How to Figure Out the Function of Details for the GED RLA

By Achim K. Krull, Murray Shukyn

Figuring out how details function is an important part of succeeding on the GED Reasoning Through Language Arts test. “The devil is in the details” is an old saying that means the details of any proposal or plan are what often cause it to fail. This saying also applies to writing.

Details can add mood, feeling, and impact to settings, create an impression of personality in individuals, and generally highlight something about the nature of the subject of the writing. The details may also support or undermine an argument, making details a very important area of focus when the test asks you to analyze an argument.

On the GED RLA test, you may be presented with two versions of a passage, one with plenty of details and one without, and challenged to figure out the function of the details in the passage. Here’s an example from Pebbles on the Shore, by Alpha of the Plough (Alfred George Gardiner):

The invitation reaches me in a tiny village on a spur of a range of beech clad hills, whither I have fled for a breathing space from the nightmare of the war and the menacing gloom of the London streets at night. Here the darkness has no terrors. In the wide arch of the sky our lamps are lit nightly as the sun sinks down far over the great plain that stretches at our feet.

None of the palpitations of Fleet Street disturb us, and the rumours of the war come to us like far-off echoes from another world. The only sensation of our day is when, just after darkness has fallen, the sound of a whistle in the tiny street of thatched cottages announces that the postman has called to collect letters.

Now consider this paraphrase:

I was living in a tiny village where I was taking a break from London, and the war, when the invitation reached me. Nothing disturbs us, neither newspapers nor rumours of war, and the only sensation of the day comes when the mailman picks up our letters.

The second version includes all the basic facts but omits details.

What effect does the detail in the first paragraph have on the feeling created by the passage?

  • (A) It makes the paragraph harder to read.

  • (B) It makes the paragraph more precise.

  • (C) It makes little difference.

  • (D) It creates a feeling or mood.

The detail certainly has little effect on the degree of difficulty in reading the paragraph (though some of the old-fashioned language may), so Choice (A) is wrong. The detail may make the paragraph more precise, but that’s not its most important function. Choice (C) is wrong because the details do make a difference.

Choice (D) is correct. Details in the first paragraph convey a sense of darkness and dread — “the nightmare of war” and the “menacing gloom” — in contrast to feelings of brightness and peace in the new setting — “the wide arch of the sky” illuminated by “lamps” and mere “rumours” of war sounding like “far-off echoes.”

Sensory details add a great deal to writing because they draw the reader in and create images that the reader can feel, smell, touch, see, and hear, as in the following passage from The Works of Guy de Maupassant, Volume III, The Viaticum and Other Stories:

The bright night seemed to be scattering handfuls of stars into the placid sea, which was as calm as a blue pond, slumbering in the depths of a forest. Among the tall climbing roses, which hung a mantle of yellow flowers to the fretted baluster of the terrace, there stood out in the distance the illuminated fronts of the hotels and villas, and occasionally women’s laughter was heard above the dull, monotonous sound of surf and the noise of the fog-horns.

What is the setting described here?

  • (A) terrace, quiet night, summer, overlooking sea

  • (B) terrace, hotel, foggy night

  • (C) rose garden, hotel, foggy night

  • (D) villa, water’s edge, terrace, rose garden

The correct answer is Choice (A). The setting can’t be a hotel, rose garden, or villa because the text describes hotels and villas “in the distance” and climbing roses on a terrace (but not a rose garden). The details describe the setting as peaceful. The night is described as “bright” with “handfuls of stars,” and although the setting seems to get a little loud at the end with the women’s laughter, the sound of the surf, and the fog-horns, even the “noise” is soothing in its monotony and joy.

In other cases, the details reinforce the idea of the paragraph. This is a description of trenches in WWI from the history of a Canadian regiment from The 116th Battalion in France by E. P. S. Allen:

The condition of the trenches in this sector was the worst imaginable. The mud was not only knee deep but like glue, and it was not at all an unusual occurrence for a man to lose his boots and socks in his endeavours to extricate himself. One of the smallest of our officers, Capt. Hughes, was heard to remark that it was a good thing for him that his colours were painted on his helmet.

The paragraph starts with a straightforward statement: The conditions in the trenches were the worst. The rest of the paragraph then provides the details to reinforce that image. The purpose of the details here is to reinforce the opening sentence.

Sometimes, other details in text can give you unexpected information. You can tell that this description from WWI wasn’t written by Americans. Two words give it away: endeavours and colours. Why? Because the “ou” spelling is British and used by the English, Australians, and Canadians but not Americans.