Are You Ready for the SAT & ACT?

Power of the “Word”

What Are You Trying to Say?: Arguments and Evidence

There are many different types of passages to read. Some essays are meant to inform, others are meant to argue some new point, and still others are meant to make readers laugh, cry, or think in different ways. Typically, the types of writing you will see on standardized tests tend to be one of three types. The first is the story or personal essay. This type of writing doesn’t adhere as closely to the traditional paragraph format as many others. In fact, stories and personal essays are usually given as a way to assess your ability to read things like tone and subtlety. As a result, these types of writing are usually best analyzed on the sentence level, and the answer to each question will usually hinge on some word or phrase.

The two types of non-fiction prose, expository and persuasive, will adhere much more closely to the traditional paragraph structure because these essays share a basic structure of Introduce, Describe, Conclude, whether those three steps are being applied to new information or new arguments. Just as we’ve seen that each paragraph proves or supports its topic sentence with details, so too does each passage prove or support its main idea or main argument with paragraphs.

In other words, the non-fiction prose on the SAT and ACT will have some point that it is trying to get across. This is not to say that fiction or personal writing is “pointless.” Think, after all, about your favorite song. What’s the “point” of that song? Or your favorite book—does it have some identifiable point? Even if these artistic works do have some point, it’s not a point that everyone would agree on, nor is it the kind of thing you could identify in the few minutes you have on a standardized test.

In writing that does have a point, then, where do you find that point? Some English teachers will ask you to underline the thesis statements in your papers, but this doesn’t usually happen in non-academic writing, and it definitely won’t happen on the SAT or ACT. Of all the words and sentences in a piece of writing, how do you know which ones matter the most?

First and foremost, it helps to think about why a particular piece of writing exists. Who might care about this particular piece of writing? What does a reader gain from reading it?

Think about it this way. If you wanted to read something about William Shakespeare, you’d actually have to make a lot of choices before you started reading at all. If you wanted a basic outline of Shakespeare’s life, you might go to an encyclopedia. If you wanted a review of a new performance of one of Shakespeare’s plays, you’d probably go to a newspaper or entertainment magazine. If you wanted a more thorough description of Shakespeare’s life and times, you’d probably go to a biography. If you wanted a summary of one of Shakespeare’s plays, you’d probably go to Sparknotes or Cliff’s Notes. If you wanted a broad interpretation of Shakespeare’s plays, you might go to a book of literary criticism.

Each of these pieces of writing is in some way about the same topic, Shakespeare, but each one gives the reader something different. When you pick out the books or articles yourself, you know what you’re getting. When your teacher assigns them, you know a little less, but even so, you know more than you think. For example, you’ll read a book differently for your science class than you will for your literature class. A science textbook contains facts that you may need to memorize; a novel or short story requires a different set of interpretive skills. You might read a novel in one way if you’re reading it for pleasure, another way if you’re reading it for an exam, and still another if you’re reading it to write an essay.

On a standardized test, you’re given even less information. You will have to answer some questions about the reading, but you don’t know much more than that. As a result, any preliminary reading that you do should be geared toward answering the question, “What’s the point?”

Look at these two sentences, and try to think about which one would be more likely to be part of the “point” of an essay.

Zora Neale Hurston was born in 1891.

Zora Neale Hurston was actually born in 1891.

Both sentences contain similar information. It is a fact that the author Zora Neale Hurston was born in 1891, and that fact alone is not likely to be the “point” of any particular essay.

Notice, though, what the word “actually” does in the second sentence. As we saw in the first part of this chapter, single words can have a huge influence on the meanings of particular sentences. In this case, the word “actually” implies that the year of Hurston’s birth is the subject of some doubt or misconception. From this single word, we know that we are getting close to the main point of the article. The person reading this essay is presumed not to know the actual year of Hurston’s birth, and one of the points of this essay will likely be to correct that misconception and to make some larger point out of it.

We might call words like “actually” the language of argument. If we can find this language of argument within a particular passage, we can get closer to the passage’s central argument or main point. The “point” of many pieces of writing is to inform the reader of something he or she did not know. Because of this basic structure, the language of argument usually implies some kind of disagreement or something to be corrected.

Which of these sentences contains the language of argument?

We’re going to the donut shop tomorrow.

We’re going to the donut shop too often.

The second sentence contains the language of argument. Notice how the words too often suggest what will come next, probably something like, We should stop going so much. The first sentence is merely descriptive. Any number of things could follow from it, and it doesn’t contain any of the larger implications necessary for a “point.”

When you choose the things that you read, it’s up to you to determine whether they have value or not, whether the “point” of them is relevant to you. When you are assigned reading, whether in class or on a standardized test, you lose this choice. It has already been determined, either by your teacher or by the writers of the test, that these readings have a point, and the earlier you are able to find that point, the more successful you will be when your comprehension of that reading is tested.

In this exercise, determine whether each sentence contains the language of argument (LOA) and identify that language.

