Praxis Core Prep: How to Discern the Author’s Tone and Intent

By Carla Kirkland, Chan Cleveland

The most common type of reading comprehension question on the Praxis Core students complain about — even dread — is authorial intent questions. “I can answer questions about the information in the passage,” they say, “but how am I supposed to know what the author intended to do? What am I, a mind reader?”

You don’t have to be a mind reader to answer this type of question. You answer it the same way you answer any other question on the Praxis reading test — four of the choices are wrong, and you pick the one that isn’t.

Look at it this way: If you were shown a picture of a man carrying a guitar, and asked what he was on his way to do, you wouldn’t know. He might be on his way to band practice, he might be returning the guitar to a friend, or he might be an actor who’s portraying a musician in a play. All of those answers are plausible.

However, if it were a multiple-choice question, all you’d have to do is eliminate the four implausible choices and select the one that remains. If the man were on his way to build a porch, he would have a toolbox rather than a guitar; if he were on his way to help put out a fire, he’d have a bucket of water instead of a guitar; and so forth.

That’s how you answer an authorial-intent question without needing to be psychic. Four of the choices are implausible, and the right answer is the one that’s left! Take a look at this example:

The frequent complaint by horror-movie fans that their favorite genre is discriminated against at the Academy Awards is difficult to assess. The data would seem to back it up: After all, in the 85-year history of cinema’s top prizes, only one horror film — 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs — has taken home the Oscar for Best Picture.

On the other hand, many critically respected scary movies have simply had very bad luck: Jaws and The Exorcist almost certainly would have won had they not been up against Oscar-magnets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Sting in their respective years.

Some critics have suggested that the “horror movies never win awards” objection is a self-fulfilling prophecy: When a movie wins many prestigious awards, we stop thinking of it as a “horror movie,” no matter how scary it is.

In the preceding passage, the author’s intent is to

  • (A) analyze the idea that horror movies are discriminated against at the Oscars.

  • (B) rebut the assertion that horror movies seldom win prestigious awards.

  • (C) persuade Academy Awards voters to stop overlooking deserving horror films.

  • (D) satirize a silly idea about “discrimination” against a certain genre of films.

  • (E) predict whether more horror movies will win Oscars in the near future.

The correct answer is Choice (A). Why? Because there’s no way that the correct answer can’t be Choice A. The passage is about the idea that horror movies seldom win Oscars, and the author is indisputably analyzing that idea. Remember, “analyze” is just a fancy word for “look at closely and thoroughly.” Because this is all that Choice (A) asserts to be the case, it can’t be wrong.

Choice (B) is wrong because the author is not rebutting anything (to “rebut” means to “offer a counterargument”). Choice (C) is wrong because the author isn’t trying to persuade anyone to do anything, only presenting information.

Choice (D) is wrong because the author isn’t satirizing anything (“satirizing” means “making fun of” — did you laugh?). Choice (E) is wrong because the author doesn’t say one single word about what may or may not happen in the future, so the passage doesn’t contain any predictions.

If you have a knack for this sort of thing, you may have noticed that the initial verb in each answer choice was pretty much all you needed to eliminate the four wrong answers: The author is not rebutting, persuading, satirizing, or predicting, but he is analyzing. And even if you didn’t pick up on that, don’t despair, because you’ve picked up on it now.

This doesn’t mean that you should only look at portions of the answer choices. A cardinal rule of multiple-choice test-taking is that you should always read all the choices in their entirety before making a decision. Sometimes the distinction between the right answer and the wrong ones doesn’t depend equally on every single word the answers contain.

It only takes one wrong word to make an answer choice wrong, so because Choices (B), (C), (D), and (E) are all wrong based on their first words, those first words are all you need to eliminate them, leaving only Choice (A), which must, therefore, be right.

As for questions about the author’s tone, those are basically the same game. The only difference is that you deal with adjectives instead of verbs.

For example, whereas the answer choices for an authorial intent question may begin with the words analyze, rebut, persuade, satirize, and predicts, the answer choices for a question about the author’s tone may describe that tone alternately as analytical ,argumentative, persuasive, satirical, or speculative. In either case, you should approach the question in the same way: Eliminate four wrong answers and pick the one that’s left.