The sentence completion questions on the GRE Verbal section are designed to measure your ability to understand the intended meaning of a sentence. Each question requires you to analyze the context of a sentence and determine which word or words best complete that sentence. The GRE includes both vocabulary-in-context and logic-based sentence completion questions that are designed to test your grasp of the English language.
Questions in this section consist of an incomplete sentence that includes one or two blanks, followed by five answer choices. You should be able to determine which answer choice best fills the blank(s) of the given sentence. Keep in mind that a complete sentence is clear and concise, conveys a logical meaning, and is uniform in grammar and style.
A strong vocabulary is the cornerstone of critical reading, and the best way to develop a large and varied vocabulary is to read extensively. In addition to reading more, you might want to review the Vocabulary List included as Appendix A at the end of this book.
Anatomy of a GRE Sentence Completion Question
General Strategies for Sentence Completion Questions
Every sentence contains hints that will help you select the correct answer. Each of the following strategies will help you decipher those hints, but remember that any given question might require you to use more than one approach:
- Understand the context
- Use context, prefixes, suffixes, and cognates to define unfamiliar words
- Identify "clue" words and phrases
- Use connotation
- Watch for idiom
- Select an answer
- Questions with two blanks
Understand the Context
GRE sentence completion questions usually test the standard meaning of a word. Pay attention to the logic and context of the sentence. Try to predict a word to insert in the blank or blanks as you read the sentence, and then look for your word or a synonym of your word among the answer choices. A synonym is a word with the same or a similar meaning. You should also look for antonyms, which are words that have the opposite meaning of your predicted word. If you locate any words among the answer choices that have a meaning opposite to the word that you would like to insert in the blank, eliminate those answer choices.
You should immediately begin to pick up on the idea the sentence is trying to convey, as well as any suggestions of tone or mood. Understanding the general meaning and nature of the sentence will help you to choose the most logical and stylistically appropriate answer. Examples of transition words and phrases are given in Figure 8.1, later in this chapter.
Use Context, Prefixes, Suffixes, and Cognates to Define Unfamiliar Words
Understanding the context of a sentence also helps to determine the meaning of any unfamiliar words you might encounter. Consider the following example:
Although the fossils were well preserved, paleontologists were unable to ------- the identity of the mammal species.
The best answer is B. You might not have heard the word "paleontologists" before, but you can deduce from the context of the sentence that they are most likely the scientists who study fossils. Another hint provided by the context is the word "although," which suggests a contrast between the condition of the fossils and the ability of the paleontologists to identify the species. Now, you can insert the words in the answer choices into the sentence to see which one best fits the context. It does not make sense that scientists would "display" or "violate" the identity of a mammal species, so eliminate answer choices A and C. Likewise, scientists might "embellish" or "exploit" certain findings, but these words do not accurately describe what the scientists might do with the identity of a mammal species. If you did not know the meaning of "ascertain," you could arrive at it as the correct choice by using the context of the sentence to help you eliminate incorrect answer choices.
Also, if you have trouble establishing the meaning of an unfamiliar word from the context of the sentence, you can use your knowledge of prefixes and suffixes to help you. For example, the prefix "multi-" means "many," as in "multinational," and the suffix "-less" means "without," as in "careless."
Lastly, look for any recognizable cognates from French, Spanish, or Italian (the modern versions of Latin) in words that you are not familiar with. A cognate is a word that means the same or nearly the same thing in more than one language. For example, the word amigo, which means friend in Spanish, the word ami, which means friend in French, and the word amicable, which means friendly in English, all come from the Latin root word for friend, amicus.
Identify "Clue" Words and Phrases
When reading, pay attention to words or phrases in the structure of the sentence that indicate a relationship between ideas or tell you where the sentence is going. Consider the following examples:
- Due to recent studies touting the health benefits of regular exercise, health club memberships have increased dramatically in the past year.
The phrase "due to" implies a cause of action, or suggests that one thing provides evidence for another: Recent studies promoting the health benefits of regular exercise have led to a dramatic increase in health club memberships.
- Just as Traci's excellent grade in Physics is a result of her diligent study habits, so too is her medal-winning performance at the track meet proof of her adherence to a difficult training regime.
The phrase "just as" indicates a comparison between the first part of the sentence and the last part of the sentence: Traci received a good grade in Physics because she studied hard, and she won a medal at the track meet because she trained hard.
The GRE might have left a blank for "adherence to," and asked you to select that phrase from among the answer choices.
Transitional words often lead you to the correct answer. Even if you cannot immediately determine the best answer using "clues," you can still use the words to help you establish the nature and meaning of the sentence.
Figure 8.1 contains tables of commonly used introductory and transitional words and phrases.
Figure 8.1 Common introductory and transitional words and phrases.
