The Motive Behind the Locomotive

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My son is six months old and most of the things that he does don’t make sense to me. Sure, I’ve come to understand that certain cries mean certain things- I’m hungry, I’m tired, my diaper is wet, etc.-but that’s only a small part of his communication. I’m not sure if there’s some kind of internal baby logic that my adult brain no longer remembers how to interpret or if his actions are just arbitrary. In any case, but that doesn’t stop me from trying to figure out what he’s thinking.

 

My task with my son is a lot more difficult than your task with reading comprehension, but the job is the same. When I look at my son and see him thrashing his arms with his eyes wide and a surprised expression on his face, what’s important to me as a parent isn’t what he looks like, but rather what he’s thinking and what’s causing him to feel that way. The same can be said for the reading comprehension passages that you’ll face on your test.

 

It really isn’t very important what an 1829 locomotive looked like, or how fast it could go, because if for some reason you are asked about those facts you can easily refer back to the passage and find the answer. What is important is why the author chose to include those details. If the author is discussing the 1829 locomotive in order to show what a breakthrough it was at the time, we can understand facts about appearance and speed as merely reinforcing this concept of a fantastic new invention. If, on the other hand, the author is discussing the 1829 locomotive in order to discuss its shortcomings, we can understand facts about appearance and speed as examples of how that locomotive fell short of what today we would consider a reasonable standard. The author’s intention is paramount. The exact same facts can have many very different meanings depending on the author’s goal.

 

So, practically what does this mean for you? First of all, it should change the way that you read a passage. Instead of reading to find out what the author said, you should instead be reading for why the author said what he said. Why questions test you at a deeper level, and thus are more helpful for the test maker in evaluating your skill level. That’s why they tend to be much more common.

 

So, maybe you are the type of person who would pick up a magazine article on the 1829 locomotive or maybe you’re not. Regardless, if you see that kind of an article on your test, remember that your goal is not to learn about the 1829 locomotive. Your goal is to figure out why the author is discussing this topic and how he’s going about doing that. If you make your first priority understanding the author’s point of view rather than simply what the author is saying, you’ll be well on your way to a higher score.

 

Good luck and keep practicing!

 Tips for Success on the Reading Section

All standardized tests have reading passages and questions. Often these passages do not look like the ones that students regularly read. They tend to be a bit dense, at a higher reading level, about esoteric topics, and sometimes, they are downright boring. But this has been done for a reason. For one, this is what you can expect from the next level of academia. Obfuscation tends to be the name of the game for university professors. Two, the test makers want to really test you and see what you can do under rigorous circumstances. They pull you out of your comfort zone and see if you can perform.

To avoid the pitfalls that they hope you fall into, follow the tips below and you will be on track for success.

 

Be active—not passive

Most of the reading you do now is passive. Don’t feel bad. I do it to. Passive reading is casual and relaxing—the type of reading you do Sunday morning with a cup of coffee in hand, perusing articles in the newspaper, reading the first couple paragraphs of an article, skipping over ones that don’t appeal to your interests, maybe remembering parts of the article, not too focused on getting information out of the text. Although pleasurable, this type of reading will be your doom on the SAT or GRE.

When reading on the test, you need to attack the passage. Actively engage with the words in front of you. Read with focus and purpose. All other recommendations flow from this one; every tip below is aimed at engaging your mind and making you an active reader. So no sitting around passively—you are an attack dog devouring information.

 

Don’t get bogged down in details

Students often think they need to understand everything in the passage to answer the questions. But this ignores the fact that writers value information differently. Some of the sentences they write are of primary importance and others are of secondary or tertiary importance.

So stay out of details. Make note of where certain details are in the passage, but don’t stop to understand them all. This will be a waste of your time. Only focus on details when a question directs you to one. Ultimately, you should be looking at the big picture, determining what the whole passage is about when you first start reading.

 

Take notes

The easiest way to become an active reader is to pick up a pencil and jot down notes. This gives your reading purpose. With pencil in hand, you have something to do besides read. You are trying to extract meaning, synthesize it in your mind, and then shorten and summarize it on paper. Nothing could be better for reading comprehension.

Do not get caught up in writing long notes, though. Note taking can easily hinder your ability to be efficient on test day. So practice writing short symbolic notes: up arrows, plus and equal signs, abbreviations and single letters to represent ideas in the passage, and bullet points and numbers for passage structure.

