The SAT Prep Black Book
SAT Sentence Completion
What Do We Do When We Don’t Know Enough Of The Words?
If you’ve been reading the sections of this book in order (which I highly recommend, by the way—that’s why I wrote them in this order . . .), then you’ve heard me say several times already that not knowing the words in a Sentence Completion question is not one of our primary concerns on the SAT. It’s much more important to focus on answering questions correctly when we do know all the relevant words, for at least two reasons:
1. Questions where you don’t know enough of the words to answer with confidence will probably be in the minority, and they don’t count for any more points than any other question on the Critical Reading section.
2. People often miss questions even when vocabulary isn’t an issue, so it’s important to make sure you fix that problem before addressing questions where vocabulary is an issue.
Still, we want to take our best shot at every single question on the test, so it’s important to have strategies in place for dealing with these challenging words, once you’ve perfected your approach to questions where the words aren’t an issue.
Let me say one final thing before we get into these strategies: a certain amount of creative thinking is required to answer Sentence Completion questions with challenging words, at least in the sense that there’s a lot of potential variation from one question to the next. Sometimes a challenging question has one blank, and sometimes it has two; sometimes you’ll have no idea what any of the words mean, and sometimes you’ll have a pretty good idea what most of them mean, and sometimes you’ll know something between those two extremes; sometimes words you don’t know won’t really matter, and sometimes they will; sometimes it will be easier to get an idea of the meaning of an unknown word, and sometimes it will be very difficult, and sometimes it will be downright impossible. And so on.
So you have to go into these situations with a willingness to play around a little bit, and you’ll probably need to spend a little more time with these questions than you would spend on questions where you know enough of the words to be certain of your answers. Keep that in mind.
The Most Important Strategy: Skip What You Don’t Know And Come Back To It
When most test-takers run into Sentence Completion questions where vocabulary is an issue, they groan and stare at the question for a while, hoping something will come to them. This is a natural reaction, but it’s the wrong one. The most important thing you can do in these moments is to skip the question once you realize that you won’t be able to answer it quickly and with confidence.
I’m not saying you skip the question for good. I’m saying you skip it for the moment, and come back to it later. (Maybe you’ll end up skipping it for good anyway, if you still can’t figure it out on your second or third shot.)
The reason for this is pretty simple: Since every question on the Critical Reading section counts for exactly one raw point in the scoring process, there’s no point at all in spending extra time on harder questions when there could be a lot of easier questions for you on the next page.
So remember: when you first open up the Critical Reading section and start in on the Sentence Completion questions, your goal is to complete all the questions you can answer with total confidence as quickly as you possibly can, and to skip all the questions that you can’t answer with total confidence and save them for later, if you have time. There’s no reason to struggle with a hard question when you could be answering easier questions somewhere else.
For the rest of our discussion of challenging Sentence Completion questions, I’m going to assume that you’ve followed this advice about skipping the question on the first time around and coming back to it later.
Now let’s take a look at another important strategy:
We Only Care If A Word Could Be Right. We Don’t Care About Its Exact Meaning.
When we’re trying to answer a Sentence Completion question, we know that the correct answer choice will restate the relevant part of the sentence. It may not seem obvious at first, but knowing this gives us a subtle advantage when we run into challenging words. Unlike other test-takers, we don’t necessarily worry about what the word actually means. Instead, we’re only trying to figure out if the word seems like it could possibly mean what it would need to mean to be the right answer.
For instance, if we had a sentence like “Reginald was so (blank) that he kept jumping for joy,” then we would know that the word in the blank would have to mean something along the lines of “extremely joyful.” If one of the answer choices were “disconsolate,” for example, we might be able to realize that “disconsolate” doesn’t seem to have any features that would suggest that it’s related to being joyful. In that case, we could be pretty sure that “disconsolate” was the wrong answer, even if we didn’t know exactly what it actually meant. (Of course, that might not be enough on its own to tell us what the right answer actually is, but it can often be helpful.)
We’ll see several more examples of this idea as we look at actual SAT questions in the coming pages.
Keep this in mind as you practice the rest of the strategies in this section, and as you take the test. You’re not necessarily trying to figure out what a word actually means; you’re just trying to figure out if it could possibly mean what it needs to mean in order to be the right answer.