Each word expresses two things: a definition and a connotation. A connotation is a positive, negative, or neutral feeling that is implied by or associated with a word. Although context is the part of a sentence that surrounds a particular word or passage and determines its meaning, connotation refers to the emotion that is suggested by the word itself.
For example, the adjective "thrifty" implies a positive connotation, whereas the adjective "cheap" implies a negative connotation. Both words have similar definitions, but very different connotations. Using connotations can help you determine the correct answer or at least eliminate a few wrong answers.
Here is an example of how to use connotation to select the correct answer:
Because of his -------, Max's guests felt very welcome and comfortable staying at his house for the weekend.
The best answer is B. The sentence has a positive connotation—Max's guests feel welcome and comfortable. In addition, the transition "because" indicates that something that belongs to Max has caused his guests to feel welcome and comfortable. "Animosity" and "severity" have a negative connotation and "determination" has a neutral connotation. "Hospitality" and "wittiness" both have positive connotations, but "hospitality" best fits the context of the sentence.
Watch for Idiom
Idiom refers to the common or everyday usage of a word or phrase. Learn to recognize idiomatic words and phrases, as they might provide additional clues regarding the intended meaning of the sentence. Idiom is part of standard written English, and must be considered when answering this type of GRE question. Ask yourself if the completed sentence "sounds" correct, and make sure that the sentence effectively combines words into phrases that express a logical idea. If any portion of the sentence becomes unclear, wordy, or awkward after you insert an answer choice, eliminate that choice.
Select an Answer
Before you look at the answer choices, try to predict an answer. If your predicted word or words match one of the answer choices, it is most likely the correct choice. Remember that the test writers create incorrect answers in an attempt to distract you—if you predict an answer you are less likely to get caught up on these confusing incorrect answers.
Be careful to consider all of the choices before you confirm your answer, even if your predicted answer is among the choices. The difference between the best answer and the second best answer is sometimes very subtle. When you think that you have the correct answer, read the entire sentence to yourself, using your choice(s) in the blank(s). If it makes sense, mark your answer on the computer screen and move on to the next question.
Questions with Two Blanks
If a sentence has two blanks, you can quickly eliminate incorrect answer choices if any word alone does not fit into the blank. When you select an answer choice for a two-blank question, always ensure that both the words make sense in the sentence, both logically and stylistically. It helps to focus on one blank at a time. You can start with either the first or the second blank. Remember that if one word in the answer choice doesn't fit within the context of the sentence, you can eliminate the entire answer choice. Work on both blanks together only if you have not been able to eliminate all of the incorrect answers.
Practice Sentence Completion Questions
Directions: The following sentences each contain one or two blanks, indicating that something has been left out of the sentence. Each answer choice contains one word or a set of words. Select the word or set of words, that, when inserted in the blank(s), best fits the context of the sentence.
As the employee's motives were found to be -------, no disciplinary action will be taken against him for the mistake.
The best answer is D. The context of the sentence indicates that the employee will not be disciplined as a result of his mistake, which suggests that the error was not intentional, and that the employee meant no harm. The word "benign" means "harmless," so it is the best choice based on the context of the sentence.
Jennifer loves roses for the ------- appeal of their petals and leaves, while I am most ------- by their olfactory properties.
- aesthetic . . enthralled
- acrid . . interested
- nurturing . . persuaded
- visual . . displeased
- tacit . . disenchanted
The best answer is A. Because the sentence indicates that Jennifer "loves roses," the word that best fits in the first blank should have a positive connotation. The first word in answer choice B has a negative connotation, and the first words in both answer choices D and E have neutral connotations, so none of those choices will be best. "Aesthetic" refers to "the appreciation of beauty," which makes the most sense in this sentence. Likewise, "enthralled," which means "captivated," works well in the second blank.
His ------- for learning history should prove to be ------- during his studies to become a history teacher.
- disdain . .useful
- penchant . . practical
- dislike . . exceptional
- affinity . . futile
- appreciation . . gratuitous
The best answer is B. To have a "penchant" for something means to have a fondness for it. A fondness for history would be practical or helpful for future studies in the field. Answer choices A and C are incorrect because anyone having "disdain" (hate) or "dislike" for history would certainly not study to become a history teacher.
We felt ------- once the committee issued its report that ------- our actions.
- angered . . supported
- abused . . endorsed
- vindicated . . authenticated
- helpless . . applauded
- ignorant . . dignified
The best answer is C. "Vindicated" means "cleared of suspicion or doubt" and "authenticated" means "proved to be genuine." The rest of the answer choices are contradictory in nature and do not fit the context of the sentence.
The air in a room that contains several houseplants can be more ------- oxygen than a room that contains no plants.
- enjoyed by
- exhausted with
- obscured by
- saturated with
- complicated by
The best answer is D. The word "saturated" most accurately indicates the density of the oxygen in the room. The other answer choices do not fit the context of the sentence.