There are two levels to understanding a sentence:

  1. What it actually says (superficial first level)
  2. What purpose/role/function it serves (deeper second level)

Remember back in elementary school when we played the most annoying game on earth…the Why Game? I do. I vividly remember how I used it to torture my friends, family, and teachers. Basically, I would ask them a question and then ask “why?” to every response they gave.

Me: Dad, where do babies come from?
Dad: Well, when a man and a woman love each other very much…they get together and have a baby.
Me: Why?
Dad: Because they love each other very much.
Me: Why?
Dad: Because, son, they enjoy spending time together.
Me: Why?
Dad: Well, because they care deeply about one another and would sacrifice everything.
Me: Why?
Dad: Because that’s what true love is.
Me: Why?
Dad: Because you’re annoying! Grrr!
Me: Why?
Dad: I don’t know. You tell me!
Me: Why?
Dad: ARGHHHHH! (A wild Hatred-mon has appeared! Quick, throw a Pokeball to capture this rare Pokemon.)

Well, it’s time to bring back the Why Game! Except this time, it’s going to annoy the correct answers right out of those revolting SAT Reading Comprehension questions. Just keep asking why, why, why, and why of them all!

As your SAT field instructor, I would be remiss not to tell you that the number one issue that snares charming young agents like yourselves is not understanding the POINT/PURPOSE/REASON the author wrote a particular sentence. In other words, you might understand what was written but not why it was written.

Good writers pick their words carefully. Words are their weapon of choice. After all, the pen is mightier than the sword…or so claimed English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839 in his play Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy. Okay, that total nerd moment was uncalled for, but enlightening you with such useless facts brings me great joy, so hah.

Anyways, for writers, words are everything. We eat, breathe, and s**t words. We turn ideas into words, emotions into words, events into words, words into even better words. That’s what we do. Every little word has meaning, a reason to exist in our article. And the key to unlocking what we mean is understanding WHY we wrote it. You need to understand the purpose of each sentence in order to decode our message. Reading between the lines is all about realizing that implied purpose.

People say you can’t read too deeply into an email or text because you can’t read emotion on a screen; you have to see or at least hear their voice. That’s the biggest load of beetle dung I’ve ever heard. Good writers can absolutely convey precise emotion, attitude, and intonation through words on a page alone. It’s the bad writers who fail at that task, or the weak readers who fail at catching the emotions.

The first level of understanding is LITERALLY spelled out for you, word for word. To pass the first level of understanding, simply restate in your own words exactly what the sentence said. It’s absolutely essential you know what it’s literally saying, but unfortunately, harder questions on the SAT not only ask you to understand what’s being said but also WHY.

So ask yourself this: what is the FUNCTION of that sentence or paragraph? Does it emphasize a certain point brought up earlier? Does it oppose that point? Does it provide a specific example of that point or claim? Is it simply making a claim? Is it serving as a transition between ideas? You need to be able to connect one idea to another idea.

Succeeding at understanding WHY will help you tremendously with “inference” questions. These usually begin with something like, “It can be inferred that…”

By definition, “inference” means that something is not directly stated in the passage. That would be too easy. This isn’t an open book test where you’re simply look for an answer choice that matches the facts you read. This is SAT Critical Reading, which, I know…surprise…is asking you to think critically (in other words, to infer) why something that was written.

If you think for a moment about your own writing, I bet even you use one of the most basic forms of inference. Your organization of ideas is inferred. You don’t come right out and tell us, “First, I’m going to make a claim. Next, I’ll give you an example of that claim. Here it is now.” No, you expect us to reasonably infer that you’re giving this example because it supports your previous claim. You don’t have to explicitly tell us that’s your reason.

Check out this type of inferred organization in action:

e.g. The one who selflessly helps others will achieve more in his personal life than the narcissist who looks only after himself. Even if the selfish man achieves more in the immediate time being, the selfless man will surely surpass him by generating more goodwill. Like many others, my grandfather, a poor baker during World War I, had little money for his family. But as a baker, he had access to one of the few things more important than money — food. He could have selflessly hoarded the bread for himself, which his family desperately needed, but instead, he shared it freely with his neighbors. This hurt his family in the short run, but after the war, many of the neighborhood families remembered my grandfather’s act of kindness and repaid him in ways much more valuable than a few loaves of bread.

Why did I start mentioning my grandfather? What purpose does my grandfather’s story serve? You won’t find the answer directly in the passage anywhere. That’s because it’s inferred that my grandfather is serving as an example of my claim. The claim, of course, is that the “selfless man will surely surpass [the selfish man] by generating more goodwill.”

Here are some common beneath-the-surface reasons for writing something:

  • show how the author feels about an issue
  • reiterate/emphasize something
  • contradict or criticize something
  • agree with or advocate something
  • highlight or draw attention to something
  • make a claim
  • expound on or clarify a claim
  • provide an example of a claim
  • add additional details to progress the story
  • help transition between thoughts
  • provide details about a particular event or phenomenon
  • create suspense in the story/article/passage/essay
  • ask a rhetorical question
  • inject humor
  • better create a visual image of the scene for readers
  • provide a call to action (inspire readers to take action and do something)

Sometimes, even thinking about why a sentence is worded the way it is becomes revealing. The particular wording of a single phrase or adjective might betray the latent or underlying intentions behind the author’s sentence.

Always ask yourself why!

-Peter
Peter Peng is a SAT/ACT tutor and college admissions essay consultant based in the greater Los Angeles area. He is currently working on a book entitled The SAT Decoded and can be reached at peter@pwnthesat.com