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

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

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Example Questions

Example Question #1 : Passage Wide Features In Social Science / History Passages

Adapted from The Man with the Muck-Rake by Theodore Roosevelt (1906)

There are in the body politic, economic and social, many and grave evils, and there is urgent necessity for the sternest war upon them. There should be relentless exposure of and attack upon every evil man, whether politician or business man, every evil practice, whether in politics, business, or social life. I hail as a benefactor every writer or speaker, every man who, on the platform or in a book, magazine, or newspaper, with merciless severity makes such attack, provided always that he in his turn remembers that the attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful.

The liar is no whit better than the thief, and if his mendacity takes the form of slander he may be worse than most thieves. It puts a premium upon knavery untruthfully to attack an honest man, or even with hysterical exaggeration to assail a bad man with untruth. An epidemic of indiscriminate assault upon character does no good, but very great harm. The soul of every scoundrel is gladdened whenever an honest man is assailed, or even when a scoundrel is untruthfully assailed.

The tone of this passage is __________.

Possible Answers:

whimsical and sardonic

angry and emotive

apathetic and miserly

jubilant and celebratory

urgent and serious

Correct answer:

urgent and serious


The overall tone of this passage is urgent and serious. This is clear throughout as the author employs several phrases to demonstrate the urgency and severity of the situation. Most obviously, and helpfully, the author uses the word “urgent.” The only other possible correct answer choice could be “angry and emotive.” However, the author uses very little angry or aggressive language and instead focuses on highlighting the seriousness of the situation.

Example Question #1 : Analyzing Tone, Style, And Figurative Language In History Passages

Adapted from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1784)

At the time I established myself in Pennsylvania there was not a good bookseller's shop in any of the colonies to the southward of Boston. In New York and Philadelphia the printers were indeed stationers; they sold only paper, etc., almanacs, ballads, and a few common school-books. Those who loved reading were obliged to send for their books from England; the members of the Junto had each a few. We had left the ale-house, where we first met, and hired a room to hold our club in. I proposed that we should all of us bring our books to that room, where they would not only be ready to consult in our conferences, but become a common benefit, each of us being at liberty to borrow such as he wished to read at home. This was accordingly done, and for some time contented us.

Finding the advantage of this little collection, I proposed to render the benefit from books more common by commencing a public subscription library. I drew a sketch of the plan and rules that would be necessary, and got a skilful conveyancer, Mr. Charles Brockden, to put the whole in form of articles of agreement, to be subscribed, by which each subscriber engaged to pay a certain sum down for the first purchase of books, and an annual contribution for increasing them. So few were the readers at that time in Philadelphia, and the majority of us so poor, that I was not able, with great industry to find more than fifty persons, mostly young tradesmen, willing to pay down for this purpose forty shillings each, and ten shillings per annum. On this little fund we began. The books were imported; the library was opened one day in the week for lending to the subscribers, on their promissory notes to pay double the value if not duly returned. The institution soon manifested its utility, was imitated by other towns and in other provinces. The libraries were augmented by donations; reading became fashionable; and our people, having no public amusements to divert their attention from study, became better acquainted with books, and in a few years were observed by strangers to be better instructed and more intelligent than people of the same rank generally are in other countries.

Franklin's tone in this passage is __________.

Possible Answers:

gently chiding



modestly self-congratulatory

Correct answer:

modestly self-congratulatory


Franklin gives himself credit for his proposals but does not do so in a way that is overbearing, so his self-congratulations are modest at best.

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.”

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