If there is one question you are certain to see on the SAT, it is about the main idea of a passage. The main idea is nothing but the primary purpose of the passage.
There are two broad types of questions on the SAT Reading Test:
- General questions that ask about broader concepts in the passage. These should be answered from your initial reading
- Detail-oriented questions that ask about specific information and/or relationships within the passage. These can almost always be supported by an explicit (but cleverly hidden) piece of information or relationship within the passage
So, let’s start with the main idea questions. Typical main idea questions are phrased as follows:
- The primary purpose of the passage is...?
- The main idea of the passage is….?
- Which of the following best describes the organization of the passage?
- The passage as a whole can best be characterized as which of the following?
Identifying the main idea and the primary purpose in your initial read is the key to answering main idea questions. You should be able to answer general questions without having to re-read the entire passage.
In fact, rereading the entire passage can actually be distracting. An incorrect answer choice may pertain only to a detail in a body paragraph. As you reread, you might spot that attractive detail and choose the wrong answer. So, instead of rereading, dive right into the answer choices and start eliminating.
On almost every main idea question, you will see at least one answer choice that is exactly about some portion of the passage. Test makers are good at guiding you to an answer choice that is correct for half of the passage but not for the whole reading. Often the correct answer will be hidden behind convoluted language so that you are hesitant to pick it.
Occasionally, though, you may still find yourself stuck between two answer choices on a general question. If this is the case, use a Scoring System to determine which answer choice relates to more paragraphs in the passage. Assign the answer choice two points if it relates to the first paragraph and one point for each additional paragraph. The answer choice with more points is usually the correct one. In the event of a tie, select the answer choice that pertains to the first paragraph over any choices that do not.
Remember, though, that it is not enough to recognize what the author said or why, but instead whether an idea is primary or not. Wrong answers may make statements about people, places, dates, etc. that are factually supported by the passage, but those answers will still be incorrect because they do not identify the main focus of the passage. As stated earlier, it’s imperative that you predict an answer choice before diving deep into the answer choices.
Patterns in Main Idea Questions
Both correct and incorrect answers to “main idea” questions tend to follow some general patterns; while there are of course many exceptions, these patterns can be helpful to keep in mind when eliminating answer choices.
First, because “main idea” questions ask about the big picture, correct answers are more likely to be phrased in a general (or “vague”) manner, whereas incorrect answers tend to refer to specifics from the passage.
The more specific the information in a given answer choice, the more unlikely the information applies to the entire passage.
Secondly, you should be suspicious of answers that include specific words from the passage, especially challenging vocabulary words that many test-takers are unlikely to know. “Main idea” questions are not merely testing your ability to recognize words from the passage but require you to make a leap from concrete to abstract. As a result, answers that quote the passage verbatim are less likely to be correct.
Lastly, another important component of primary purpose questions relates to the first word or phrase of the answer choices themselves. Most answer choices in these questions start with a verb that must properly match the passage type. In this problem, the four verbs or verb phrases are “detail,” “defend,” “suggest,” and “make the case.”
For example, if a passage is opinionated, answer choices having words like “defend,” “suggest,” and “make that case” all relate to presenting an opinion and are more likely to be correct. You should always read all answer choices, but the first signal word could disqualify an answer choice quickly if it does not match the passage type.
European zoos of the late 19th and early 20th centuries incorporated the visual cultures of their animals’ native homes into ornate buildings - reflections of their nations’ colonial aspirations. The Berlin Zoo’s ostrich house resembled an Egyptian temple, with large columns flanking the entrance and scenes of ostrich hunts decorating the exterior. Berlin’s elephant enclosure was built in the spirit of a Hindu temple; the home for its giraffes adopted an Islamic architectural style. Zoos in Cologne, Lisbon, Antwerp, and Budapest, among others, created similar exhibits. These zoos were no home for subtlety: The animals they contained were exotic to most visitors; the buildings that did the containing reinforced the sensation.
