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Verbal | GRE Challenge


Long Passage GRE Reading Comp Deconstructed

Did you try the long passage challenge set? Ready for some explanations? Read on for a complete breakdown of how to tear through a difficult passage like this (note: images of the entire passage set are also appended at the end of this post for reference). 

Question 9


This question requires a targeted read through the passage. Remember, you only need to pay attention to the big picture features of a long passage in your initial approach. Let's break this question down step-by-step.

Which of the following best describes the primary purpose of the passage?

Explain the question task to yourself: "What's going on here in this passage? What's the author trying to do here?"

Now let's break down what happens in the passage: "Okay. First paragraph. We're talking about some old French dudes and the stuff they wrote. Second paragraph. So these dudes are friends, but the Montaigne dude doesn't mention his buddy in his essay, which is weird. Third paragraph. We're talking about the structure of Montaigne's essay and some theories about it. Fourth paragraph. We're still talking about this theory about Montaigne's essay, how his buddy might fit into it."

Now let's put it all together to Prephrase™ what we want in the credited response: "This passage seems to be all about this guy Montaigne's essay. It's telling us there's something interesting about it, and spends most of the time talking about this or that theory about Montaigne's essay. So, what's the author trying to do here? It looks like he's trying to talk about some dude's essay and some theories about it."

Let's compare this prediction to the answer choices:

  1. This is just talking about the two dudes, not the essay. 
  2. Again, we're talking about the dude (which one anyways?) and not the essay. Also no refutation going on.
  3. Well, we're talking mostly about the essay, not the life of the author.
  4. This is the credited response. Okay, now this seems like a pretty good match for "talk about some dude's essay and some theories about it."
  5. This one seems to go beyond what happened in this text. Out of scope.

The credited response is D.

Question 10

sec4_10.pngThis question asks us to evaluate how good Korhonen's theory is. We're going to need to understand this question before we return to the passage. 

It would be most helpful to consult which of the following sources to help determine whether Korhonen’s theory, as described in the passage, is accurate? 

Explain the question task to yourself: "We need to know what Korhonen's theory says. Then, when we know what it says, we need to know whether it's a good theory or not."

First, let's figure out what the theory says. Find where the essay starts talking about Korhonen. Go about an inch above and start reading until you're clear on exactly what his theory is all about. We might start at the beginning of the third paragraph (line 22) and read up through about line 48. What's the gist of Korhonen's theory? Korhonen seems to think that Montaigne stuck his blurb about La Boétie's sonnets in the middle because Montaigne thinks they're important, following some rule about things in the middle being important

Now let's put it all together to Prephrase™ what we want in the credited response: "If we wanted to know whether Korhonen's theory is any good, we'd need to know whether Montaigne actually cared what order his essays are in or what's in the middle of his essays. The correct answer will probably talk about the middle part or whether Montaigne thinks order is important.

Let's compare this prediction to the answer choices:

  1. This doesn't seem to have anything to do with order or arrangement. 
  2. It might be somewhat helpful to know more about La Boétie's sonnets, so I guess we could leave this in.
  3. This is the credited response. Why would we care about the 19th chapter of the second volume? Refer back to line 24, around where you started reading; there are 37 essays in the second volume. The 19th chapter would be the middle chapter. This seems right on the money for our prediction.
  4. This is a trap answer. It refers back to something the passage talked about in line 13, "quotations." It's trying to trick you by bringing in something you read about. However, this answer comes from the wrong part of the passage and is irrelevant.
  5. This just doesn't have much to do with anything we read or predicted.

The credited response is C.

Question 11

sec4_11.pngWe're looking for authorial intent here times two. We need to know what the author of the passage would think Montaigne's intent was in leaving out La Boétie's sonnets. Let's interpret the question.

According to the author, Montaigne likely omitted the sonnets of La Boétie in the final edition of his Essays in order to

Explain the question task to yourself: "Why does the author of the passage think that Montaigne left out La Boétie's sonnets from his final edition?"

We must go back and get our evidence out of the passage. Questions like this (called Specific Purpose™ in the PowerScore rubric) test two concepts:

  1. Are you able to find your evidence in the passage?
  2. Can you tie this evidence in with the main idea of the entire passage?

Let's first find out what the passage says about Montaigne including and/or leaving out La Boétie's sonnets. Start around line 14 where it talks about Montaigne putting in and then taking out La Boétie's sonnets. What does the passage say about this? Line 19:

This unexpected lacuna in the middle of the Essays suggests a rhetorical ellipsis and raises fascinating questions about the importance of La Boétie. 

Okay, so the omission of the sonnets has raised some questions. Does the author ever answer those questions? Yes! Lines 50 through 60:

Instead, this missing twenty-ninth chapter opens a window through which the reader discovers elsewhere in the Essays a discursive intercourse with the implicit works of La Boétie (and Cicero) in order to present a complex narrative of politics, religion, and society. Montaigne ultimately offers no conclusive answers or prescriptions for the questions he presents, but this absence of responses is analogous to the missing twenty-ninth chapter. Ambiguity and absence are defining themes of the nascent genre to which Montaigne lent a name, that of the essay.

According to the passage, Montaigne likely left out La Boétie's sonnets to make some kind of artistic point. Note that this observation is consistent with the primary purpose of the passage, that we identified in question 9:

To explore a significant aspect of a literary text and its implications

The Prephrase™ is now apparent: "Montaigne likely left out La Boétie's sonnets to make some kind of artistic point."

