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PURPOSE AND POINT OF VIEW

SAT Questions and the Purposes of Paragraphs

On the SAT and other standardized tests, you are likely to see a number of questions that ask you to find the purposes of paragraphs. Now that you know how to find the purposes of paragraphs, take a look at the question below to see how the SAT might test this topic.

It is with a kind of fear that I begin to write the history of my life. I have, as it were, a superstitious hesitation in lifting the veil that clings about my childhood like a golden mist. The task of writing an autobiography is a difficult one. When I try to classify my earliest impressions, I find that fact and fancy look alike across the years that link the past with the present. The woman paints the child’s experiences in her own fantasy. A few impressions stand out vividly from the first years of my life; but “the shadows of the prison-house are on the rest.” Besides, many of the joys and sorrows of childhood have lost their poignancy; and many incidents of vital importance in my early education have been forgotten in the excitement of great discoveries. Therefore, I find that I am only able to present a series of sketches of the episodes that seem to me to be the most interesting and important.

8. The primary purpose of the passage is to

a)    catalogue a set of impressions

b)    describe an important event

c)    criticize a point of view

d)    explain a difficulty

e)    defend a superstition

How did you answer this question? To find the correct answer, first consider the main topic of the paragraph: the author’s task of writing an autobiography. What does the author say about that task? She says that she is nervous about writing her autobiography because the task will be difficult, and then she goes on to state why it will be difficult. Therefore, you could say that the purpose of the paragraph is to explain why the author believes that writing an autobiography will be difficult. Now examine your answers, and eliminate those that do not agree with the primary purpose of the paragraph. Because the paragraph discusses not only the author’s impressions but also focuses on why those impressions make her task difficult, choice (a) is not the credited answer. No events are described within the paragraph, so you can eliminate choice (b). The author does not criticize any ideas, so choice (c) is incorrect. The author does explain why writing an autobiography will be difficult, so choice (d) agrees with the primary purpose of the paragraph. Finally, while the author does mention that she has an almost superstitious fear of examining her childhood, she does not defend that superstition. Thus, the correct answer is choice (d).

Finding the Big Picture: Purposes of Passages

Once you understand how to find the purposes of individual sentences and paragraphs, you can apply those same skills to finding the primary purposes of whole passages. To find the purpose of a passage, ask yourself the following questions:

1. What is the main topic of the passage?

2. What does the author say about that topic?

3. Why does the author write about that topic?

When you look for the topic of the passage, consider, what is the main subject of the passage? In other words, on what person or thing is the passage focusing? Then consider what you know about that person or thing from the passage. The answer to the third question above will provide you with the primary purpose of the passage. If you’re having trouble finding the main idea of a passage as a whole, consider each of the paragraphs within that passage separately, and try to determine the purpose of each one. Then once you have the purpose of each paragraph, consider the paragraphs as a group to see if you can find the overall purpose of the passage.

Ready to tackle a whole passage? Check out the excerpt below from H.G. Wells’ novel The Time Traveler, and use the questions that follow to help you determine the purpose of the passage.

‘This little affair,’ said the Time Traveler, resting his elbows upon the table and pressing his hands together above the apparatus, ‘is only a model. It is my plan for a machine to travel through time. You will notice that it looks singularly askew, and that there is an odd twinkling appearance about this bar, as though it was in some way unreal.’ He pointed to the part with his finger. ‘Also, here is one little white lever, and here is another.’

The Medical Man got up out of his chair and peered into the thing. ‘It’s beautifully made,’ he said.

‘It took two years to make,’ retorted the Time Traveler. Then, when we had all imitated the action of the Medical Man, he said: ‘Now I want you clearly to understand that this lever, being pressed over, sends the machine gliding into the future, and this other reverses the motion. This saddle represents the seat of a time traveler. Presently I am going to press the lever, and off the machine will go. It will vanish, pass into future Time, and disappear. Have a good look at the thing. Look at the table too, and satisfy yourselves there is no trickery. I don’t want to waste this model, and then be told I’m a quack.’

There was a minute’s pause perhaps. The Psychologist seemed about to speak to me, but changed his mind. Then the Time Traveler put forth his finger towards the lever. ‘No,’ he said suddenly. ‘Lend me your hand.’ And turning to the Psychologist, he took that individual’s hand in his own and told him to put out his forefinger. So that it was the Psychologist himself who sent forth the model Time Machine on its interminable voyage. We all saw the lever turn. I am absolutely certain there was no trickery. There was a breath of wind, and the lamp flame jumped. One of the candles on the mantel was blown out, and the little machine suddenly swung round, became indistinct, was seen as a ghost for a second perhaps, as an eddy of faintly glittering brass and ivory; and it was gone—vanished! Save for the lamp the table was bare.

