SAT For Dummies
Comprehending the SAT: The Critical Reading Sections
Filling In the Blanks: Sentence Completions
In This Chapter
Acquainting yourself with sentence completions
Relying on familiar words
Finding clues from your own experiences
Following easy steps to solve sentence completions
New York City subways used to display signs advertising a school for shorthand. “If u cn rd ths, u cn gt a gd job,” they declared. I never did try for the “good job” they were dangling in front of me, even though I “could read this” easily. But I did have fun watching people puzzle out the missing letters. SAT sentence completions are only a little more complicated than the missing-letter ads on the subway. The words you see have all their letters — always a plus in reading! Also, the test makers tuck some clues into the sentence so you can figure out what’s missing. The hardest questions include words known only by people who eat dictionaries for breakfast (low carb, but not very tasty).
On the SAT you find from five to eight sentence completions in each Critical Reading section. The usual SAT scoring applies: one point for each correct answer, no points for a skipped question, and a quarter-point deduction for each error. In this chapter, I explain how to approach the easy and mid-level sentence completions. I also provide strategies for the tough questions, including when to guess and when to skip.
Sampling the Sentence Completion Menu
If you’re having a small anxiety attack right now worrying about sentence completions, take a deep breath and relax. In this section, you discover how to identify the different types of sentence completions, the first step toward solving them.
Sentence completions come in a few basic forms:
Simple vocabulary, one blank
Simple vocabulary, two blanks
Tough vocabulary, one or two blanks
Each Critical Reading section on the SAT has some single-blank and some double-blank questions. Don’t assume that the doubles are harder. Some are actually easier than the singles because more words give you more clues. Continue reading to see what the different types look like and to find out some general tips on solving these little buggers.
In the following sections, I provide some sentence-completion questions that are similar to those on the real SAT, though mine (she said modestly) are marginally funny and the SAT has no sense of humor whatsoever. I also provide solutions and the reasoning that I used to determine the answers. (Check out the “Completing the Sentence: Steps That Work” section later in this chapter for different strategies to help you ace the sentence-completion section on your SAT.)
Simple vocabulary, one blank
Several sentence-completion questions throw you the vocabulary equivalent of a softball, though you may not know every single word in them. However, easy vocabulary doesn’t mean that the sentence is a cinch. Fortunately, the SAT gremlins do play fair to the extent that they scatter word clues for the observant reader. Check this one out:
Because she was upset by the security guard’s close attention, Suzy Sunshine stormed out of the lingerie store and remained _____ for the rest of the day.
The answer is (C). Here’s the deal: Upon reading the sentence, you immediately think of an innocent shopper tailed too closely by a security guard. You picture little Suzy abandoning the piles of luxury underwear and heading home. Real-world experience tells you that Suzy is probably annoyed or even indignant. As you check for clues in the sentence, you notice because and stormed. The because tells you to focus on answers that would be consequences of Suzy’s experience in the store. Stormed tells you about Suzy’s mood. Several words pop into your head when you think about the blank — grouchy, mad, angry, and so forth. When you check the choices, you see (C), annoyed, and that’s the answer.
Sometimes clue words are omitted, but you can figure out the logic of the sentence anyway. (The sentence in the preceding question, for example, makes sense even if because is left out.)
Upset by the security guard’s attention, Suzy Sunshine stormed out of the lingerie store and remained _____ for the rest of the day.
To answer these questions, be aware of what the sentence implies as well as what it states.
Here’s the same sentence with a twist:
Although she was upset by the security guard’s close attention and stormed out of the lingerie store, Suzy Sunshine remained _____ for the rest of the day.
The answer is (B). The word although sets up a contrast. Because she stormed, you know Suzy was annoyed upon leaving the store. The although tells you that her mood changed and that (C) is the opposite of what you want. Choosing your own fill-in, you may opt for peaceful. (When you create your own fill-in, don’t worry about grammar or proper English. Just concentrate on the meaning.) Serene, or peaceful, is the choice that fits best.
Suppose you create your own fill-in but nothing matches it? For instance, in the preceding question you may have said alone or secluded. Not bad, but not on the answer list. Either create a new fill-in or check out the choices and see what appeals.
Note: More than one choice may work. In the preceding example, joyful contrasts with stormed. However, stormed has an element of anger in it, so serene is better.
Simple vocabulary, two blanks
Two for the price of one. What could be bad about that deal? Plenty. However, not as much as you think. The two-blank question is often easier than its single cousin because you get extra hints about the right choice. Take a look at this example:
Despite her _____ mood, Suzy Sunshine put on a _____ face when she faced the tabloid reporter.