Let's compare this prediction to the answer choices:

  1. Nothing about protecting privacy here. 
  2. Actually this is the direct opposite of what the passage says. Montaigne didn't leave out La Boétie to focus on classical authors. Instead, La Boétie's absence is itself important.
  3. This is the credited response. "Make some kind of artistic point" looks like it's probably in the ballpark of "emphasize significant themes." Let's leave it in.
  4. This is tricky. We might surmise that Montaigne wanted people to appreciate La Boétie's work, especially since they're buddies, but this answer choice involves some additional assumptions and is not directly supported by the text.
  5. This is an out-of-scope answer choice that is kind of a "choose your own adventure"/tell yourself a story answer that is unsupported by the text.

The credited response is C.

Question 12

sec4_12.pngI love these questions. Why? Because they are a reading comprehension version of another GRE Verbal question type: text completion.

As used in line 20, “ellipsis” most closely means

Explain the question task to yourself: "So I just need to find out what 'ellipsis' means in context."

Treat this question as you would a text completion question: Read the relevant portion of the passage, omitting the word ellipsis. Find clues to tell you what "ellipsis" must mean. Replace the missing "ellipsis" (no pun/redundancy intended) with your own prediction for the intended meaning. Match your prediction to the answer choices.

[I]n lieu of a twenty-ninth essay of his own, Montaigne initially included twenty-nine sonnets of La Boétie, which he later excised from the final edition of the Essays. This unexpected lacuna in the middle of the Essays suggests a rhetorical [FILL IN THE BLANK] and raises fascinating questions about the importance of La Boétie.

What do we know about the meaning of this blank above? It seems to be the same as a "lacuna." What's that? Well what is "this lacuna?" It seems to be talking about how he excised the sonnets from his final edition. So, we can predict that the blank must be talking about taking something out

That's our Prephrase™: taking something out.

Let's compare this prediction to the answer choices:

  1. This is the credited response. Bingo. This is right on the money for "taking something out." 
  2. Trap answer. "Ellipsis" might sound like a form of punctuation because it is! It's the name for those three dots in a row, "…", but that's not the meaning of "ellipsis" we're looking for here.
  3. "Ellipsis" might sound like "eclipse," so you might think "shadow," but that's not the meaning here.
  4. This answer is something that might sound okay if inserted back into the text, but it does not match the meaning.
  5. Another trap. The word "ellipsis" might remind you of "ellipse," but this is not the meaning here.

The credited response is A.

Question 13

sec4_13.pngThis question is another higher-level critical reasoning style task.

According to the passage, which of the following examples would most closely conform to the principle illustrated by the painter in “On Friendship”?

Explain the question task to yourself: "We need to find some situation that is similar to the thing going on with the painter in the passage."

First, let's find out what the passage says about a painter.  The "painter" appear in line 40, so maybe let's start around line 37 and see what the passage says. 

...Montaigne famously likens himself to a painter who chooses to put his best work in the center of the canvas and surround it with grotesque and frivolous caricatures and shapes.

What's the principle going on here? What's the painter doing in the passage? It seems like the painter cares a lot about what happens in the middle of his painting. The painter puts the best stuff in the middle and puts filler around this middle/best part. 

Our Prephrase™ needs to describe this idea: "We're looking for some hypothetical situation in an answer choice that talks about the middle of something being the best part and everything else being not as important.

Let's compare this prediction to the answer choices:

  1. Well, if the room is unfinished, it's not exactly the "best part," since it's not even done. 
  2. This might repeat language that we thought we saw in the passage, but there's nothing about middle versus everything else.
  3. This sounds kinda goofy, but again it fails to match.
  4. This does seem to have something about contrast, but it talks about "multiple hidden objects," not one "best part."
  5. This is the credited response. The model is in the middle and is the focus; everything else around the model is a "crowded urban setting," perhaps analogous to the surrounding "grotesque and frivolous caricatures and shapes."

The credited response is E.

Question 14

sec4_14.pngThis is a speed-test, grab-and-go, find your evidence kind of question.

According to the passage, which of the following themes appear in the Essays of Montaigne?

Select ALL that apply. 

Explain the question task to yourself: "Find Montaigne's themes that come up in the passage."

The task here is not crazy complicated, but these questions can be time consuming and frustrating. Basically, you have to find out whether there's evidence for each of these answer choices. Be smart and aggressive. Once you find evidence, select the corresponding answer. If there doesn't seem to be any evidence, don't lose any sleep over it; leave it out. Let's go answer by answer.

  1. A credited response. "Friendship" comes up on line 39.
  2. credited response. "Death" comes up on line 31.
  3. credited response. "Ambiguity" comes up on line 58.
  4. "Avarice" does not appear in the passage.
  5. "Beauty" does not appear in the passage.
  6.  A credited response. "Religion" comes up on line 54.

The credited responses are A, B, C, and F.

Quality Over Quantity

Maybe you found some of these questions challenging. If you did, you're in great company! This is about as hard as it gets on the GRE. However, if you master the approach to these questions, you're going to be well on your way to acing the reading comprehension portion of GRE Verbal, especially the longer passage questions. Spend the time necessary to understand these questions and the approach outlined above. Try to get to the point at which you can predictably go through the process of getting the right answer. If you master the process, you will be able to replicate it on other questions. 

On the GRE, you can benefit tremendously from working with material you've already attempted. The benefit is threefold:

  1. You can diagnose your strengths and weaknesses and assess what works for you.
  2. You can identify and understand patterns in the questions so that the structure of the GRE becomes more comprehensible to you.
  3. You can nail nail down the process of what it takes to get to the right answer. This way, when you're dealing with the actual GRE, you'll be able to replicate these approaches.

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