03 February 2013

SAT Humor

No, that’s actually not an oxymoron.

There is, believe it or not, humor on quite a few Critical Reading passages. It’s not ha-ha, laugh-out-loud, in-your-face humor; it’s adult humor, subtle, wry, dry, irreverent, ironic, and facetious.

And I’ve started to notice recently that it’s the one thing that pretty much every single one of my students has trouble with, regardless of how far into the 700s they’re scoring.

I think there are a few reasons for this difficulty:

A lot of the strong readers, the ones who actually know what these things are and can recognize them under normal circumstances, get so incredibly freaked out by the test that it simply doesn’t occur to them that certain parts of passages are intended to be funny. When I prod them to think about what’s being said and to read it out loud (more about that later), they usually get it without too much trouble.

The weaker readers, and even some of the stronger ones, are usually not even sure what facetiousness, wry humor, and irreverence are. The concepts quite literally do not exist for them.

On one hand, this is not terribly surprising; all of these kinds of humor are, by definition, subtle. That’s why they’re hard, and that’s precisely why they’re tested on “hard” questions.

One of the things that makes these kinds of humorous tones so difficult to identify is the fact that recognizing them is largely based on understanding the relationship between written and spoken language.

Even more so than other kinds of tones, wry humor and irony are more reliant on the readers’ ability to hear the author’s voice internally, to “feel” where the stresses and emphases occur, where the pitch rises and falls. If someone is not a totally fluent reader — that is, if they have to devote their attention to puzzling out what the words actually 1) sound like, and 2) what they literally mean — there is simply no way they can hear those words as part of a naturally spoken phrase.

And hearing the author’s voice in turn often depends on the reader’s ability to understand how authors convey emphases through punctuation. In such cases, hearing tone becomes the result of seeing tone; aural becomes visual. It’s relatively easy to figure out that the tone is negative when the author is using words like “difficult,” “terrible,” or “impossible;” it’s much harder to hear the relationship between, say, a parentheses or dashes and the kind of dropped, drawn-out voice that indicates someone is making an ironic aside — especially if no one’s ever asked you to pay much attention to punctuation in the first place, or asked you to think about how to translate the natural cadences of your own speech into writing.

I actually think that is why so many test-takers also have trouble identifying when the author’s tone is conversational or informal. They simply can’t draw the connection between what’s on the page and how people actually speak.

Finally, this kind of humor is largely based on wordplay. Many relatively straightforward vocabulary questions test the ability to recognize when words are being used in their second or third meaning based, and “humor” questions add yet another layer of complication. Here the test does not explicitly inform the test-taker that words are being used in non-literal ways; rather, the reader is expected to deduce it from context and perceive the humor accordingly.

Tricky? Some (ok, many) might call it that, but understanding these kinds of subtleties is a big part of what adult-level reading involves, SAT or no SAT.

I think many of the difficulties that people have with these kinds of questions results from that fact that Americans are generally taught to be very suspicious of people who play with words. They’re seen as slippery, untrustworthy somehow. There’s an assumption that language is, or should be, transparent: being plain-spoken is seen as a sign of honesty and integrity. Wordplay, which destabilizes meaning, is urbane, highbrow, intellectual humor, and is seen as vaguely arrogant and decadent, I think it’s fair to say that mastering it — or even learning to recognize it — is not an integral part of English education in the United States. The result is that kids who are lucky enough to grow up surrounded by people who like to play with words tend to absorb this kind of humor naturally; kids who aren’t exposed to that kind of linguistic play, or who grow in homes where English isn’t spoken, tend to have an extremely hard time recognizing it and/or understanding why it’s funny.

Unfortunately, this is one type of question that there’s no easy way to master. The shortcut would be to simply pick “wry” when it appears as an option and none of the choices you do understand clearly seem to work — the odds are likely in your favor, but knowing the SAT, that’s probably not a foolproof solution. If you do have some familiarity with this type of humor and see “wry” or “facetious” or “irreverent” as an answer choice, go back to the passage carefully and see if the author has done anything to indicate that he or she is not being entirely serious (quotes, italics, exclamations marks, deliberately exaggerated language…) If that’s the case and you’re still not 100% sure, you can at least make a reasonably educated guess.

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