1. Which of the following best states the main idea of the paragraph?
A. Buildings in the late 19th and early 20th European zoos emphasized the exotic origins of the animals they housed
B. Many buildings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries European zoos were built to resemble Egyptian temples
C. European zoos in the late 19th and early 20th centuries sought to evoke subtle emotions in their visitors
D. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most of the animals in European zoos came from outside of Europe
2. The primary purpose of the paragraph is to?
A. Argue that European zoos of the late 19th and early 20th centuries should have made more of an effort to accommodate their animals’ needs
B. Describe specific ways in which late 19th and early 20th century European zoo buildings evoked the animals’ home countries
C. Compare the buildings at the Berlin Zoo to zoo buildings in Cologne, Lisbon, Antwerp, and Budapest
D. Illustrate the importance of housing zoo animals in buildings that recreate their native homes
3. The author mentions “zoos in Cologne, Lisbon, Antwerp, and Budapest” (lines 13-14) in order to illustrate what point?
A. Buildings in 19th and 20th century European zoos emphasized the exotic origins of the animals they housed
B. Many buildings in 19th and 20th century European zoos were built to resemble Egyptian temples
C. European zoos in the 19th and 20th centuries sought to evoke subtle emotions in their visitors
D. During the 19th and 20th century centuries, most of the animals in European zoos came from outside of Europe
1. The main idea essentially states that European zoo buildings looked something like buildings in the animals’ native countries. Even if you’re not 100% sure about the point, you can probably figure out that it’s talking about buildings. So, you can assume that the correct answer must have something to do with buildings. Only A and B mention buildings, so C and D can be eliminated immediately. Option B states that many European zoos had buildings that resembled Egyptian temples, whereas the passage only states that the Berlin zoo’s ostrich house resembled an Egyptian temple. Option A is consistent with both the first and the last sentences: the buildings “reinforced” the sensation that the animals were exotic. So that fits. Answer A is correct.
2. The most effective way to approach this question is to think about how the paragraph is organized. The topic sentence presents an idea and the rest of the paragraph is devoted to specific examples that support that idea. That’s exactly what B says, which makes it the correct answer.
3. Although the question refers to lines 13-14, they should not be your focus. Instead, the last few sentences say that the “buildings reinforced the sensation,” which corresponds to the correct answer A.
A barn. A warehouse. These locations have something in common: They all contained films or parts of films that were missing and presumed lost forever. According to reliable estimates, at least 50 percent of all films made for public exhibition before 1950 have been lost. Move into the silent era, and the estimate shoots up to 90 percent. The cellulose nitrate film on which movies were recorded until 1950 is flammable and highly susceptible to deterioration. The medium that replaced nitrate, cellulose acetate, solved the flammability problem, but is vulnerable disintegration, shrinkage, and breakage.
Film needs to be stored in a temperature and moisture controlled environment. Film archives all over the world maintain such climate-controlled storage facilities as a first line of defence. Transferring nitrate film to stable safety stock is a second precaution film preservationists take.
Actual restoration is a further, complicated step that many films will never undergo. Restoring celluloid films is a costly, time-consuming process that requires expert handling in one of the few photochemical labs that still exist; today, more films are being restored through digital correction, but this work is also labor-intensive.
The work also requires old-fashioned research. Film is an art form that everyone from producers to theater owners has felt entitled to alter to fit their requirements, including shortening films to maximize the number of screenings and cutting out material the exhibitor deemed inappropriate. Therefore, research must be done to find shooting scripts, directors’ notes, and other preproduction materials to ensure the restoration is as complete as possible.
Established in 1990 by Martin Scorsese, the Film Foundation helps to conserve motion picture history by supporting preservation and restoration projects at film archives. The foundation has helped save more than 560 motion pictures. It prioritizes funding each year according to physical urgency. Also taken into account is the significance of a project, whether the film is an important work of a writer, actor, or director, or a technical first, or whether it approaches some social issue ahead of its time.
At its core, the Film Foundation represents a natural progression for Scorsese, arguably the world’s greatest film enthusiast. Margaret Bodde, a film producer and executive director of the Film Foundation, says “With Marty, what is so remarkable is his dedication to preservation and film as culture and an art form. He doesn’t do it as an obligation. He does it because he wants future generations to be as inspired by films as he was.”
Scorsese’s storied career gained its inspiration from the numerous films he viewed growing up in Manhattan’s Little Italy. One film that inspired Scorsese with a model for how to shoot the fight sequences in his 1980 film Raging Bull was The Red Shoes (1948), the ballet -centered masterpiece created by the powerhouse British directing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The Film Foundation funded its restoration in 2006, the first fully digital restoration with which it was involved.
