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Conquering Hard Passages

WHAT ABOUT THE DETAILS?

In a few of the sentences in the last drill, we cut out almost every detail except the generic versions of the subject, verb, and object. That works for getting a very basic idea of what the sentence says, but what happens when you have to make sense of a difficult sentence in order to answer a question about it on a test? Put some details back in once you get the main idea.

Take a look at one of the examples from the last section again.

After the previous rebellion, the Capitol had subjugated the outlying districts by establishing the Hunger Games, which it claimed were meant to provide entertainment, but in reality, they helped to keep rebellions in check.

Here is the simplified version.

The Capitol did something to the outlying districts.

Let’s look at how we can use clues in the sentence to help us figure out what “did something” means. First, the descriptive phrase that we cut from the beginning of the sentence tells us that this thing the Capitol did was done “after the previous rebellion,” so it was probably in some way related to that. Next, we can look at the extra descriptive phrases at the end of the sentence. First, the prepositional phrase “by establishing the Hunger Games,” tells us how the Capitol did the thing it did. Next, the phrase starting with “which” tells us more about why the Capitol did it. The Capitol claimed the Games “were meant to provide entertainment,” but we already know from the beginning that they probably had something to do with the rebellion. And the next word, but, tells us that entertainment was not the real purpose. The true reason was “to keep rebellions in check.” So “did something” means the Capitol kept the rebellions in check, and we can add this detail back to the original sentence.

The Capitol kept rebellions in check in the outlying districts.

If you have already read The Hunger Games, and you know what happened, that sentence probably does not seem so tough. But what if you run into a sentence on a topic you know nothing about? Remember this one?

Although opera as we know it today began with Jacopo Peri’s Dafne, this seminal work was not an exercise in innovation, but rather an attempt to revive classical Greek drama.

Here is the simplified version.

A thing was an attempt to revive something.

This version tells us very little, so let’s see if we can figure out what some of the tough vocabulary that we replaced with the generic words thing and something means.

The subject in the original sentence was “this seminal work,” which we replaced with “a thing.” Instead of focusing on how you don’t know what that means, focus on what you do know. The word “this” before the tough vocabulary tells us that “seminal work” refers to something that was just discussed. The thing that was just discussed is “Jacopo Peri’s Dafne,” so now we know what the “seminal work” is. But, unless you are a hardcore classical music buff, that’s probably not much help. So let’s look at what else the sentence says about Dafne. The rest of that descriptive phrase we cut from the beginning of the sentence tells us that “opera as we know it today began with Jacopo Peri’s Dafne.” In other words, Dafne was the beginning of modern opera. Getting back to our original tough vocabulary, this tells us that “seminal” must mean something that comes at the beginning or starts something new.

Now we can add a little more detail to the simplified version of this sentence.

The first modern opera was an attempt to revive something.

That might be enough information to help us answer a multiple-choice question about this sentence, but what if we needed to know more about the “something” that we used to replace “classical Greek drama?” Again, we can use other information in the sentence to figure out a little more about just what that is.

To begin with, the very first word in the original part of the sentence is “although.” Although lets us know that the two parts of this sentence don’t match each other. The first part told us that the subject, Dafne, was the first modern opera. We would expect something that was the first of its kind to do something new, right? Remember that part we cut out that told us what Dafne didn’t do? It said that Dafne “was not an exercise in innovation.” Just as the although at the beginning of the sentence led us to expect, the first modern opera didn’t do something new. We know that it was an attempt to revive something, and if that wasn’t something new, it must have been something old. Thus, classical Greek drama must be an old kind of drama.

Here is our new-and-improved, details-added simplified version of this sentence.

The first modern opera was an attempt to revive an old type of drama.