Main Point, Purpose, and Author Attitude in LSAT Reading Comprehension
“For an answer choice to be the main point of the passage, it must do more than simply express a claim with which the author would agree. The correct answer choice is the one that most accurately expresses the point of the passage as a whole.”
Main point questions in reading comprehension are similar to identify the conclusion questions in the logical reasoning section. The only difference here is that the arguments in the reading comprehension section are bigger and more complex. Individual paragraphs have a their own purposes within the argument, and those paragraphs build to form a grand argument. What you need to figure out is what that grand argument is trying to convince you of.
Note that main point questions ask you about the main point of the passage, not an individual paragraph. Thus, the main point will be supported throughout the entirety of the passage. The LSAT will frequently mislead test takers with answers that accurately summarize only a portion of the of the passage. Remember that if the whole passage is not accurately represented, you need to move on to a different answer choice.
A good trick here is to summarize each paragraph into a single sentence as you read, then use these sentences to examine the overall structure of the passage. This allows you to simplify the passage and view the bare bones version of the author’s argument. And if you accurately summarize each paragraph, then main point of your simplified argument will be identical to the main point of the passage.
Purpose questions ask why the the passage was written. So to identify the purpose of the passage, think about the author of the passage. Remember that the passages in the LSAT were not actually written for the test; they were written and published in the “real world” by human beings. The author is attempting to do something in this passage; there is a reason that the author took the time to write the sentences you are now reading. Determine that reason.
The purpose of the passage always starts with an infinitive. To convince, to describe, to explain, to question, to demonstrate… The author is trying to accomplish something with the passage; the author is doing something.
Like main point questions, purpose questions examine the passage as a whole. Do not be tricked by answer choices that only take a portion of the passage into account. You aren’t looking for the purpose of a paragraph; you are looking for the purpose of the entire passage.
“An author’s attitude is revealed in the tone of a passage or the language used[.]”
Like all reading comprehension questions, questions about the author’s attitude can be answered by examining the passage. What matters here what the author is saying and how the author goes about saying it. The author’s word choice makes a difference here.
Authorial attitude questions are never ambiguous. There are always pieces of the passage that show one of the answers to be true. And the other answers will either not be supported or be outright contradicted by the passage. Once you get used to identifying the author’s attitude in the passage, you’ll answer these question with confidence.
Let’s look at an easy example. Examine the following short passage:
Cheddar cheese is the worst. It’s disgustingly yellow; it spoils easily; and it tastes like garbage. I once ate a cube of cheddar cheese that gave me food poisoning, and I am certain it was the cheese that caused me to feel so awful. I can think of no worse food than cheddar cheese.
What is the author’s attitude regarding cheddar cheese? A. Enthusiastic appreciation B. Unqualified disdain
“Unqualified disdain” is the obvious answer choice here; the author clearly hates everything to do with cheddar cheese. But how do you know that? Take a moment to examine how your brain came up with the correct answer. The passage never actually tells you that the author hates cheddar cheese. At no point does the author say the words, “My feelings toward cheddar cheese are those of unqualified disdain.” But you don’t need the author to say that. You infer the author’s attitude from how the author talks about cheddar cheese. Someone who appreciates cheddar cheese would likely not say it “tastes like garbage” or that cheese “is disturbingly yellow,” but someone who disdains cheddar might say those things.
Before moving on though, let’s take a closer look at the word “unqualified.” A qualification makes a statement less than absolute. For example: “I usually dislike cheddar cheese, but on a grilled cheese sandwich, it’s tolerable.” Another example: “I hate cheddar cheese most of the time, but every once in awhile I enjoy a cube.” However, we see nothing like this in the above paragraph. The disdain isn’t just present; it’s absolute. Thus, we can say that the disdain is unqualified.
Now let’s adjust things a bit.
Unfortunately, cheddar cheese is not a food I enjoy eating. I once got food poisoning after eating a single cube of cheddar cheese, and now the cheese tastes like garbage to me. Even the yellow color makes me nauseous because it reminds me of the time I was ill. I can think of no food I would rather eat less than cheddar cheese. What is the author’s attitude regarding cheddar cheese? A. Enthusiastic appreciation B. Unqualified disdain C. Regretful disgust D. Qualified affinity E. Unbridled rage
The correct answer is “regretful disgust.” The author clearly does not like cheese in this passage. We know that because she mentions “the cheese tastes like garbage to me” and that she can’t think of a food she would rather eat less. But notice that the author also notes she dislikes cheese “unfortunately.” The author asserts here that she wishes it were not the case that she disliked cheese. She also notes that the cheese tastes like garbage “now,” which implies that at a previous time she did not think cheese tasted like garbage. The author has lost something and wishes now that she had retained it. Thus, she is disgusted by the cheese, but regretfully so.
None of the other answer options are supported by the passage. Let’s look at each to see why.
A. The author expresses no appreciation for cheese in the passage, let alone enthusiastic appreciation.
B. The author clearly does not like cheese, but disdain may be a bit strong here. This option is tempting, but it ultimately doesn’t fit. There is no contempt for cheese, just disgust.
D. There is no affinity for cheese expressed. The author may have previously had an affinity for cheese, but the passage shows no evidence that the author currently possesses this affinity.
E. Like option B, this answer choice goes a bit too far. The author does not like cheese, but she shows no signs of being angry.
Look to the passage for support. If the passage doesn’t support an answer, cross it out and move to the next. Remember that this passage wasn’t just written for a test. LSAC takes published passages from other sources. So why did the author write the passage? What were they feeling? What were the author’s feelings regarding the subject matter? If the LSAT asks you about attitude, then the author let their feelings slip through into the passage. Find the places where that happened.
Keep in mind that the main point, purpose, and authorial attitude are not independent of each other. They all fit together like the pieces of a puzzle. So you should not end up with puzzle pieces that don’t fit together. For example, the following passage analysis does not make a lot of sense:
Main Point: Jacksonville’s bridges are unsafe.
Purpose: To convince the reader to vote for infrastructure reform in Jacksonville.
Author’s Attitude: Unbridled enthusiasm for the current infrastructure policies in Jacksonville.
If the author of the passage is attempting to convince reader to vote for a change in infrastructure policies, then she is probably not enthusiastic about the current infrastructure policies.
Since each of these overall passage elements need to make sense when put together, you can use your understanding of one element to help you determine the others. For example, if you are confident about the main point, that could help you determine the purpose.
LSAC Quotation Source: http://www.lsac.org/jd/lsat/prep/reading-comprehension