Sentence Completions
The Backward Method
We said earlier that half of conquering Sentence Completions was recognizing and practicing an explicit method based on the multiple-choice nature of the item. But what do you do when you can’t figure out the logic of a complex sentence? Or when you can’t come up with a word to fill the blank quickly? Do you just give up? No, you go to the backward method, which represents the other half of conquering Sentence Completions. The method covers three common scenarios:
  • Scenario 1. You can determine the stem type, but you can’t come up with words to fill the blanks.
  • Scenario 2. You’ve determined the stem type and have supplied words to fill the blanks, but you don’t recognize any of the vocabulary in the answer choices.
  • Scenario 3. You can’t determine the stem type or supply words to fill the blanks.
In all the lists that follow, it’s assumed that you’ve already covered up the answer choices and have read the stem.
The Backward Method: Scenario 1 in Slow Motion
You can determine the stem type, but you can’t come up with words to fill the blanks.
Step 1: Use positive or negative signs to determine what type of word you’ll need.
Step 2: Go to the answer choices and assign positive or negative signs to each word.
Step 3: Eliminate the choices that don’t fit, then select from the rest.
Step 4: Plug your choice back into the stem as a check.
If you can’t supply a specific word, you don’t need to give up. Knowing whether you need a “positive” or “negative” word provides a less precise but still useful “search image.” Look at the following item, which you encountered in a previous section:
4. Some ethical philosophers argue that when the term “genocide” is used too liberally, the concept becomes -------, losing its power to mobilize international support for those ethnicities whose existence is truly endangered by mass murder.
Let’s say you couldn’t come up with a word to fill the blank. Would you need a “positive” or “negative” word here? The concept clearly loses power when used too much, so you need a negative word of some kind. Now, look how this helps you when you consider the answer choices:
(A) conservative
(B) militaristic
(C) domestic
(D) scarce
(E) diluted
Which of these is negative, in the sense of “lessening?” Judging whether A is positive or negative depends on the person doing the judging, so conservative isn’t a particularly negative word in this context. It’s probably not the right answer, so eliminate it. Militaristic suffers a bit from A’s difficulties, but it’s probably negative enough for our purposes. Keep B. Domestic is certainly not negative. It doesn’t seem very positive, either—and words with neutral connotations can be used as a third category in the backward method. But we need a clearly negative word to complete this item. D and E work. At this point, you’ve eliminated two options, so you’re ahead of the game. You have a 1-in-3 shot at getting a point and a 2-in-3 shot of losing a quarter-point. Those are good odds over several items, so plug each choice into the sentence to see which “sounds” better, and choose that one.
Your Ear
A note on using your ear. Your “ear” is the way you use common sense to decipher language. Your ear’s reliability depends on how much exposure to Standard Written English you’ve had. Nevertheless, we’ve all had some exposure and we know that slang is off limits on the SAT. So you can use your ear to hedge your bets.
In fact, “bet-hedging” is what the backward method is all about. Without this method, you have only a small chance (20 percent, actually) of getting a point when you’re stuck. The wrong-answer penalty is designed to neutralize random guessing only. With the backward method, you raise your chances of getting a point by eliminating answer choices and guessing from what remains. Remember, you should guess whenever you can eliminate even one answer choice with a reasonable degree of confidence.
The Backward Method: Scenario 2 in Slow Motion
You’ve determined the stem type and have supplied words to fill the blanks, but you don’t recognize any of the vocabulary in the answer choices.
Step 1: Apply “deciphering techniques” to the vocabulary in the answer choices.
Step 2: Plug each of the choices into the sentence, “listening” for which choices sound best.
Step 3: Plug your choice back into the stem as a check.
Some Sentence Completions use very tough vocabulary in the answer choices. In fact, one-blank items that appear later on in a set usually feature brutally difficult vocabulary. Look at this example:
10. The newly recognized amoral ------- of the natural world, which was traditionally seen as reflecting an ultimately benevolent purpose, was Darwin’s most controversial intellectual legacy, generating strong reactions from those who wanted to preserve Nature’s supposed ratification of Christian eschatology.
