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TOEFL Reading Skill 2: Recognize Referents

In the Reading section of the iBT TOEFL test, you may be asked to determine the referent for a particular pronoun or adjective (the noun to which a pronoun or adjective refers). You may be asked to find the referent for a variety of words, perhaps for a third person subject pronoun (he, she, it, they), a third person object pronoun (him, her, it, them), a relative pronoun (who, which, that), a third person possessive adjective (his, her, its, their), a third person possessive pronoun (his, hers, theirs), a demonstrative pronoun or adjective (this, that, these, those), or for a quantifier (one, some, a few, many). A referent generally precedes the pronoun or adjective in the passage; thus, to answer this type of question, you should study the context around the pronoun or adjective carefully and look for a referent that agrees with the noun or pronoun in front of the pronoun or adjective.

The following chart outlines the key information that you should remember about questions testing referents.

 

 QUESTIONS   ABOUT   REFERENTS
 HOW TO IDENTIFY THE QUESTION  The word X refers to ...
 HOW TO FIND THE ANSWER  The pronoun or adjective is highlighted in the passage. The referent is generally in front of the highlighted word.
 HOW TO ANSWER THE QUESTION

     
     1. Locate the highlighted pronoun or adjective.

     2. Look before the highlighted word for nouns that agree with the
         highlighted word.
     3. Try each of the nouns in the context around the highlighted word.
     4. Eliminate any definitely wrong answers, and choose the best  
         answer from remaining choices. 


 

Look at an example of a question that asks for the referent of the subject pronoun it.

Example 1: Formation of Tornadoes

A tornado is created when warm, moist air rises from the ground and comes into contact with a mass of colder air at the bottom of a thundercloud. The rising air pushes against the colder air, and the rotation of the earth causes the air to spin, in much the same way that water in a sink spins as it goes down a drain.

The pressure at the center of a tornado is much lower than that in the air surrounding the tornado. The low pressure creates a funnel in the middle of the tornado, which causes destruction by acting much like a vacuum cleaner and sucking up whatever is in its path.

Question 1: The word it in paragraph 1 refers to:
a. way          b. water          c. sink          d. drain

In this example, you are asked to find the referent for the subject pronoun it. You should study the context around the singular pronoun it and look for a singular noun in front of it that fits into the context. The context around the pronoun states that water in a sink spins as it goes down a drain. From this context, it can be determined that it refers to water because it is water that goes down a drain. To answer this question, you should click on the second answer.


Now, look at an example of a question that asks for the referent of the demonstrative pronoun that.

Example 2: Formation of Tornadoes

A tornado is created when warm, moist air rises from the ground and comes into contact with a mass of colder air at the bottom of a thundercloud. The rising air pushes against the colder air, and the rotation of the earth causes the air to spin, in much the same way that water in a sink spins as it goes down a drain.

The pressure at the center of a tornado is much lower than that in the air surrounding the tornado. The low pressure creates a funnel in the middle of the tornado, which causes destruction by acting much like a vacuum cleaner and sucking up whatever is in its path.  

Question 2: The word that in paragraph 2 refers to
a. pressure          b. center          c. tornado          d. air

In this example, you are asked to find the referent for the demonstrative pronoun that. You should study the context around the singular pronoun that and look for a singular noun in front of that that fits into the context. The context around the pronoun states that the pressure at the center of a tornado is much lower than that in the air surrounding the tornado. From this context, it can be determined that that refers to pressure because it is pressure at the center of a tornado that is much lower than pressure in the air surrounding the tornado. To answer this question, you should click on the first answer.


Finally, look at an example of a question that asks for the referent of the relative pronoun which.

Example 3: Formation of Tornadoes

A tornado is created when warm, moist air rises from the ground and comes into contact with a mass of colder air at the bottom of a thundercloud. The rising air pushes against the colder air, and the rotation of the earth causes the air to spin, in much the same way that water in a sink spins as it goes down a drain.

The pressure at the center of a tornado is much lower than that in the air surrounding the tornado. The low pressure creates a funnel in the middle of the tornado, which causes destruction by acting much like a vacuum cleaner and sucking up whatever is in its path.

Question 3: The word which in paragraph 2 refers to:
a. funnel          b. middle          c. tornado          d. vacuum cleaner

In this example, you are asked to find the referent for the relative pronoun which. You should study the context around the relative pronoun which and look for a noun in front of which that fits into the context. The context around the pronoun mentions a funnel in the middle of the tornado, which causes destruction by acting much like a vacuum cleaner. From this context, it can be determined that which refers to funnel because it is a funnel that causes destruction by acting like a vacuum cleaner. To answer this question, you should click on the first answer: