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Text Completion vs. Sentence Equivalence

Soon the simple sentence completion of today will be a relic of the past. We may even look back fondly on it when we grapple with what’s in store on the revised GRE: five sentence paragraphs with three blanks, dual blankers where randomly guessing correctly is a 1 in 9 shot, and a single blank requiring two of six possible answers.

Convoluted, no? Well, to keep everything ordered let me first introduce an important distinction that will help you navigate the new changes coming to the test:

Sentence Equivalence

This cumbersome name has replaced sentence completion. The two are not exactly the same—while  some strategies do overlap, sentence equivalence requires that you not only find a word that fits in the blank but two words that fit in the blank.

Here is the key part: equivalence. The two words (out of six) that you choose must be synonyms. Or phrased differently, the correct answers must be synonyms.

Let’s try the problem below. But before you attack it, let me give you the directions word-for-word as they appear in the new ETS book.

“Select the two answer choices that, when used to complete the sentence, fit the meaning of the sentence as a whole and produce completed sentences that are alike in meaning.”

Unlike many poets, who are inspired by — settings, Harrison favored urban backdrops to call forth his muse.

(A) unpopulated

(B) bucolic

(C) typical

(D) unknown

(E) rural

(F)  sentimental


Let’s say this is the first time I’ve ever seeing a sentence equivalence question. My first instinct is to pick unpopulated. After all, aren’t urban areas the opposite of unpopulated? And we know that Harrison isn’t like other poets who do not favor urban settings.

Next I look down the row of answer and I see (E) rural. Well rural works too. The opposite of rural is urban.

I pick (A), (E) and…I get the question wrong.

So what happened?

Well, unpopulated and rural are not synonyms. Many people succumb to the temptation to link them but remember—just because one word is associated with another word in certain context doesn’t mean that the two words are synonyms.

Rural means in the countryside, an area that tends to be unpopulated. But you could have rural areas where you have people. (This logic is very similar to the weak bridges ETS would use to trap students, i.e. rural : unpopulated is a weak bridge.)

So now we must return to the sentence and find which word is a synonym for rural. Why not unpopulated? Well, we are contrasting urban to rural. By definition, urban does not mean populated.

Now me must go back to the original words. Which word is a synonym for rural? Well, if none of the words seems to work except for the difficult vocabulary word—bucolic—then you guessed it. Bucolic means rural.

The answer is (B), (E).

Now if that has your head spinning I apologize. But remember, there are no antonyms or analogies to contend with. Still, today’s sentence completion won’t be a memento from the halcyon days. The Revised GRE has kept the single-blank sentence completion. It is, however, but a subset of the next area of the verbal: Text Completion.

Stay tuned!



By the way, students who use Magoosh GRE improve their scores by an average of 8 points on the new scale (150 points on the old scale.) Click here to learn more.

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