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 13.1 The Prose Fiction Passage

 13.2 The Three Nonfiction Passages
The Prose Fiction Passage
As we’ve stated before, you should not read the ACT Prose Fiction passage as you would a novel that you casually pick up on a Saturday afternoon. Treat the Prose Fiction passage as you would an English homework assignment. In addition to understanding the story behind the passage, you should also strive to understand the passage’s use of style and tone.
The Sample Passage
The Questions
Below, we’ll give you a rundown of the questions you’re most likely to find on the Prose Fiction passage and how to answer them. All of the examples below pertain to the above passage.
Identify Specific Details and Facts
Specific detail questions are perhaps the most straightforward questions you’ll encounter anywhere on the test. As the name suggests, these questions ask you to find specific details within the passage. They are very common on the Prose Fiction passage and throughout the rest of the test. You’ll probably see three or four specific detail questions accompanying the Prose Fiction passage.
Here’s an example of a relatively easy specific detail question:
 According to his friends, Mr. Cunningham resembles: A. Mr. Kernan. B. a policeman. C. Shakespeare. D. Mr. Power.
If you know the answer to this question, you’re all set. If you don’t, you probably remember there was a section near the end of the passage that discussed Mr. Cunningham and his background. To answer this question, you should first look in that section because the answer is probably there. Have you looked yet? Well, the answer is there, on line 49 (“his face was like Shakespeare’s”). The correct answer is C.
That question was fairly simple, partly because it had a one-word answer, but specific detail questions can be more confusing when the answers are longer. Try another question about Mr. Cunningham:
 According to the passage, people feel sorry for Mr. Cunningham because: A. he is sensible, influential, and intelligent. B. he was the victim of a plot by his friends. C. he has a long association with police courts. D. he is married to a drunkard.
While this question is not too difficult, it is slightly more confusing than the previous one simply because the answers are longer. If you’ve read the passage reasonably carefully and you’ve quickly double-checked the answer in the passage, you can correctly identify D as the answer. Choices A and C are actually given as reasons why Mr. Cunningham is respected by his acquaintances, and choice B applies not to Mr. Cunningham but to Mr. Kernan.
While specific-detail questions are generally straightforward, they can try to trick you by leading you to give an answer that seems correct if you read one sentence, but is revealed as incorrect by another. For example,
 How many children do the Kernans have? A. None B. One C. Two D. More than two
If you remembered that the Kernans’ children were mentioned in the first paragraph, you’d look there, and perhaps your eye would fall on the sentence, “Her two eldest sons were launched.” A quick glance at this sentence may miss the word “eldest,” which indicates that there are younger children, so you may decide that there are only two children in the Kernan family and the answer is C. But the word “eldest” and the last sentence of the paragraph, “The other children were still at school,” indicate that there are other children in the family and that the correct answer is D.
Draw Inferences
Inference questions ask for implied information. They want you to take a piece of information given in the passage and use it to figure out something else. Because the answers are not given explicitly within the passage, these questions are often significantly more difficult than specific detail questions. But they are just as common, so you need to get a handle on them.
You can usually spot an inference question from a mile away. Inference questions frequently use verbs such as “suggest,” “infer,” “imply,” and “indicate.”
As with specific detail questions, some inference questions are easier than others. Sometimes, the ACT writers will feel extra nice and refer you to a specific portion of the passage. For example,
 The second paragraph (lines 20-27) suggests that the Kernans’ marriage is characterized primarily by: A. Mr. Kernan’s violent behavior toward his wife. B. Mrs. Kernan’s patience with her husband. C. Mr. Kernan’s fondness for his wife’s beef-tea. D. Mr. Kernan’s willingness to go to the store for his wife.
Less direct inference questions will ask you to draw out character or plot details from the information given in the passage. These inference questions can be more difficult to answer than the one given above. Here’s an example of a character inference question:
 It can be reasonably inferred from this passage that Mrs. Kernan’s attitude toward religion is: A. fervently pious. B. practical but faithful. C. skeptical. D. nonexistent.
If you read effectively, you’ll remember that the last paragraph contains a description of Mrs. Kernan’s brand of religious faith. There are several key phrases in this passage that should help you choose the correct answer: “Religion for her was a habit”; “Her beliefs were not extravagant”; “She believed steadily in the Sacred Heart as the most generally useful of all Catholic devotions”; “Her faith was bounded by her kitchen, but, if she was put to it, she could believe also in the banshee and in the Holy Ghost.” We can’t provide you with a strategy for interpreting this information. You must be able to comprehend the writing in order to get this question right. No matter what your understanding is, you’ll probably realize that D is wrong because the existence of the phrases indicates that Mrs. Kernan has some kind of attitude toward religion. If you understand what’s being said in the phrases above, you can eliminate choice A (because “Her beliefs were not extravagant”) and choice C (because “she could also believe in the banshee and in the Holy Ghost”). So the correct answer is B, “practical but faithful,” which is exactly what those phrases imply.
