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There are three types of questions in the verbal portion of the exam: text/sentence completion, sentence equivalence, and reading comprehension. This section will provide strategies for the text completion portion of the exam.

I. What are sentence completion problems?

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Text/Sentence completion problems test your vocabulary skills as well as your reading ability. Unlike the reading comprehension questions, which require you to read long passages, these problems contain a single sentence expressing a complete idea that can be understood without any additional information. Each sentence contains one or two blanks, indicating that one or two words are missing. You are then presented with five words or phrases, or five pairs of words or phrases if there are two blanks in the sentence. From these choices, you need to select the words or phrases that fit into the blanks to best complete the sentence. To make the correct choice, you will need to be able to understand the main idea of the sentence and the logical structure of the sentence. Next, you will need to know the definitions of the words in the answer choices.

Successfully solving the sentence completion section of the GRE is primarily a matter of perceiving the relationships within the sentence as indicated by the presence of equivalents, analogies, parallel sets, contraries and lexical groups. Sentence completion questions are more difficult to answer than reading comprehension questions, for in a sentence, the contextual field is severely limited. Solving the sentence completion section will draw on your familiarity with antonyms and synonyms, your understanding of parallel sets, and the breadth and depth of your general vocabulary.

In general, the development of your vocabulary is extremely helpful in preparation for the sentence completion problems, as well as for the entire verbal portion of the GRE. In addition to improving your vocabulary, however, there is a strategy to understanding these problems. If you apply this strategy to figure out the type of sentence completion problem you are given, it will better enable you to select the correct choice, even if you don’t necessarily know the definitions of all the words in the sentence. We will next outline this general strategy using examples of sentence completion problems.

II. General Strategy for Text Completion

1. Read through the sentence and determine how the parts of the sentence are connected to each other.

The first step in solving a problem of this type is to read the sentence and figure out what the main idea of the sentence is. Now, there may be more than one idea in any given sentence. In this case, the key is to understand how the two ideas are connected to each other. Let’s look at an example.

Because scientific assessments of whether or not global warming is occurring have been _______, it has been difficult to convince the public that this phenomenon is a critical problem that needs to be addressed.

What are the ideas in this sentence? The first part describes assessments of the occurrence of global warming. Just from this part of the sentence, we don’t know what these assessments, or evaluations, figure out about global warming since this is the blank in the sentence. The second part of the sentence talks about the difficulty in convincing the public about the importance of global warming. How are these two parts of the sentence connected? At a simple level, they are both dealing with the issue of information about global warming.

2. Look for key words.

The identification of key words and phrases will enable you to further determine the relationship between the ideas in the sentence. Learning these key words will help you to recognize the common themes of these problems on the exam (described in section III of this chapter). As we go through the four common types of these problems, we will give examples of key words and phrases for each type. Briefly, key words include words such as therefore, because, similarly, although, in contrast, etc. Let’s look at the sentence again:

Because scientific assessments of whether or not global warming is occurring have been _______, it has been difficult to convince the public that this phenomenon is a critical problem that needs to be addressed.

The first word is “because.” What does this tell us? The word “because” signals to us that the information in the first part of the sentence in some way causes the second part of the sentence. (As we will see, this is one of the four common structures of sentence completion problems: causation.)

3. Think of a word that would make sense in the blank.

Without even looking at the answer choices, use the information you have learned from the ideas and key words in the sentence to guess at a possible choice of word to fill the blank. If there are two blanks, think of a word that would make sense for each one.

Because scientific assessments of whether or not global warming is occurring have been _______, it has been difficult to convince the public that this phenomenon is a critical problem that needs to be addressed.

In our sample sentence, the presence of the word “because” tells us that the first idea causes the second idea. We know that something about the scientific assessments of global warming has led to a difficulty in convincing the public that warming is a problem. What type of scientific assessments must these be? They must not be believable or convincing, otherwise the public would know that this issue was important. Therefore, some appropriate words that might make sense in the blank would be words that describe the scientific studies as lacking in some way: unpersuasive, not credible, deficient, or unbelievable. If we again read the sentence with any of these words substituted into the blank, the sentence makes sense.

