From Purpose to Main Point

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RC Perfection Free Preview: Chapter 8 Part I

Let’s move to another common question type, Main Point Questions. Four types of questions (Purpose, Main Point, According to the Passage, and Inference) constitute the majority of RC questions you will encounter. Collectively, we shall call them the big four. We now look at the second of these four question types.

We have placed the Main Point chapter right after the Purpose chapter because most of the time, it’s easier to find the passage’s main point after you have figured out the Author’s Purpose. Although in more straightforward passages, the Main Point can be plainly stated either in the first or the last paragraph, in more difficult passages, we need to come up with our own version of the passage’s MP.

Think back on the passages that we have seen so far. We were able to make an educated guess on what the Author’s Purpose was based on the first paragraph and information that appeared very early on. We would come up with our own hypothesis on what the passage is about and why the author wrote this passage, and we would finetune this hypothesis as we moved through the passage. 

Once we have a rough idea of why the author is writing a particular passage, we can simply rephrase the Author’s Purpose by including specific ideas mentioned in the passage. This may be a little hard to grasp, so let’s use a few hypotheticals to illustrate the practice.

Let’s use CEER as a rough framework. Remember that whenever we are reading a difficult passage, paragraph, or sentence, we can ask ourselves “What is the author doing?” to help us better engage with the content. Is the author comparing, explaining, evaluating, or recommending something?

We saw also that not only can CEER help us improve our active reading ability, it can also work as a basic guide to predicting the Author’s Purpose. It doesn’t work for every passage, but for many, the Author’s Purpose is to compare, explain, evaluate, or to recommend. Sometimes it’s a combination of several of these.

Let’s pretend that there’s a passage where the Author’s Purpose is comparing the writing of Hemingway and Steinbeck. The Main Point of that passage will include the similarities and differences between the two authors. It will probably be along the lines of “Hemingway and Steinbeck are similar in respect A, but different in B and C.

If the Purpose of the passage is to explain a new theory, such as the Theory of Evolution, Then the Main Point can simply tell us what the theory entails. It can say that “The Theory of Evolution states that the process of natural selection favors the continuation of traits that maximizes survivability. Over long periods of time it leads to significant changes.

If the Author’s Purpose is to evaluate the pros and cons of a position or theory, the Main Point of the passage will naturally lay these out in more explicit detail. Similarly, if the author is making a recommendation in the passage, then the Main Point will tell us exactly what it is that the author is advocating.

Always try to come up with your own version of what the passage’s Main Point might be. I like to do that as soon as I’ve finished reading the passage. I first think about what the Author’s Purpose is, then try to come up with the MP.

There is another reason why we always try to think about the Author’s Purpose before the Main Point of the passage.

In a passage where the author’s position, opinion, or attitude is made clear, the correct main point answer choice will always reflect what the author thinks.

For instance, if the author spends the majority of the passage describing a position only to tell us in the last sentence of the passage that the position is erroneous; the correct MP answer will have to include the information about the position being wrong.

Similarly, if throughout the most part of a passage, the author is comparing the merits of two courses of action, only making a recommendation in the last paragraph; then the correct answer choice will have to include the author’s recommendation, or what the author thought about the issues they just described.

In short, if the author’s position or stance is neutral or unclear, then we have nothing to worry about. But if we do find evidence in the passage pointing to what the author personally thinks, then that must be included in the correct Main Point answer.

8.1.2 Main Point ≠ Laundry List

An important thing to note about a passage’s Main Point is the MAIN in Main Point. The correct MP answer choice will not necessarily cover all the points made by the author.

Let’s say that we have just read an essay. We don’t know the topic or the thesis statement of this essay. It has three paragraphs. The first paragraph tells us that a democratic political system is more adaptable and flexible than an authoritarian system. The second paragraph tells us a democratic political system has a higher respect for individual rights and freedoms. The final paragraph tells us democratic countries do not go to war as easily as authoritarian ones. We are not given a conclusion or any hint of what the main point is.

