How Passage Style Reflects Author Intent on the New SAT

By Geraldine Woods, Ron Woldoff

An increasing number of questions on the redesigned SAT ask you to examine how a particular passage is written and why the author wrote it that way — in other words, to relate style to content or purpose. Here are a few examples:

  • The statistics about fish consumption demonstrate that . . .

  • The marine biologist’s quoted statement that the fishing should be regulated (Line 4) serves to . . .

  • The description of the marine ecosystem exemplifies . . .

The key to this sort of question is to get inside the writer’s mind. “Why did the author put that particular example or quotation in that particular place?” The example may be a small detail in a paragraph full of details. If so, try to decide what title you’d give to the paragraph. Depending on the paragraph’s contents, you may choose “Why we should stop catching cod” or “The ocean is overrun with cod” as a good title for the list.

After you get the title, you should be able to choose the answer choice that best explains why the writer chose to use the example in the passage. Alternatively, the example may be one complete paragraph out of many in the passage. In that case, what title would you give this passage? Chances are giving the passage a fitting title can lead you to the correct response.

Style and content often show up in paired-passage questions because two authors may make the same point in completely different ways. To answer a question like this, determine the style and content separately, place your conclusions side by side, and notice the similarities and differences.

Chances are one of the answer choices will match your ideas. If not, move on unless you have a lot of extra time. This sort of question requires close reading, and you may do better by concentrating on an easier and less time-consuming question.

Try your hand at the following style question, based on a history passage describing settlers traveling to the West during the 19th century.

Sample Passage

During all this time, and despite the disagreeable weather, emigrants from the cities of the Northeast to the wilderness in the West keep up the line of march, traveling in their “prairie schooners,” as the great hoop-covered wagon is called, into which, often are packed their every worldly possession, and have room to pile in a large family on top. Sometimes a sheet-iron stove is carried along at the rear of the wagon, which, when needed, they set up inside and put the pipe through a hole in the covering. Those who do not have this convenience carry wood with them and build a fire on the ground to cook by; cooking utensils are generally packed in a box at the side or front. The coverings of the wagons are of all shades and materials. When oil cloth is not used, they are often patched over the top with their oil-cloth table covers, saving them from the rain.

  1. The details about the wagon serve to

    (A) reveal the convenience of covered wagons

    (B) emphasize the ingenuity of the travelers

    (C) show that the travelers were ill-equipped for life on the frontier

    (D) contrast life in the city with life in the wilderness

Why does the author describe the covered wagons in so much detail? Probably to tell you something about the travelers themselves. They seem clever (and ingenuity means “cleverness”): They pack everything they need into one wagon. Some have more than others, but those who, for example, lack stoves, “carry wood and build a fire on the ground” (Sentence 3). They protect themselves from the rain with either a wagon cover or a tablecloth.

Did you fall for Choices (C) or (D)? You don’t learn much about the land they’re traveling through, except that the weather isn’t great. Plus, the passage doesn’t give any hints about the final destination or the travelers’ previous situations. So Choice (B) is best.