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The Critical Reading Section: Sentence Completions

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This chapter is from the book

Terms you'll need to understand:

  • Context clues

  • Synonym

  • Antonym

  • Transitional phrases

  • Root word

  • Prefix

  • Suffix

Techniques you'll need to master:

  • How to determine a word's meaning by breaking it down into individual elements.

  • How to determine a word's meaning using clues, such as synonyms and antonyms.

  • Using the most appropriate and logical word.

The Critical Reading portion of the SAT exam will contain 19 sentence completion questions. These questions test your ability to deduce a word's meaning from its usage. You don't have to have a huge vocabulary to do well on this section, but it helps.

When you encounter a word you don't know, read the sentence carefully first to determine the sentence's purpose. Understanding the sentence will help you choose the most appropriate word or words to complete the sentence. That's the single best piece of advice you'll get in this chapter—read the complete sentence carefully before you do anything else.

The astute reader might notice that we seem to repeat ourselves throughout this chapter. That's partially true, but there's a reason for doing so. On the surface, this entire chapter is about vocabulary, but taking command of new words isn't as simple as memorizing thousands of words. The true strength to acing this section of the exam lies in your ability to use context and reason to determine the meaning of words that may be unfamiliar to you.

Everyone interprets data and learns differently. This section isn't as cut and dry as the others—we can't provide one rule or method that will work for everyone. Therefore, you'll find a few different systems. Each one is unique but similar to the others.

In the end, this is what you'll find. Sometimes it takes the entire sentence to determine the missing word's meaning. Sometimes, the sentence uses specific words to give clues. You'll use both methods on the exam.

Sentence Completion

The sentence completion section of the exam is about vocabulary. This part of the exam tests your ability to understand complex sentences. The test will present a sentence that’s missing one or two words. You’ll be expected to choose the appropriate word or words.

There are two types of sentence completion questions:

  • Vocabulary-in-context—You’ll discern the missing words by recognizing how the missing words relate to what’s there. By considering the context of their use, you’ll determine the appropriate words.

  • Logic—You must know the meaning of the missing word, how it’s used within context, and understand the sentence’s purpose.

The two types of questions seem very similar, but there’s a subtle difference. The words in the logic questions are generally simpler words that you probably know well. The question tests your ability to use those words correctly. These questions can be a tad tricky. You must read them carefully to make sure that you respond correctly. The logic questions will help you determine the right word even if you might be unfamiliar with it using methods we’ll discuss later in this chapter.

The General Process

Gleaning the best response isn’t guesswork. As a general rule, we recommend the following process:

  1. Read the entire sentence and actually say "blank" for the missing words. This process helps you integrate the missing word with the rest of the sentence.

  2. If you encounter any unfamiliar words in the actual sentence, try to discern their meanings before attempting to discern the missing word or words.

  3. Before reading the answers, try to fill in the blank using your own words.

  4. After choosing a word of your own, review the answers for a word that’s similar to yours. If you don’t find an exact match, choose the word that’s the closest to your word.

  5. If you don’t find a good match, repeat the sentence and fill in the blank with each response. Be sure to review each response—don’t stop with the first one that seems right.

Let's look at an example:

Alexis' artwork was _____ by those who admired it.

  1. feared

  2. lauded

  3. criticized

  4. purchased

  5. misunderstood

How should you break down this question? The following items will help you:

  1. Say the sentence as follows: "Alexis' artwork was blank by those who admired it."

  2. More than likely, you probably know all the existing words. If not, take the time right now to look up any unfamiliar words.

  3. Before reading the possible responses, can you think of any words that might fill the blank appropriately? The word "admired" is one clue—you can quickly discern that the missing word is most likely a positive word such as complimented.

  4. Search the list and see if you can find any word that's close to one of your own. Lauded is a synonym for complimented, so at first guess, that would seem the best choice.

  5. If you're still stuck, repeat the sentence using each response. In this case, step 5 isn't necessary.

Answer B is the correct response. Someone who admires artwork might praise or speak well of it. Answers A, C, D, and E are all incorrect because none of them convey the positive tone required by the word admired.

In this case, you must know the meaning of the word "lauded." However, you could, by process of elimination, come to the conclusion that lauded is the correct response. This can be a bit tricky with logic questions. In this example, "purchased" might seem like the right response if you didn't know the meaning of the word lauded. Just remember that you are always looking for the best response, not just any response that fits. You can't assume that every purchaser will admire the artwork. Some might purchase it as an investment or even as a gift—purchased is not the best response.

Using Keywords

Introductory and transitional words are important. They can completely change the sentence's meaning. They can also help you understand the sentence. For instance, the following words indicate a conflict, contradiction, or contrast between the two main thoughts:

  • Although

  • But

  • Even though/so

  • However

  • Yet

Let's cover some examples to solidify this:

    Although Alexis sold all of her work, she remained relatively unknown in the art community.

    Alexis never received raving reviews in the art periodicals, but she sold all of her work.

    Even though Alexis wasn't well known by her peers, she was popular with art collectors.

    The art gallery turned down Alexis' request for a showing. However, she sold all of her work through word of mouth.