Everyone was silent for a minute. Then Filby said he was astonished.

The Psychologist recovered from his stupor, and suddenly looked under the table. At that the Time Traveler laughed cheerfully. ‘Well?’ he said, with a reminiscence of the Psychologist. Then, getting up, he went to the tobacco jar on the mantel, and with his back to us began to fill his pipe.

We stared at each other. ‘Look here,’ said the Medical Man, ‘are you in earnest about this? Do you seriously believe that that machine has travelled into time?’

‘Certainly,’ said the Time Traveler, stooping to light a spill at the fire. Then he turned, lighting his pipe, to look at the Psychologist’s face. (The Psychologist, to show that he was not unhinged, helped himself to a cigar and tried to light it uncut.) ‘What is more, I have a big machine nearly finished in there’—he indicated the laboratory—’and when that is put together I mean to have a journey on my own account.’

1. What is the main topic of the passage?

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2. What does the author say about that topic?

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3. Why does the author write about that topic?

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The main topic of this passage is that a man has invented his own device for time travel. What does the author say about this topic? He has the narrator describe an experiment that the man conducts in which he claims to make a machine travel in time. Then the time traveler states that he intends to make a journey of his own. So why does the author write about this topic? Because the passage as a whole leads up to the Time Traveler’s astonishing statement that he intends to make his own journey through time, it seems likely that the passage was written to introduce the fact that the Time Traveler will soon make this journey.

Now try this next passage, taken from The Phantom of the Opera, by Gaston Leroux.

The Opera ghost really existed. He was not, as was long believed, a creature of the imagination of the artists, the superstition of the managers, or a product of the absurd and impressionable brains of the young ladies of the ballet, their mothers, the box-keepers, the cloak-room attendants or the concierge. Yes, he existed in flesh and blood, although he assumed the complete appearance of a real phantom; that is to say, of a spectral shade.

When I began to ransack the archives of the National Academy of Music I was at once struck by the surprising coincidences between the phenomena ascribed to the “ghost” and the most extraordinary and fantastic tragedy that ever excited the Paris upper classes; and I soon conceived the idea that this tragedy might reasonably be explained by the phenomena in question. The events do not date more than thirty years back; and it would not be difficult to find at the present day, in the foyer of the ballet, old men of the highest respectability, men upon whose word one could absolutely rely, who would remember as though they happened yesterday the mysterious and dramatic conditions that attended the kidnapping of Christine Daae, the disappearance of the Vicomte de Chagny and the death of his elder brother, Count Philippe, whose body was found on the bank of the lake that exists in the lower cellars of the Opera on the Rue-Scribe side. But none of those witnesses had until that day thought that there was any reason for connecting the more or less legendary figure of the Opera ghost with that terrible story.

The truth was slow to enter my mind, puzzled by an inquiry that at every moment was complicated by events which, at first sight, might be looked upon as superhuman; and more than once I was within an ace of abandoning a task in which I was exhausting myself in the hopeless pursuit of a vain image. At last, I received the proof that my presentiments had not deceived me, and I was rewarded for all my efforts on the day when I acquired the certainty that the Opera ghost was more than a mere shade.

On that day, I had spent long hours over The Memoirs of the Manager, the light and frivolous work of the too-skeptical Moncharmin, who, during his term at the Opera, understood nothing of the mysterious behavior of the ghost and who was making all the fun of it that he could at the very moment when he became the first victim of the curious financial operation that went on inside the “magic envelope.”

I had just left the library in despair, when I met the delightful acting-manager of our National Academy, who stood chatting on a landing with a lively and well-groomed little old man, to whom he introduced me gaily. The acting-manager knew all about my investigations and how eagerly and unsuccessfully I had been trying to discover the whereabouts of the examining magistrate in the famous Chagny case, M. Faure. Nobody knew what had become of him, alive or dead; and here he was back from Canada, where he had spent fifteen years, and the first thing he had done, on his return to Paris, was to come to the secretarial offices at the Opera and ask for a free seat. The little old man was M. Faure himself.

