Straw_Mandible wrote:Hi Dave,
Thank you so much for these posts. Your ideas are insightful and interesting.
Well, thank you! I'm glad to help. Keep the questions coming as you have them!
Straw_Mandible wrote:I'd like to hear an elaboration on how you go about identifying the author's purpose--which you say is "the most-underrated element of any passage." I find myself often getting purpose questions wrong, even when I have a very strong understanding of the composition and reasoning structure of a passage.
Can you paint us a picture of your process in broad strokes?
Sure thing. I call Purpose the most-underrated because while everybody knows that the Thesis (Main Point) is most important, we too often neglect to consider why
the author wrote. Yet our answer to that question can be so useful in assessing many of the other questions we're asked about a passage!
In order to more efficiently identify an author's purpose, it may help to develop a framework for understanding why an author writes. While not comprehensive, a three-pronged framework like this one can be a useful foundation from which to build your understanding:
Why does an author write?
1. To Illuminate. Sometimes, an author just wants to shine a light on a subject. A sort of "Hey, guys, this is interesting; check it out"-type-vibe. Here, you're likely to see little by way of tonal indicators. The author is more detached; she just wants us to know about Thing X.
2. To Evaluate. Sometimes, an author sets out to do some analysis. Maybe she considers two different methods for doing a thing. Maybe he lists the pros and cons of some proposal. Here, she's doing more than just presenting an idea—she's exploring it.
3. To Advocate. Sometimes, an author makes an argument. It's not just that Thing X is, nor is it only that Thing X is worth investigation. Instead, she's selling us something. This is the easiest purpose to spot if you're paying attention—loads of attitudinal markers, often coupled with the ascription we've talked about here before.
For example, consider Passage One from PrepTest 32. Here, we can see the author's purpose rising from the ascription in the second sentence, from which point we know her goal is to show that those scholars are dumb. Sure enough, she expresses that point at the top of the second paragraph. Now, knowing that her purpose is to make an argument, let's take a look at answer choices from some of these questions:
1. Already, we're spending more time with (B) and (D), because the prescriptive language here matches the advocative nature of the passage. This thing was written to persuade, and the Main Point must reflect that.
3. Again with the argument-making language! We like (A) and (D) here on that basis alone.
5. If the author wrote in order to convince us that the scholars were wrong, then we must fall quickly in love with (B) alone here.
6. Advocative language in (A)! Also, check out terrible and hilarious (E)—if you think your client is innocent, you just haven't researched the facts well enough? Daaaamn.
7. Well, duh.
This is what I'm talking about; just knowing why
the author wrote gave us 3 right answers, and culled 2 more down to a 50/50 shot. While we don't expect to answer 5 of every 7 questions based on one factor alone, we totally can expect to get help of this nature on multiple questions by doing reading with this sort of focus.
One more example, from Passage 2 of that same test (PrepTest 32):
This passage is evaluative; notice how the organizational system forms a call and response? Proponents say this, critics say that. Proponents adjust, haters gonna hate. This author falls short of the argument of the previous passage. Here, she just examines the issue through different lenses, without explicitly espousing any particular point-of-view.
Now, check out the help this knowledge of purpose gives in answering two of these questions:
8. It's a back-and-forth, right? So there's no way that the main point is about the proponents! (A) through (C) can't possibly give us the whole picture of this evaluative enterprise, which means—on purpose alone—we're left with (D) or (E).
10. It's hard to even talk about the why
without the how
, sometimes. I mean, the passage's organization served as my entree into discussing its purpose above. Still, if we backstep enough to assess just
the purpose, we see that (B) and (D) and (E) are all describing passages that set out to argue—something our passage did not do! And again, we're down to two.
So, it's not like the purpose is enough to guarantee your success—it's not even the most important factor in your reading—but the solid grasp of purpose is a too-often underutilized tool.
Finally, if you find that you're having difficulty assessing the author's purpose, ask yourself these questions:
1. Is she making an argument?
Yes? It's an Advocate passage.
2. Is she comparing or contrasting things/ideas?
Yes? It's an Evaluate passage.
No? Then it's an Illuminate passage!
Hope that helps (it was longer than I intended).