Reading Passages
Major Features Of An Rp
Topic
The topic is the subject matter treated in a passage. This may seem obvious, but there’s a bit of a twist, as you’ll soon see. Read the passage below and write down what you think the topic is in the space provided:

Giuseppe Verdi secured his place in history by dominating the Italian opera scene for almost fifty years. The middle and late decades of the nineteenth century were Verdi’s most productive years. During this period, Italy transitioned from a collection of small states, several of which were controlled by foreign powers, to a unified and independent nation. It is no surprise, therefore, that many of Verdi’s operas center on themes of political struggle, oppression, and liberation.

      Today, Verdi is most appreciated for the passion expressed in his arias, the name given to the points in the operas where one character, often the lead, gives a solo performance accompanied only by the orchestra. Historians, however, should recognize that Verdi’s greatest gift to the world was his commentary on a particularly turbulent period in the development of modern Europe’s political scene.

Your answer
Our answer The themes of Verdi’s operas
Scope
The topic is not necessarily so straightforward in an RP. In order to correctly identify the topic, you need to consider a passage’s scope. A correctly identified topic has the appropriate scope—neither too broad nor too narrow. Think of scope as the breadth of the topic covered in the passage. In the passage above, the topic is the themes of Verdi’s operas. The chart below shows different ways of being outside the scope of this passage.
Example of topic’s scope Description of scope
European music way, way too broad
nineteenth-century European music way too broad
Verdi’s music too broad
the themes of Verdi’s operas just right
the themes of Verdi’s arias too narrow
the passion in Verdi’s arias way too narrow
the passion in one character’s aria in a Verdi opera way, way too narrow
nineteenth-century Italian politics off topic
Note how scope can be either too broad, too narrow, or just plain off-topic. One way to think of scope is to compare it to the frame of a photograph. If you want to photograph, say, your house, you’ll certainly want something in between a satellite photo of the entire Earth and an electron micrograph of the wood on your front door! You’ll want just the front of the house with a little space on all sides to show a bit of the yard and trees. And you don’t want a picture of someone else’s house or of, say, the White House or the Empire State Building. That would be “off topic,” so to speak.
Search Engines
Another way to think of topic and scope is to pretend that you’re categorizing the passage for retrieval by an internet search engine. You want to get the minimum number of “hits” or “matches” without choosing a scope so small that your search will miss the article completely. The Verdi passage could be categorized under “European music,” but that would cover two thousand years of all types of popular and classical music for the entire continent. “Nineteenth-century European music” is more specific, but still includes every type of music from every European country. “Verdi’s music” is getting closer, but still doesn’t focus specifically on his operas. And the excessively narrow scopes focus on certain aspects of Verdi’s operas—the arias—that are mentioned but that are not the proper scope of the passage. Finally, “nineteenth-century Italian politics” is also mentioned, but we’re concerned with the relationship between Verdi’s operatic themes and nineteenth-century Italian politics, not with nineteenth-century Italian politics in and of itself.
Therefore, if you had to choose a categorization for a search engine that would retrieve this passage as quickly as possible, it would be the underlined one below.
Main Idea
The main idea of a passage is the central point that the author is making. Go back to the Verdi passage again: write down what you think the main idea of this passage is in the space below. Then, read our answer.
Your answer
Our answer The themes of Verdi’s operas are concerned with the political turmoil of nineteenth-century Italy.
A text’s main idea encompasses more than the details—it’s the one phrase or sentence that covers the topic. Think of it this way: in a dresser drawer, you keep your socks, your underwear, and your t-shirts. The “main idea” of that drawer is not “socks” or “underwear” or “t-shirts”—it’s “undergarments.”
Therefore, the main idea is a clear expression of the topic and scope, along with the author’s particular take on that topic and scope. Here’s a comparison of the topic and main idea for the passage we’ve been using:
Topic The themes of Verdi’s operas
Main Idea The themes of Verdi’s operas are concerned with the political turmoil of nineteenth-century Italy.
You’ll usually find one main idea item per long or paired RP.
Purpose
Purpose refers to the author’s purpose. Why did he or she write this passage? What is the point he or she is trying to make? Take the Verdi example again: write the author’s purpose in the space provided below.
Your answer
Our answer The author’s purpose is to argue that Verdi should be most appreciated for the political commentary in his operas, not for the passion expressed in his opera’s famous arias.
Whereas the main idea tells you what the author wrote, the purpose tells you why. Virtually all nonfiction passages contain an argument—an assertion backed up by evidence. (We’ll go over these terms shortly.) Even fiction passages contain purpose. An author can write fiction on any topic; what an author chooses to write about exposes the author’s purpose. If, for example, an author writes sympathetically about the hard times poor American farmers faced in the Great Depression, that author’s purpose is likely to raise awareness of the plight and dignity of those farmers and their families.
The following chart compares topic, main idea, and purpose for the passage we’ve been using.
Topic The themes of Verdi’s operas
Main Idea The themes of Verdi’s operas are concerned with the political turmoil of nineteenth-century Italy.
Purpose To argue that Verdi should be most appreciated for the political commentary in his operas, not for the passion expressed in his opera’s famous arias.
Tone
Tone is often a difficult concept to grasp. It’s based both on a passage’s style and on the particular words used in the passage. The way an author uses language implies how the author was feeling at the time. Was she angry? Sad? Excited? Resigned? Depressed?
Read the Verdi passage once more, looking for clues about the passage’s tone. Then, write a description of the tone in the space provided below.
Your answer
Our answer The tone is one of reasoned argument.
The author acknowledges that Verdi’s arias have garnered the most praise but argues that the political commentary is more impressive and important. What’s the tone of the following passage?

