SSAT Middle Level Reading : Determining Authorial Tone in Narrative Social Science Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for SSAT Middle Level Reading

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Example Questions

Example Question #1 : Authorial Attitude, Tone, And Purpose In Narrative Social Science Passages

Adapted from Early European History Hutton Webster (1917)

It was the work of Darius to provide for his dominions a stable government which should preserve what the sword had won. The problem was difficult. The empire was a collection of many people widely different in race, language, customs, and religion. Darius did not attempt to weld the conquered nations into unity. As long as the subjects of Persia paid tribute and furnished troops for the royal army, they were allowed to conduct their own affairs with little interference from the Great King.

The entire empire, excluding Persia proper, was divided into twenty satrapies, or provinces, each one with its civil governor, or satrap. The satraps carried out the laws and collected the heavy tribute annually levied throughout the empire. In most of the provinces there were also military governors who commanded the army and reported directly to the king. This device of entrusting the civil and military functions to separate officials lessened the danger of revolts against the Persian authority. As an additional precaution Darius provided special agents whose business it was to travel from province to province and investigate the conduct of his officials. It became a proverb that "the king has many eyes and many ears."

Darius also established a system of military roads throughout the Persian dominions. The roads were provided at frequent intervals with inns, where postmen stood always in readiness to take up a letter and carry it to the next station. The Royal Road from Susa, the Persian capital, to Sardis in Lydia was over fifteen hundred miles long; but government couriers, using relays of fresh horses, could cover the distance within a week. An old Greek writer declares with admiration that "there is nothing mortal more swift than these messengers."

The tone of this passage could best be described as __________.

Possible Answers:

enigmatic and emotive 

informative and authoritative 

disparaging and humorous 

aggressive and bellicose

critical and harsh 

Correct answer:

informative and authoritative 


Okay, before we try to figure out the tone, let's define all the answer choices that are a little challenging. “Authoritative” means deriving power from authority; “informative” means imparting useful information; “disparaging” means mocking; “humorous” means funny; “bellicose” means war-like; “enigmatic” means mysterious; “emotive” means showing emotion; and “aggressive” means hostile and angry. Of these terms, it would be difficult to use any of the more emotional or strong terms because this is a historical passage, not a persuasive essay. The author’s tone could not be said to be “mocking,” “funny,” “critical,” “aggressive,” or “enigmatic.” Simply put, the author is presenting a brief historical account, so the tone best described as “informative” and “authoritative.”

Example Question #1 : Social Science Passages

Adapted from A Modern History from the Time of Luther to the Fall of Napoleon by John Lord (1874)

The period at which this history commences—the beginning of the sixteenth century—when compared with the ages which had preceded it, since the fall of the Roman empire, was one of unprecedented brilliancy and activity. It was a period very fruitful in great people and great events, and, though stormy and turbulent, was favorable to experiments and reforms. The nations of Europe seem to have been suddenly aroused from a state of torpor and rest, and to have put forth new energies in every department of life. The material and the political, the moral and the social condition of society was subject to powerful agitations, and passed through important changes.

Great discoveries and inventions had been made. The use of movable types, first ascribed to Gutenberg in 1441 and to Peter Schœffer in 1444, changed the whole system of book-making, and vastly increased the circulation of the scriptures, the Greek and Latin classics, and all other valuable works, which, by the industry of the monkish copyist, had been preserved from the ravages of time and barbarism. Gunpowder, whose explosive power had been perceived by Roger Bacon as early as 1280, though it was not used on the field of battle until 1346, had changed the art of war, which had greatly contributed to undermining the feudal system. The polarity of the magnet, also discovered in the middle ages, and not practically applied to the mariner's compass until 1403, had led to the greatest event of the fifteenth century—the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, in 1492. The impulse given to commerce by this and other discoveries of unknown continents and oceans, by the Portuguese, the Spaniards, the Dutch, the English, and the French, cannot be here enlarged on. America revealed to the astonished European its riches in gold and silver; and Indian spices, and silks, and drugs, were imported through new channels. Mercantile wealth, with all its refinements, acquired new importance in the eyes of the nations. The world opened towards the east and the west. The horizon of knowledge extended. Popular delusions were dispelled. Liberality of mind was acquired. The material prosperity of the western nations was increased. Tastes became more refined, and social intercourse more cheerful.

The author’s tone in this passage could best be described as __________.

Possible Answers:

nostalgic and wistful

remote and aloof

pessimistic and grave

optimistic and enthusiastic

apathetic and lost

Correct answer:

optimistic and enthusiastic


The author takes on a very positive attitude throughout the whole of this passage towards the developments of the sixteenth century. Certainly nothing he writes could be called “pessimistic,” “grave,” “apathetic,” “remote,” or “aloof.” You might think, seeing as how he is talking about the past in a favorable way, that the tone could best be described as “nostalgic” and “wistful” (both words mean longing to return to an enjoyed past). However, that is not really the manner in which the author is speaking. It is more reasonable to say he is painting the sixteenth century in an “optimistic” and “enthusiastic” light. Take a look at how the text ends to see this clearly: “The world opened towards the east and the west. The horizon of knowledge extended. Popular delusions were dispelled. Liberality of mind was acquired. The material prosperity of the western nations was increased. Tastes became more refined, and social intercourse more cheerful.” Even though the word “optimistic” is usually used to describe a positive feeling about the future, here it is being used to describe how the author views the past in an “optimistic” light, as he is only discussing the best parts of the sixteenth century. To provide further help, “grave” means serious and bad; “apathetic” means not caring; and “remote” and “aloof” mean distant, though "remote" can refer to either being physically distant or emotionally distant, whereas "aloof" means emotionally distant.

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