Don’t Be Afraid Of Different Forms Of A Familiar Word
Many times I’ve had students who are afraid to make small logical leaps when figuring out what words mean, often because they’ve been taught (incorrectly) that they shouldn’t make those leaps.
As an example, I once had a student who knew the meaning of the word “therapy,” but didn’t feel like he knew the meaning of the word “therapist.” I asked him if he knew what the suffix “-ist” meant, in words like “pianist” or “receptionist.” He said he did. When I said, “So does it seem like a ‘therapist’ might be somebody who does something related to therapy, just as a ‘pianist’ does something related to pianos and a ‘receptionist’ does something related to receiving people?” He said, “I guess so. I mean, I thought of that, but I wasn’t sure.”
I’m telling you that you can go ahead and make those assumptions safely, no matter what your teachers may have told you in the past. If you know how a suffix works, and that suffix is attached to a word that looks like something else you know, then you can be fairly certain that the meaning of the word is essentially what it would seem to be based on its parts. There are occasional exceptions to this, of course, but remember that we’re not trying to figure out exactly what a word means. We’re just trying to figure out if it could possibly mean what it needs to mean in order to be the right answer to the question.
This leads me to a more general word-deciphering strategy:
Break Words Into Syllables And Attack From Right To Left
I have said, repeatedly, that the Sentence Completion questions on the SAT aren’t purely about memorizing vocabulary. One of the major pieces of evidence supporting this conclusion is the fact that the College Board frequently uses “challenging” words that involve multiple syllables and/or have some connection to Latin, French, or Spanish words that many test-takers may be slightly familiar with. (Of course, there will be some challenging words on the SAT that don’t have these characteristics, and this particular strategy may not be very useful on those words.)
So we want to get in the habit of breaking unknown words into their syllables, so we can try to get a better idea of how they’re put together and whether they might be appropriate answers for our Sentence Completion questions.
When we break the words apart, we want to consider their components in the following order: first the suffixes, then the roots, and finally the prefixes. We want to go backwards, in a sense.
This might seem odd, but there’s a good reason for it. The suffix (if there is one) is the most easily identifiable and reliable component of most words, and the prefix (if there is one) is usually the least reliable component of the word.
For thorough examples of how this idea works in the context of real SAT questions, you’ll want to take a look at the sample solutions that appear a little later in this book. But for now, let’s consider a few imaginary examples, just for practice.
Imagine that one of our answer choices includes the word “indefatigable.” In this case, we might be able to break the word up and realize the following:
othe suffix seems to be “-able”
othe root seems to be something like “fatig”
othe prefix seems to be either “inde,” or a combination of “in-” and “de-”
From here, we might be able to figure out that this word has something to do with the idea of whether something can have a certain action done to it, because of the suffix “-able.” (Along similar lines, the word “forgettable” means something can be forgotten, and the word “understandable” means something can be understood.) The action in question seems to have something to do with the idea of “fatigue,” or being tired. And the prefixes might indicate a double opposite, or they might not; it’s hard to tell with these prefixes. “In-” sometimes indicates an opposite (as in “insincere”) and sometimes indicates reinforcement (as in “intense”). “De-” sometimes indicates an opposite, but not always (the word “defend” is not the opposite of the word “fend,” for instance). So we wouldn’t know for sure what this word meant just from taking it apart, but we might be able to tell it has something to do with the idea of whether something can be fatigued, and that might be enough for us to figure out whether the word has anything to do with the sentence in the question.
As another example, imagine the word “relentless.” We might identify the suffix “-less,” which indicates the absence of something. The root would be either “relent” or “lent,” with the possible prefix “re-.” A student of Latin, French, or Spanish might recognize that the syllable “lent” could have something to do with the idea of being slow. The possible prefix “re-” might have something to do with the idea of repeating an action, or in some other way strengthening an idea. So we might eventually get the idea that the word “relentless” means something related to an absence of slowing or stopping—again, this doesn’t fully spell out the meaning of the word on its own, but it could very well give us a strong idea of whether “relentless” might be appropriate for a particular question.