Working from the original film negatives, preservationists found that tiny imperfections from the original film development had been exacerbated by time. In addition, much of the film had shrunk. Colors flickered, became mottled, and showed other types of distortion. The film also showed red, blue, and green specks throughout. Worst of all, mold had damaged the negatives. After the film underwent an extensive cleaning process, it was digitized: 579,000 individual frames had to be scanned. Colors were reregistered, scratches smoothed, flecks removed, and color inconsistencies addressed. Last, a new filmstrip was produced.
The rapid shift from photochemical to digital production has raised concerns. Bodde says, “If a film is born digital, there should be a film output” because of the possibility of data corruption or the unavailability of playback mechanisms. The Film Foundation is working with archivists, technologists, and preservationists to ensure that photochemical preservation continues.
The foundation also offers an interdisciplinary curriculum to help develop visual literacy and film knowledge. This curriculum, The Story of Movies, has been embraced by well over thirty thousand schools. All of this effort works to ensure that future generations know the wonder of watching Moira Shearer move through the vivid, technicolor dreamscapes of The Red Shoes and many other treasures of our film heritage.
1. What is the function of the fourth paragraph in relation to the passage as a whole?
A. To outline some of the processes that Scorsese’s Film Foundation uses to restore films
B. To discuss the social issues that are raised in films restored by Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation
C. To shift the focus from a discussion of film restoration to a specific organization that restores films
D. To describe how Martin Scorsese was inspired to establish the Film Foundation in 1990
2. The function of the fifth paragraph in relation to the passage as a whole is to?
A. discuss some of the films that Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation has helped to save
B. outline the steps that film archives take to restore and preserve films
C. describe the factors Film Foundation takes into account when selecting films for restoration
D. explain how establishment of the Film Foundation has led to an increase in film viewership
3. Which of the following is the primary purpose of the passage?
A. To compare the way that films were preserved prior to 1990 to the way that they are preserved today
B. To discuss some of the problems involved in transferring film from photochemical to digital format
C. To trace the steps involved in a film restoration, from initial cleaning to digitization
D. To indicate some of the challenges involved in restoring film and describe how one organization has confronted those challenges
1. The fifth paragraph functions as a pivot point in the passage; it marks the beginning of the second major section, in which the focus of the passage moves from a general discussion of the difficulties of restoring films to a more specific focus on Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation. The correct answer is, therefore, C. Answer A is wrong because the paragraph introduces the Film Foundation and explains how it selects its films, but it says absolutely nothing about how the Foundation actually goes about restoring films. Option B is wrong because the paragraph never actually discusses any of those social issues. Option D is wrong because the paragraph says nothing about what inspired Scorsese.
2. Although the correct answer choice, option C, is fairly straightforward, it is also somewhat deceptive because although the question asks about the function of the fourth paragraph in relation to the whole passage, the answer is actually based on the content of the paragraph itself. Answer A is wrong because the paragraph does not give a single specific example of a film restored by the Film Foundation. For option B, the paragraph never explains the process by which those things occur. For D, the paragraph never even mentions film viewership.
3. The only answer choice that directly corresponds to the idea that restoring films is difficult is D, which is the correct answer. If you find it helpful, you can also think about how the passage is divided and the focus of each section.
The first section discusses some general problems involved in film restoration, and the second focuses on the role that the Film Foundation has played in restoring films. That’s basically what D says. For answer A, the passage says nothing to indicate that films are restored differently than they were before 1990. Option B is way too specific. The passage does discuss some of these issues, but the discussion is limited to one paragraph. The passage does discuss the restoration process in the second and third paragraphs, but again, the discussion is pretty much restricted to those paragraphs. And if it’s restricted to one place, it can’t be the primary purpose, ruling out Option C.
A special kind of main idea questions are tone and function questions. Tone questions look like the following:
- What is the author’s tone when he says X?
- What can we infer in the attitude of the author when he talks about snakes?
- Based on X or Y, we can assume that the author believes that…
- In lines 58-73, the description of the ocean floor primarily serves to…
- The author invokes “Cthulhu the destroyer” chiefly in order to…
While not all of these problems contain the word tone, they address a central idea: not what’s being said but how it’s being said.
For example, let’s say that you lived in a city that got over 100 inches of snow last winter. Just as you finished clearing snow out of the gutters, it started snowing again, prompting you to sing, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” as you smiled through gritted teeth.