(A) positive . . . cheerful
(B) unpleasant . . . friendly
(C) thoughtful . . . interested
(D) grouchy . . . irritable
(E) depressed . . . sad
The answer is (B). Even if you’ve never been a celebrity, life in the 21st century has probably given you the impression that tabloid reporters can grasp the tiniest thread and turn it into a rope strong enough to hang a naïve interview subject. So (A), (B), and (C) are all possibilities, unless Suzy is going for the sympathy vote, in which case (E) makes the cut. But the word clue despite tells you to search for opposites. You can rule out (A), (D), and (E) because they’re closer to synonyms. Choice (B) quickly emerges as the best choice — an opposite that also matches real-world clues.
If you’re fairly sure that you know the correct word for either one of the blanks, zero in on the choices that fit and ignore the rest. But don’t jump on an answer simply because it fits one of the blanks. Go for something that fits both because a shortcut may easily lead you astray. As a matter of fact, the SAT writers are crossing their fingers and hoping that you select the quick — but wrong — answer.
If you see a sentence completion with relatively simple words, read extra carefully. Be sure that you understand the meaning of the sentence before choosing an answer. To make your life even more miserable than usual, the SAT writers usually place one very appealing wrong answer among the five choices in this sort of sentence completion. If you space out for even a second or if you overlook one picky little detail, you may fall headfirst into an SAT trap.
If your caregiver had the foresight to shout vocabulary words at the sandbox you once played in, you may find these questions easy. For normal people with average vocabulary, the “tough-vocabulary” sentence completions are a challenge — but not always an impossibility. (For tips on improving your vocabulary, see Chapter 2.)
The best method of attack is to eliminate the choices that contain words you have never seen before and then concentrate on the remaining answers. Follow the same strategy in reading the sentence that you followed for simple-vocabulary questions: Check for real-world links and look for word clues. Then examine your possible answers. If one fits, go for it. If nothing that you recognize makes sense, turn your attention to the I-have-no-idea-what-these-words-mean choices. Use the usual guessing rule. If you have eliminated one or more of the five choices, take a stab and move on to another question. If not, leave it blank and forget about it.
Many tough-vocabulary questions have the definition right there in the sentence. Look for the definition and see if it jars anything loose in your brain. For instance, suppose the sentence reads as follows:
In her _____ mood, Suzy Sunshine sat frowning and took pleasure in nothing.
Okay, the test makers have given you one break. The entire second half of the sentence is a definition; you just have to find the word that fits. Frowning and taking pleasure in nothing mean “depressed.” Now you just have to find a word that means “depressed.” Reread the five choices. Anything register? If so, go for it. Or if you know that some of the words don’t mean “depressed,” rule them out. Then apply the guessing rules. In the preceding example, by the way, morose means “depressed,” so the answer is (D). The other words are as follows: affable means “friendly,” jocund means “joking,” jovial means “joyous,” and narcissistic means “egotistical, thinks he’s/she’s the center of the universe.”
Want to increase your vocabulary, fast? Keep a notepad or a stack of index cards near you when you’re reading. When you come across an unfamiliar word, take a moment to jot down the sentence. Later, check the word’s meaning. You can use the dictionary, a computer, a handy teacher, or even a parent. Note the meaning. Don’t write all the possible definitions, just the one that fits the sentence. From time to time, review your word/sentence list (or index cards) — your personal dictionary. The words will stick in your mind because you didn’t memorize a random list; you got them from something you were actually reading. The context helps keep the new words in your memory bank. (For more long-term vocabulary-building tips, check out Chapter 2.)
Uncovering Word Clues
Sentences fall into a small number of recognizable patterns. Sentences may follow chronological order, relate cause and effect, explain similarities, or add examples. They also contrast ideas or things and name exceptions to the rule. Certain words are clues to sentence structure. After you identify those words, you’ve solved the riddle. Take a look at the most prevalent clue words you may encounter on the SAT and example sentences:
After: Barney ate three dried fish after he went to the movies. (The sentence doubles back in time from the fish to the movies.)
And, also: Brunhilda added three new ants to her all-bug baseball team, and she also acquired a terrific centipede pitcher that had recently cleared waivers. (The sentence adds examples.)
But: Barbara bellowed for help for seven straight hours, but Bella barely whimpered her distress. (The sentence contrasts two Viking warriors.)
So: Bettina’s aardvark wouldn’t stop eating her pet ants, so she slapped him. (The sentence moves logically from cause to effect.)
Then: Trini went to the movies and then ate two bags of popcorn. (The sentence proceeds in a straight line chronologically from the movies to the snack.)
