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PSAT Writing & Language Test: Expression of Ideas Questions

Instructor: Jay Simons

Jay has taught college writing and literature and has a PhD in English.

This lesson covers Expression of Ideas questions as they appear on the PSAT Writing & Language Test. You will find out about different kinds of Expression of Ideas questions and learn some strategies for responding to them.

Expression of Ideas Questions

The different subcategories of Writing and Language Test questions (e.g., Expression of Ideas) are not labeled or grouped together on the test. It is not necessary for you to recognize the type, but it may be helpful to do so.

Expression of Ideas questions ask you to assess a passage's organization and impact. In other words, you will make changes based on how well sentences and paragraphs work together and how effectively the passage makes its point. For example, a question may have you select a sentence that best fits in with the rest of the paragraph, or a question may ask you to choose the most effective transition or to replace a phrase with one that is more concise.

Sample Questions

Let's imagine that the following passage appears on the test:

In metropolitan areas, transportation is often taken for granted. Taxis are considered to be as necessary as restaurants. People expect buses to adhere to schedules. Subways are mastered by residents by the time they reach high school. No form of transportation is considered superfluous in the big city.

Here is an example of an Expression of Ideas question for this passage:

1) Which choice as a substitute for the third sentence ('People expect buses…') most effectively maintains the sentence pattern of the paragraph?

A) NO CHANGE

B) People are expecting buses to adhere to schedules.

C) Buses are expected to adhere to schedules.

D) Schedules are kept by buses.

In this case, the correct answer is C). The other sentences all follow a passive construction, in which an action is performed on the subject of the sentence. This is in contrast to an active construction, in which the action is performed by the subject. In the fourth sentence, for example, 'Subways' is the subject and 'are mastered' is the verb, referring to an action that is not performed by subways but to them. While D) also exhibits a passive construction, it doesn't use the form of transportation (buses) as the subject, as all the other sentences do.

Now let's suppose that this passage appears on the test:

Cleaning up the river should be a high priority for the city. The primary and most important step is getting local factories to stop dumping waste materials in the river. The only way to accomplish this is through a city ordinance that fills the gap in federal law that has permitted the dumping in the first place. As long as local ordinances don't conflict with federal law, they are perfectly legal. Because federal law does not expressly permit this type of dumping, but rather fails to expressly prohibit it, there would be no legal conflict.

Here are two examples of Expression of Ideas questions for this passage:

2) Which choice as a substitute for the fourth sentence ('As long as local ordinances…') results in the most effective transition to the information that follows in the paragraph?

A) NO CHANGE

B) This type of dumping should be a federal crime.

C) The legalities, however, are not what is at issue here.

D) All ordinances must be approved by the mayor.

The best choice is A). The sentence already effectively transitions from the need for a local ordinance (in the previous sentence) to the fact that such an ordinance would be legal (in the following sentence), providing a connection between the two ideas.

3) Which choice as a substitute for the second sentence ('The primary and most important step…') is the most concise?

A) NO CHANGE

B) The first and most significant step is getting local factories to stop dumping waste materials in the river

C) The only and lone step is getting local factories to stop dumping waste materials in the river.

D) The most substantial and considerable step is getting local factories to stop dumping waste materials in the river.

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