(A) stochasticity
(B) malevolence
(C) determinism
(D) progressiveness
(E) contingency
Yes, this is a tough one. Even if you figure out that this is a complex version of a Continuation stem, and that you need a word that means “purposelessness,” you still have to deal with those nasty answer choices. Here’s where you can use “deciphering techniques.”
Can you do anything with A? Unlikely, so don’t eliminate it. It might be the correct answer. Look at B, malevolence. The prefix mal- means “bad”; the root vol means “will,” as in the word, volition. So, malevolence should mean something like “ill will.” Is that what you need to balance out benevolent purpose? Perhaps; perhaps not. But at least now you know what you’re dealing with in choice B. The blank is actually contrasted with purpose, which is modified by amoral. Similarly, you may not be familiar with determinism as a philosophical concept, but you might know what determined means in the sense of “ordained.” That’s actually the opposite of what you want, so cut C.
Progressiveness may be unfamiliar, but “progress” is certainly more familiar. Since -ness refers to a “state of being,” does a word that means “a state of being progressive” work? As in C, this doesn’t really match “purposelessness,” so eliminate D. Contingency may stump you, but have you ever heard a form of this word in another context? Half-remembered phrases can help you. If you’d ever heard a sentence like, “getting this scholarship is contingent upon scoring in at least the 90th percentile on the SAT,” then you’d have a shot at deciphering this word’s meaning. It seems to mean that certain outcomes are not guaranteed but rather depend upon certain prior events: score in the 90th percentile, get the scholarship. Does this match “purposelessness?” It just might—keep E. Read both A and E into the stem and choose the one that best fits. You’re down to a 50/50 chance to either gain a point or lose a quarter-point, so you’re well ahead of the wrong-answer penalty.
(By the way, E is correct: The newly recognized amoral contingency of the natural world, which was traditionally seen as reflecting an ultimately benevolent purpose, was Darwin’s most controversial intellectual legacy, generating strong reactions from those who wanted to preserve Nature’s supposed ratification of Christian eschatology. Contingency means “the state of being dependent on or conditioned by something else; not necessitated.” Stochasticity, however, means “random or involving chance or probability,” which is not exactly right in this context. After Darwin, nature was seen as neither progressive nor purposeful, but it was not seen as entirely random. Eschatology, incidentally, means “a branch of theology concerning the ultimate destiny of mankind or of the world.”)
The Backward Method: Scenario 3 in Slow Motion
You can’t determine the stem type or supply words to fill the blanks.
Step 1: Plug each of the choices into the sentence, “listening” for which choices sound better.
Step 2: Eliminate any that don’t fit; choose from the remaining.
Step 3: Plug your choice back into the stem as a check.
Even if you’re unsure of whether you need a positive or negative word, you may still be able to eliminate some answer choices based on your ear alone. Also, sometimes inserting the right (or clearly wrong) answer illuminates the stem’s structure. Clearly, since you’re at the mercy of the distractors, this method is a last-ditch effort to decide whether or not to omit an item.
Guided Practice
Try the following item, but avoid using the forward method. Instead, practice the backward method:
8. Globalization has not been the unmitigated ------- for global poverty that its more starry-eyed supporters promised; in fact, many would argue that globalization has not just failed to ------- want, it has even sharpened its bite.
(We’ll assume that you’ve covered up the answer choices.) It’s not immediately clear what kind of sentence this is. Note that a typical feature of difficult Sentence Completions is the repetition of negatives that confuse the logic: Globalization has not been the unmitigated ------- for global poverty that its more starry-eyed supporters promised; in fact, many would argue that globalization has not just failed to ------- want, it has even sharpened its bite.
Step 1. Use positive or negative signs to determine what type of word you’ll need.
Given how tortuous the stem’s logic is, using positive and negative signs instead of word choices might help, especially since difficult vocabulary in the answer choices often accompanies convoluted stems.
Write a plus or minus sign next to each named blank below:
First Blank: __________________________
Second Blank: ________________________
Step 2. Go to the answer choices and assign positive or negative signs to each word.
The answer choices are listed below.
