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Tactics for Understanding Figurative Language in PSAT/NMSQT Reading-Comprehension Questions

You may run into figurative language in the reading-comprehension sections of the PSAT/NMSQT. When language leaves the real world and enters the realm (kingdom) of imagination, English teachers call it figurative and refer to the phrases it appears in as figures of speech.

You’re probably most familiar with metaphors and similes (when something is described by comparing it to something else), and you may employ hyperbole (exaggeration) or understatement to make a joke. Symbolism — when something carries extra meaning — has probably popped up in one or two of your English classes also.

On the PSAT/NMSQT, you may see a question asking you to identify one of these literary techniques. More commonly, you’re asked about the phrase itself: its effect on the meaning of the passage, perhaps. Here’s how to proceed:

  • Reread the phrase. Figure out what the phrase is doing. Does it make a comparison? Do you see like or as in the phrase? A comparison without like or as is a metaphor. With those words, you have a simile. When reading question stems, watch out for these terms.

  • Check the question. If you’re supposed to identify the figure of speech (and you know what the figure of speech is), you’re done. Make a match and move on. If they ask how the expression affects meaning, read the next bullet point.

  • Create a mental image. For example, suppose you see “eyes shining like a pond at noon.” Picture the sun shining on water. Or perhaps the phrase is “eyes shining like nuggets of coal.” Now “see” little black lumps of coal.

  • Match the image to an answer choice. Using the example in the preceding bullet point, the first simile is soft and fluid. The second is cold and hard. One answer choice probably expresses that information, and that’s your answer.

Try your hand at interpreting figurative language with Questions 1 and 2. The following passage is excerpted from Virginia Woolf’s novel, Jacob’s Room.

Tears made all the flowers in her garden move in red waves and spangled the kitchen with
bright knives, and made Mrs. Jarvis, the rector’s wife, think at church — while the hymn-
tune played and Mrs. Flanders bent low over her little boys’ heads — that marriage is a
fortress and widows stray solitary in the open fields, picking up stones, gleaning a few golden
straws, lonely, unprotected, poor creatures.
Mrs. Flanders had been a widow for these two years.
  1. The reference to “bright knives” (Line 2) serves to

        (A)    associate domestic life with Mrs. Jarvis
        (B)    show that cooking is important to Mrs. Flanders
        (C)    illustrate the nature of the relationship between Mrs. Jarvis and Mrs. Flanders
        (D)    emphasize the widow’s pain
        (E)    give information about Mrs. Jarvis’s approach to life
  2. The dominant literary technique in this passage is

        (A)    hyperbole
        (B)    metaphor
        (C)    understatement
        (D)    simile
        (E)    symbolism

Now check your answers:

  1. D. emphasize the widow’s pain

    The “bright knives” are a metaphorical description of “tears,” which flow from Mrs. Flanders’ eyes. The passage tells you that Mrs. Flanders “had been a widow for these two years” (Line 6), and as such she must “stray solitary . . . picking up stones” (Line 4). Clearly, Mrs. Flanders is in pain, and the metaphor underlines that fact.

  2. B. metaphor

    This passage is chock full of metaphors: tears are “bright knives” (Line 2), marriage is a “fortress” (Lines 3–4), and a widow’s joys are “a few golden straws” (Lines 4–5). Yup, Choice (B) is the answer.

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