Sentence Completions
The Sentence completion
Sentence Completions work as follows:
  1. Each stem has one or two blanks, which indicate missing a word or short phrase.
  2. Each item has five answer choices that supply words or short phrases for those omissions.
  3. One of these choices provides the best fit within the sentence’s meaning when plugged into the sentence.
The key word in this last point is best. English does not have the all-or-nothing precision of mathematics. Distractors may be anything from entirely nonsensical to insufficiently clear, but the correct answer will be the best answer of the lot, if not the best possible word.
Sentence Completion items on the new SAT are presented in order of difficulty. These items are scored as follows: one point for every correctly answered item, a quarter-point off for every incorrectly answered item, and no points for every unanswered item. The easiest items are listed first; the hardest are listed last. We’ll discuss how you can strategically use the order of difficulty in a later section.
Let’s return to our three stem types with our example sentences:
  • Continuation: The drummer’s playing was so loud that the other instruments couldn’t be heard above the din.
  • Contrast: Although the drummer played loudly, the other instruments were clearly audible.
  • Amplification: At first merely loud, as the concert progressed, the drummer’s playing rose to deafening levels, drowning out all other instruments.
The following sections will demonstrate how each of the example sentences could be turned into a one- and a two-blank item, starting with the continuation sentence.
3. The drummer’s playing was so ------- that the other instruments couldn’t be heard above the din.
(A) quiet
(B) poor
(C) loud
(D) enthusiastic
(E) fast
If the drummer’s playing drowned out the other instruments, then it must have been loud. C is the correct answer. A is the opposite of what’s required. The other choices present other possible qualities of the drummer’s playing, but none have anything to do with the other instruments’ ability to be heard.
Here’s a two-blank version of the continuation sentence:
7. The drummer’s playing was so ------- that the other instruments couldn’t be ------- above the din.
(A) quiet . . played
(B) poor . . appreciated
(C) loud . . heard
(D) enthusiastic . . ignored
(E) fast . . discerned
This one’s harder. Two-blank items tend to be harder since they contain more unknowns and usually require greater insight into sentence structure than is necessary for one-blank items. However, there are brutal one-blank items that test difficult vocabulary. Two-blank items, such as the previous example, also depend on vocabulary knowledge. If you don’t know what din means, for example, this item will be a bit more challenging.
Choice A doesn’t make any sense—what would quiet drumming have to do with the ability to play the other instruments? And what would that have to do with din? Those who don’t know what din means still have a shot at eliminating A on common sense alone. B is one of those nasty distractors that separate those who grasp the stem’s structure but don’t know what din means from those who grasp both the structure and din’s meaning. One could picture poor drumming ruining a listener’s appreciation for the other instruments, but this sentence is about loudness. D’s first word fits the first part of the stem, but what does enthusiastic playing have to do with something the other instruments couldn’t accomplish due to the din? Finally, E makes a leap from fast drumming to causing a din, which is not necessarily true. The drummer could be playing quickly and quietly. So, you can see why C is the best answer.
Here’s a one-blank version for the contrast sentence:
2. Although the drummer played -------, the other instruments were clearly audible.
(A) quietly
(B) poorly
(C) loudly
(D) enthusiastically
(E) quickly
Note how in contrast sentences, you have to work backward. On its own, Although the drummer played ------- gives insufficient information. But the word although warns you that the drummer’s playing will contrast with the effect conveyed by the second part of the sentence.
There are many words that stand for contrast; others stand for continuation. Here’s a handy chart:
Continuation Contrast
also, and, as well as, because, since, therefore, thus although, but, despite, even though, however, yet
In the second part of the sentence, the other instruments were clearly audible, the last word gives you the vocabulary clue you need. Audible means “able to be heard,” so how must the drummer have been playing to make the audibility of the other instruments surprising? What would complete the “twist”? A certainly won’t—why use Although if the expected cause-and-effect relationship occurred? B, D, and E provide potential descriptions of the drummer’s playing, but none of them would have an impact on the other instruments’ audibility, let alone in the surprising manner that would complete the “twist.”
