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GRE Academic Structures

In both the GRE Reading Comprehension passages and the Text Completions, certain phrases may show up that can give a sentence a spin. If you are not familiar with these phrases, your head is likely to spin.

Take a look at the following two sentences.

He was ________ , always giving to those in need.

He was anything but _________, always giving to those in need.

What exactly does “anything but” mean? Well, it’s a rhetorical expression that implies that the “he” is many things, A, B, C, and D…but “he” is definitely not E. In this case, E would be the opposite of the second part of the sentence. A simple way to think about it is to make “anything but” equivalent to “not”. As in, “he was (not) _____, always giving to those in need.” The word “stingy” fits in very nicely. Notice how the words in the two blanks of the example sentences are opposite in meaning (“generous” would make a good entry for the first sentence).

The point here is not just to show you the meaning of “anything but”, but to also show you how these academic phrases can be highly misleading if you’ve never seen them before. Below are some of the most common academic phrases you can expect to see on the GRE. It’s a good idea to memorize them, and feel comfortable with how they are used in sentences. Otherwise, you could very well be scratching your head test day.


Nothing but

Nothing but = only (something).

When we went to her house she was nothing but kind, showering us with gifts.

In his book critiques, Jones was nothing but fair, always judging an author on the merits of his or her latest novel, regardless of previous flops.


Anything but

Anything but = not (see explanation in the intro)


All but

This phrase is identical to almost. It can also mean everything except the ones mentioned. Contrast the two sentences below to see the differences in how the phrase is used.

All but the most famous actors of our day will likely not be remembered 50 years from now.

At the end of the marathon Charles was all but dead; he stumbled across the finish line, mentioning something about his pet iguana.


At once X and Y

This is a tricky structure! First off, X and Y are words or phrases that are opposite in meaning. Secondly, that is an “and” you see, and not an “or”. Finally, this phrase is used to imply an element of surprise because a person/thing embodies these contradictory qualities.

At once melodious and dissonant, Perkin’s symphony is full of beautiful melodies that are suddenly interrupted by a burst of clashing gongs and screeching sopranos.

Melodious = X; Dissonant = Y

He was at once hysterically funny, making people roll on the floor in laughter, and overly serious, as soon as the conversation turned to politics.

Hysterically funny = X; overly serious = Y

At once forward-thinking and traditionalist, the mayor’s new plan will usher in unprecedented changes while using approaches that have shown enduring efficacy in the civic sphere.

Forward-thinking = X, traditionalist = Y


Nothing more than

This phrase is used disparagingly to show that somebody is not very good at something. The word that follows “than” should be a negative description

He is nothing more than a second-rate musician, busking at a bus stop; his friends are always happy to escape his warbling falsetto.

Harry is nothing more than a seasoned Hollywood hack: his scripts are as numerous as they are contrived.


All the more so

If you want to add emphasis, but need an entire phrase to do so, you can use “all the more so”.

Quentin’s sudden termination was shocking; all the more so because he helped build the company as many know it today.


For all

This phrase is another way of saying “despite”.

For all his hard work, Michael was passed over for a promotion.

For all their talk on purging the environment of toxins, the two brothers can’t do without their hourly smoke break.


If anything

This phrase means “if at all”. It is meant to suggest that somebody is disagreeing with something, and wants to prove that the other case is actually true.


It seems like this city is getting more dangerous every day.


Actually, it doesn’t seem that much worse from when I first moved here. If anything, the crime rate has actually dropped, since the city’s population has almost doubled in the last ten years.


As such

This is a confusing phrase, because it is often misinterpreted as “therefore”. However, “as such” must refer to something that came before it.

Correct: The C.E.O. walked around the office as though he was King Kong, walking over anyone who came in his way. As such, all, save for* upper management, tried to avoid him.

Incorrect: We missed our train to Brussels. As such, we will have to take another one.

In the second sentence, there should be a clear answer to “as what?”. Notice in the first sentence, “as what?, refers to the way in which he walks around the office: like King Kong. (I definitely wouldn’t want to work with him!). With the Brussels example, there isn’t something that the “as such” clearly refers to. In other words, “as such” functions as a pronoun, which needs a clear antecedent. You wouldn’t say, “We missed our train. <Missed our train> we will take another one.