In addition to the five preceding common SAT clue words, check out the following list for other clue words you may encounter:
Cause and effect: Because, for, therefore, consequently, hence, thus, accordingly, as a result, ergo (only in truly boring academic writing, the type that should be banned from the planet, if not the solar system)
Comparison: Than, equally, like . . . as, similarly, similar to, like
The exception to the rule (contrasting idea): On the other hand, in contrast to, however, despite, in spite of, nevertheless, nonetheless, otherwise, although, though, even though
More of the same: And, also, as well, in addition, not only . . . but also, furthermore, moreover, besides, likewise, not the only, such as, for example, for instance, showing, illustrating
Time marches on (or back): Then, once, before, after, since, while, during, still, yet, until, up until, later, earlier, finally, in the end, when, originally
No! No! A thousand times no! Not to mention never, but, nor, neither, and other negative words. These word gremlins pop up frequently in sentence completions, a trap for the unwary. When you see a negative word, give yourself an extra moment to be sure you understand the sentence’s meaning. A Grand Canyon-size difference separates Fiona wanted to polish Nick’s teeth more than anything else in the world and Fiona didn’t want to polish Nick’s teeth more than anything else in the world. Also, be careful of double negatives. The SAT has good grammar, so you won’t find a sentence completion saying something like He didn’t want no vegetables. However, you may find this sentence: Because Mattie didn’t understand Martian, she had no interest in that newspaper. Okay, maybe not that exact sentence, but one with a similar structure. Be sure to decode both parts of the sentence before choosing a completion answer.
Applying Real-Life Experience
You can decode a few of the SAT sentence completions with a fast reference to your own, normal, happens-to-every-human experience. For example, suppose you’re reading this passage:
Al, weary and depressed by the idea of still another meaningless date with Ella instead of an evening with the love of his life, Marcia, begged off by feigning a headache.
Okay, imagine that the word feigning is new to you. No big deal. Everyone’s been in Al’s shoes, signed up to have dinner with a loser because the person he or she really wants to date has basically said, “Not in this universe” to all requests for romantic attention. So what do you do when you really can’t take it anymore? You pretend to have a headache. There you go. Feigning means “pretending.” Of course, if you’re just reading, you probably don’t take the time to say explicitly, “Feign is a fancy way of saying pretend.” You just go on your gut instinct and keep reading, hoping to find out how Ella reacts to her 20th straight rejection. By the way, you probably didn’t stop to look up explicitly in the dictionary. You decoded the sentence without that word, which means “openly or clearly, stated upfront” as in “My mother never explicitly told me to take out the garbage so she can’t punish me just because half of the kitchen looks like a toxic waste dump.”
After you uncover the word clues and apply real-life logic, you probably have a pretty good idea what the sentence is trying to say. Now you’re ready to complete it and be on your way to a high score in the sentence-completion section.
Completing the Sentence: Steps That Work
For both simply worded and vocabulary-laden questions, follow these steps to come up with the right answer:
1. Read the entire sentence.
This step sounds too obvious to state, but some people actually try to choose an answer after reading only a couple of words. The SAT test makers are ready for these “partial readers.” They take care to provide a choice that looks fine but is the verbal equivalent of the halfway point in a dive into a waterless swimming pool.
2. Check for clue words.
If you find any, underline them. (Not sure what a clue word is? Check out the section “Uncovering Word Clues” earlier in this chapter.)
3. Decide what the sentence is trying to say.
You may not be able to get the whole meaning yet, but you should have some idea what target the sentence is aiming at. Don’t look at the answer choices yet.
4. If possible, make up a word or phrase that fits the blank(s).
You can’t always do so, but if you can, you’re nearly home free. Check the answers to see whether any choice matches your idea. If so, take that option and move on. If not, think about whether the answer is likely to be a positive or a negative word. Put a little plus or minus sign in the blank to remind you of the type of answer you’re searching for.
5. Eliminate the nonstarters.
You may be able to rule out some choices right away. For example, if you know that the blank indicates a change in direction for the sentence — a contrast, perhaps — you can dump all the choices that seem similar to the idea expressed in the rest of the sentence. If you’ve placed a plus sign in the blank, dump the negative words.
6. Check the remaining answers for the best match.
Even if you weren’t able to come up with a possible fill-in, the answer choices may give you some ideas. Plug each remaining choice into the sentence until one fits snugly. If more than one answer is possible, go for the one that matches a clue in the sentence. In the SAT sentence completions, you’re always looking for the best answer, not just any old answer that may be okay.
If you have absolutely no idea what some of the words mean, follow the general rule on guessing. If you can eliminate one choice, take a guess. If you can’t eliminate any choices, skip the question. No matter what, don’t waste brain cells on a question that relies on a bunch of words that have never crossed your path. Move on to the questions that you have a better shot at getting right. (See Chapter 1 for the complete lowdown on guessing.)