In a case like this the main point would need to be inferred. A suitable answer would be that “democratic systems of government are superior to authoritarian ones.” This is straightforward enough, and most students will have no difficulty recognizing this, even though the passage never explicitly states this.

A more complete answer may say that “democratic governments are superior to authoritarian ones because they are more flexible, have more respect for rights and freedoms, and are more peaceful.” Such an answer touches upon each of the key points the author made, as well as the over-arching main point of the entire essay.

If an answer choice just said “democratic governments are more adaptable, has higher respect for rights and freedoms, and are more peaceful,” it can still work, even though it’s not ideal. Laundry list answer choices that simply summarize or describe what happens in the passage without connecting the dots or drawing inferences can be correct in limited instances, but only when answers like the first two are not available. Most of the times, a simple regurgitation of what each paragraph talked about will be wrong as an answer choice.

Most students will understand why the first two choices are more suitable as MP answers than the third one. We want an answer that really gives us the central idea behind the author’s argument, and not a mechanical summary/regurgitation of it. But when it comes to real RC passages, many students end up choosing the “laundry list” answer, especially when the Main Point of the passage isn’t spelled out for us explicitly.

This happens for many reasons. The chief among them being that the student is not confident enough in their own reading ability. As a result, trying to play it safe, they memorize and regurgitate only what was explicitly stated in the passage. To make the inferences needed to answer many questions, we must be actively thinking about what we have just read. Rather than being passive recipients of the information in RC passages, we need to engage, compare, categorize, and even question what we have read.

Part I of the book is all about developing our reading skills; don’t be afraid to go back and re-read those chapters if you feel like an inability to practicing active reading is what’s holding you back.

8.1.3 You don’t have to cover everything

In more recent PTs (70+), I have been noticing a sinister trend developing in MP Questions. I will address it here before we look at real questions, so that you may recognize the trap when you see it and avoid it accordingly.

Let’s think back on our Democracy vs. Authoritarian systems hypothetical. You are faced with the following two answer choices for a Main Point question:

Option 1: Democratic governments are superior to authoritarian ones because they have greater respect for human rights and are less prone to go to war.

Option 2: More people prefer democracies to authoritarian governments because they are more adaptable and flexible, have greater respect for rights and responsibilities, and are less prone to go to war.

Which one would you choose?

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Let’s look at both of these, what exactly are the issues with them, respectively?

Option 1 is missing one of the key points. In our hypothetical essay/passage, the first paragraph talks about democracies being more adaptable and flexible than authoritarian systems. But this is nowhere to be found in this answer choice.

Option 2 makes a subtle shift on the topic of discussion. Our hypothetical essay is talking about the advantages democracies have over authoritarian governments; but Option 2 is talking about people’s preferences. In our hypothetical essay, we are never told the number of people who prefer one over the other.

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These two answer choices are an illustration of one of the trickiest traps seen in MP Questions. There will be two tempting answer choices. One of them will be on topic, but seems incomplete; while the other covers all the bases but will have also made an unsupported/out of scope assertion.

If we really think back on what we had come up as potential main points of our hypothetical essay/passage, the ideal answer would have tied in all three of the sub key-points made in each paragraph. The ideal main point answer, we said, would have stated the superiority of democratic over authoritarian governments.

Option 1 does that. It is missing one of the key-points from one of the paragraphs, but it still captures the Main Point of the passage nicely. It’s not the ideal answer we were looking for, but it is still acceptable.

Option 2; on the other hand, subverts the meaning the passage was trying to express. Just because A is better than or superior to B, doesn’t mean more people prefer A to B. Salads are superior to junk food, but that doesn’t mean more people prefer salads to junk food. So even though option 2 covers all the key-points in the passage, it is still the wrong answer.

This is a trend that has become more frequent in recent PTs, especially in the harder passages. Generally speaking, an answer choice that’s missing some of the supporting information mentioned in the passage will be superior to an answer choice that appears complete on a first glance, but contains glaring errors.

Let’s now look at some passages and their associated Main Point Questions. Like we did for purpose questions in the previous chapter, try to anticipate what the correct answer will look like before we even get to the answer choices.