Let’s have one more example.

We were a wayward bunch, living for the moment and thinking little of the future. As such, it shouldn’t be surprising that none of us went to college.

Here the question “as what” is clearly answered: As a wayward bunch. Just substitute As <a wayward bunch> and the sentence makes perfect sense. In other words, the antecedent is the phrase “a wayward bunch”.


Not so much A as B

This phrase implies that something is not really A but a lot more B. The following sentences should hopefully make that less abstract.

The scholar was no so much insightful as he was patient: he would peruse texts far longer than any of his peers.

He was not so much as jealous as downright resentful of his sister’s talents, believing that their parents had put little interest in his education.


But for

This phrase is just another way of saying except.

But for her eloquence, she had little aptitude as an attorney.

His contribution to cinema has been mostly forgotten but for his Oscar-winning role.


*Save (for)

When you see this phrase know that is means “except (for)”.

Watching T.V. was mama’s favorite activity, save for eating chocolate cream puffs.

Randy did not consider any of the class ruffians friends, save for Donald, who once came to his defense in a playground scuffle.


Stem from

To stem from just means to “come from” or “be caused by.”

His insecurity stems from his lack of friends in grade school.

The current crises stems from the former administration’s inability to rein in spending.


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22 Responses to GRE Academic Structures

  1. Nazanin Moghaddasi March 18, 2016 at 2:50 pm #

    Hi Chris
    can you explain “All the more so” better? I didnt understand it

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert March 19, 2016 at 9:32 am #

      Hi Nazanin,

      Quentin’s sudden termination was shocking; all the more so because he helped build the company as many know it today.

      “All the more so” emphasizes the fact that Quentin’s termination was shocking. The part after “all the more so” tells us why it was so shocking: because he helped to build the company. So, the termination was shocking because it was sudden, but it was even more shocking because he helped to build the company.

      I hope that helps!

  2. Rohit October 9, 2014 at 12:12 am #

    Its a little funny that For All doesn’t literally mean FOR ALL, but rather Except all?
    How do we know when it means what?

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele October 9, 2014 at 12:04 pm #

      This idiomatic “for all” will be followed by a possessive pronoun and a noun (in parenthesis below):

      For all (his laziness), he finished the job quickly.

      For all (their talk) on human rights, the local groups have done little to stop the tyranny.

      Otherwise, “for all” would mean just what it looks like:

      For all those involved in the scandal, they have much to lose.

      Hope that helps!

  3. Suchit Dhingra July 4, 2014 at 6:57 pm #

    This is a very helpful post, just what I was looking for. Can you suggest other source where I can find such idiomatic expressions.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele July 9, 2014 at 2:44 pm #

      I know Manhattan GRE has a pretty comprehensive list–longer than this one–at the back of their TC/SE guide. Other than that, there really isn’t too much floating around, sadly. I’ll come up with another post, as I encounter more idioms “in the wild”.

  4. crybabe July 3, 2014 at 2:08 am #

    I‘ve been looking for some academic expressions like these!It is
    really helpful!

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele July 9, 2014 at 2:44 pm #

      You are welcome 🙂

  5. Mireille July 1, 2014 at 7:00 am #

    …”as such” is indeed quite a bit confusing for me. For instance, I’m not so sure why its usage in the second example (the train to Brussels one) is considered as being incorrect. From both other examples in my mind I pretty much replace “as such” with some sort of… “as a consequence” (this does imply something that happened before!).

    If that is so, them taking another train isn’t it a consequence of them missing the previous one? Again, I do see a prior “happening” taking place in that Brussels sentence, that might entitle the author using”as such” in there, as well. I’m sure there is some sort of slight nuance, I just…don’t see it. 🙁

    • vasanth July 2, 2014 at 9:32 am #

      I couldn’t understand the Brussels example too 🙁

      • Chris Lele
        Chris Lele July 9, 2014 at 3:06 pm #

        I added some more explanation pertaining to the “as such” entry.