(A) disaster . . increase
(B) mediation . . alleviate
(C) boon . . exacerbate
(D) calamity . . reduce
(E) panacea . . ameliorate
Now, assign positive or negative signs to each of the first words in each answer choice.
Reproduce the sign you gave the first blank here: ________________
(A) disaster
(B) mediation
(C) boon
(D) calamity
(E) panacea
Reproduce the sign you gave the second blank here: ________________
(A) increase
(B) alleviate
(C) exacerbate
(D) reduce
(E) ameliorate
Step 3. Eliminate those pairs that don’t fit; select from the rest.
You may do this by crossing off all those that don’t fit in the lists above.
Step 4. Plug your choice back into the stem as a check.
Always do this, even if you’re only left with one answer.
Write your answer here: ________________
Guided Practice Explanation
What did you come up with? Compare it to the following explanation. Pay attention to the thought process and method used, rather than the ultimate answer.
8. Globalization has not been the unmitigated ------- for global poverty that its more starry-eyed supporters promised; in fact, many would argue that globalization has not just failed to ------- want, it has even sharpened its bite.
Step 1. Use positive or negative signs to determine what type of word you’ll need.
This is a complex sentence. There was some promised association between globalization and global poverty, but what was it? One key is the adjective starry-eyed, which means “utopian or overly favorable.” The other key is the use of want in the second part of the sentence, meaning “poverty.” Work through the logic: if globalization’s true believers were overly favorable, they probably were promising that globalization would reduce global poverty. If globalization was expected to decrease poverty, then it was expected to be an unmitigated positive of some kind (unmitigated means “not lessened”).
Now, look at the second blank. Globalization has not reduced poverty. Thus, it has failed to make want, or poverty, any better. This part of the sentence is a bit more complicated, as it brings in a “not just…it has even” construction, which is similar to “not only…but also.” If want’s bite has been sharpened, then there’s deeper poverty than before. So, you actually need a positive word for this blank to stand for what globalization failed to accomplish.
Write a plus or minus sign next to each named blank below:
First Blank: +
Second Blank: +
Step 2. Go to the answer choices and assign positive or negative signs to each word.
The answer choices are listed below.
(A) disaster . . increase
(B) mediation . . alleviate
(C) boon . . exacerbate
(D) calamity . . reduce
(E) panacea . . ameliorate
Now, assign positive or negative signs to each of the first words in each answer choice.
Reproduce the sign you gave the first blank here: +
Write a positive or negative sign next to each of the following words:
(A) disaster -
(B) mediation +
(C) boon +
(D) calamity - -
(E) panacea +
You’ve eliminated two choices as most likely being wrong. Of course, this determination depends on whether you know enough about the meaning of each word in order to assign a positive or negative sign to each of them. But you don’t need as precise a grasp on meaning when you use signs as you do when you supply a candidate word to fill in the blank. That’s the power of this method.
Reproduce the sign you gave the second blank here: +
Write a positive or negative sign next to each of the following words:
(B) alleviate +
(C) exacerbate -
(E) ameliorate +
Step 3. Eliminate those pairs that don’t fit; select from the rest.
We’ve done that above. We’re left with either B or E.
Step 4. Plug your choice back into the stem as a check.
Which sounds better?
Globalization has not been the unmitigated mediation for global poverty that its more starry-eyed supporters promised; in fact, many would argue that globalization has not just failed to alleviate want, it has even sharpened its bite.
Or:
Globalization has not been the unmitigated panacea for global poverty that its more starry-eyed supporters promised; in fact, many would argue that globalization has not just failed to ameliorate want, it has even sharpened its bite.
Well, we have a 50/50 shot now, so that is already a victory. The correct answer is E: Panacea means “a cure-all,” whereas ameliorate means “to make better.” Mediation is “the process of promoting compromise,” which doesn’t quite fit this stem’s meaning. Alleviate works fine in the second blank; it means “to lessen or make more bearable.”
Look up boon, exacerbate, and calamity in your dictionary if you don’t know the meanings of these words. If you’re not a dictionary-user, you’ll need to become one, as we’ll discuss in a subsequent section.
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