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The SAT Sentence Completions: Basic Principles

Focus on the Neighboring Words near the Blank
As a first step—before you read the sentence as a whole—see how far you can get by using the words immediately before and after the blank, especially any phrases that include the blank.

Let's consider the following sentence to see how this chunk-eliminate-chunk-eliminate process works.

    Though he invariably took his time to consider carefully any new potential venture, once he made up his mind to invest the successful businessman moved quickly and ------- to exploit the opportunity.

    1. patiently
    2. recklessly
    3. occasionally
    4. decisively
    5. publicly
The sentence is over 30 words long, quite a mouthful. So let's take the sentence in small bites at a time. We skip all the words at the beginning of the sentence and jump right to the phrase that includes the blank: "quickly and -------." The answer must be a word that is consistent with the idea of moving quickly.

Just that little bit of information allows us to eliminate choices A, C, and E. Now all we have to do is search for another clue to decide between the remaining choices B and D. The first few words of the sentence tell us that the businessman took his time and was careful, so we eliminate B and select the answer, choice D.

With shorter, easier sentences, you may not need to chop the sentence down like that. Read the longer sentences whole, however, only as a last resort.

The Two Types of Sentence Completion Clues: Direction Clues and Concept Clues
To find the main idea of a sentence, the two types of clues you can use are direction clues and concept clues. Direction clues are grammatical and relatively easy to spot and apply. If a sentence offers a direction clue—not all sentences do—this clue is often sufficient to select the answer.

A concept clue, as the name suggests, involves two or more related or contrasting concepts within a sentence. Concept clues are harder to spot than direction clues, but often come in handy on the more difficult questions.

A sentence will offer either a direction clue or a concept clue or both, so use whichever one presents itself. Let's take a closer look at each type.

Looking for Direction Clues
If we view the main idea of a sentence as having a flow or a direction, that direction can do one of three things:

  • continue
  • reverse
  • go to extremes
By far the most common instances on the SAT are sentences whose direction continues. Unless you have grammatical or other clues indicating otherwise, you should assume that the direction continues.

On the medium to difficult questions, direction reversals become more common. On the most difficult questions, you'll occasionally encounter a sentence whose direction goes to extremes, but the last variation is far less common than the other variations.

Here's an example of each possible direction a sentence can take. We'll look at the same basic sentence with different direction clues.

The direction continues:

    Faced with a seasoned champion as an opponent, the inexperienced fencer was frightened as well as ------- before his upcoming match.
Discussion: The direction clue here is the phrase "as well as." A word like "pessimistic" would fit here since "frightened" and "pessimistic" indicate negative and related states of mind. A silly response would be a word like "rich." The inexperienced fencer could be both frightened and rich, but it makes no sense to speak of these concepts together in the same sentence (especially in light of the opening phrase here). Note that when the direction of a sentence continues, the missing word should complement the clue or clues, though it may not be an exact synonym. We would not say, for example, that the inexperienced fencer was "frightened as well as scared."

The direction reverses:

    Faced with a seasoned champion as an opponent, the inexperienced fencer was frightened yet ------- before his upcoming match.
Discussion: The direction clue here is the word "yet." A word like "determined" would fit here since it qualifies the word "frightened" without absolutely contradicting it. Note that when the direction of a sentence reverses, the missing word should complement the clue or clues without necessarily being an exact antonym. We would not say that the inexperienced fencer was "frightened yet brave." When the direction of a sentence reverses, a contrasting or qualifying idea is introduced, but it need not be an exact opposite.

The direction goes to extremes:

    Faced with a seasoned champion as an opponent, the inexperienced fencer was frightened if not ------- before his upcoming match.
Discussion: The direction clue here is the phrase "if not." A word like "panicked" or "terrified" would fit here. This last variation of sentence direction is rare, and is found only in the final two or three (most difficult) sentence completions.

Before giving you a list of the different types of expressions that offer direction clues, the following brief drill will give you practice.



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From The RocketReview Revolution: The Ultimate Guide to the New SAT and the PSAT by Adam Robinson. Copyright © 2005. Used by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

If you'd like to buy this book, click here.


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