    Alexis hasn't made a name for herself among the elite in the art community, yet she continues to sell every piece almost as soon as the paint dries.

All of these sentences have a similar purpose—to express Alexis' success even though she is not a big name in the art community. The conflict is her seeming monetary success despite the fact that she is not yet a well-known artist. Now, let's take the first sentence and format it as a question.

Although Alexis sold all of her work, she remained relatively _____ in the art community.

  1. unhappy

  2. anonymous

  3. unknown

  4. popular

  5. strange

You already know that C is the correct answer, but let's work through the other possible responses. A is incorrect because it isn't the best choice. Yes, Alexis may be unhappy with her position, or lack of position, in the art community, but that sentiment doesn't match the fact that she's selling all her work. Besides, logically it just isn't a good fit. Answer B is incorrect, although it might fit. It's incorrect because nothing in the first part of the sentence suggests that she's working anonymously. Remember, the clues are in the sentence. Answer D is incorrect because the word "although" suggests a conflict between the two ideas. Hence, the word "popular" simply doesn't make sense. Answer E is like Answer B; it just doesn't fit logically. Answer C is the best choice because it's the best extension of the conflict suggested by the word "although." You know that she's selling her work, despite something.

The following transitional words and phrases indicate the result of the first clause, which will help you determine the most appropriate response:

  • As a result

  • Consequently

  • Resulting in

  • Subsequently

  • Subsequent to

  • Therefore

The following sentences help demonstrate this:

    As a result of talent and hard work, Alexis was becoming a successful artist.

    Alexis put in long hours at the easel. Consequently, she was quite successful.

    Alexis' hard work and talent were resulting in a measured success as an artist.

    Alexis put in long hours at the easel. Therefore, she was quite successful.

Like the last example, all of these sentences have a similar purpose—to express Alexis' success. This time instead of conflict, the sentences express the result of her hard work and talent—the result being success. Now, let's turn one of these sentences into an example question.

As a result of talent and hard work, Alexis was becoming a(n) _____ artist.

  1. triumphant

  2. anonymous

  3. successful

  4. profitable

  5. strange

Again, C is the correct answer because it completes the sentence best. Answers A and B are incorrect. Nothing in the sentence logically leads us to the words "triumphant" or "anonymous." Triumphant suggests some kind of battle or fight. Anonymous suggests she remains unknown, which is probably a negative to an aspiring artist, and we know that the sentence's tone is positive. Answer D is incorrect, although it might fit. She may be profitable, but you're assuming that she's selling her work. Success doesn't necessarily mean wealth. Answer E is incorrect because it doesn't logically complete the sentence's purpose.

Most likely, you won't encounter a question in which two answers could fulfill the sentence's purpose so well. In this example, both "successful" and "profitable" could fill the bill, although "successful" does have the edge. Nothing in the sentence implies that she's making money. You'd need more information before you could assume that she's making a profit from her hard work and talent.

Watch for sentences in which one clause negates another. Most negative words are well known to you already: no, not, none, nothing, and so on. However, their use can completely change the meaning of a sentence. Consider the following examples:

Nothing meant as much to Alexis as not having to explain her work.

It can be easy to misconstrue the meaning of such a sentence. Remove the word "not" and the sentence has a completely different meaning—Alexis enjoys talking and explaining her work. When you encounter such a sentence, try removing one of the negative words. Doing so will help you determine the sentence's purpose. In this case, you learn that Alexis doesn't want to explain her work.

Not making a decision is not the same as being _____.

  1. adamant

  2. confused

  3. decisive

  4. indecisive

  5. inconclusive

Answer D is the best response. In a roundabout way, the sentence is defining the word "indecisive." Specifically, the sentence explains that not making a decision isn't a definition of indecisive. Remove the second "not" to read the opposite of what the sentence really means: Not making a decision is the same as being indecisive. Reading the opposite statement will help you find the most appropriate response. Answers A, B, C, and E are incorrect. It doesn't make much sense to use any of these words within the context of "not making a decision."

Such a sentence can be confusing, and truthfully, there are better ways to make this statement. Regardless, you'll probably encounter one on the sentence completion section of the exam. Read carefully.

Employing Elimination

When the sentence requires you to fill in two blanks, you can usually complete the sentence after determining just one of the words. Once you know one of the words, you can determine the other by eliminating the answers that don't correspond appropriately.

Even if you think you've found the right answer, be sure to read all the answers. The exam expects you to choose the best answer, not the first one that you think fits.

Once you settle on an answer, reread the sentence, filling in the blanks accordingly. Sometimes reading the completed sentence will expose mistakes in your logic. Take a look at an example:

The celebrities were accustomed to being chauffeured about at the festival and were understandably _____ when the service was _____.

