If Vocab’s Got You Down
If Vocab’s Got You Down
Sentence Completions aren’t all about vocab. But they are somewhat about vocab. And if you don’t know the words huddling in those answer choices, things can get tough. But there are ways to attack SCs even if you don’t know what all the words in the answer choices mean.
In fact, the first few steps for handling SCs with tough vocab are exactly the same as those for SCs with vocab you know:
  1. Spot the Switch
  2. Go with the Flow
  3. Fill in the Blank
If you follow our five-step method, you shouldn’t even look at the answer choices until after you’ve gone through the first three steps and figured out your own answer or phrase to fill in the blank. By ignoring the answer choices at first and instead focusing on the sentence, you eliminate the possibility that you’ll be intimidated by hard vocabulary. This is important because it’s always worthwhile to at least try to answer each SC. Why? Because once you’ve analyzed the sentence and have your own answer to fill the blank, it becomes much easier to eliminate answer choices, even if you don’t completely know what they mean.
So, let’s say you’ve gone through the first three steps. You’ve spotted the switches, if there are any. You’ve figured out the flow and how the blank fits into it. You’ve come up with your own answer. Then you go to the answer choices and realize you don’t really know what they mean. What do you do? What tool can possibly save you from this mess? Word Charge.
Word Charge
Sentence Completion vocab words can often be broken down into one of two categories: positive or negative. That’s “Word Charge.” Nice happy words have a positive charge; dark unhappy words have a negative charge.
Word Charge is important on SCs for two reasons:
  1. The Word Charge of the blank and the word that fills the blank must be the same. For example, a negative answer choice can never fill a blank that needs a positive word.
  2. Even when you don’t know the exact meaning of a word, you’ll often have a sense of its “charge.”
These two reasons add up to one great big fact: You can use Word Charge to sort through SC answer choices with tough vocab even if you don’t know the exact meaning of the words. Below is a list of tough words to give you a chance to test out your sense of Word Charge. Cover up the column all the way on the right and try to guess each word’s charge.
Word Your Guess at Its Charge Actual Charge
insidious negative
diabolical negative
effervescent positive
truculent negative
vivacious Positive
Finding Word Charge: Word Roots
English has been developing as a language for a long time. It keeps getting bigger and bigger and adding new words. New words are made out of old words or out of parts of old words. These building blocks are called word roots. When you’re looking for the Word Charge of a word you don’t know, look within the word for roots of other words whose meanings you do know. The best place to look for word roots is in the prefix—the first 1 to 5 letters of a word.
Different roots have different basic meanings. For example, take the word disconsolate. You might not know this word. But you probably do have an idea of what the word consolation means. Ever heard of a “consolation prize”? That’s the prize that game shows give to the losers. It’s usually a board game of the show they’re on or a gift certificate for a haircut. It’s meant to console them for losing.
Even if you don’t know the word consolation, you might know the word console, which lies at the root of the big scary word disconsolate. Console means to provide comfort in a time of sorrow or loss. The prefix dis- before -consolate means not. Put it all together and you can make a solid guess that disconsolate means “not consoled” or “grieving due to loss.”
Learning even just a few key building blocks of words and what they mean can be extremely helpful in determining Word Charge. We provide a list of word roots that most commonly appear in SAT vocab in our chapter on new SAT Vocab (page ).
Word Charge in Action
Okay, enough explanation. Time for an example:
The East Coast Hamstaz was a terrible rap group in the early ’90s; its music was dull and its lyrics ----.
(A) grandiloquent
(B) magnanimous
(C) truculent
(D) fatuous
(E) trenchant
Now answer this question step by step using our five-step SC method.
1. Spot the Switch
This sentence does not contain a switch. There’s no word in the sentence that signals that the blank must support or contrast with the main ideas expressed in the sentence.
2. Go with the Flow
So, there’s no switch, and a quick read-through of the sentence shows that it isn’t about a change over time. This sentence must therefore flow one-way. The blank, which describes the Hamstaz lyrics, must therefore support the other ideas in the sentence:
What’s the switch? none
Which way does the flow go? one way
What idea does the blank support or contrast? supports “The East Coast Hamstaz was a terrible rap group”
3. Fill in the Blank
Now you know that the blank, which describes the lyrics of the rap group, supports the idea of the East Coast Hamstaz being a terrible rap group. Ask yourself: “Self, what must the lyrics of the Hamstaz have been like if the Hamstaz were a terrible rap group?” The lyrics must have been bad.
The East Coast Hamstaz was a terrible rap and R&B group in the early ’90s; its music was dull and its lyrics bad.
4. Compare Your Answer to the Answer Choices
So far, you’ve breezed through this one. Time to take a look at the answer choices and find the one that matches up with bad.
(A) grandiloquent
(B) magnanimous
(C) truculent
(D) fatuous
(E) trenchant
What the . . . ? Which of these tough vocab words matches up with bad? Okay, keep cool. Don’t give up just because the answer choices are filled with difficult vocabulary. Instead, use Word Charge.
In fact, you’ve already begun the Word Charge process. When you came up with your own answer for the blank in step 3, you also came up with the charge for the blank. The word that you thought should fill the blank was bad, which has a negative charge. That means you already know you need to find a negative word among the answer choices.
Take a run down the list and try to cut words that you think are positive based on their word roots or other clues you can decipher. Let’s see: A, grandiloquent, sounds like a combination of grand and eloquent, both positive words. Cut it. B, magnanimous, sounds like “magnificent.” Cut B too. Let’s say that’s as far as you can get with Word Charge. Stop there, and take a look at how far you’ve come.
By eliminating two answer choices, you’ve tipped the guessing odds strongly in your favor, without knowing the meaning of any of the answer choices. Sos the moral of the Word Charge story is, Word Charge may not always get you the correct answer, but it will help your score by making you a better guesser.
5. Plug It In
The last step is always to test-drive your answer choice by plugging it back in to the original sentence. In this example, you’ve used Word Charge to eliminate two answers, leaving you with three that seem to have the negative charge you need:
The East Coast Hamstaz was a terrible rap and R&B group in the early ’90s; its music was dull and its lyrics bad.
(A) grandiloquent (CUT)
(B) magnanimous (CUT)
(C) truculent
(D) fatuous
(E) trenchant
When you’re faced with three words with charges you think you know, but with meanings you don’t know at all, plugging in won’t help. If that’s the case, as in this example, the best thing you can do is pick any remaining answer immediately knowing that you’ve used Word Charge to tip the guessing odds in your favor. When you do have a sense of what the words mean, plug the answer you think is best back into the sentence to make sure it works. The correct answer to this question is D, fatuous, which means weak, silly, or foolish.
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