GRE Reading Comprehension Sample Questions

The ways in which organized society has dealt with criminal offenders constitutes a long and painful chapter in the history of man. Reference to that history need only be made in sufficient detail to demonstrate that as unenlightened as our present penal system is today, it represents a giant step forward from earlier societies. In primitive societies, each individual dealt with wrongs done to him or to his family in his own way. The victim was motivated chiefly by ideas of revenge, retaliation, or compensation for loss of property. Since in those early societies there were no well-established rules, the strong predator very often went unpunished, and the strong victim sometimes overreacted, resulting in a compounding of the damage.

As the primitive societies developed, the government, represented by the chief or the king, gradually began taking over the protection of persons and property and the punishment of offenders in the name of public peace and order. The basic concept behind the intervention of government, however, continued to be that of retribution – a balancing of the scales of justice. The scales tended to be balanced on the side of the superior power of the state. The death penalty was the most common response to common crime. It is recorded that in London, in January 1801, a 17 year old boy was hanged for stealing a silver spoon. During the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe, some thirty types of death penalties were in use, ranging from drawing and quartering to burning at the stake and breaking on the wheel. Physical torture of all forms was common, including mutilation, such as cutting out the tongue and burning out the eyes. Public flogging and other forms of public degradation were commonly in use for relatively minor offences. Imprisonment was not looked upon as a means of punishment, but was used rather for the purpose of guaranteeing the presence of the offender at his trial and ultimate punishment. With a relatively small population, there were eight hundred executions in a year in England alone towards the end of the 16th century. Then, even more than now, the recipients of these harsh punishments were mainly the poor and the `underprivileged.

Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded by the pilgrims in 1620, not merely out of a desire to worship as they chose, but also because of the social, economic, and legal injustices then so commonplace in England. However, strange as it may seem, the American colonists, knowing no better way, brought with them criminal codes almost as severe as those they had left behind.



The exception to the harsh colonial laws was the ‘Great Law’ of William Penn, embodying the comparatively humane Quaker criminal code. This continued in force in Pennsylvania until the death of William Penn, when, in 1718, it was repealed, and Pennsylvania, along with the other colonies, continued under the harsh laws of the American colonies until the late 18th century and the beginning of the new Union.

The Quakers provided the keystone around which modern penal reform developed in America, and was accompanied by parallel developments in England and on the Continent. Although the harsh methods of Europe are no longer used, current penologists are beginning to feel dissatisfaction with the dichotomy between what our prisons are supposed to be: institutions of rehabilitation, and what they all too often are: institutions of punishment and demoralization. Many feel that the movement away from torture and capital punishment to containment is but the first step in effective penology.


Question 1

What is the main idea expressed in the passage?

A)The passage gives an account of the use of cruel and inhuman discipline in order to punish the offenders.

B)The passage deals with the use of unlimited power of the primitive government to suppress the people and gain supremacy.

C)The passage expresses the need for a better form of government in order to overcome the cruelties afflicted by rulers in the past.

D)The passage traces the development of a reformed society in terms of law and order.

E)The main idea expressed in the passage is the rise and control of American power over its colonies.

Answer: A

Answer explanation: Option A expresses the main idea of the passage most effectively. The passage describes use of harsh punishment in order to bring justice. Thus it describes the penal system as one-sided, favoring the government and the powerful, and not as a system to restore peace and order. We reject option B since this statement does not refer to punishments being used by the government. It only refers to use of unlimited power, which can be interpreted in other ways as well. Option C is also rejected since the writer is revealing facts about cruelties done in the name of justice in the past. He does not refer to any change required in the form of government. The difference lies in the way the passage is written. Option D also mentions a false statement. The passage is not about the development of a reformed society, but of a society where reforms were not brought about. Option E is obviously wrong since the passage does not give us any details of the American power and its colonies.

Question 2

Which of the following best describes the passage?

A)The American Penal Code

B)History of Capital Punishment

C)Rule of The Kings

D)History of Severe Penal System

E)Development of Penal Reform

Answer: D

Answer explanation: Option D is the best answer since it covers the whole topic effectively. The passage is about the use of harsh laws to punish even those guilty of a crime most trivial in nature. It traces the role of government of primitive societies in the execution of such punishments, the extent of torture inflicted on people and the wide use of such laws. Option B is rejected since the passage does not talk about only death sentence, but harsh punishments in every form. Option C is also rejected as according to it, the passage is about the rule in general, and not about penal code specifically. Option E is also not suitable since according to it the passage largely talks about the reforms in the penal system, but out of the whole passage, only the end is dedicated to this topic.

Question 3

Which of the following statements is true about the passage?

A)The writer says that a minority population was subjected to execution in England.

B)The modern American system of reformed justice is based on the guidelines of the Quaker law.

C)William Penn forced the harsh colonial laws.

D)A balance was created by the government in delivering justice.

E)Massachusetts Bay Colony served to bring economic growth.

