How to Interpret Generalizations of a Passage

Video Lesson on Author Purpose: Definition and Examples

Do you know what a generalization is? Do you know how to spot a misleading generalization when you see one, or make generalizations about different aspects of a passage? Watch this video lesson to gain or improve skills.


When you're reading a passage, a generalization about the passage is a statement that captures a big idea but glosses over the details. Sometimes a generalization will be marked by words like in general, generally, overall, for the most part and typically, but sometimes it won't be. Here's an example of a passage and a generalization about the passage:

'The evidence all supports Mrs. Hammer's innocence. First of all, we know that the theft occurred between 6:00 and 8:00pm, but from 6:00 to 8:30, Mrs. Hammer was confirmed to be at the bingo hall an hour away from the scene. She was on camera at the bingo hall throughout the evening, and several staff members have also testified that they spoke to her. The bingo hall has also provided records of her winning several games through the evening. We know that she was there at 6:20, 6:45, 7:30, and 7:56. There was simply not enough time for her to sneak away to the crime scene and then back to the bingo hall.'

Now, here's the generalization:

'The author uses records from the bingo hall and eyewitness testimony to argue that Mrs. Hammer is innocent because she was not at the scene of the crime.' You can see how the generalization hits the main idea of the passage, but without repeating the details.

You can also make generalizations about things other than the main idea of the passage. For example, you could make a generalization about the type of evidence the author uses and say that, in general, she is using many different pieces of evidence to really drive home her point. Or you could say that she uses a mixture of eye witness testimony and more objective evidence, without relying only on eye witnesses.

Is the Generalization Accurate?

Not all generalizations are accurate. Sometimes you might have to identify a misleading generalization. Let's take the passage about Mrs. Hammer again. What if you saw this generalization about the passage?

'In this passage, the main point is that the author uses testimony from many different eyewitnesses to prove that Mrs. Hammer is innocent.' This is a misleading generalization, because it doesn't give you the whole picture. The author does site eye witness testimony, but she also sites the video cameras and the records of Mrs. Hammer winning the games. Saying that she only uses eye witness testimony gives you a false impression of what the passage is actually like.

Practice Passage

Now here's a passage for you to practice on:

'The incredible growth of scientific knowledge in the past few centuries has not gotten rid of conspiracy theories. From Illuminati to reptilians to secret Communist plots, conspiracy theories are as strong as ever. Why? Because people don't just want scientific explanations for the world. They want explanations that make emotional sense, and satisfy their need for meaning. A powerful gang of secret agents controlling everything might be scary, but it's a lot less scary than a random world where bad things frequently happen to good people for no reason at all.'

What generalization can you make about the main idea of this passage? Bear in mind that there are many different correct answers here. Did you come up with something like: 'The author explains how scientific knowledge doesn't necessarily explain conspiracy theories'? Or maybe, 'The author discusses why conspiracy theories can thrive even with modern science'? It's not necessary to put it into exactly those words, but if you've got something similar, you probably got a relatively accurate generalization about the main point of the passage.

Lesson Summary

A generalization is an overall statement that captures a big idea but glosses over the details. You can make a generalization about the main point of a reading passage, but you can also make a generalization about other things, like what kind of evidence the author uses or how the author structures his argument. Misleading generalizations might blow one small part of a passage out of proportion or otherwise misrepresent the passage.

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