follow these guidelines:

  • Look for statements of opinion. Not every opinion begins with “I think” or “in my opinion.”

  • Consider what’s missing. Studies show that people tend to cite studies proving their ideas and ignore studies challenging them. In other words, people pick and choose evidence to suit their purpose. Suppose, for example, that the imaginary polluted-river passage contains a paragraph about technology that renders (makes) pollutants harmless.

    Great, you think. The river can be cleaned up easily. But wait, what’s the cost? If the passage never discusses the downside, the author’s attitude is more extreme. Similarly, if the passage omits any mention of law enforcement and focuses only on politicians, the author’s purpose may be to overturn elected officials and install a new slate.

  • Don’t forget diction. Diction — word choice —affects meaning. If the river is “toxic,” people may die. If it’s “muddy,” the situation sounds less dangerous. Diction alone can’t give you the answer to an attitude or purpose question, but it may help!

Attitude and purpose questions frequently pop up when you’re dealing with paired passages. The question may ask you the difference between the two authors’ attitudes or may say something like, “in contrast to the author of Passage I, the author of Passage II is more. . . .” No worries! Just determine the attitude of each author and compare them.

Take a crack at practice Questions 1 and 2, based on a pair of passages. The first is adapted from a biography of Frederick Douglass, a former slave and important abolitionist (opponent of slavery). The second is an excerpt from a letter written by Douglass to his publisher, in which Douglass agrees to write an autobiography.

Passage I
By the slave code it was unlawful for a slave to go beyond the limits of his own neighborhood
without written permission from his master. Douglass could write a pass himself if he knew
how. His master kept a shipyard, and in this and neighboring establishments of the same
kind the boy spent much of his time.
He noticed that the carpenters, after dressing pieces of timber, marked them with certain letters
to indicate their positions in the vessel. By asking questions of the workmen he learned the names
of these letters and their significance. In time he learned to write, and thus again demonstrated the
power of the mind to overleap the bounds that men set for it.
Passage II
Any facts, either from slaves, slaveholders, or bystanders, calculated to enlighten the public mind
by revealing the true nature of the slave system, can scarcely be withheld. I see, too, that there are
special reasons why I should write my own biography, in preference to employing another to do it.
Not only is slavery on trial, but unfortunately, the enslaved people are also on trial.
It is alleged that they are naturally inferior; that they are so low in the scale of humanity and so utterly
stupid that they are unconscious of their wrongs and do not apprehend their rights. Looking, then, at
your request from this standpoint and wishing everything of which you think me capable to go to the
benefit of my afflicted people, I part with my doubts and hesitation.
  1. The purpose of Passage I is to

        (A)    prove that anyone can learn to read
        (B)    reveal information about Douglass’s childhood
        (C)    criticize slavery
        (D)    inspire the reader
        (E)    illustrate Douglass’s determination
  2. In Passage II, Douglass’s attitude may best be described as

        (A) humble
        (B) arrogant
        (C) condescending
        (D) proud
        (E) combative

Now check your answers:

  1. E. illustrate Douglass’s determination

    Purpose questions usually come in three sizes: too narrow, too broad, and just right. The answer choices here illustrate all three varieties. Choices (A) and (B) are too narrow, because how Douglass learned to read isn’t the point of the story. It’s just one example of Douglass’s determination and ingenuity (cleverness).

    Choices (C) and (D) are too broad; yes, the author criticizes slavery and the story is inspiring. However, those answers say nothing about Douglass. Go for Choice (E), which is just right.

  2. A. humble

    Douglass doesn’t brag about his achievements, even though he has every right to do so. Instead, he agrees to write about himself only to disprove those who attempt to justify slavery and also for the “benefit of my afflicted people” (Lines 16–17). Therefore, Choice (A) fits perfectly.

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