4. Look for an answer choice that is similar in meaning to your guess word(s).

Because scientific assessments of whether or not global warming is occurring have been _______, it has been difficult to convince the public that this phenomenon is a critical problem that needs to be addressed.

(A) challenging
(B) well-designed
(C) inconclusive
(D) substantial
(E) irrefutable

We are looking for an answer choice that is similar in meaning to not credible, deficient, or unbelievable. Challenging does not seem to be related to the idea we have chosen, so we can skip over that one for now. Well-designed is opposite to the idea we need; if the assessments were well-designed, the public would be easily convinced. Inconclusive seems to be similar to the idea we were looking for, so we can hold onto that one. Even though this one seems to fit, always check out all the answer choices. Often more that one word will have the same general meaning as your guess word, and you will need to narrow it down and then choose the best-fitting word. The last two choices, substantial and irrefutable are again more opposite in meaning to our guess word so we can eliminate these two. It is quite common on these problem types to find words opposite in meaning to your guess word among the answer choices.

5. Reread the sentence substituted with your answer choice.

Once you have narrowed it down to a particular answer choice that reflects the idea of your guess word, reread the sentence to see if the logic follows when you substitute that word into the blank. If you have only narrowed down your choices to a few, read the sentence with each of the possible choices. For problems with two blanks, it is often the case that you will be able to eliminate some of the choices because the first word does not fit well into the blank and others because the second word doesn’t fit. Together, you can eliminate more of the incorrect answer choices and narrow it down to the correct choice. In this case, we had skipped over the first choice, challenging, since it did not seem to be related to our guess word. If we substitute that into the sentence, does it make sense? No. The best answer is (C), inconclusive.

III. The four common problem types

The sentence completion problems seen on the GRE typically fall into four classes: contrast, similarity, reiteration, and causation. We will now look at each of these problem types, giving examples of these problems and key words that will enable you to identify them on the actual exam.

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1. Contrast

Contrast sentences contain dissimilar or opposing ideas. Key words indicating contrast sentences include:

although
but
despite
however
whereas
on the contrary
yet
on the other hand
surprisingly
unlike
in contrast
rather

In a large group of people, Irina often seemed _______ and aloof, although among her friends and family she was quite _______.

(A) reticent…convivial
(B) gregarious…outgoing
(C) detrimental…multifarious
(D) unattainable…. taciturn
(E) intriguing…vigorous

Solution

The “although” tells us that this is a contrast sentence, so the description of Irina in a large group of people in the first part of the sentence should be different than how she acts when she is with her friends and family. Therefore, we know immediately that the choice we want will have a pair of words that are dissimilar in meaning to each other. (If we look through our answer choices, we can eliminate choices B and D immediately based on the fact that they are synonyms, not antonyms.) What else do we know about the words that will best fit the blanks? Well, the word that will fit the first blank must be similar to aloof, since these words are connected by “and”, indicating that they expressing a comparable sentiment. Of our answer choices, which of the first words in the pair is most similar to aloof? Both reticent and unattainable are reasonable choices. Gregarious, detrimental, and intriguing don’t seem to make a lot of sense, so we can exclude those. Once it has been narrowed down as much as possible based on the first word, look at the second word that has the best fit. In this case, the second word of the pair should be nearly opposite in meaning. Choice A is the best choice.

2. Similarity or support

Sentences of this type compare distinct but similar ideas. When choosing a word to fill the blank, you must look for a word that allows the two ideas of the sentence to be similar in meaning.

Key words for similarity sentence completions:

likewise
in the same way
for instance
similarly
furthermore
as
same
just as
specifically
such as
as an example
resembles
like
also

Just as television surpassed radio as the major source of entertainment for the nation, it seems likely that the Internet will eventually ______ television.

(A) invigorate
(B) alter
(C) reciprocate
(D) eliminate
(E) supplant

Solution

The words “just as,” suggest that this is a similarity sentence and that we should look for a word that will allow the two ideas of the sentence to be similar. In this case, we want a word that will convey the same meaning as the first idea, that television surpassed radio. Therefore, we are looking for a word similar to surpass. If we work through the answer choices, we can eliminate all but D and E. Both might make sense in the context of the sentence, but choice E, supplant, is more true to the original idea of surpassing, or moving beyond, rather than eliminating.

