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Conquering Hard Passages


Now that we have learned to pick apart the pieces of a tough sentence to better understand it, let’s examine how we can use some of the same ideas to help us understand a tough paragraph. Here is an example.

The process of suburbanization that began in the second quarter of the nineteenth century was fundamentally linked to the nascence of the industrial city, and both of these advances were bound up with developments in transportation. Up until that time, the typical city had been a compact cluster of small buildings, which residents navigated primarily on foot; goods were moved by horse and cart. But as factories were built near waterways and rail stations on the outskirts of towns, more people arrived in the cities in search of work, which led to an increased demand for housing. As housing expanded around the factories, city borders expanded and better, more efficient transportation was developed to move people and goods around the newly enlarged cities.

The first sentence of this paragraph is pretty hard to understand. Before going through the first part of this chapter, you might have just given up on it once you read the first sentence, but now you know better! Instead of giving up because you don’t understand the first sentence, use the tools you learned earlier in this chapter. First, break it into two parts, then cut the fat and simplify.

A process was linked to something about industry. The process and the thing about industry were related to transportation.

Like the opera example we looked at in the last section, this simplified version of the first sentence does not tell us a whole lot, but the rest of the paragraph can help us fill in the details.

Some of the sentences to which we added details in the last section had transition words that helped us figure out how the different parts of the sentences related to each other, and we want to be on the look out for the same kinds of words as we read through a paragraph. Conjunctions (such as although, because, but, or and) and time markers (such as after, before, or since) are especially important.

The second sentence of our paragraph begins with just such a time marker: “up until that time.” The first sentence mentioned a time, the second quarter of the nineteenth century, and this sentence will tell us what happened before that. But we also know that the process under discussionstarted at that time, so we can assume that the paragraph will go on to tell us about a change. See how much you can figure out just from a few words?

But let’s get back to the details: up until things changed, the paragraph describes cities as compact places that people could easily walk around. Be on the lookout for those transition words, because they will indicate when the change took place. Sure enough, the next sentence starts with but, and then describes a change: Factories were built on the edges of town, bringing more people, enlarging the cities, and leading to better transportation.

Now that we understand the details, we can answer the same detail questions we did in the last section. Let’s start at the end here, with the something about industry. That must be the factories. So now we have

A process was linked to factories getting built on the edges of town.

What about the process? The thing that our paragraph describes happening after the factories were built was more people coming to the cities, making them larger. Add it in, along with the information about transportation.

Cities’ growth was linked to factories getting built on the edges of town. Both the growth and the factories were related to better transportation.

By simplifying the topic sentence of this paragraph and then adding in details from the body of the paragraph, we did two things: made sense of the difficult first sentence and paraphrased the whole paragraph. It’s no accident that we did both of these things because that is exactly how a well-written paragraph works: The topic sentence introduces an idea, and the body of the paragraph adds detail. In harder reading passages on standardized tests, usually either the topic sentence or the details are easier to understand. Focusing on the easier part, whichever one it is, can help you make sense of the harder part.


Before we get to the drill on paragraphs, let’s talk a little bit more about the transition words we’ve been talking about. Navigating through a difficult paragraph can be made much easier by paying close attention to the words that tell you how ideas are related to each other. There are five main types of these words to watch out for.

Opposite Direction

The following words indicate that ideas are unrelated to each other or the opposite of what we expect:







even though


in contrast

Same Direction

These words indicate that ideas are related or that the author is giving additional explanation of an idea.





Certain types of punctuation can also be the same direction transitions.




These words tell you that the author is about to sum up the main point. If what comes before one of these words is hard to understand, focus instead on what comes after it.






A very common way to structure a paragraph is to make a claim and then use an example to support it. If you have trouble making sense of the claim part, understanding the example is usually helpful. The following words indicate that an example is coming:

for example



in this case


Time Indicators

Words that order events in time usually indicate change, as we saw in our last example. Watch out for words like these.