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Mentor Exercise

Directions: This passage is followed by a group of questions to be answered based on what is stated or implied in the passage. For some questions, more than one choice could conceivably answer the question. However, choose the best answer; the one that most accurately and completely answers the question.

Following the Three-Step Method, we preview the first sentence of each paragraph in the passage: (The body of the passage will be presented later.)

  • The enigmatic opening sentence “Many readers, I suspect, will take the title of this article [Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things] as suggesting that women, fire, and dangerous things have something in common—say, that women are fiery and dangerous” does not give us much of a clue to what the passage is about.
  • The sentence “The classical view that categories are based on shared properties is not entirely wrong” is more helpful. It tells us the passage is about categorization and that there are at least two theories about it: the classical view, which has merit, and the modern view, which is apparently superior.
  • The sentence “Categorization is not a matter to be taken lightly” merely confirms the subject of the passage.

Although only one sentence was helpful, previewing did reveal a lot about the passage’s subject matter—categorization. Now we read the passage, circling pivotal words, annotating, and noting likely places from which any of the six questions might be drawn. After each paragraph, we will stop to analyze and interpret what the author has presented:

Many readers, I suspect, will take the title of this article [Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things] as suggesting that women, fire, and dangerous things have something in common—say, that women are fiery and dangerous. Most feminists I’ve mentioned it to have loved the title for that reason, though some have hated it for the same reason. But the chain of inference—from conjunction to categorization to commonality—is the norm. The inference is based on the common idea of what it means to be in the same category: things are categorized together on the basis of what they have in common. The idea that categories are defined by common properties is not only our everyday folk theory of what a category is, it is also the principle technical theory—one that has been with us for more than two thousand years.

In this paragraph, the author introduces the subject matter of the passage—categorization. And the pivotal sentence, introduced by “but,” explains the classical theory of categorization, albeit rather obtusely. Namely, like things are placed in the same category.

Now we consider the second paragraph:

The classical view that categories are based on shared properties is not entirely wrong. We often do categorize things on that basis. But that is only a small part of the story. In recent years it has become clear that categorization is far more complex than that. A new theory of categorization, called prototype theory, has emerged. It shows that human categorization is based on principles that extend far beyond those envisioned in the classical theory. One of our goals is to survey the complexities of the way people really categorize. For example, the title of this book was inspired by the Australian aboriginal language Dyirbal, which has a category, balan, that actually includes women, fire, and dangerous things. It also includes birds that are not dangerous, as well as exceptional animals, such as the platypus, bandicoot, and echidna. This is not simply a matter of categorization by common properties.

In this paragraph, the second pivotal word—but—is crucial. It introduces the main idea of the passage—the prototype theory of categorization. Now everything that is introduced should be attributed to the prototype theory, not to the classical theory. Wrong answer-choices are likely to be baited with just the opposite.

The author states that the prototype theory goes “far beyond” the classical theory. Although he does not tell us what the prototype theory is, he does tell us that it is not merely categorization by common properties.

Now we turn to the third paragraph:

Categorization is not a matter to be taken lightly. There is nothing more basic than categorization to our thought, perception, action and speech. Every time we see something as a kind of thing, for example, a tree, we are categorizing. Whenever we reason about kinds of things—chairs, nations, illnesses, emotions, any kind of thing at all—we are employing categories. Whenever we intentionally perform any kind of action, say something as mundane as writing with a pencil, hammering with a hammer, or ironing clothes, we are using categories. The particular action we perform on that occasion is a kind of motor activity, that is, it is in a particular category of motor actions. They are never done in exactly the same way, yet despite the differences in particular movements, they are all movements of a kind, and we know how to make movements of that kind. And any time we either produce or understand any utterance of any reasonable length, we are employing dozens if not hundreds of categories: categories of speech sounds, of words, of phrases and clauses, as well as conceptual categories. Without the ability to categorize, we could not function at all, either in the physical world or in our social and intellectual lives.

