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Read the passage given below and sum up in one sentence what you think is the central idea of the passage.

What constitutes obscenity is hazy — by religion, nation, culture or statute. Bertrand Russell goes a step further, arguing that “Obscenity is not a term capable of exact legal definition; in the practice of the Courts, it means ‘anything that shocks the magistrate.’ ”

In the England in which Russell lived, magistrates showed various levels of shock. The British Parliament had passed the Obscene Publications Act in 1857 a few decades before Russell was born, to control obscene literature which was there, “for the single purpose of corrupting the morals of youth and of a nature calculated to shock the common feelings of decency in any well-regulated mind.” Such a broad generalization obviously allowed the moral police to do as they pleased, sometimes absurdly so. For instance, Annie Besant and co-author Charles Bradlaugh were once sentenced to six months in jail for publishing a pamphlet on birth control!


Write out the central idea below:

Central idea: ____________________________


How to attempt: Read the passage after asking yourself: what is the author saying? Approach the passage armed with a pencil. Each line should be read asking yourself whether it constitutes an idea or is it a supporting example.

If we underline the recurring words in the passage we can easily see that it is about morality. The temptation is to think that the first line gives away the central idea, but that would ignore what is written later.

Let us sum up the ideas that are contained in the passage:

        (i)    Definition of obscenity is hazy

        (ii)    Definition according to British law of 1857

        (iii)   It was used by moral police sometimes to absurd lengths

        (iv)   Example of two people being jailed for talking about birth control

To get to the central idea, we can knock out (ii) and (iv) from the above because these statements do not constitute the idea.

In the second paragraph, we see some names and an example. We can see that (ii) is supporting (i) and (iv) is supporting (iii). So the central idea must combine statements (i) and (iii). Combining both of them, we can see that the central idea must be something like this: Obscenity is a vague concept that is used by people to control ideas, sometimes to absurd lengths.

What we have learnt: Spotting the central idea requires ignoring details. The central idea should encompass most of the ideas contained in the passage.


Read the passage given below and sum up in one sentence what you think is the central idea of the passage.

Zheng’s seventh voyage was his last. The sea-going eunuchs fell from favour (Zheng’s missions were staggeringly costly) and by 1500 it was a capital offence to go to sea in a two-masted ship without permission. China had embarked on a long period of isolation like that imposed on Japan by the Tokugawa shogunate in the 17th century. With the mothballing of Zheng’s ships, just as Europeans were beginning their own voyages of discovery, came the beginning of the end of China’s centuries of superiority. Had Zheng been allowed to continue his voyages, might the advantages of trade and discovery have come to seem more obvious? Might China have avoided decline? Or was, instead, the recall of the fleet a symptom of a deeper malaise in Chinese society? In competing Europe, after all, Columbus was able to flit from court to court until he finally found a backer for his expedition of 1492. For Zheng, it was the emperor or no one.

Write out the central idea below:

Central idea: _____________________________

How to attempt: Once again we approach the passage with a question in our mind. What is the passage about? At first glance we see it is about a Chinese explorer, Zheng. Our tendency is to sum up the central idea as follows: Zheng was not allowed to continue his voyages by the Chinese emperor.

This is partly correct, so we should ask ourselves whether the passage is merely about stopping Zheng’s voyages. Read the passage again and we see that Zheng’s story is illustrating an idea. What is this idea? Sifting through the story, we come across these phrases:

        (i)    long period of isolation

        (ii)    end of China’s centuries of superiority

        (iii)   China [could] have avoided decline

From the above summing up we see that the passage is less about Zheng but about the idea of China’s superiority or decline. So our first attempt to find the central idea is wrong. A better way of summarizing the central idea might be: By banning overseas voyages, China imposed isolation on itself and this may have prevented it from becoming a world power.

We hope that students are able to understand from the above examples that finding meaning goes beyond the given facts. In some cases, you will have to read between the lines. Do not get bogged down by detail but start reading for ideas.


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