PSAT Critical Reading : Function of a Word or Phrase

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for PSAT Critical Reading

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Example Questions

Example Question #1 : Function Of A Word Or Phrase

Passage 2 is adapted from Benjamin Rush, "Thoughts upon Female Education". Originally published 1787.

A philosopher once said, "let me make all the ballads of a country and I care not who makes its laws." He might with more propriety have said, let the ladies of a country be educated properly, and they will not only make and administer its laws, but form its manners and character. It would require a lively imagination to describe, or even to comprehend, the happiness of a country where knowledge and virtue were generally diffused among the female sex. Our young men would then be restrained from vice by the terror of being banished from their company. The loud laugh and the malignant smile, at the expense of innocence or of personal infirmities– the feats of successful mimicry and the low priced wit which is borrowed from a misapplication of scripture phrases– would no more be considered as recommendations to the society of the ladies. A double-entendre in their presence would then exclude a gentleman forever from the company of both sexes and probably oblige him to seek an asylum from contempt in a foreign country.

If I am wrong in those opinions in which I have taken the liberty of departing from the general and fashionable habits of thinking I am sure you will discover and pardon my mistakes. But if I am right, I am equally sure you will adopt my opinions for to enlightened minds truth is alike acceptable, whether it comes from the lips of age or the hand of antiquity or whether it be obtruded by a person who has no other claim to attention than a desire of adding to the stock of human happiness.

To you, young ladies, an important problem is committed for solution: whether our present plan of education be a wise one and whether it be calculated to prepare you for the duties of social and domestic life. I know that the elevation of the female mind, by means of moral, physical, and religious truth, is considered by some men as unfriendly to the domestic character of a woman. But this is the prejudice of little minds and springs from the same spirit which opposes the general diffusion of knowledge among the citizens of our republics.If men believe that ignorance is favorable to the government of the female sex, they are certainly deceived, for a weak and ignorant woman will always be governed with the greatest difficulty. It  will be in your power ladies, to correct the mistakes and practice of our sex upon these subjects by demonstrating that the female temper can only be governed by reason and that the cultivation of reason in women is alike friendly to the order of nature and to private as well as public happiness. 

The first sentence of the second paragraph of the passage is primarily intended as

Possible Answers:

a statement acknowledging his lack of worldly knowledge.

a request that his audience correct his misconceptions.

a statement meant to be taken ironically.

a statement questioning the decisions of his opponents.

Correct answer:

a statement meant to be taken ironically.


Whenever a question asks for the function of a particular statement, remember to first look at the meaning of the statement itself and then to consider it in its context to figure out what purpose it serves. In the first sentence of the second paragraph, Rush says that if he's wrong in thinking that women's education is important that someone will point out the error in his argument. However, the next sentence goes on to say that should he be right that he expects others to change their ways. The first sentence isn't necessarily supposed to be taken literally - it's a way for Rush to say that he is sure in what he says. "A statement meant to be taken ironically" is therefore correct.

"A request that his audience correct his misconceptions" is much too literal, since Rush's argument makes clear that he believes this line of reasoning to be sound. "A statement questioning the decisions of his opponents" can be eliminated based on the fact that his opponents decisions are not discussed. "A statement acknowledging his lack of worldly knowledge" can be eliminated because Rush is obviously knowledgeable on the subject of women's education.

Example Question #2 : Function Of A Word Or Phrase

The following passage is adapted from Ricki Lewis, "Did Donkeys Arise from an Inverted Chromosome?", originally published 2018 in PLOSOne Blogs.

In the world of genome sequencing, donkeys haven’t received nearly as much attention as horses. But now a report on a new-and-improved genome sequence of Willy, a donkey (Equus asinus) jack 5 born at the Copenhagen Zoo in 1997, appears in the new issue of Science Advances, from Gabriel Renaud, of the Centre for GeoGenetics, Natural History Museum of Denmark. (A female is a jenny or jennet.) The new view provides clues to how donkeys may have branched from horses along the tree of evolution.