It is characteristic of old age to sap a man’s vitality and rob him of his natural_________.

(A) youth
(B) senility
(C) ebullience
(D) maturity
(E) insensibility

Solution

The first part of the sentence establishes the fact of what happens in old age, namely, that a man starts to lose his vitality. The phrase “sap a man’s vitality” states something bad about old age, and since the two parts of the sentence are joined by “and”, the second part of the sentence must also state something about the negative effects of aging. More precisely, we are looking for a positive attribute that is lost with aging. Which of the answer choices are positive attributes? Choice A would be considered a positive in this context, as would choice C, ebullience, which is a synonym for vitality. Choice D, maturity, might be considered a positive, though not in the context of this sentence. Choices B and D, are not positives, and can be eliminated as possible choices. Next, try to substitute the answer choices in the blank. Choice A does fit in the blank, but it merely states the obvious. Let’s check the other possibility, choice C. Does it make sense that aging would rob a man of his natural ebullience? Yes, substitution of the word ebullience allows restatement of the idea presented in the first part of the sentence and is the correct answer.

3. Reiteration or restatement.

Sentences of this type usually have two ideas, one of which clarifies or further supports the other. The ideas will have the same general meaning, but restated in a slightly different or more explanatory way.

Key words to identify reiteration type problems:

in fact
in other words
to be sure
and
namely
that is
furthermore
likewise

She was the most ______ person he had ever met; in fact, her magnanimous nature knew no limits.

(A) charitable
(B) miserly
(C) ambitious
(D) reclusive
(E) prolific

Solution

If we apply the general strategy and begin by reading the sentence and looking for key words, we would notice the phrase “in fact.” This is one of the key phrases indicating that this is a restatement sentence type: the second idea reiterates or gives further support to the first. We are told that she has a “magnanimous nature.” Since the first part of the sentence must be a restatement of this idea, we know that we are looking for a word to fit in the blank that is synonymous with magnanimous, such as generous. When we read the answer choices, we can see that the best match to our guess word is choice (A), charitable.

The Age of Enlightenment, one of the greatest periods of history for intellectual activity, showed a proclivity for sophistry and________________ argumentation.

A) credible
B) specious
C) gossamer
D) effective
E) irrefutable

Solution

The first part of the sentence establishes the nature of what kind of intellectual activity occurred during the Age of Enlightenment, namely, that there was a proclivity for sophistry. Now, if you don’t know what sophistry means, you will have difficulty in determining which of the choices is synonymous with sophistry and will successfully complete the sentence. Sophistry describes argument that sounds plausible, but is actually misleading or fallacious. Since the first part of the sentence, “shows a proclivity for sophistry”, states a negative about the Age of Enlightenment, and since the two parts of the sentence are joined by “and,” the second part of the sentence must be negative also. If we look through the answer choices, which are negative? Choice A is basically positive and can be eliminated. Choice B is negative; this turns out to be the correct answer as specious argumentation is synonymous with sophistry. Choice C can be eliminated as it does not fit into the sentence (we are looking for an adjective to describe argumentation).
Both choices D and E are positive words that do not fit in the sentence since they are describing the opposite of sophistry.

4. Cause and Effect

Another common sentence structure seen on the GRE is one that contains two ideas, one that causes another.

Key words that may indicate cause and effect include:

because
as a result
thus
resulting from
therefore
consequently
causes
leading to
due to

Because of his reputation as a comedic actor suited best for playing outlandish eccentrics, the director was ________ to consider him for the more serious role of the solemn monarch.

(A) ambivalent
(B) loath
(C) encouraged
(D) irrelevant
(E) destined

Solution

The word “because” indicated this is a cause and effect sentence. The first part of the sentence sets up the cause- this actor’s history in playing comedic roles. What impact would this history have on the suitability of the actor to play a more serious role? Likely, this would cause some doubts in the mind of the director, and he might be unwilling or reluctant to cast him in this new role. Looking through the answer choices, the correct answer is B, loath.