Giuseppe Verdi would not appreciate the place in history our blinkered historians have given him. Dominating the Italian opera scene for almost fifty years, Verdi’s most productive period was the middle and late decades of the nineteenth century. During this period, Italy transitioned from a collection of small states, several of which were controlled by foreign powers, to a unified and independent nation.

      From a perusal of their writings on Verdi, one would think that most esteemed contemporary music historians are blissfully unaware of this fact. Of course they know about Verdi’s historical context, but these genteel commentators apparently still cling naively to the notion that art is created by transcendent geniuses. It is no surprise, therefore, that these historians ignore the messy political context in which Verdi composed and concentrate on technical matters of musical composition—as though the two could ever be separated. That Verdi’s operas center on themes of political struggle, oppression, and liberation is merely window dressing to these writers and thus not crucial to understanding Verdi’s music.

      Today, Verdi is most likely to be appreciated for the passion expressed in his arias, the name given to the points in the operas where one character, often the lead, gives a solo performance accompanied only by the orchestra. Historians, however, should deepen the public’s appreciation of Verdi by recognizing that Verdi’s greatest gift to the world was his commentary on a particularly turbulent period in the development of modern Europe’s political scene.

The tone is much harsher and more combative, isn’t it? This author is obviously a lot more annoyed by the current basis for Verdi’s fame. The two passages share the same topic, scope, and main idea. But the tone is radically different. The first passage had a relaxed tone; the author was suggesting another and better way to appreciate Verdi’s operas. The second passage is much angrier and more sarcastic. The author is ridiculing the ignorance of contemporary historians rather than merely suggesting an alternative viewpoint.
Theme
Theme is another difficult concept to grasp. Like the main idea, the theme can be described as the passage’s subject matter, but themes are usually deeper and more general than main ideas.
For example, here’s what we’ve already determined about the Verdi passage:
Topic The themes of Verdi’s operas
Main Idea The themes of Verdi’s operas are concerned with the political turmoil of nineteenth-century Italy.
Purpose To argue that Verdi should be most appreciated for the political commentary in his operas, not for the passion expressed in his opera’s famous arias.
Tone Reasoned argument
What theme does the author touch upon? One way of putting it is:

The historical subject matter of opera should be as much the basis for appreciation as the beauty of the music itself.