Horses and their relatives, past and present, are genetically peculiar in that their chromosomes are rearranged, with respect to each other. That should  prevent them from producing viable hybrids – yet they do. Donkeys have 62 chromosomes and horses have 64. A mule comes from the mating of a male donkey and a female horse, and has 63 chromosomes. Mules are known for their  intelligence, calm, stamina, and persistence. Their horse-like bodies perched on donkey-like limbs make them ideal for hauling tourists around the Grand Canyon and schlepping supplies in combat situations. The ears are large like those of the horse mom, and mules make a sound that begins as a whinny and becomes a bray.

The complementary couple, a female donkey and a male horse, produces a hinny, smaller than a mule. Hinnies are the flip side of the mule, with a donkey’s physique atop horsey limbs, and short donkey ears. They’re rarer than mules, but also have 63 chromosomes. It’s easy to mix them up.

Comparing Willy’s genome to a horse genome revealed their close evolutionary relationship. Only about 15% of horse genes aren’t also in the donkey genome, and only about 10% of a donkey’s genes don’t have counterparts in the horse. Most of the genes that they share provide basic “housekeeping” functions like dismantling proteins, repairing DNA, enabling embryonic development, and controlling cell division. So that’s why a copy of each genome can smush together to yield mules and hinnies.

A second form of information encoded in genomes, in addition to the A, C, T, G sequence, is the pattern of whether the two variants of individual genes are different (heterozygous) or the same (homozygous). Many contiguous homozygous genes form a “run of homozygosity” (ROH).

An ROH indicates a chromosome chunk, perhaps as long as millions of DNA bases, that’s the same from each of an individual’s parents, who in turn inherited it from a shared ancestor, like a grandparent that cousins share. The longer the ROH, the more recent the shared ancestor, because it takes time for mutations to accrue that would break the sameness of the sequence.

Scrutinizing ROHs can reveal recent inbreeding and domestication, help to reconstruct possible branching patterns of evolution, and, more practically, help ancestry companies assign the DNA in spit samples to geographic areas where people’s ancestors might have come from. The new study compared ROHs for the three zebra and three ass species, confirming that Willy’s most recent ancestors were Somali wild asses.

The researchers used Chicago HiRise assembly technology to up the quality of Willy’s genome sequence. “This new assembly allowed us to identify fine chromosomal rearrangements between the horse and the donkey that likely played an active role in their divergence and, ultimately, speciation,” they write.

The bigger pieces enabled them to zero in on DNA sequences where chromosomes contort, such as inversions (where a sequence flips) or translocations (where different chromosome types exchange parts). These events could have fueled the reproductive isolation of small populations that can expand into speciation.

If eventually sperm with one inverted chromosome fertilized eggs with the same inversion, animals would have been conceived in which both copies of the chromosome are inverted – and they’d be fertile with each other, but not with horses. Once a subpopulation with the inversion became established, further genetic changes would separate them further from the ancestral horse.

The author references “spit samples” in the highlighted line in order to

Possible Answers:

relate a scientific term to its better-known use.

explain why ROH studies are economically important.

argue against using ROH studies for unscientific purposes.

clarify how the team got its samples for analysis.

Correct answer:

relate a scientific term to its better-known use.


In the context of the paragraph, the author uses "spit samples" as part of a list explaining how ROHs are used. In this case, companies that look at a person's ancestry use them to determine what part of the world their ancestors are from. This most closely matches "relate a scientific term to its better-known use." It takes the idea of an ROH and gives an example of how it is used outside the world of academic evolutionary genetics.

Among the other answers, "explain why ROH studies are economically important" can be eliminated because the passage doesn't explain the economic impact of using the ROHs for ancestry studies, "clarify how the team got its samples for analysis" can be eliminated because the passage is talking about the general practice of using spit samples, not how the team got their samples, and "argue against using ROH studies for unscientific purposes" can be eliminated because the author isn't making a value judgment about whether genetic analysis should be used outside of a scientific context.

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