Another variation on the cause and effect type of sentence completion problems includes sentences with an element of time. The event described in the first part of the sentence is required in order for the event described in the second sentence to occur. Here’s an example:

Today computers can ________________ information from a number of sources, then automatically ___________ a picture of their data manipulations.

A) collate…create
B) inculcate…retract
C) extrapolate…investigate
D) adjudicate…assemble
E) research…expand

Solution

The first part of the sentence deals with something that computers do; the second part deals with the final aspect of a two-part process. First, guess at a word that would fill the first blank and look through the answer choices. One possible guess would that computers “collect” or “compare” information. Choice A, collate, means to compare or examine, so this is a reasonable choice. Choice B, inculcate, means to teach, this does not fit the bank. Extrapolate means to use existing data to make predictions. Although this does not fit with our guess word, this seems a reasonable thing to do with information, so let’s keep this choice for now. Choice D, adjudicate means to settle a law case; this can be eliminated since it does not make sense in this situation. Choice E, research, fits with the idea of collecting information, but computers cannot do research, they are themselves tools of research. Next, look at the second blank. Remember, the first part of the sentence describes something that must be done before what is done in the second part of the sentence (we know this because of the “then”). Can we select between choices A and C now? Choice A makes sense: information is examined and then a picture is created. Choice C does not make sense in terms of cause and effect. Extrapolation is done from existing information, and an investigation would not be a consequence. Choice A is the correct answer.

IV. Summary of Text Completion Strategy

  • Read the sentence and determine how the parts of the sentence are connected to each other. Learn the four main types of sentence completion problems and look for these problems on the exam.
  • Look for key words. Again, knowing the key words for each of the four major types of sentence completion problems will enable you to recognize the type of sentence and quickly know what kind of word you need to complete the logic of the sentence.
  • Think of a word that would make sense in the blank. Do this before even looking at the answer choices.

Strategy 1

The first strategy is to break the sentence down into the main clause and introductory clause or phrase in order to identify the relationship it expresses. For example, consider the following:

In a hospital setting, hand washing is primarily a ____________ measure.
A) prophylactic
B) pseudocyetic
C) protensive
D) propaedeutic
E) otiose

Solution

The main clause declares that hand washing is primarily a measure. However, preceding the declaration is a condition or constraint expressed in an introductory phrase, “a hospital setting.” This phrase sets the contextual field within which the main clause is to be understood. If you generalize from your knowledge, it would seem that any measure promoted in a hospital should result in good health. Only one of the answers would result in this. That is answer (A) in which prophylactic means “prevents disease.”

Strategy 2

A second strategy is to attend to sets, whether a set of synonyms or antonyms or special word groups. For example, consider the following:

Even when a ___________ mother was made available to the infant chimpanzee, the infant detected the __________________ and reacted with high anxiety.A) hedonistic…contrivance
B) vagrant…apostasy
C) veteran…ruse
D) pretender…interference
E) surrogate…substitution

Solution

Nothing in a common sense association supports the pairing of hedonistic and contrivancevagrant and apostasyveteran and ruse, or pretender and interference. The only set of related words is surrogate (meaning substitute) and substitution in (E), the correct answer.

Strategy 3

Pay attention to the words that control the figurative field of the sentence. Consider the following passage:

In seventeenth-century France, private and public opinion portrayed the physician as a vulture of greed, circling the sick and dying, battening off the suffering of the afflicted, and ___________________ the remains of his prey.
A) spending
B) devouring
C) retreating from
D) decrying
E) resorbing

Solution

Clearly the correct answer is (B), devouring. The key words that control the figurative field are vulture, circling, and battening. Read the items carefully and make sure that the completed sentence is meaningful, that it makes sense. Sometimes two or three choices will seem to satisfy the necessity for meaning-based completions, but only one will ever complete the sentence meaningfully.

V. Practice Questions

Directions:
Each sentence below has one or two blanks indicating that something has been omitted. Beneath the sentence are five words or sets of words. Choose the word or set of words for each blank that best fits the meaning of the sentence.

