Lesson - Critical Reading Skill: Author's Purpose

GRE Critical Reading: Author's Purpose

An author always has an overall reason or purpose for writing a passage.  If an author is writing about a tornado, the writer could have many different purposes.  Here are some examples:

  • to inform the reader about a tornado
  • to compare that tornado to past tornadoes in the region
  • to identify factors that caused the tornado
  • to analyze a state’s response to the tornado
  • to persuade readers to donate money to a tornado relief fund
  • to describe one resident's effort to save lives during the tornado

     Some passages explicitly state their purposes.  Other passages leave it for the reader to infer the purpose.  Understanding the author's purpose helps the reader better understand the main idea of the passage and follow the author's ideas as they progress.

    Likewise, an author has a purpose for the various decisions made in crafting the sentences in the passage.  In particular, word choice, word placement, and emphasis all work intentionally toward promoting a specific purpose that the author has in mind.  The insightful reader will recognize these intentions of the author and follow the author's logic and conclusions by means of these cues.

Here's an example from one of the hypothetical articles on tornadoes:

     A tornado swept through this town three years ago.  It gutted hundreds of houses and businesses.  At the hardware store one day after the storm, I met Leo Jackson, a retired carpenter, who was buying wood to rebuild his house "sooner than the state will do it."  He told me: "I don't like change, so I'm going to make sure the next one can't do more than knock at my door."  After this past storm swept through his town, I drove by his new house to check on him.  He was sitting on his porch waiting for the interview, and not one window was broken.  

Why would the author quote Leo Jackson in this article?

The author quotes Leo Jackson in order to --

A)    inform the readers about his plans for rebuilding his home.
B)    explain how the storm affected the community.
C)    compare his new attitude to his old one.
D)    praise his commitment
E)    illustrate one resident's determination

The correct answer is E.  The author focuses on one resident in this passage and does not add in personal opinions about him.  Instead, that quote allows readers to see evidence of his determination after the first storm and assess the result of it after the second one.

     The author's purpose will most likely determine the organizational pattern used for the passage as well.  For example, a writer may want to explain a topic, compare one thing to another, define a term in order to educate or persuade, or simply list information.  Depending on the author's purpose, the passage will be organized accordingly.

If the writer wanted readers to see the problems with the structure of Leo Jackson's old house and the advantages of the new house's design, the author might want to use the following organizational pattern:

A)    cause and effect. The author considers why the new design withstood the storm.
compare/contrast. The author compares integrity of the old structure to the new structure.
example. The author lists examples of ways to rebuild a house that can withstand a storm.
definition. The first sentence provides a definition of structural integrity, and then uses the new house to illustrate the meaning.
sequential. The passage is written in time order.

To determine the author's purpose, consider how the following elements relate to the thesis:

  • word choice: note the powerful words -- what connotations or feelings are evoked by the use of certain words?
  • word placement: what words introduce or conclude the idea discussed?
  • emphasis: what points are emphasized? are words repeated? which sentences are more heavily weighted?
  • organization:  what organizational structure is used? how does the structure affect the idea being discussed?



Read the two passages below, and then answer the questions regarding the author's purpose.

Passage 1

     The Romantic Period in literature resulted from the reaction to eighteenth-century rationalism in which writers tried to order their experiences with the world.  During the eighteenth century the emphasis was on logical conclusions and reason as shown in the study of physics and mathematics and reflected in the literature of the time.  The Romantics, on the other hand, turned away from these abstractions in favor of feelings and immediate experiences.  They turned their backs on the idea of people as cold, rational beings and portrayed them in all their complexity, warmth, and diversity as individuals.

     Individualism was stressed by Romantic authors and poets.  The individual was valued, not looked down on, even though he or she was of peasant stock.  In fact, many people in the upper classes went out into the countrysides to converse with those of "rustic and humble life."  Literature became concerned with everyday life, not just the lives of kings and queens.  Scenes of the family in a simple cottage and hearth, of shepherds and their flocks, and of laborers and their children working in factories were commonplace in Romantic literature.  Their feelings, memories, and imaginations suddenly seemed more real and important than those in more opulent surroundings.

1.  The first sentence of paragraph 1 indicates that the author's purpose is --

A)  to describe the Romantic Period.
B)  to contrast the Romantic Period with the literature of the eighteenth century.
C)  to analyze literature of the Romantic Period.
D)  to define just what the Romantic Period involved.

2.  In developing the second paragraph, the organizational pattern used by the author could be described as --

A)  cause and effect. The first sentence states a cause and the remaining sentences of the paragraph are effects.
B)  simple listing. The first sentence states the basis for listing other information as remaining sentences of the paragraph.
C)  example. The first sentence is followed by a number of examples used to illustrate it.
D)  definition. The first sentence provides a definition and the remaining sentences of the paragraph explain it.

Passage 2

     Each spring, the humpback whales reappear in Hawaii and once more begin to sing.  Each new year, they have new themes in their repertoire and have dropped many of the former songs.  Sometimes the songs are so loud that the whole hull of your boat resonates and you can hear ethereal moans and cries coming mysteriously, as from nowhere.  If you dive into the peerlessly blue water and swim down, you may, with luck, see the singer hanging in the water below you, a cobalt shape in the sapphire depths.  The sound penetrates your body, making the air in your sinuses vibrate in sympathy, as though you were sitting within the widest pipe of the largest cathedral organ, and the whole of your tissues are soaked in sound.

1.  What is the purpose, in paragraph four, for phrases like "the whole hull resonates," "ethereal moans," "sound penetrates your body, making the air in your sinuses vibrate in sympathy"?

A)  to persuade the reader that the songs are noisy
B)  to help the reader imagine the quality of the sound
C)  to explain how sound travels through water
D)  to compare the whale's songs with human's songs

Answer Key

Passage 1

1. The correct choice is C.
The key words are "resulted from" which shows that the author is analyzing causes and effects, not describing, contrasting only, or defining.

2. The correct choice is C.
The author provides several examples of individualism during the Romantic Period.  Causes and effects, lists, or definitions are not part of this paragraph.

Passage 2

1. The correct choice is B.
Choice A is incorrect because there is no attempt to persuade in paragraph four.  Choice B is correct; the purpose of paragraph 4 is to describe the sounds made by whales and the use of imagery stimulates the readers' imaginations.  Choice C is incorrect because the passage contains no explanation of how sound travels through water.  Choice D is incorrect; the paragraph contains no comparisons.