The MEANING of the words “most wonderful” in this context would be “worst” (as in “It’s the worst time of the year”); the FUNCTION of the words “most wonderful” would be “to suggest that the speaker actually feels the opposite is true.”
Tone problems can be frustrating, but there’s an easy way to master them. Once you understand the proper way to think about tone problems, you’ll actually look forward to answering them.
The secret is to remember that tone-related questions address how something is being said and not what is literally being said. In other words, stop thinking about the content, and start thinking about the context.
These problems seem tricky because they refer to text in a passage that may state one thing but mean something else.
Consider the following passage written by Stanton, a feminist advocating for woman’s voting rights, in 1890. It may look familiar: “For thousands of years, women were not given their basic right to vote in the United States. It’s only in the recent decade that many northern states have started to pass legislature legally allowing women to vote, and this change is primarily due to female activists.”
Now, while the content is upsetting and the tone could be interpreted as angry, this passage is actually just factual. The question could be something like:
The best word to describe the tone of the author is:
Solution: Options A, B, and C all seem tempting because a feminist writer probably is outraged that women were subjected to such inequality for such a long period of time. But is the tone of this passage actually outraged or hurt or indignant? NO! This passage is simply laying out facts. The answer is D it’s factual!
One more trick to answer tone questions is to ask yourself where you would find such a text. This question is incredibly helpful.
For instance, if you say an academic or history journal, then you would expect the tone to be factual or informative. If you’d find it in a comedy magazine, it’ll probably be ironic or humorous. If you’d find it in a furious letter to the editor, it’ll probably be outraged or indignant. Just ask yourself this question, and the answer will usually fall into place.
Another easy way to answer tone questions is to start by determining whether the author’s tone or attitude is positive or negative. If it is positive, you can automatically eliminate any negative answers and vice-versa. Sometimes, you’re left with the correct answer using that trick alone. Other times, you may be able to eliminate at least two out of the four answer choices.
As a general rule, “extreme” answers to tone questions are usually incorrect, while correct answers are more reasonable. Thus, if an author’s attitude is positive, the answer is more likely to be approving or appreciative than awed; if the author’s attitude is negative, the answer is more likely to be skeptical or dubious than angry; and if an author uses strong language, the answer is likely to be a more neutral word such as emphatic or decisive.
You should be particularly careful with science passages, however. In science, especially, it is important not to confuse a dry or objective tone with an absence of opinion or point of view. SAT passages are, for all intents and purposes, not just recitations of factual information but rather chosen because they contain some sort of argument. More precisely, passages frequently contain the “old idea vs. new idea” structure in which the author first discusses a prevailing theory, then at a certain point turns around and describes a new theory. While there will undoubtedly be indications that the author rejects the former and embraces the latter, the overall tone may remain fairly neutral when discussing both.
Let’s start with a more straightforward example: The so-called machine-learning approach...links several powerful software techniques that make it possible for the robot to learn new tasks rapidly with a relatively small amount of training. The new approach includes a powerful artificial intelligence technique known as “deep learning,” which has previously been used to achieve major advances in both computer vision and speech recognition. Now the researchers have found that it can also be used to improve the actions of robots working in the physical world on tasks that require both machine vision and touch.
In this passage, the author’s positive tone is revealed in a number of words and phrases:
- make it possible
- powerful artificial intelligence technique
- major advances
- improve the actions
Taken together, all of these elements indicate that the author considers this technology important and holds it in very high regard. His tone, however, is relatively restrained. He does not say that that this technology is “extraordinary,” nor does he say that it is the “most important” invention ever. His tone, therefore, could be characterized as appreciative or approving.
Important: As with all other SAT Reading Test questions, you will still be able to find clear evidence in the passage to confirm the correct answer.
The SAT designs incorrect answer choices based on common assumptions in the real world that aren’t actually stated in the passage. So no matter what, always find evidence in the passage for your answer.
Often there are many characters in SAT passages, each with their own respective opinions and thoughts. Therefore, always start by reading the question to figure out what is being asked. Check whose tone or attitude you’re focused on. Always do the following:
- Figure out what the question is asking: whose perspective about what?
- Look for words in the passage that point to the person’s feelings or mood
- If the tone is positive or negative, eliminate answer choices that obviously don’t match
- Test remaining choices by relying on synonyms or closely related phrases in the passage