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Sentence Equivalence Traps: Dangerous Shortcuts

A common shortcut on Sentence Equivalence questions is to dive directly into the answer choices, and pick a pair that matches. This can be an effective strategy, especially when the sentence itself is complicated, and you find yourself scratching your head. To follow this strategy indiscriminately – that is, to never read the sentence, but to always look directly at the answer choices – is fraught with dangers.

Sometimes, there are two pairs of synonyms, so you will need to read through and analyze the sentence, coming up with your own word.

Unless you are running out of time, you should always read a Sentence Equivalence question first, and try to come up with your own word. Only if you are stymied should you resort to the strategy described above.

Have a go at the following sentence:

Brutus is often held up as the embodiment of ______–-yet, while it is true that he deceived his friend, Julius Caesar, one must not forget that Caesar had become both a danger to himself and the Republic.

(A)  wisdom

(B)  prudence

(C)  treachery

(D)  selflessness

(E)  perfidy

(F)   cowardice



If you dive straight into the answer choices, then answers (A) and (B) create synonymous sentences. If you plug those answer choices in, they would seem to work, as well. After all, Caesar had become so problematic that it was prudent on Brutus’s part to dispatch the megalomaniacal leader.’

But, if we read the sentence carefully, we will notice that the clue is “deceived his friend”. The rest of the sentence is trying to convince the reader not to think of Brutus as the embodiment of deception (our own word). Therefore, we need two synonyms that mean deception. The word treachery, which means disloyalty/deception, is an obvious match.

For the final answer choice, though, we have to be more careful. You may be tempted to pick cowardice. But, remember, we need similar words that create similar sentences. To say that someone who is a coward is always disloyal is clearly untrue. So, do not be afraid to pick answer choice (E) perfidy, just because you are not sure what it means. (D) selflessness is clearly not the answer as it doesn’t match our word, nor the context of the sentence. Therefore, (E) perfidy has to be the answer.

Perfidy is a synonym for treachery, and is also a high-frequency GRE word, so make sure you know it.



Always read the sentence, and try to come up with your own word. Only if you are unable to do so should you attempt to pick synonym pairs. Instead, come up with your own word, and make sure the two answers are similar words.


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6 Responses to Sentence Equivalence Traps: Dangerous Shortcuts

  1. Harsha June 14, 2015 at 9:43 pm #

    I did it correct , in my first attempt. Magoosh’s videos of sentence equivalence helped.

  2. sahul April 22, 2015 at 5:19 pm #

    isn’t the word “yet” after the hyphen a shifter? If that’s true then we must be looking for word which is opposite of treachery?

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele April 27, 2015 at 4:46 pm #

      Yes, it is a “shifter”, but what exactly is it shifting? It is the idea that while Brutus was deceitful, he was acting for a great good: the protection of the republic. Therein lies the contrast.

      The “yet” still preserves this contrast, because if you remove the “while it is true…”, you get (loosely translated): Brutus is remembered for his deception, yet we have to remember he was just trying to protect the republic.

      Hope that helps!

  3. Shannon June 20, 2013 at 5:12 am #

    Does the hyphen tell us this is not an “opposite blank question”? I was thrown off by the word “while”. I thought after reading this several times (which I probably shouldn’t do in the first place), that the second part of the sentence (after JC) was telling us the blank would be a positive word, because even though he deceived Ceasar he did it for a good reason so people thought he was a good guy. Does that make sense? I see now how the negative, deceiver words work, but how can I learn to view sentences like this with the right perspective from the start? Once I read it one way, it’s hard to see it another!

    • Hao Sun August 11, 2013 at 9:59 am #

      Not a verbal guy but here’s my two cents firstly that while is meant to be a transition

      secondly notice that nowhere else does the sentence talk about decieving his friend thus if you do not put treachery in the blank it seems strange to talk about prudence and then for no reason mention decieving his friend

      • Chris Lele
        Chris Lele August 12, 2013 at 1:31 pm #

        Hi Hao,

        That makes sense…the deception of the friend is key, so it must refer back to something about the first blank: either treachery or lack of treachery. Of course, the second one doesn’t make sense in context.

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