21. It is commonly thought that chicken is one of the healthier meats.

a)    Contains LOA in the words commonly thought

b)    Contains LOA in the word chicken

c)    Contains LOA in the words healthier meats

d)    Does not contain LOA

22. My mom will probably make pecan pie this Thanksgiving.

a)    Contains LOA in the words my mom

b)    Contains LOA in the word probably

c)    Contains LOA in the words this Thanksgiving

d)    Does not contain LOA

23. We all know that General Custer died in the Battle of Little Big Horn.

a)    Contains LOA in the words we all know

b)    Contains LOA in the word died

c)    Contains LOA in the words the Battle

d)    Does not contain LOA

24. And here you thought we wouldn’t be here on time!

a)    Contains LOA in the words and here

b)    Contains LOA in the words you thought

c)    Contains LOA in the word here

d)    Does not contain LOA

25. The two ice cream flavors are really not that different.

a)    Contains LOA in the word two

b)    Contains LOA in the words ice cream flavors

c)    Contains LOA in the words really not that

d)    Does not contain LOA

26. Mark Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn over the span of a few years.

a)    Contains LOA in the word wrote

b)    Contains LOA in the words over the span

c)    Contains LOA in the words a few years

d)    Does not contain LOA

27. Many people believe that the best baseball teams are those that hit the most home runs.

a)    Contains LOA in the words many people

b)    Contains LOA in the words those

c)    Contains LOA in the words the most

d)    Does not contain LOA

28. It may be time to bring out the polka dots again.

a)    Contains LOA in the words may be

b)    Contains LOA in the words bring out

c)    Contains LOA in the word again

d)    Does not contain LOA

29. The first stop on my cross-country road trip was Chicago, IL.

a)    Contains LOA in the words first stop

b)    Contains LOA in the word cross-country

c)    Contains LOA in the word was

d)    Does not contain LOA

30. As a boy, I thought I would never like American cheese.

a)    Contains LOA in the words As a boy

b)    Contains LOA in the words I thought

c)    Contains LOA in the words American cheese

d)    Does not contain LOA

In the following exercise, read the sentence carefully. Look for the language of argument, and choose the answer that is most clearly implied by this language of argument.

31. Contrary to popular belief, the iPhone is really not that much better than other smartphones.

a)    Most people believe that non-iPhone smartphones are ineffective.

b)    The iPhone is the best of all smartphones except in a few key areas.

c)    Many people think the iPhone is better than other smartphones.

d)    Does not contain the language of argument

32. In the band’s early days, Pink Floyd was actually led by a singer named Syd Barrett.

a)    Pink Floyd used to be known by a different name.

b)    Some believe the band’s best-known singer was always the singer of the band.

c)    Syd Barrett stayed in Pink Floyd, though he was not the band’s lead singer.

d)    Does not contain the language of argument

33. Do you really believe the tooth fairy took your tooth last night?

a)    The speaker does not believe the tooth fairy took your tooth.

b)    The speaker believes the tooth fairy took your tooth late last week.

c)    The speaker believes you are stupid for thinking this way.

d)    Does not contain the language of argument

34. The Detroit Lions are the only team in modern NFL history to go through a whole season without winning a game.

a)    The writer believes that the Detroit Lions are the worst team in the NFL.

b)    The writer is disgusted by this terrible performance by the Lions.

c)    There are other teams who have done the same in other sports.

d)    Does not contain the language of argument

35. Against the conventional wisdom, some scientists are starting to argue again for the health benefits of milk.

a)    The scientists who put forth this argument do not believe in conventional wisdom.

b)    The conventional wisdom about milk’s health benefits is correct.

c)    It is widely believed that milk is not a healthy thing to consume.

d)    Does not contain the language of argument

36. David somehow managed to flunk his Spanish class.

a)    David has not flunked a class before.

b)    David was expected to pass his Spanish class.

c)    David is very good at speaking Spanish.

d)    Does not contain the language of argument

37. No one thought it possible that an NHL team could win three Stanley Cups in a row.

a)    The average hockey fan does not understand the sport.

b)    An NHL team could still win three Stanley Cups in a row.

c)    An NHL team did win three Stanley Cups in a row.

d)    Does not contain the language of argument

38. The food at this Thai restaurant is too spicy.

a)    Most Thai restaurants use too much hot pepper.

b)    The speaker would prefer to eat Thai food elsewhere.

c)    The speaker does not like Thai food.

d)    Does not contain the language of argument

39. Apples are a good source of fiber, and two-thirds of that fiber is in the apple’s skin.

a)    Many scientists believe apples do not contain any fiber.

b)    It is commonly believed that all an apple’s fiber is in its core.

c)    Apples are the best source of fiber of any fruit or vegetable.

d)    Does not contain the language of argument

40. Those in education are overly committed to the idea that math and science are the subjects with the most relevance to the contemporary workplace.

a)    Students who are good at math and science have the best chance at successful careers.

b)    The education system in the United States is broken.

c)    Subjects other than math and science have workplace relevance.

d)    Does not contain the language of argument

In this exercise, read the paragraph. Identify the sentence that contains the paragraph’s main point.

41. (1) Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby received both praise and criticism. (2) Those who liked the novel best tended to criticize Luhrmann’s adaptation. (3) Those who had not read the novel tended to like the film. (4) In my view, however, there’s something in Luhrmann’s adaptation for everyone.

a)    1

b)    2

c)    3

d)    4

42. (1) T-Bone steaks, hamburgers, filet mignon. (2) Red meat has long been a staple of the American diet. (3) Farmers in many regions of the country have produced some of the best beef in the world. (4) Beef has become as American as apple pie.

a)    1

b)    2

c)    3

d)    4

43. (1) The women in Ernest Hemingway’s novels regularly find themselves in compromising situations. (2) They are often reduced to objects of men’s desires or limited in the way they can act. (3) Critics have taken issue with Hemingway’s portrayal of women, arguing that Hemingway himself is sexist. (4) However, a closer look reveals that Hemingway is more sensitive to the plight of women than we might believe.

a)    1

b)    2

c)    3

d)    4

44. (1) I grew up thinking that I would never be any good at tennis. (2) My serves always went out. (3) I couldn’t hit a backhand to save my life. (4) And my arms got so tired early in all of my matches.

a)    1

b)    2

c)    3

d)    4

45. (1) Slavery was well-established in the United States in the early 1800s. (2) There were slaveowners in the Northern states as well as the Southern ones. (3) All of this started to change in the 1820s. (4) This decade would later be known as the early period of the “American Renaissance.”

a)    1

b)    2

c)    3

d)    4