        Hope that helps 🙂

        • vasanth July 16, 2014 at 12:46 am #

          Thank you. I understand it better now!

          • Chris Lele
            Chris Lele July 16, 2014 at 2:05 pm #

            You are welcome!

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele July 9, 2014 at 3:05 pm #


      I added some more explanation that should hopefully help resolve any confusion. Take a look and let me know 🙂

      • Mireille July 10, 2014 at 7:21 am #

        ….hmmmm… I think I kind of get this one. Then, in this case, if I replace “as a consequence” in my mind with “in such a manner that __”, all my missing pieces will get their place in the puzzle, especially that makes it clear why I couldn’t use “as such”…to get to Brussels, for instance! 🙂 I might still have gotten it wrong, or perhaps not quite right, but I feel I’m getting a bit closer now!

        Thanks for taking the time to clarify this, Chris… I just hope I made your time not wasted by properly understanding things this time! 🙂

  6. Mireille July 1, 2014 at 6:38 am #

    Perfect timing (in my case) for such a post, Chris! In the meantime I signed up for the Premium plan and doing a few Practice questions I have already seen quite a few of these in all but dreadful texts. As a matter of fact, if I go back to the notes I have been saving for myself, some are around such expressions. So apparently we keep synchronizing here! 🙂

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele July 9, 2014 at 3:06 pm #

      Hi Mireille,

      Hope the practice questions are going well. And they are challenging enough for you 🙂

      • Mireille July 10, 2014 at 7:05 am #

        …if I can only bring myself to read the long passages entirely! :)) After trying a few I could totally understand why you’ve been always stressing NOT to rush into checking out the answers until you yourself came up with your own answer! That’s not advice so easy to follow, though! :))

        Jeez, those texts were written by those rare humans who somehow were given birth at the library, then the mother left, forgetting the baby there for about…30 years or so. As for the questions themselves, I bet they were created for the mother herself; if she was ever to come back after her baby, then she better had the right answer up her sleeve! 😀 Otherwise, how did we all end up with this whole nightmare?! LOL

        Who knows, maybe that will end up being my strategy after all! I mean, not forgetting my baby at the library, but when I take the test, in my mind I’ll pretend that getting my baby back solely depends on reading that long passage entirely and carefully and picking the right answers at the end! 😀 If that approach doesn’t work, then nothing else will. 😉

  7. Sriram June 30, 2014 at 1:39 pm #

    Nice. Perhaps,its just me, but “not least”, “is but”, “until after” caused me some discomfiture till I got used to them. Also, I could not help but look up “As such” with google’s Ngram viewer and was astounded to find its usage rise near exponentially in the twentieth century. Unfortunately, there is no stat check for fallacies. Finally, I need a clarification on the “All but” examples,I think. Did you intend to use “almost” as a context for both?


    • Mireille July 1, 2014 at 7:51 am #

      Sriram, such a coincidence you would ask that… I myself looked at those two examples quite a long time and perhaps wondered the same thing at some point. In the end, I think Chris used “almost” only in the second example… as for the first example, the way I take it, is that the other meaning was being used there — that is, “everyone, except for”.

      “All but the most famous actors of our day will likely be remembered 50 years from now.”

      I know — you’d think everyone (except for the actors) will be *forgotten*, rather than *remembered*, but maybe someone just felt like throwing some sort of slight sarcasm in the whole equation. Maybe?! 🙂

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele July 1, 2014 at 8:37 am #

      Oops! I realize I made an egregious mistake with “all but” and the first example sentence. It should read:

      “All but the most famous actors will be FORGOTTEN 50 years from now.”

      In this sentence, “all but” means “all except”.

      Sorry to add confusion to an idiom that is already confusing enough :).

      • Mireille July 1, 2014 at 2:14 pm #

        No problem, Chris! 🙂 I think you might have done it on purpose — just to test us, see if we only cross-read your posts or truly peruse them, word by word. 🙂 Personally, I didn’t even think there might be an error somewhere — if anything, I thought it might be some sort of nuanced, nostalgic sarcasm that I just didn’t quite get! 🙂

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