Occasionally, ETS comes out with a question that is so utterly diabolical in its simplicity that I have to give them major kudos for it. Debbie Stier sent me this question, and when I first looked at it, I was puzzled for a moment, but when the answer hit me, I felt obliged to write about it. It’s one of the best illustrations I’ve ever seen of just how absolutely and completely literal it is necessary to be when doing SAT Critical Reading questions.

I really cannot emphasize this point enough: in order to understand anything about the role a detail or piece of information plays within the context of a passage, you must first try to understand what is says as precisely as possible. If you go even a centimeter beyond what the author says, you can easily fall into the realm of speculation and miss things that are right under your nose.

Here goes:

When we came home, Aunt Sylvie would certainly be home, too, enjoying the evening, for so she described her habit of sitting in the dark. Evening was part of her special time of day. She gave the word three syllables, and indeed I think (5) she liked it so well for its tendency to smooth, to soften. She seemed to dislike the disequilibrium of counterpoising a roomful of light against a world full of darkness. Sylvie in a house was more or less like a mermaid in a ship’s cabin. She preferred it sunk in the very element it was meant to exclude.

9. The reference to Aunt Sylvie’s pronunciation in line 4 serves to

(A) capture a distinctive regional dialect
(B) highlight a double meaning of a word
(C) provide an ominous foreshadowing
(D) underscore a particular misconception
(E) give evidence of a contrary personality

First, let’s examine some traps that someone could easily fall into: (A) can be eliminated pretty easily because it’s completely outside the scope of the passage, but (C) seems like it might be able to work. After all, darkness is usually a bad thing in books, and the passage is about darkness, so maybe the author is suggesting that something bad is going to happen.

(D) also seems vaguely plausible. It seems kind of weird that someone would want to sit in the dark, and so that’s sort of like a misconception.

(E) seems like it could work for the same reason. Most people don’t want to sit in the dark, and so someone who wants to do so must be contrary, right?

But here’s how you actually solve it:

Remember the whole reading word-by-by word thing? This is how it works, and I hope the answer to this question illustrates just how absolutely necessary it is.

What does the author say about Aunt Sylvie’s pronunciation in line 4? That she gave the word “evening” three syllables: e-ven-ing. That’s it, the only information we have to go on, so that’s the only information we can use to answer the question.

Now, literally, “evening” of course means “the time when it gets dark out,” but when used as a verb, it means “to make even,” literally “to smooth” (as the author states in line 5) or to remove inconsistencies from a surface. In other words, the word “evening” has two meanings, and the author calls attention to Aunt Sylvie’s pronunciation in order to call attention to (=highlight) that fact.

The answer must therefore be (B).