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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.

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