We spent a good part of the evening together and he told me the whole Chagny case as he had understood it at the time. He was bound to conclude in favor of the madness of the viscount and the accidental death of the elder brother, for lack of evidence to the contrary; but he was nevertheless persuaded that a terrible tragedy had taken place between the two brothers in connection with Christine Daae. He could not tell me what became of Christine or the viscount. When I mentioned the ghost, he only laughed. He, too, had been told of the curious manifestations that seemed to point to the existence of an abnormal being, residing in one of the most mysterious corners of the Opera, and he knew the story of the envelope; but he had never seen anything in it worthy of his attention as magistrate in charge of the Chagny case, and it was as much as he had done to listen to the evidence of a witness who appeared of his own accord and declared that he had often met the ghost. This witness was none other than the man whom all Paris called the “Persian” and who was well-known to every subscriber to the Opera. The magistrate took him for a visionary.

I was immensely interested by this story of the Persian. I wanted, if there were still time, to find this valuable and eccentric witness. My luck began to improve and I discovered him in his little flat in the Rue de Rivoli, where he had lived ever since and where he died five months after my visit. I was at first inclined to be suspicious; but when the Persian had told me, with child-like candor, all that he knew about the ghost and had handed me the proofs of the ghost’s existence—including the strange correspondence of Christine Daae—to do as I pleased with, I was no longer able to doubt. No, the ghost was not a myth!

I have, I know, been told that this correspondence may have been forged from first to last by a man whose imagination had certainly been fed on the most seductive tales; but fortunately I discovered some of Christine’s writing outside the famous bundle of letters and, on a comparison between the two, all my doubts were removed. I also went into the past history of the Persian and found that he was an upright man, incapable of inventing a story that might have defeated the ends of justice.

1.   What is the main topic of this passage?

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2. What does the author say about this topic?

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3. Why did the author write about this topic?

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The main topic of the passage is the Opera ghost and the investigation conducted to find it. The narrator begins by explaining that the ghost really existed, and then goes on to explain the steps that he took in order to determine that the ghost was real, and the evidence that he found. He then once again states that he feels confident that the ghost existed. Why did the author write this passage, then? He must have written it in order to explain why the narrator could feel confident that the ghost was real and to provide evidence that the narrator was correct.

The passage below is an excerpt from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Examine the passage and use the questions that follow to identify its primary purpose.

It was in Warwick Castle that I came across the curious stranger whom I am going to talk about. He attracted me by three things: his candid simplicity, his marvelous familiarity with ancient armor, and the restfulness of his company—for he did all the talking. We fell together, as modest people will, in the tail of the herd that was being shown through, and he at once began to say things which interested me. As he talked along, softly, pleasantly, flowingly, he seemed to drift away imperceptibly out of this world and time, and into some remote era and old forgotten country; and so he gradually wove such a spell about me that I seemed to move among the specters and shadows and dust and mold of a gray antiquity, holding speech with a relic of it! Exactly as I would speak of my nearest personal friends or enemies, or my most familiar neighbors, he spoke of Sir Bedivere, Sir Bors de Ganis, Sir Launcelot of the Lake, Sir Galahad, and all the other great names of the Table Round—and how old, old, unspeakably old and faded and dry and musty and ancient he came to look as he went on! Presently he turned to me and said, just as one might speak of the weather, or any other common matter—

“You know about transmigration of souls; do you know about transposition of epochs—and bodies?”

I said I had not heard of it. He was so little interested—just as when people speak of the weather—that he did not notice whether I made him any answer or not. There was half a moment of silence, immediately interrupted by the droning voice of the salaried tour guide:

“Ancient shirt of chain mail, date of the sixth century, time of King Arthur and the Round Table; said to have belonged to the knight Sir Sagramor le Desirous; observe the round hole through the chain-mail in the left breast; can’t be accounted for; supposed to have been done with a bullet since invention of firearms—perhaps maliciously by Cromwell’s soldiers.”

My acquaintance smiled—not a modern smile, but one that must have gone out of general use many, many centuries ago—and muttered apparently to himself:

“As a matter of fact, I saw it done.” Then, after a pause, added: “I did it myself.”

By the time I had recovered from the electric surprise of this remark, he was gone.

1. What is the main topic of the passage?

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2. What does the author say about that topic?

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3. Why does the author write about that topic?

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Were you able to identify the primary purpose of the passage? Note that the main topic of the passage is the curious stranger. What does the author say about this topic? He has the narrator say that the stranger spoke of ancient people as if they were his nearest personal friends or enemies.He also says that the man appeared to become old, unspeakably old and faded and dry and musty and ancient as he spoke. Finally, he states that the man claimed to have shot a bullet through a set of ancient armor. Note that all of the facts about this man seem to suggest that he may have lived in the long distant past as well as in the present. Why does the author write about this topic? The purpose of the paragraph was to describe the narrator’s encounter with a strange man who had somehow also lived hundreds of years earlier.