1. It is characteristic of old age to sap a man’s vitality and rob him of his natural_________.
A) youth
B) senility
C) ebullience
D) retro-gradience
E) insensibility

Solution

The first part of the sentence establishes the fact of what happens in old age, namely, that a man starts to lose his vitality. Since the predication “sap a man’s vitality” states something bad about old age, and since the two terms are joined by “and,” the second term must do the same.
(A) This term would add nothing to the sentence but to state the obvious.
(B) Old age does not rob a man of senility but gives it to him.
(C) This is the correct answer. The word ebullience is a synonym for vitality, which adds to the term and completes the sentence nicely.
(D) Retro-gradience is simply a fabricated word that has no meaning and is created only for the occasion.
(E) Insensibility is not a positive term and should not be paired with vitality.

2. The Age of Enlightenment, one of the greatest periods of history for intellectual activity, showed a proclivity for sophistry and________________ argumentation.
A) credible
B) specious
C) gossamer
D) effective
E) irrefutable

Solution

The first part of the sentence establishes the nature of what kind of intellectual activity occurred during the Age of Enlightenment, namely, that there was a proclivity for sophistry. Since the predication “shows a proclivity for sophistry” states a negative about the Age of Enlightenment, and since the two terms are joined by “and,” the second term must be negative also.
(A) This term is basically positive.
(B) This is the answer; it is the only word with negative connotations in the list.
(C) The word gossamer is a word that does not describe intellectual activity and hence, cannot be used in the sentence.
(D) Effective is a positive word that does not fit in the sentence at all.
(E) Irrefutable is a positive term and should not be paired with sophistry.

3. One of the most productive research ________________ in contemporary neuroscience is devoted to _________ maps of human consciousness.
A) trajectories…reconnoitering
B) designs…enunciating
C) paradigms…elucidating
D) declinations…conjugating
E) declensions…obfuscating

Solution

The first part of the sentence asks for the nature of research in contemporary neuroscience. The second part suggests what happens to the research in relation to human consciousness.
(A) Research does not take off in several different trajectories; neither are these trajectories capable of reconnoitering.
(B) Although the word designs functions well with research, research designs do not enunciate, only speaking humans can do that.
(C) This is the answer. The research paradigms can in fact be devoted to making maps of human consciousness.
(D) The word declination is related to the word decline, not to research; and the word conjugating refers to verbal paradigms, not to maps.
(E) The word declensions refers to verbal paradigms and not to research, and to obfuscate means to make obscure, something that no research should do.

4. Today computers can ________________ information from a number of sources, then automatically create a picture of their data manipulations.
A) collate
B) inculcate
C) extrapolate
D) adjudicate
E) research

Solution

Obviously, the first part of the sentence deals with something that computers do; the second part deals with the final aspect of a two-part process.
(A) This is the answer. Computers can compare or collate information from a number of different sources.
(B) Computers cannot teach or inculcate in the usual sense of the word.
(C) Computers do not draw inferences on the basis of statistics; the researchers do that.
(D) Computers cannot be judges to judge between one human and another.
(E) Computers do not research in the sense that humans research; they lack the ability for constructive, innovative thought that leads to an intuitive leap.

5. Just as a highway automobile crash leaves lasting marks of spilled coolant, _________ and oil, the smashing together of gigantic land masses releases and redirects fluids that flow, heat, ___________ and deposit, leaving an enduring record of their presence.
A) gasoline…disappear
B) fuel…evaporate
C) paint…mark
D) water…undulate
E) anti-freeze…drip

Solution

In this sentence there are two series of words. In the first series you are asked to pick words that will fit with coolant and oil. In the second series you are asked to pick words that fit with heat and deposit.
(A) Although the word gasoline fits in well with the first series, if it disappears, it cannot leave an “enduring record.”
(B) This is the answer. Although liquids evaporate, they leave a record from the solid deposits that remain.
(C) Paint is not usually spilled in an automobile crash.
(D) Water does not produce a wave motion or undulate in an automobile wreck.
(E) Although anti-freeze fits well in the first series, the word drip does not fit well in the second series. It is quite different from the words heat and deposit.

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