Central Idea of the passage – Reading Comprehension for CAT

Central Idea of the passage
How to find the central idea of the passage.

In our previous article we discussed how to solve questions based on identifying the tones of the passages.We have also discussed the tips and tricks to solve reading comprehension questions in an earlier post. Continuing with our series on reading comprehension, we will discuss the central idea of the passage in this post.

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Questions on identifying the central idea of the passage are quite common in CAT. This can be seen from CAT Previous Papers. Apart from direct questions asking students to identify the main point of the passage, knowing this concept is crucial to effectively solving almost all reading comprehension questions.

The task can be boiled down to this: You have been given several paragraphs of text. You have to identify what the author would say if he had to put forward his point in one sentence only. What you need to do is step back and take a look at the big picture – minus the details. Finding the main point or central idea of a passage is the same as summarising the passage – you have to make sure the main concepts of the passage are present without littering it with supporting details.


Suppose you were writing an essay, say on the recent Indian elections. Most probably, you will have a view point on the topic. You will go about explaining your viewpoint with arguments, facts and analysis. Moreover, you will also mention the opposing arguments that are generally quoted and rebut them in your essay.

Now suppose, you did not have the luxury of putting across your point in 1000 words. Say you had only 20 words to explain your point of view. What would you use to communicate your thoughts in one line? You would pick the most significant thought in the passage. You would get rid of the statistics, facts and analysis and go straight to the heart of the matter. Use the same approach to think what the author would do if he had to put across his viewpoint in 1 sentence. This sentence would be the central idea of the passage.

Now the question arises, how to identify what thought is most significant to the author? Simple – just as you would repeat/draw out/ explain/argue for your main point in the actual essay, so would the author in his passage. The central idea of the passage is the driving force of the passage. Everything stated in the paragraph is to further that point. It is not the conclusion derived from the information but the common thought in all the information given.


The purpose is different from the main point of the passage. The purpose indicates what the author desires to happen as a result of his passage. Does he seek to influence, persuade, dissuade, inform, criticize or entertain? For example, if a passage is written by a political party leader on the elections, its primary purpose would be to influence the reader to vote for the political party.

Similarly, if the essay is about the effects of radiation on the human body, its purpose is to educate and inform the reader. The purpose of the passage will help you decide the main point. If the purpose is to persuade you, the point would be the idea the author is trying to persuade you about.


Answer the question – what does the author want of his readers and you will get the point he is trying to make. If he is trying to inform you, then the main point would be to understand the thing being studied. Supporting arguments: Once you know the purpose of the author, try to find the tools used by him/her to achieve this purpose.

If the author seeks to persuade, he will provide arguments, facts, statistics supporting his viewpoint. Similarly, If the author seeks to inform, he will give all the relevant details on the subject. If he seeks to criticize/mock/humiliate someone then he will give examples of incidents etc that would be embarrassing for the subject. These are arguments that support the main point of the passage.

Once you have understood what the supporting arguments are, it is easy to identify what idea they are supporting.


The tone of the passage is the emotion behind what the author is saying. The tone expresses the general attitude of the author about what is being discussed in the topic. The main point should be consistent with the tone of the passage. If the tone is negative, the main point should make the author’s displeasure with the subject clear. At the same time, if the tone is neutral, the main point cannot be wholly negative in its outlook and should maintain the spirit of neutrality.


A tricky identification question will have many options underscoring the same point but in slightly different ways. To determine the correct option, keep in the mind the following points: Scope of the passage: The main point or central idea is the driving force of the passage. Hence it should be connected to all parts of the passage. Even if it is not the subject of the paragraph, it must be connected to it.

Hence, all options that address only a part of the passage are inappropriate options for central idea. Irrelevant details: You can eliminate options that give too many irrelevant details. The option should have all the main concepts – nothing more and nothing less. New Ideas: The central idea of a passage is the summary of the passage – not an inference derived from it. Hence, the central idea must be restricted to what is discussed in the passage. We can eliminate all options that introduce new information or derive a new inference from the information.