Themes are also important in fiction, because they allow readers to look for deeper meaning in a story. The chart below provides some plots or subject matter along with some classic themes. The point is not to memorize these themes, but to use this chart to begin to understand the difference between topic, main idea, and theme.
Plot/Subject Matter Theme
A man is killed in a forest. Several witnesses give their version of what happened. Each story is different; many contradict one another. The subjectivity of human knowledge
A media mogul dies. His life is reviewed by his friends and enemies. They cannot figure out why he did many of the things that he did, but the audience finds out that he never got over being separated from his mother as a young boy. Loss of innocence
Two historians are arguing over the importance of Julius Caesar. One historian claims that Caesar single-handedly reshaped Roman civilization. The other historian claims that Caesar was a reflection of his time and place, and that if Caesar had not arisen and changed Roman history, someone else would have done so in much the same way. Thus, Caesar didn’t make history; he merely embodied the spirit of his age. Free will vs. predetermination in human actions
A soldier returning from war is delayed on his trip home. He goes through many trials and tribulations before finally reaching his home. The journey
Themes don’t have to be as grandiose as the ones listed in the chart. They can be as mundane as proverbs. For example, the theme of this book is: the more you understand the structure and content of RPs, the more likely you are to maximize your potential on that part of the SAT.
Logic
Logic is as important in fiction as it is in nonfiction. Certain basic rules, such as cause and effect, need to be incorporated to avoid confusion. The argument or plot in an RP will flow logically, and you’ll be asked to identify this flow, and perhaps add to it.
Logical flow is most obviously transmitted by signpost words, which often link paragraphs. English has many such guide words and phrases. No single SAT test will include them all, but here’s a handy list of some common ones:
also consequently nevertheless still
although despite no less than therefore
and even or though
as well as for otherwise thus
because however since yet
but moreover so
Sentence structure, too, can show logical flow. How clauses and phrases are positioned and the punctuation used to connect them generates the flow that all good writing must have. We’ll point this out in the passage you’ll work on later in the book. For now, let’s take a look at some key logical terms.
Facts
A fact is an objective statement about reality, such as “The Earth is a sphere” or “Charlemagne was a Holy Roman Emperor.” Facts can be interpreted in various ways and have various implications.
Fact Implication or Interpretation
The Earth is a sphere. I can get from Spain to China by sailing west. Thus, I don’t have to only send trading ships east.
Many RP items ask you to find a particular fact in the passage. Other items will ask you to draw out a likely implication from a fact or set of facts; still others will ask you how the author might react to a new fact not in the author’s passage.
Assumptions
Assumptions are facts or assertions that are taken for granted and usually unstated. Readers reach conclusions through a combination of facts and assumptions. Identifying underlying assumptions is crucial in RPs.
For example, if an author writes: “The best way to stimulate the economy is by reducing personal income taxes,” there are some hidden assumptions to be uncovered. Assumptions aren’t necessarily true or false, but the SAT wants to ensure that students can identify them.
Statement Hidden Assumptions
The best way to stimulate the economy is by reducing personal income taxes. Reducing personal income taxes will actually stimulate the economy.
The economy needs to be stimulated in the first place.
Reducing personal income taxes, rather than say, corporate income taxes, is a better way to stimulate the economy.
Reducing income taxes, rather than, say, consumption taxes (e.g., sales tax) is a better way to stimulate the economy.
What does better mean, anyway? Better for everyone? For most people? In the long run? Right away?
We could go on, but you get the idea. Everyone’s writing (and thinking) is littered with hidden assumptions.
Inferences
We infer all the time. Here’s an example:
Facts Inference
When I went to sleep last night, there was no snow on the ground. It snowed while I was asleep.
When I woke up this morning, there was snow on the ground.
An inference is best understood as an unobserved fact that one believes must be true given other observed facts: if there was no snow when I went to bed and there’s a ton of snow this morning, you can bet the farm that it snowed overnight.
Some inferences are not as logically necessary as the snow example. They are merely statistically possible or logically probable. For example:
  • Fact Most of the school’s students had complained that the dress code was too strict.
  • Fact The new principal changed the dress code to make it less strict.
  • Inference Student complaints led to the change in the dress code.
Well, that might be the case. It’s plausible—the reasoning used to infer that student complaints led to the policy change makes sense. But there are other possible reasons, each of which is based on a hidden assumption:
  • Hidden Assumption 1 The school’s administration takes student complaints into account.
  • Other Potential Reason Parents complained on behalf of their children. The school’s administration took these complaints more seriously.
  • Hidden Assumption 2 The new principal changed the policy in response to student complaints rather than out of his own preexisting beliefs.
  • Other Potential Reason The new principal believes that what students wear doesn’t have much of an impact on how they learn.
  • Hidden Assumption 3 The new code reflects student concerns.
  • Other Potential Reason Maybe the dress code is technically less strict but not in the ways that mattered to the students. For example, let’s say that jeans were once banned but are now allowed. That’s less strict, but what if 85% of student complaints were about the banning of shorts? Allowing jeans wouldn’t address that key complaint.
Many RP items will ask you to make an inference based on the information given in the passage. You’ll need to decide which inferences are valid and which are not. Proper inferences on the SAT tend to be closer to the snow example than to the dress code example—that is, more logically necessary than statistically probable.
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