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Conquering Hard Passages


Let’s look at a sentence.

The mercurial, tawny fox bounds over the indolent canine.

You are probably wondering what this sentence means. There is a lot of hard vocabulary in it, and if you’re like most people, you stop at the word mercurial and think to yourself, “I’ve never heard that word before—what in the world does it mean?” It doesn’t help, of course, that the definition of the next word, tawny, doesn’t instantly come to mind either. When there are two words in a row whose meanings you don’t understand, making sense of the sentence can be quite difficult. If you were to see this sentence in a reading passage on a standardized test, you would likely gloss over the two words in a row that don’t make sense to you.

But do you have to? Absolutely not! In order to help you make sense of this sentence, let’s talk about the way most sentences are written. The main parts of a sentence are the subject, or noun (person, place, or thing that a sentence is about), and the predicate. We often think of the predicate as being the verb, but it’s a little bit more than that. The predicate is the part of the sentence that tells us about the subject. It always contains a verb, or action, and it usually also contains an object (the thing that receives the action of the verb).

These are the three main parts of most sentences.

1. Subject: the person, place, or thing that a sentence is about

2. Verb: the action

3. Object: the thing that receives the action of the verb

Here’s another example.

Alexander went to school.

1. What is the subject? Alexander

2. What is the verb? went

3. What is the object? to school

Let’s examine another version of this sentence.


Even though he had not finished his History project, Alexander reluctantly went to school on Monday, where he received a lecture from his teacher on the importance of deadlines.

There is a lot more information in the second version of the sentence. However, notice how the main parts are still the same: The subject is still Alexander, the verb is still went, and the object is still to school.

This second example of Alexander going to school doesn’t have a lot of tough vocabulary like our first sentence had, but it illustrates an idea that can help us make sense of a sentence like the first one: If you run into a tough sentence, look for the three main parts. Have you ever seen someone preparing to cook a piece of meat by cutting off the fat to get to the good part? You can do the same thing with a long sentence. You can trim the fat—or the extra descriptive words—away from the main parts to get at the main meaning.

Let’s look at that first example again.

The mercurial, tawny fox bounds over the indolent canine.

If we trim the fat, we end up with

The … fox … bounds over the … canine.

The words we cut out do add detail to the sentence, but the three main parts are the most important and convey the main meaning of the sentence. This is an excellent place to start when faced with a long, complicated sentence.