I found Leonardo here.

When it comes to sentence completion questions, it’s important to have some idea what you’re looking for before you hit the choices. In fact, it’s a really good idea to cover up the choices while you read the question, and not to uncover them until you have a pretty decent idea what word you’re looking for. Yes, I’m serious.

Here’s why: the SAT writers basically have to tell you exactly what they’re looking for in the sentence. They can’t just give you something open-ended and expect you to conjure up the correct answer. People always complain to me that the reading section is subjective. It so totally is not. They tell you exactly what they’re looking for in almost every question.

For example: here’s a sentence completion you will never see:

The dog is ____.

The dog is what? Awesome? Smelly? Brown? Friendly? Wet? Dangerous? Groomed to resemble a buffalo? The question doesn’t give you enough information to solve it! Can we make it better?

Because it jumped in the lake, the dog is ____.

Ok, better, but there’s still some ambiguity here. Could we say that the dog is smelly still? Couldn’t we also still say it’s wet? It’s probably not brown because it jumped in the lake, but what if the lake is full of sewage? The SAT will do an even better job telling you exactly what it wants:

Because it jumped in the lake (which has almost no poop in it), the dog is ____ and our mother says it can’t come inside until it dries off.

Aha! Now we know for sure the word must be “wet” or some synonym of it like “soaked,” because not only do we know it jumped in a lake, but our mother is not allowing it back inside the house until it is dry.

I’m having a bit of fun here with the subject matter, but the SAT really will give you this much information to help you select the correct choice. Often, in fact, they’ll blatantly give you synonyms for the words they’re looking for!  It is therefore prudent to pay very close attention to the sentence before you even think about looking at the choices.

Have a look at these three examples (left choice-less on purpose). Try to come up with a word (or a meaning of a word–something like “un-cool-ness” is OK if you can’t come up with a word that means exactly what you want), and then hold your mouse over the blank to see what I think are good predictions.

  1. Although he stayed away for several months, Harold was ____ the entire time and kept a diary detailing his wishes to return to his family and friends.
  2. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of the ____ Joad family, which was forced from its home by the Dust Bowl and traveled from place to place in search of a better life.
  3. The horde of zombies was ____ but deadly; it wandered aimlessly about the once-great city, but it ____ anyone unfortunate enough to cross its path.

If your predictions were different than mine, take a minute now to think about why. You’re probably bringing outside knowledge to the question (a common mistake) or just missing important clues in the sentence.

The first one here is easy and I won’t spend much time on it. Harold keeps a diary of his wishes to return home…that means he’s homesick. Duh.

As for the second one, there are lots of things you could say about the Joads if you’ve read Steinbeck’s incomparable work; they were hard-luck, fractured, poor, sympathetic, strong, etc. But the sentence focuses on their homelessness and traveling. The word I’m looking for there is “itinerant.” If you know what “itinerant” means and you predicted the meaning of the blank well, this becomes a no-brainer question.

The structure of the zombie sentence is important, because it’s a common one on the SAT. The bit before the semicolon and the bit after it (call them clauses if you want, grammar nerd) are mirrors of each other. That makes it very easy to anticipate that the first blank should mean aimless, and the second should relate very closely to “deadly.” Actual words I was thinking of when I wrote this one: desultory and extirpated. Note that again, there are many things one could say about a horde of zombies: terrifying, smelly, stupid, noisy, etc. But only “aimless” and “killed” are good anticipations because they come from the rest of this particular sentence.

I didn’t put choices here because I’m trying to drive home the point that you don’t need to look at the choices right away when you do sentence completion questions. In fact, I think looking at the choices first leads to bad decisions sometimes. I’ll get more into that in a future post about eliminating bad choices, but for now you should practice predicting the meanings of the blanks before looking at the choices in your Blue Book, or whatever other book of practice problems you have.

Even though this might seem silly and a waste of time right now, I promise it will help you if you practice. Do it.

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