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PSAT Writing & Language Test: Words in Context Questions

Instructor: Jay Simons

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

This lesson covers Words in Context questions as they appear on the PSAT Writing & Language Test. You will learn what Words in Context questions look like and get some tips for responding to them.

Words in Context Questions

The different types of questions on the PSAT Writing and Language Test (e.g., Words in Context) 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.

Words in Context questions ask you to improve upon word choice in passages that are provided. Given the surrounding words, you must choose the word or words that best complete the sentence. For example, a question may ask you to make a sentence or passage more concise. Or, you may be asked to choose the word or words that create the best syntax (the order of words within a sentence) or tone (the attitude of the writer toward the subject or reader), or are most appropriate in style (the way a writer writes, including elements like word choice, syntax, and tone).

Sample Questions

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

The meeting of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1797 was among the most momentous events in English literary history. They immediately became friends and began sharing their poetry, engaging in a partnership that forced them to push the limits of English poetry. They didn't write poems jointly. Each inspired the other to become a better poet.

Here are three examples of Words in Context questions for this passage:

1) Which of the following sentences should replace the first sentence in the passage?

A) NO CHANGE

B) In 1797, the meeting of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge was among the most momentous events in English literary history.

C) William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge met in 1797, one of the most momentous events in English literary history.

D) Among the most momentous events in English literary history in 1797 was the meeting of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

In this case, the correct answer would be A). By placing the introductory clause 'In 1797' at the beginning of the sentence, B) fails to establish that the meeting took place in 1797. C) is missing one or more words after the comma that make it clear that the post-comma clause is not building on '1797' but on the fact of the two men meeting (e.g., '…1797, an event among the most momentous in English literary history'). The placement of 'in 1797' right after 'English literary history' in D) limits the scope of 'momentous events in English literary history' to that year, rather than to the entirety of English literary history.

2) Which of the following should replace the word 'forced' in the second sentence?

A) NO CHANGE

B) insisted

C) encouraged

D) cajoled

The best choice is C). A) and D) both contain an element of outside influence or persuasion that doesn't fit with the meaning of the sentence. The same is true of B), which also does not fit grammatically in the sentence.

3) Which of the following best combines the final two sentences of the passage?

A) They didn't write poems jointly; each inspired the other to become a better poet.

B) They didn't write poems jointly, but each inspired the other to become a better poet.

C) They didn't write poems jointly, and each inspired the other to become a better poet.

D) They didn't write poems jointly, each inspiring the other to become a better poet.

The correct response is B) because the conjunction 'but' accurately indicates that the idea in the second clause contrasts with that in the first. Just as in the original, A) does not show the relationship between the two clauses. C) and D) both establish an incorrect relationship between the two clauses, failing to point out the contrast between the two ideas.

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