Let’s try one more example, this time with the word “kindred.” “Kindred” doesn’t seem to have any kind of familiar suffix or root. We might look at this word and wonder if it’s related to the word “kind,” or the word “kindle.” But neither of those seems promising, especially because they would involve something along the lines of “-red” as a suffix, and that wouldn’t really make a lot of sense because we can’t think of any other words where “-red” is a suffix. So if we ran into the word “kindred” in an answer choice and didn’t already know what it meant, we would probably have little choice but to try to work around it and hope that we could figure some things out about some other words. As I said before, this strategy of taking words apart isn’t always going to work, and we won’t always be able to figure out a correct answer when we don’t know some of the words in a question. Often we will, but sometimes we won’t. That’s just the way the test goes. Remember that it’s still possible to score well in the 700+ range on the Critical Reading section even if you omit 6 or 7 of the Sentence Completion questions on the test.
And when you’re taking words apart and trying to get an idea of what they might mean, consider the following strategy, as well.
Don’t Forget Cultural References
Sometimes you can figure out roughly what a word means based on its similarity to a brand name, or even to words in popular novels, songs, or movies. Don’t shy away from those connections, even if it might feel a little silly to use something from a Harry Potter novel to answer a question on the SAT.
When you try to use these references, remember that you’re not trying to figure out what a word actually means; all you’re trying to figure out is whether it’s likely to be able to mean what it would need to mean to be the right answer.
For example, I had a student once who was working on a double-blank question in which she eliminated three of the answer choices, but was having a difficult time choosing between the last two, because she didn’t feel like she knew any of the words in either choice. But she knew from the structure of the sentence that the word in the second blank needed to be a negative-sounding word, and she saw that one of the answer choices had the word “prudent” for that second blank.
While she didn’t know the word “prudent” itself, she did recall that she had seen television commercials for a company called “Prudential.” She reasoned, correctly, that a company wouldn’t name itself something negative—nobody would call their company a name that meant “Horrible Company, Incorporated.” She also knew that the suffix “-ial” didn’t change the overall meaning of the word. So if “Prudential” was a positive-sounding word, then “prudent” probably wasn’t a negative-sounding word . . . which meant it wasn’t the right answer for the second blank in this particular question. She eliminated that answer choice and chose the remaining one, and got the question right.
Note that she still didn’t actually know what the word “prudent” meant by the time she was done with the question. She only knew it didn’t fit the sentence, which was all she needed to know. And this brings us to our next strategy.
Don’t Feel Bias Towards A Word Just Because You Know It
I cannot tell you how many times a test-taker has told me he chose an answer for a Sentence Completion question simply because he knew what it meant.
Let me say, very clearly, that knowing the meaning of a word is ABSOLUTELY NOT a good enough reason for picking that word on a Sentence Completion question. The College Board is not obligated to make the correct answer be a word you know, so the fact that you know a word does not increase the likelihood that the word is the right answer.
In fact, I’ve seen it happen many times that a well-trained test-taker ends up choosing a correct answer to a question even though he doesn’t know what it means, because he’s been able to figure out that all the other answer choices don’t work for one reason or another.
When you run into a situation where you know the meanings of some words but not all of them, you should start by considering the words you know and determining if they restate elements of the sentence. If they do, you’re in luck—you must have the right answer. But if they don’t restate part of the sentence, then you should simply eliminate them and set to work trying to figure something out about the remaining answer choices. That’s all you can do in that situation, unfortunately. You shouldn’t try to rationalize putting down a wrong answer just because you’re comfortable with the word itself if it doesn’t actually restate part of the sentence.
And here’s one last important strategy I wanted to mention. You won’t see it on the test too much, but it can make a real difference whenever it does come up.
Don’t Rule Out A Word Based On Its Part Of Speech
Although I don’t believe the College Board ever comes out and says so directly, all of the options for a particular blank will always be the same part of speech. They’re either all nouns, or they’re all verbs, or they’re all adjectives, or whatever.
Many students are unaware of this rule, and they’ll sometimes reject a correct answer because they think it can only be a noun when it needs to be a verb. But the College Board doesn’t try to trick us in this way. When you’re looking at an answer choice, don’t worry about whether you’re familiar with every possible part of speech the word might be. Instead, just think about what the word means, and whether that idea restates another idea in the sentence. Trust that the College Board isn’t trying to mislead you by giving you a word that’s the wrong part of speech.