Though the author does not explicitly state it, this paragraph defines the theory of prototypes. Notice the author likes to use an indirect, even cryptic, method of introducing or switching topics, which makes this a classic MCAT type passage. The MCAT writers have many opportunities here to test whether you are following the author’s train of thought.

Now we attack the questions.

Question 1

Consider all three answer choices and select all that apply.
The author probably chose Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things as the title of the article because:

  1. he thought that since the Dyirbal placed all three items in the same category, women, fire, and dangerous things necessarily had something in common.
  2. he was hoping to draw attention to the fact that because items have been placed in the same category doesn’t mean that they necessarily have anything in common
  3. he wanted to use the Dyirbal classi­fication system as an example of how primitive classifications are not as functional as contemporary Western classification systems.

This is an extension question.  The second paragraph contains the information needed to answer it. There, the author states that women, fire, and dangerous things belong to a category called balan in an Australian aboriginal language, which is not simply based on common properties.  This eliminates Statement A and confirms Statement B.
The answer is (B).

Question 2

Consider all three answer choices and select all that apply.
According to the author,

  1. categorizing is a fundamental activity of people.
  2. whenever a word refers to a kind of thing, it signifies a category.
  3. one has to be able to categorize in order to function in our culture.

This is a description question, so we must find the points in the passage from which the statements were drawn.
Remember, the answer to a description question will not directly quote a statement from the passage, but it will be closely related to one—often a paraphrase.

The needed references for Statements A, B, and C are all contained in the closing paragraph.
The answer is (A), (B), and (C).


Which one of the following facts would most weaken the significance of the author’s title?

  1. The discovery that all the birds and animals classified as balan in Dyirbal are female
  2. The discovery that the male Dyirbal culture considers females to be both fiery and dangerous
  3. The discovery that all items in the balan category are considered female
  4. The discovery that neither fire nor women are considered dangerous
  5. The discovery that other cultures have categories similar to the balan category

This is one of the few questions that does not easily fit into any of the six question types.  Nevertheless, our work in the arguments section has prepared us for this type of question.

To weaken an argument, attack one or more of its premises.

Now the implication of the title is that women, fire, and dangerous things do not have anything in common. To weaken this implication, the answer should state that all things in the balan category have something in common.
The answer is (C).

Question 4

If linguistic experts cannot perceive how women, fire, and dangerous things in the category balan have at least one thing in common, it follows that

  1. there probably is something other than shared properties that led to all items in balan being placed in that category.
  2. the anthropologists simply weren’t able to perceive what the items had in common.
  3. the anthropologists might not have been able to see what the items had in common.
  4. the items do not have anything in common.
  5. the Australian aboriginal culture is rather mystic.

This is an extension question; we are asked to draw a conclusion based on the passage.
The thrust of the passage is that commonality is not the only way to categorize things.
The answer is (A).

Question 5

Which one of the following sentences would best complete the last paragraph of the passage?

  1. An understanding of how we categorize is central to any understanding of how we think and how we function, and therefore central to an understanding of what makes us human.
  2. The prototype theory is only the latest in a series of new and improved theories of categorization; undoubtedly even better theories will replace it.
  3. The prototype theory of categories has not only unified a major branch of linguistics, but it has applications to mathematics and physics as well.
  4. An understanding of how the prototype theory of categorization evolved from the classical theory is essential to any understanding of how we think and how we function in society.
  5. To fully understand how modern Australian society functions, we must study how it is influenced by aboriginal culture—most specifically how aborigines organize and classify their surroundings.

This is an application question; we are asked to complete a thought for the author.
Most of the third paragraph is introducing the prototype theory of categorization.  But in the last sentence the author changes direction somewhat—without any notice, as is typical of his style.  Now he is discussing the importance of the ability to categorize.  The clause “Without the ability to categorize, we could not function at all” indicates that this ability is fundamental to our very being.
Be careful not to choose (D).  Although it is probably true, it is too specific: in the final sentence the author is discussing categorization in general.

The answer is (A).

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