The reading comprehension passages on the college entrance examinations can be daunting. They are often long and may contain confusing language. Keep these tips in mind as you approach the reading comprehension sections on the tests:

  1. Get the vocabulary questions out of the way. Skim the questions before you read the passage for the sole purpose of finding the ones that ask you to define a word. Put a box around the word in the sentence and try to come up with your own synonym before you read the choices. Answer these questions first so that you can focus on those that deal with the content of the passage after you have finished reading.
  2. Read the introduction. The italicized introductory text often contains information that will help you determine such things as the author's perspective or the purpose of the passage. Refer back to it as needed.
  3. Put the excerpts into context. When a question refers to text on a certain line (or lines), be sure to read the text that comes before and after the excerpt. Sometimes the answer cannot be determined from simply reading the sentence (or sentences) in the excerpt.
  4. Choose a title, main point, or purpose that is not too broad or too specific. If you are asked to pick a title that best describes the passage, read each option carefully to determine not only whether it makes sense, but also whether it is too broad or too specific. You can be certain that one of the five choices will be much too general and that another will focus on a detail mentioned in the text rather than on the entire text. Similarly, if you are asked to choose the main point or purpose of the passage, be sure that your answer is not one that is too broad or too specific. Another helpful tactic is to reread the first paragraph and the first sentence of subsequent paragraphs to get a better sense of what the whole piece is about.
  5. Pay attention to negatives. If you are asked to choose an answer that does NOT support the author's argument or to respond to a question that contains "EXCEPT," read each answer and ask yourself, "Is this true?" If it is, cross it off.
  6. Think about inferences. An author may imply something without actually saying it. You will be asked to infer the meaning of the text. The answer will not be directly stated in the passage. Think about who the author is and from what kind of work the passage has been excerpted (you may know this from the introduction). This information may help you extract meaning from the text.
  7. Turn the Roman numeral items into true/false questions. When you are presented with a question that asks which of three items (numbered with Roman numerals) are correct, treat each item as a true/false question. Read each item and decide whether it is true or false. Then look at the five answers to see which combination of "true" items is correct.
  8. Trust your instincts! If you are quite sure that an answer is correct but you think it must be wrong because it seems too easy, don't change your answer. You are smart and some questions are easy!

Being that the weather was sunny, we went to the beach.

This sentence contains an error in diction. "Being that" is a colloquial phrase that should not be used in formal language or standard written English. Use "because" or "since" instead.

Since the weather was sunny, we went to the beach.

The proper usage of "former" and "latter" depends upon an understanding of the definitions of these words.

former – (adjective) first-mentioned of two

latter – (adjective) last-mentioned of two

Notice that these definitions contain the words "of two." This means that "former" and "latter" can only be used in reference to two people or things. If a comparison contains more than two people or things, use "first" or "last."

first – (adjective) preceding all others in a series

last – (adjective) coming after all others in a series

Look at the proper usage of "former" and "latter" in this sentence:

Jack and Jill went up the hill; the former fell down and broke his crown while the latter came tumbling down after him.

Jack and Jill are two people. In this sentence, Jack is the former and Jill is the latter. This sentence is correct because the comparison is between two people.

Jack and Jill and Bob went up the hill; the latter watched the other two fall down.

This sentence is incorrect. The series contains more than two people, so "latter" should not be used. Bob is the last person in the series. Replace "latter" with "last" to correct the sentence.

Jack and Jill and Bob went up the hill; the last watched the other two fall down.

There is a difference between the proper usage of “number” and “amount.” If something can be counted, use “number” and the related number terms (“few,” “many,” etc.); if something cannot be counted, use “amount” and the related amount terms (“little,” “much,” etc.).

Countable nouns are easy to spot: one cookie, two cookies, three cookies; one class, two classes, three classes; one chair, two chairs, three chairs.

Try counting uncountable nouns: one rice, two rices, three rices? No! One mathematics, two mathematics, three mathematics? No! One furniture, two furnitures, three furnitures? No!

This table lists the terms that are associated with countable nouns (number terms) and uncountable nouns (amount terms), as well as terms that can be used with both countable and uncountable nouns:

number amount both
  • many
  • both
  • several
  • few/fewer/fewest
  • a few
  • one of the
  • a couple of
  • much
  • less
  • little
  • a little
  • very little
  • some
  • any
  • most
  • more
  • all
  • a lot of
  • no
  • none of the

Notice that the terms that can be used with both countable and uncountable nouns include the indefinite pronouns that can be either singular or plural (mnemonic = SAMAN).

Let’s look at some examples of the usage of these terms.

I have many CDs, but I have less music than my brother has.

CDs are countable (one CD, two CDs, three CDs) but music is uncountable (one music? two musics? three musics? No!). Use “many” with a countable noun and “less” with an uncountable noun.

I had too much ice cream and very little milk. I had several cookies. Now I want some coffee. Hey, someone ate all the hamburgers!

“Ice cream” and “milk” are uncountable (Two ice creams? Three milks? These are colloquial and they sound awkward.) “Much” and “very little” are amount terms to be used with uncountable nouns. “Cookies” are countable, and “several” is a number term to be used with countable nouns. “Some” and “all” are terms that can be used with both countable and uncountable nouns. “Coffee” is uncountable; “hamburgers” are countable.

A misplaced modifier is a modifying word, phrase, or clause that seems to refer to the wrong word in a sentence.