  1. content . . eradicated

  2. disconcerted . . sporadic

  3. displeased . . unrequited

  4. irritated . . terminated

  5. concerned . . unresolved

Now, let's use the process of elimination to determine the right response. A is out—they wouldn't be content if the service was eliminated. Even if the first word had made sense, eradicated is a rather strong word for this particular sentence. Answer B is a possibility—the celebrities might be confused if the service isn't predictable, but let's continue. There might be a better response. Remember, you are expected to choose the best response, not the first one that might do. Frankly, there are better ways to express that particular sentiment, so that's a clue that there might be a better response. Answer C is incorrect because the word "unrequited" doesn't make sense within the context of the second phrase. Answer D is good—the celebrities would definitely be irritated if the service were terminated. This could be the right answer, but there's one more. Answer E is incorrect. The word "unresolved" doesn't make sense within the context of the second phrase. So far, you've eliminated three responses: A, C, and E. When comparing B and D, you can see that D is definitely the stronger of the two, so D is the correct answer.

Using Logic

By logically dissecting each sentence, you should be able to fill in the blanks. It will help if you can remember that there are four logical relationships in a complex sentence (a sentence with two clauses):

  • Contrast

  • Support

  • Cause and effect

  • Definition

All four relationships are fairly self-explanatory, but recognizing them can help you discern the best answer. Careful reading is imperative.

Some sentences will employ more than one logical relationship. Distinguishing each relationship is critical to picking the right answer. Specific words and phrases can clue you in to the type of relationship in use, such as those found in the following list:

  • Supporting keywords—additionally, also, besides, furthermore, in addition, likewise, moreover, similarly, and so on

  • Contrasting keywords—although, but, conversely, despite, even though, however, in contrast, in spite of, instead of, nevertheless, nonetheless, on the contrary, on the other hand, rather, yet, and so on

  • Definition keywords—am, are, as, especially, for example, for instance, including, to be, is, means, refers to, that is, and so on

  • Cause and effect keywords—as a result, because, consequently, due to, if...then, in order to, since, so, subsequently, therefore, and so on

A subcategory of both the supporting and definition relationships is restatement. Sometimes an author will clue you in by restating the word's meaning. More often than not, this type of relationship is supportive, but it can fall into the definition category. Look for the following keywords: that is, or, in other words, in a nutshell, and so on.

Once you've defined the relationship, a little reasoning can usually determine the meaning of any unfamiliar words. Look for the context clues. A synonym is a word that means roughly the same thing and indicates a supportive relationship. Note this in the following example:

The _____ award was a fortunate offering just as the author was looking for a new publisher.

  1. unexpected

  2. prestigious

  3. elite

  4. monumental

  5. auspicious

Answer E is the best answer—it fits without adding any additional nuances to the context. The word "fortunate" is a synonym for auspicious. If you didn't know the meaning of "auspicious," the word "fortunate" would at least point you in the right direction. Answers A, B, and D work, but none is as good a fit as E when considering the relationship between the missing word and the synonym fortunate that further defines it. Answers B and D both imply subtleties that are supported by the sentence. Answer C is incorrect because it just doesn't make sense.

This sentence doesn't use a supportive keyword, but there is a supportive relationship between the missing word and the synonym "fortunate."

An antonym is a word that conveys the opposite meaning and indicates a contrasting relationship.

Despite the child's angelic appearance, she was quite _____.

  1. impish

  2. naughty

  3. wicked

  4. harmless

  5. playful

Answer B is the best response. In this example, angelic is an antonym for naughty. The word "despite" indicates a contrasting relationship, so you know that you're looking for an antonym for "angelic." Answers A and C are incorrect. Either might fit, but answer B is a better fit than both. Answer A implies a playfulness that the sentence doesn't support. Answer C is far too strong. Answers D and E are incorrect because you're looking for an antonym, and both "harmless" and "playful" could be considered synonyms for angelic within the context of the sentence.

A definition relationship offers clues in the form of a literal translation or alternative for the missing word and indicates a defining or a supportive relationship.

_____ is the expensive process of separating the salt from sea water.

  1. Desalinization

  2. Evaporation

  3. Mining

  4. Ionization

  5. Fusion

There are no tricks here. Answer A is the correct response. The word "is" clues you in right away that you're looking at a definition relationship. There are no other clues other than the word's definition. Answers B, C, D, and E are all incorrect because they do not fit the definition.

The cause and effect relationship is usually easy to spot. There's an action and a reaction. You might think of this relationship as a before and after sequence, although you can't take the notion of time literally when doing so. Often, the cause and effect comes in more than one sentence, which is fine in your essay, but you won't run across any two-sentence examples on the exam. When trying to determine the missing word in a cause and effect sentence, think of the natural flow of the sentence's purpose. (Keep in mind that a cause and effect sentence doesn't have to include one of the keywords or phrases listed earlier.)

Poor planning and a lack of resources were at the root of the company's -----.

  1. success

  2. origin

  3. demise

  4. termination

  5. confinement

Answer C is the correct answer. You know right away that something bad happened to the business because "poor planning and a lack of resources" are negative attributes. Something bad happened (effect) to the business as a result of these things (cause). Answer A is incorrect because you know that the missing word should have a negative connotation. Answers B and E are incorrect because they're illogical. Answer D is incorrect even though it might tempt you. Termination carries a strong sense of maliciousness or purpose; the word is simply too strong for this sentence.

When using this method to determine the missing word, read the sentence carefully. Then, use the words around the missing word to help determine the missing word's meaning.

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