The best way in solving reading comprehension question is eliminating the options which you think are definitely false.


‘As everyone knows, the general idea of the Doctrine of Descent is that the plants and animals of the present day are the lineal descendants of ancestors on the whole somewhat simpler, that these again are descended from yet simpler forms, and so on backwards towards the literal “Protozoa” and “Protophyta” about which we unfortunately know nothing.’
Now no one supposes that Darwin originated this idea, which in rudiment at least is as old as Aristotle. What Darwin did was to make it current intellectual coin.

He gave it a form that commended itself to the scientific and public intelligence of the day, and he won widespread conviction by showing with consummate skill that it was an effective formula to work with, a key which no lock refused. In a scholarly, critical, and pre-eminently fair-minded way, admitting difficulties and removing them, foreseeing objections and forestalling them, he showed that the doctrine of descent supplied a modal interpretation of how our present-day fauna and flora have come to be.


What is the central idea of the passage?

a) Darwin’s Doctrine of Descent expounds on the idea that the current flora and fauna are the lineal descendants of simpler life forms and explains it in a scientific, scholarly and critical and fair-minded way

b) Darwin’s Doctrine of Descent is a modern and modal interpretation of an old concept that all life forms have evolved from simpler life forms which was first propounded by Aristotle
c) Darwin’s Doctrine of Descent is nothing but old wine in a new bottle where he gives a more modern and updated explanation of evolution using currently acceptable scientific and scholarly methods
d) Darwin’s Doctrine of Descent elaborates on the topic of evolution by expounding that all life forms- flora and fauna, have evolved from simpler life forms which in turn have evolved from simpler organisms which can be traced all the way back to simple cellular level organisms like “Protozoa” and “Protophyta”
Solution :

The purpose of the paragraph is to inform the reader about the merits of the Doctrine of Descent. The author critically examines the work and gives it credit where it is due. The tone of the passage is neutral – neither too positive nor negative. We can reject option B as it adds new information that the original idea was first thought of by Aristotle.

The passage just says that the idea is at least as old as Aristotle without stating its origin. We can eliminate option C as the tone of the passage is neutral and not negative like the option. Option C is dismissive of Darwin’s work and hence does not match the passage in tone. Option D gives too many details while missing out on the actual merits of the doctrine. Hence A is the right answer.


‘Duties are not performed for duty’s sake, but because their neglect would make the man uncomfortable. A man performs but one duty – the duty of contenting his spirit, the duty of making himself agreeable to himself. If he can most satisfyingly perform this sole and only duty by helping his neighbor, he will do it; if he can most satisfyingly perform it by swindling his neighbor, he will do it.

But he always looks out for Number One – first; the effects upon others are a secondary matter. Men pretend to self-sacrifices, but this is a thing which, in the ordinary value of the phrase, “does not exist and has not existed”. A man often honestly thinks he is sacrificing himself merely and solely for some one else, but he is deceived; his bottom impulse is to content a requirement of his nature and training, and thus acquire peace for his soul.’

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What is the central idea of the passage?

a) Everybody is selfish and the only reason why anyone does anything is to be more comfortable with themselves

b) Men are deceiving themselves when the make claims to a higher purpose in life
c) Men perform duties and make sacrifices just to be comfortable with themselves and for no other reason
d) Men who swindle their neighbours are as comfortable with themselves as those who help their neighbours

The purpose of the paragraph is to persuade the reader to believe that the only reason men perform any duty is to be comfortable with themselves. The tone of the passage is negative and cynical in nature. We can reject option A as it reaches a new inference “Everybody is selfish” that is not stated in the paragraph. Option B is incomplete and it does not address the real reason for performing duties. Option D also states an irrelevant detail that is not central to the paragraph. Hence, the right answer is option C.


Thus, in this post, we have explained in detail the central idea of the passage in detail. We have discussed the methods to identify the central idea of the passage. We have other similar posts which can be extremely helpful in your preparations. You can find them at the below-given links

Reading comprehension tips and tricks for CAT 2017

How to solve para-jumbles and odd one out in VA-RC section of CAT


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