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Conquering Hard Passages

Answers and Explanations: Difficult Vocabulary

If you didn’t simplify as much as the explanations here do, good for you—that means you have great vocabulary! Nevertheless, don’t be afraid to replace touch vocabulary words with something really generic so that you can get the big picture in a sentence.

1. The provenance of the sonnet “To the Supreme Being,” typically attributed to Michelangelo and famously rendered in English by Wordsworth, has been challenged by some scholars.

Cut the fatThe provenance has been challenged.

• Cut out the prepositional phrase “of the sonnet.…”

• The descriptive phrases in the middle that are set off by commas can also be cut.

SimplifySomething has been challenged.

• Replace provenance, a tough word, with something to arrive at the general meaning.

2. Though the repeal of the Glass Steagall Act in 1999 did not engender excessive controversy, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, some members of Congress are now pushing to resuscitate the legislation, which was originally passed in 1933 to separate traditional banks from the riskier financial services industry.

Cut the fatMembers of Congress are pushing to resuscitate the legislation.

• Cut the two descriptive phrases at the beginning of the sentence and the phrase starting with which at the end. This gets rid of a lot of the hard vocabulary that might otherwise make the sentence hard to understand.

• Extra adjectives, such as some and now can also be cut.

SimplifyMembers of Congress are doing something to the legislation.

• If “pushing to resuscitate” seems confusing, just replace it with “doing something.”

3. The Austrian music theorist Heinrich Shenker is most famous for having devised the eponymous mode of musical analysis based on the concepts of tonal space and primal structure.

Cut the fatThe music theorist is most famous for having devised the mode of musical analysis.

• The proper name and nationality of the theorist aren’t the most important details, so cut them.

• Take out the difficult adjective eponymous as well as the description of what the analysis is based on.

SimplifyA guy is famous for having done something with an analysis.

• If you don’t know what a music theorist is, no problem. It’s obviously a person—replace it with a guy.

• Similarly, if you’re unsure what devised means, you know it’s a verb, so make it simpler.

4. In oxygenic photosynthesis, water furnishes the requisite electrons for the reduction reaction that converts carbon dioxide into a carbohydrate, and this hydrolysis also yields oxygen.

Cut the fatWater furnishes electrons for the reaction that converts carbon dioxide into a carbohydrate.

• Cut out the descriptive phrase at the beginning that’s set off from the rest of the sentence by a comma, as well as the phrase at the end, also set off by a comma.

• Getting rid of the two extra phrases gets rid of a lot of the hard, sciency jargon in this sentence, but we can also eliminate the extra adjectives requisite and reduction.

SimplifyWater does something for the reaction that converts one thing into another thing.

• Get rid of the rest of the hard, sciency vocabulary by replacing it with the easier-to-understand does something for the verb and thing and another thing for the nouns.

5. 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.

Cut the fatThis seminal work was not an exercise in innovation, but rather an attempt to revive classical Greek drama.

• Cut out the descriptive phrase at the beginning of the sentence.

SimplifyA thing was an attempt to revive something.

• Seminal work? Huh? Staring at it isn’t going to make it easier to understand. It’s the subject, so just replace it with thing.

• It matters a lot more what the thing was, not what it wasn’t, so we can cut out everything from not up to an attempt.

• Not sure exactly what classical Greek drama is? Again, simplify. Make it something.

6. William Perkin unwittingly produced mauve, the first synthetic dye, while trying to engineer artificial quinine in his endeavor to cure malaria.

Cut the fatWilliam Perkin produced mauve while trying to engineer artificial quinine.

• Cut out the difficult descriptive word unwittingly.

• Ignore the descriptive phrase after mauve.

• The prepositional phrase starting with in that closes the sentence can also go.

SimplifyA guy produced something while trying to do something else.

• Don’t focus on not knowing who William Perkin is—he’s a guy.

• It’s not a problem if you don’t know exactly what mauve and quinine are; it’s good enough to know that they’re different, and the one William Perkin ended up with wasn’t the one he set out to make.


When dealing with difficult vocabulary, focus on what you do know rather that what you don’t know.

• Start by cutting the fat, especially hard adjectives and descriptive phrases with lots of tough vocabulary.

• When you’re left with important parts of the sentence that still have difficult vocabulary, identify which part it is (or they are), and replace hard words with easier versions. Most verbs can be replaced with a version of does something, and nouns can be replaced with a person, a place, or a thing.