GMAT Gurus Speak Out: Answering Why in Reading Comp Passages

In GMAT Reading Comp, we’re sometimes asked to determine why the author includes a certain detail within a paragraph, or why the entire paragraph itself is included in the passage. We have to understand the logical structure of the author’s argument, the “flow” of one paragraph to the next, and the logic behind the use of a particular piece of information.

The most important thing you can do when faced with a “Function” question is to go back to the passage and look for clues. Clues within the paragraph are any keywords, sentence structure, or punctuation that give insight into the author’s intention. Don’t be afraid to go back and re-read – remember the GMAT Reading passages are an “open book” test! Here’s an example of a “Function” question:

Why does the author mention Caesar in the second paragraph?

(A) to compare Napoleon to one of his great forebears

(B) to reveal an aspect of the French character Napoleon utilized

(C) to describe the foundational characteristics of the Gallic people

(D) to emphasize the impact Roman law had on the development of the code

(E) to analyze the function of historical precedence on the Napoleonic code

We can tell this is a Function question because it asks “why?” Let’s go back to the second paragraph and check out the keywords (for paucity’s sake only the 2nd paragraph is reprinted here):

There was much force in this dictum. The overthrow of Feudalism and the old monarchy had not permanently altered the French nature. They were still the same joyous, artistic, clan-loving people whom the Latin historians described: and pride in the nation or the family was as closely linked with respect for a doughty champion of national and family interests as in the days of Caesar. Of this Roman or quasi-Gallic reaction Napoleon was to be the regulator; and no sphere of his activities bespeaks his unerring political sagacity more than his sifting of the old and the new in the great code which was afterwards to bear his name.

Details in a paragraph are used to bolster that paragraph’s main idea. They keywords here are “still the same” and “linked with…champion.” The main idea: the French were unchanged in that national pride = champion.  Caesar is used to show just how far back in time this characteristic was evidenced. The next sentence then describes how Napoleon was to be “regulator” and utilized this aspect to great “political sagacity.” Basically, Napoleon understood this French characteristic and modeled himself after Caesar. The detail is being used illustrate how Napoleon was able to brilliantly rule the French people.

The correct response is (B).

Remember not be fooled by what is merely stated by the paragraph (such as choice (C)). Instead keep your focus on why the author is employing this specific detail. Always try to dig deeper to interpret the author’s underlying point, and be wary of “regurgitated” answer choices in function questions.

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Vivian Kerr is a regular contributor to the Veritas Prep blog, providing tips and tricks to help students better prepare for the GMAT and the SAT. 

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