Now try this plot inference question:
 One can reasonably infer from this passage that the goal of the friends’ plan, mentioned in line 37, is to: A. make Mr. Kernan a good, practicing Catholic. B. cure Mr. Kernan of his alcohol abuse. C. turn Mr. Kernan into a better husband. D. go to Thomas Street for Mrs. Kernan while her husband recovers.
Understanding Character
Character generalization questions appear only with the Prose Fiction passage. They ask you to reduce a lot of information about a character into a simple, digestible statement. For instance, if you have a character who hates children, kicks dogs, takes candy from babies, and steals his neighbors’ mail, you could make the generalization that he is mean-spirited and cruel.
Let’s take a look at a character generalization problem dealing with the sample passage:
 Mrs. Kernan would most likely agree with which of the following characterizations of her husband: A. He is foolish and excessive. B. He is sensible and intelligent. C. He is irreverent but generally considerate. D. He is proud of his accomplishments.
As you can see, this question is similar to the inference questions discussed above, in that it asks you to draw a conclusion from the information provided by the passage. You should note that the question doesn’t ask you how you would characterize Mr. Kernan or how the narrator or any other character would, but how Mrs. Kernan would characterize him. Because this question is specific in its point of view, it helps you pinpoint the sections you must examine—the ones that give Mrs. Kernan’s opinion of her husband. If you do that, you can figure out that nothing suggests choice A is true. Choice B is also incorrect according to the passage; the words “sensible” and “intelligent” are actually used to describe Mr. Cunningham. Choice D is not correct, although Mr. Kernan appears proud of his injury (line 36). Choice C is the correct answer. You can arrive at this answer through process of elimination, but you can also get to it through understanding the passage. The last paragraph reveals that Mrs. Kernan apparently thinks her husband’s “tongue would not suffer by being shortened.” Earlier in the passage, the narrator also describes Mr. Kernan’s verbal lack of respect for Catholicism, so “irreverence” seems to describe him accurately in Mrs. Kernan’s eyes. The second part of the answer, his consideration, is implied in the second paragraph, which describes Mr. Kernan’s willingness to run errands for his wife.
When answering inference and character generalization questions, you should remember that right answers are not necessarily perfect answers; they must simply be the best answer out of the four provided. For that reason, when answering these questions, you should read through all the answer choices and ask yourself which one best answers the question.
Point of View
Point of view questions accompanying the Prose Fiction passage will generally ask you to describe the narrator’s point of view. Questions that deal with other characters’ points of view usually fall under the heading of inference or character generalization. Point of view questions are fairly rare on the Prose Fiction passage, but you may encounter one of them on the test.
These questions tend to be pretty obvious when they’re asked because they usually look like this:
 The narrator’s point of view is that of: A. a detached observer. B. Mr. Kernan. C. a biased observer. D. the Kernans’ child.
Again, answering this question is a matter of understanding the material, not of tricks and strategies. You can eliminate choices B and D immediately if you recognize that the passage is not written in the first person. Then ask yourself whether the narrator expresses any biases (does he obviously prefer one character to another, for instance?). In this passage, the narrator is fairly bias-free, so the best answer to this question is A, a detached observer.
Cause-Effect
These questions ask you to identify either the cause or the effect of a situation. These questions are fairly rare on the Prose Fiction passage, but you should still be prepared to answer one. You will generally recognize these questions from cue words in the question, such as “resulted in” and “led to” for effect questions, and “caused by” and “because” for cause questions.
On the Prose Fiction passage, cause-effect questions will generally ask you to identify how one character’s actions affected another’s. For example,
 According to the passage, the visit paid by Mr. Kernan’s friends resulted in: A. his unpleasant behavior toward them. B. a completely healed tongue. C. his boasting of weathering two days of sickness. D. his politeness.
As in the example above, cause-effect questions will not make you draw inferences (only inference questions will). Cause-effect questions are interested in the facts of the passage. Both the cause (the visit paid by Mr. Kernan’s friends) and the effect (one of the answer choices) should be clearly stated in the passage. You should not choose an answer choice that requires you to make an inference. After you eliminate choices A and B, which are contrary to facts stated in the third paragraph of the passage, you must choose between choices C and D. You should eliminate choice C, though, because it is an inference and involves guessing on your part rather than referring specifically to the text. Although the last line of the third paragraph states that Mr. Kernan appears to feel “a veteran’s pride,” it is never explicitly stated within the passage that this feeling arises from the visit by his friends. Because you are looking for the best answer choice—not the perfect answer choice—choice D is correct. The passage explicitly states that the visit causes Mr. Kernan to become “more polite” after having been cantankerous.
 Jump to a New ChapterIntroducing the New ACT (and Ending World Hunger)General Strategies for Taking the ACTThe ACT English TestStrategies for the English TestUsage/Mechanics Questions on the English TestRhetorical Skills Questions on the English TestThe New ACT Writing TestThe ACT Math TestStrategies for the Math TestACT Math SubjectsThe ACT Reading TestStrategies for the Reading TestPassages and Questions on the Reading TestThe ACT Science Reasoning TestStrategies for the Science Reasoning TestPassages and Questions on the Science Reasoning TestPractice Tests Are Your Best Friends
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