When reading a sentence that contains a modifier, pay attention to what the modifier is describing.

My friend saw a puppy on the way to school.

The modifying phrase "on the way to school" is misplaced. Since it is closer to "puppy" than to "my friend," the modifier seems to describe "puppy." The puppy was not on the way to school. My friend was on the way to school. To correct the sentence, move the modifier closer to the words it is describing.

On the way to school, my friend saw a puppy.

This sentence is clearer than the original because the modifier is no longer misplaced.

My mother put the cookies onto the table that she had baked.

The modifying clause in this sentence is "that she had baked." What does it describe? The modifier's proximity to "table" makes it seem as if the table had been baked. To clarify the meaning of the sentence, move the modifying clause closer to the word that it describes ("cookies.")

My mother put the cookies that she had baked onto the table.

Some adverbs can cause confusion in a sentence when they are misplaced. Check the placement of the following adverbs carefully:

  • almost
  • ever
  • even
  • just
  • only
  • merely
  • scarcely

I almost read the entire book.

The adverb "almost" seems to be modifying the verb "read." This would mean that I did not read the book. I almost read the book. Move the modifier closer to the word it is modifying to correct the sentence.

I read almost the entire book.

This sentence makes more sense than the original.

The Girl Scout only sold one box of cookies this week.

The adverb "only" is misplaced in this sentence because it appears to modify the verb "sold" instead of the adjective "one." This sentence implies that she "only sold" the cookies. She did not eat them, she did not hide them, she did not crush them under her feet – she only sold them. "Only" should modify "one" because she sold "only one box." Move "only" closer to the word it modifies so that the sentence makes more sense.

The Girl Scout sold only one box of cookies this week.

Another type of misplaced modifier is called a "dangling modifier." The modifier is said to be "dangling" from the end of a sentence when it does not clearly and logically modify any word in the sentence.

To prepare for a hurricane, many bottles of water and cans of food should be bought.

The modifier, the infinitive phrase "to prepare for a hurricane," modifies the subject of the sentence. The subject is "many bottles of water and cans of food." Bottles and cans do not prepare for a hurricane. A person must prepare for a hurricane. Restructure the sentence so that the modifier refers to a logical subject.

To prepare for a hurricane, you should buy many bottles of water and cans of food.

This dangling modifier was an infinitive phrase. A dangling participle is a misplaced modifier that is a participial phrase.

These verbs, nouns, and adjectives all relate to the concept of "verbal attack." Familiarize yourself with these words and their definitions so that you will be able to recognize them and remember their negative connotations when you approach the sentence completion and reading comprehension sections of the college entrance examinations.

asperse (verb) – to attack with evil reports or false or injurious charges [noun form: aspersion]

billingsgate (noun) – coarsely abusive language

calumniate (verb) – to utter maliciously false statements, charges, or imputations about [noun form: calumny]

censure (verb) – to find fault with and criticize as blameworthy [noun form: censure; adjective form: censorious]

denounce (verb) – to pronounce, especially publicly, to be blameworthy or evil [noun form: denunciation]

derision (noun) – the use of ridicule or scorn to show contempt

diatribe (noun) – bitter and abusive speech or writing

invective (noun) – 1. an abusive expression or speech 2. insulting or abusive language [adjective form: invective]

lambaste (verb) – 1. to attack verbally 2. to assault violently

malign (verb) – to utter injuriously misleading or false reports about

obloquy (noun) – 1. abusive language 2. bad repute as a result of being discredited

philipic (noun) – a discourse full of bitter condemnation

reprehend (verb) – to voice disapproval of [noun form: reprehension]

scurrilous (adjective) – containing obscenities, abuse, or slander

tirade (noun) – a protracted speech marked by harshly censorious language

vilify (verb) – to utter slanderous and abusive statements against

"To lay" is a transitive verb that means "to place something on a surface, to put" and requires an object. You lay something down.

"To lie" is an intransitive verb that means "to be in or take on a horizontal position, to recline." Since it is intransitive, it never takes a subject. You lie down to sleep.

to lay

  • base form: lay
  • past: laid
  • present participle: (is/are) laying
  • past participle: (has/have/had) laid

to lie

  • base form: lie
  • past: lay
  • present participle: (is/are) lying
  • past participle: (has/have/had) lain

Notice that the past tense of "to lie" is the same as the base form of "to lay."

Review these examples of each tense of both verbs.

Infinitives using the base form:

I am tired, so I am going to lie down. ("to lie" is intransitive; "down" is an adverb modifying "to lie")

I can't wait to lay my head down on my pillow. ("to lay" is transitive; its object is "my head")

Past tense:

Last night, I lay in bed for hours before I finally fell asleep. ("lay" is intransitive; "in bed" is a prepositional phrase modifying "lay")

I laid my keys on the table yesterday, but now I can't find them. ("laid" is transitive; its object is "my keys")

Present participle:

My clothes are lying on the floor. ("are lying" is intransitive; "on the floor" is a prepositional phrase modifying "are lying")

My mother is laying my clothes on the bed. ("is laying" is transitive; its subject is "my clothes")

Past participle:

Before I got up, I had lain in bed for hours. ("had lain" is intransitive; "in bed for hours" is a prepositional phrase modifying "had lain")

Before I put my clothes away, I had laid them on my bed. ("had laid" is transitive; its object is "my clothes")

  • Take this interactive quiz to test your knowledge of these two verbs.
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