 

Identify the main idea and author’s purpose

Not only will there be questions about the main idea and the author’s purpose on the test, making these important to identify when you first read through a passage, but also these are two crucial aspects to understanding anything that you read. Without knowing the main idea, you will not understand the examples, the connection of ideas, or the point of the passage. Without knowing the author’s purpose, you won’t be able to judge the authenticity of the information in the passage, what to do with the information presented, or to know whether or not it is trustworthy.

Take notes on the main idea and author’s purpose. For the author’s purpose, try to determine if she is trying to persuade you of something or merely describing or informing you about something. This is usually all that you need for answering questions about the author’s purpose.

 

Understand the structure

The structure tells you about the connection of ideas. You will understand the flow of the passage, know when an example is presented to support a point or a counterpoint. You won’t know where the passage is going without paying attention to the structure. The structure holds the passage together and tells you how one paragraph relates to another paragraph. Crucially, knowing the structure of the passage will allow you to navigate the passage quickly when answering a question.

Determine the purpose of each paragraph. Pay attention to structure words. And the structure will reveal itself to you.

 

 How Ideas (and all else) are Related

 

Language limits the way that ideas relate to other ideas. And not just ideas, but events, phenomenon, places, animals, and chemicals can only be connected to each other in a finite number of ways. The relationship of one thing to another or of one event to another does not exceed three. Strange that we live in such a varied and complex world, yet we only came up with three fundamental ways to relate things.

The three modes are continuation, contrast, and cause-and-effect. (I am curious if other languages have more ways to connect ideas and events. If you have any insights, please leave me a note in the comments).

Knowing these different modes of relation will help you succeed on the reading sections, text completion questions, and writing measures of your test. But that’s only the beginning. By knowing the limits of language, you can begin to build meaning at the level of the sentence. And not only building meaning at the level of the sentence, but knowing that you can’t pack too much into one sentence. The means of relation limit how much can really be said in a sentence.

Don’t feel limited by this revelation. Although it may seem that with only three ways to relate ideas, you are limited. But complex relations can are still relatable.  From the building up of connections and relations over sentences and paragraphs, complexity emerges. But you have to first atomize your ideas before you can relate something complex. Think about the connection of the parts. Discern their relations. Then consider how best to relate what you want to relate. What will make it easy to understand? What will ensure that your reader will understand you?

For the test, you will want to identify these signals to understand what type of word you are looking for to complete a sentence or how a sentence might contain an example or a counterexample. With regard to sentences, a contrast word, like “despite,” will signal a change in the sentence, and based on where the blank is, you may be looking for a word with a positive connotation. But, remove “despite” from the sentence, and you will be looking for a word with a negative connotation.

For passages, signal words will let you know if the main idea is being summarized, if a scope is being established, or an example is being offered to explain some proposition. Noting these moments in the paragraph, either mentally or on paper, will allow you to navigate the passage quickly when you need to answer a question. You will know where to look for an answer, and you will be able to identify wrong answers that don’t fit with the structure and organization of the paragraph. For example, a wrong answer will test your ability to see that the tone has changed in a paragraph or that the author has moved from presenting a theory to critiquing it.

So when you are reading, make note of the words listed below. This is not a complete list, but will get you started on the path to understanding the connection of ideas in a sentence and in a paragraph.

Continuation Signals
additionally
also
and
as well
besides
furthermore
indeed
for example
likewise
;
moreover
too

Contrast Signals
albeit
although
anomalous
but
despite
even though
however
in contrast to
in spite of
instead of
ironically
nevertheless
nonetheless
on the contrary
on the other hand
paradoxical
rather than
surprise
unexpected
while
yet

Cause-and-Effect Signals
accordingly
because
consequently
given
hence
if … then
in order to
so … that
therefore
thus
when … then
whatever

 How to Punctuate Quotes

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In a previous article, we covered when to use quotation marks. Now let’s learn how to punctuation them.

BEFORE THE QUOTE

Commas and colons are the only punctuation marks used before a quote. Using these two is straightforward and uncomplicated, and you may already have an intuitive sense of how to use them from your readings. (Sidenote: in your journey through older texts, you many find that some authors place a dash before a quotation. This use is now antiquated and should be avoided.)

 

Commas

Use the comma before a citation or direct speech. The comma introduces the quote, and allows the reader to pause momentarily before continuing. Nearly all quotations of direct speech will begin with a comma. Often the comma will come after phrases like ‘she said’ or ‘she asked.’