Answer: B

Answer explanation: Option A is false since the writer mentions a relatively small population, and not a minority, that was subjected to about 800 executions in a year in England. Option B is an appropriate answer since the passage mentions that Quaker law was the keystone around which modern penal reform developed in America. Option C is a distorted version of the fact mentioned in the passage, since William Penn introduced the Great law that was an ‘exception’ to the harsh colonial law. Option D is false since the passage mentions that the scales of justice were not equal and tended to be balanced towards the state. Option E is rejected on grounds that it mentions the motive behind the institution as economic growth, but it served to bring reforms, and not growth.

Question 4

According to the passage, what was the main approach of the government in delivering justice in the primitive societies?

A)The approach was reformative, and the government wanted to introduce welfare.

B)The approach was of greed to gain more wealth.

C)The approach of the government was progressive to spread prosperity.

D)The approach of the government was positive to maintain law and order.

E)The approach of the government was harsh to give torturous punishments.

Answer: E

Answer explanation: According to the passage, the basic concept behind the government’s way of punishing the offenders was cruel and harsh. In the primitive societies, pain and suffering was inflicted on the offenders without any scope of excuse. Thus E is the best answer option. A is wrong since the passage does not refer to welfare of state in primitive society, and reforms in the penal code were far from practice. Option B is obviously wrong since there is no mention of the government’s ways and measures of amassing wealth. Option C mentions the approach as progressive in order to spread prosperity. We reject this option since it is beyond the scope of the passage. Option D mentions the approach as positive in order to maintain peace. However, the means and approach to reach this goal was not positive, but harsh and repressive. Thus we reject it.

Question 5

What can be understood by the ‘Great Law’ from the passage?

A)It was a different form of colonial law.

B)It was enforced after the death of William Penn.

C)It was compassionate in nature.

D)It led Pennsylvania to compassionate penology forever.

E)It was prevalent in American colonies.

Answer: C

Answer explanation: We reject option A since the passage mentions the Great Law as an ‘exception’ to colonial law, thus it cannot be a ‘different form’ of the same. Option B is rejected since it was William Penn who introduced this law and it was enforced as long as he was alive. Option D can be rejected because it mentions that this law led Pennsylvania to reformed penal justice ‘forever’. However, according to the passage, harsh law of America continued after William Penn”s death. According to option E this law was prevalent in all American colonies, but this is a false statement since harsh and cruel laws were administered in them instead of compassionate laws like the Great Law. Option C is the best option, which mentions it as a compassionate law. We conclude this from the passage where it is referred to as ‘humane’ and ‘exception’ to harsh colonial laws.

Question 6

How does the second paragraph add to the development of the structure of the passage?

A)It forms the conclusion of the passage.

B)It is an introduction to the main idea in the passage.

C)It brings forth the hidden intention of the writer.

D)It reflects a counter-view of the main idea of the passage.

E)It forms the basis of the passage.

Answer: E

Answer explanation: The second paragraph gives an account of the harsh punishments carried out by the kings and the government in the 16th and 17th century in the name of peace and order. This is the main focus of the passage and thus this paragraph contains the main content, or forms the basis of the passage. Thus option E is the best answer option. We reject A since the writer is not deriving a conclusion but is explaining the details of his topic. This paragraph is also not an introduction to the passage since it is a direct explanation of the subject matter in detail, and comes after the introductory first paragraph. Thus we reject B. As mentioned, it is a direct explanation, and thus there are no hidden intentions of the writer that come out in this passage, which proves C wrong. Option D is obviously wrong since the passage is about the cruelties carried out by the government, and there is no counter-view mentioned.

Question 7

Fill in the blanks

In the 16th and 17th century, _______ was prevalent for comparatively________.

A)severe punishment, serious crime

B)retribution, trivial offence

C)justice, minor sin

D)crime, larger society

E)peace, bigger state

Answer: B

Answer explanation: The passage mentions that public torture and other forms of public degradation were commonly in use for relatively minor offences. Thus the best answer option is B. We reject A since it suggests that harsh punishments were given for serious and big crimes, but people were punished for small crimes equally. Option C is obviously wrong, as it does not make much sense. Option D mentions that crime was prevalent in large societies. However, the passage does not focus on the crime and does not mention the extent of crime that was prevalent, but the extent of punishment given for the most trivial crime. Thus we reject D. Option E is also rejected since there is no mention of peace being prevalent. The passage only mentions that the government indulged in such judgment in order to maintain peace, but there is no account of peace and order as it was mentioned in the primitive societies.

Question 8

Which of the following is the synonym of the word ‘humane’?






Answer: C

Answer explanation: A synonym is a word similar in meaning to the given word. The word ‘humane’ means showing kindness towards people by making sure that they do not suffer more than required. Thus a synonym of this word should represent this nature. Option C is therefore the correct answer. Option A is an antonym of the given word since it is opposite in meaning, thus it is rejected. Option B, D and E are not related to the main word in any manner. Thus all these options are incorrect.

GRE Reading Comprehension Sample Questions


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