A two-blank version of this sentence could look like this:
10. Although the drummer played -------, the other instruments were clearly -------.
(A) quietly . . missing
(B) poorly . . ignored
(C) loudly . . audible
(D) enthusiastically . . unappreciated
(E) quickly . . synchronized
Again, this one’s tougher than the one-blank version. In the one-blank version, audible was the critical piece that led to the correct choice. Here, it’s missing from the stem, although clearly gives you a subtle clue. This item tests common sense as well as the vocabulary in the answer choices. A creates an unclear sentence. What would quiet drumming have to do with the physical absence of the other instruments? In B, poor playing is associated with ignoring other instruments, which doesn’t necessarily follow. Choice D could work if Although were Because—in our terms, if this were a continuation, rather than a contrast, sentence. E is a little tricky because it encourages a rushed test-taker to accept that the drummer’s fast playing didn’t throw off his fellow band members. But the actual meaning is a bit unclear. Were the other instruments clearly synchronized with each other? With the drummer? Both? Remember, the instructions ask you to select the answer that best completes the sentence. E is clearly not the best completion of the sentence; C is.
Finally, let’s look at the amplification sentence as a one-blank and a two-blank item:
3. At first merely -------, the drummer’s playing rose to deafening levels as the concert progressed, drowning out all other instruments.
(A) quiet
(B) poor
(C) loud
(D) enthusiastic
(E) fast
Does A best complete the sentence? Which word suggests that it doesn’t? Yes, merely is the kicker here. It’s possible that the drummer started out playing quietly and later became deafening, but if that were the case, we wouldn’t say merely quiet. Merely implies that the sound level was on the loud side to begin with, which is what C correctly provides. As in previous versions of this sentence, B, D, and E provide descriptions of drumming that have nothing to do with the sound level, and don’t necessarily relate. They each could be true, but neither poor nor enthusiastic nor fast drumming is quite the same as loud; each merely suggests loud playing, whereas C comes right out and explicitly draws the connection between initial and subsequently deafening loudness.
A two-blank version of this amplification example could take the following form:
9. At first merely -------, the drummer’s playing rose to ------- levels as the concert progressed, drowning out all other instruments.
(A) quiet . . inaudible
(B) poor . . virtuosic
(C) loud . . deafening
(D) enthusiastic . . ecstatic
(E) fast . . rapid
We can see that something about the drummer’s playing was amplified as the concert progressed. A presents an “amplified pair”: inaudible means “quiet to the point of silence.” This fits the bare logic of the sentence but misses on meaning. The last phrase, drowning out all other instruments, lets you know that you need a pair of words that signify loudness, which C provides. The words in B are opposites. Why would anyone use merely to describe a change from poor to virtuosic drumming—virtuosic meaning “expert?” If the first word were competent, then B would fit. But the last phrase tells us that loudness, not skill, is being discussed. Choice D also provides an “amplified pair,” as ecstasy is an extreme form of enthusiasm. But the last phrase requires a pair of words describing loudness, not enthusiasm. Finally, E provides two words that are at the same “level,” so to speak. What’s faster: fast or rapid? It’s hard to answer that question, right? Also, speed is not necessarily the same thing as loudness, as we’ve seen.
Sentence Completions test more than just vocabulary. They are critical reading items that test your understanding of basic sentence structure. Knowing that the SAT tests certain types of sentences, and knowing how those sentences behave, will help you gain points and predict how to fill in the blanks.
To review:
  • Continuation sentences show a cause-and-effect relationship between their parts.
  • Contrast sentences contain a “twist.” Something surprising occurs within the sentence.
  • Amplification sentences present an idea or description that grows in magnitude—bigger, smaller, louder, quieter.
Keep these typical sentence types in mind as you work through the forward and backward methods presented in the next section and as you work through the practice sets.
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