She turned toward the sun and asked, “When will a day truly be mine?”

Don’t use a comma, or any punctuation, if you lead into the quote with the word ‘that.’

Mark Twain said that “The coldest winter [he] ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”

And in some cases, you won’t even use quotation marks as shown in the example bellow.

I overheard her say that she wants the day to be hers. What does that mean?

 

Colons

In three situations, colons are more appropriate for introducing quotes:

(1) If you write a complete thought, and the quote that follows illustrates what you wrote, use a colon. This is most common with citations, but not exclusively so.

President Obama’s positive attitude is clear in his campaign slogan: “Yes we can!”

 

(2) When the quote is long—longer than a single sentence or longer than two short sentences—use a colon. Again this is more common with citations.

John Cleese wrote a clever piece of satire about European nations and their threat levelst. Perhaps stereotypical and a slight offensive, but this is the fault of most great comedy: “The French government announced yesterday that it has raised its terror alert level from ‘Run’ to ‘Hide.’ The only two higher levels in France are ‘Collaborate’ and ‘Surrender.’ The rise was precipitated by a recent fire that destroyed France’s white flag factory, effectively paralyzing the country’s military capability.”

 

(3) Use a colon with block quotations—hefty, long quotes indented and separate from the rest of the paragraph. Blockquotes don’t actually have quotation marks since indenting and quotation marks indicate the same thing—a direct, word‐for‐word citation. But in the example below, due to formating limitations, I have left the quotation marks.

Milan Kundera begins his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, unlike other novels. He begins with philosophy:

“The idea of the eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we have experienced it, and the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum! What does this mad myth signify? Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing.”

 

Proficient writers can drop punctuation altogether at the beginning of quotes by crafting a sentence whose syntax matches that of the quote. This is especially true when citing only a phrase or clause.

Kundera’s book is about just that, about the “shadows, without weight, dead in advance.” Or to put it negatively, a life full of weight is more meaningful and desirable.

 

BREAKING A QUOTE IN THE MIDDLE

When a quotation is interrupted before completion, a comma will signal the beginning of the break and the end of the break. The first comma is placed inside of the closing punctuation mark; the last comma will proceed the initial quotation mark of the rest of the quote. Seeing an example will make this clear.

“Margaret, why is it,” asked James sternly, “that every time I leave the room, you eat all of my ice cream? I fill the bowl back up and you just eat it. Why?”

This is the primary way to break a quote into two parts. No other punctuation marks are used.

 

END OF THE QUOTE

Periods & Commas

From the previous examples, you are able to see some of the typical ways to punctuate the end of a quotation: punctuation mark first, then the end punctuation mark.

Yet some differences in end punctuation do arise depending on your geography.

If you write for an American audience, always place a period or comma inside the final quotation mark, regardless of the original quote. The following quote comes from Plato’s Apology. This is Socrates speaking to the court which just condemned him to death:

AMERICAN AUDIENCE: “You are wrong if you believe by killing people you will prevent anyone from reproaching you for not living in the right way.”

AMERICAN AUDIENCE: Perhaps we need to define “living the right way.”

If you write for a British audience, placement of the end punctuation mark depends on the original quote. So, if the original quote did not have the punctuation, you need to keep the punctuation out of the quote. Although some exceptions do apply (as if this isn’t confusing enough), like in fiction, the punctuation marks can live inside of the quotation mark.

BRITISH AUDIENCE: Perhaps we need to define “living the right way”.

 

Colons & Semicolons

Americans and Britons agree–keep them outside of the last quotation mark. Unless, of course, it is part of the original quotation. Let’s look at a quote from the Rig-Veda X, a creation story:

“When neither Being nor Not-Being was”: in the Christian tradition, this same idea reads differently but is uncanny in its similarity.

“What did it encompass? Where? In whose protection?”; these questions, though, are not found in the Christian Bible.

 

Exclamation & Question Marks

If the original text contained an exclamation or question mark, keep the end mark inside of the end quotation.

ORIGINAL TEXT: What did it encompass? Where? In whose protection?

CITATION: “What did it encompass? Where? In whose protection?”

But if the text did not contain an exclamation or question mark, and it is your addition, place the end marks outside of the end quotation.

ORIGINAL TEXT: Wise seers, searching within their hearts.

CITATION: But what does this line mean: “Wiser seers, searching within their hearts”?