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GRE One Blank Text Completions – Watch Out for That Trap

Have a crack at the following:

The columnist was so vehement in his opposition to the divisive issue of fracking that even when he moderated his comments his piece was too _________________ for publication.

(A) astute

(B) volatile

(C) incendiary

(D) censored

(E) inscrutable



The one-blank sentence completion isn’t simply a test of vocabulary. It is just aren’t a test of being able to decipher the sentence structure either, which isn’t nearly as involved as that of two- or three-blank Text Completion. Often the determining factor of whether you answer the question correctly is if you don’t fall for the trap or two the test writers have laid out.

The question above isn’t extremely difficult in terms of sentence structure or vocabulary. While you may not know every word, you should know at least three (or you should grab yourself a stack of Magoosh’s new flashcards).

A good strategy is to read the sentence and then come up with your own word, based on the context clues in the sentences, before looking down at the answers. Following this strategy is often the single best way to avoid the trap.

Avoiding the traps in this problem

In this case, we have a columnist who really doesn’t like fracking (“vehement in his opposition”). So he writes an article expressing how much he dislikes the article. But the article is too angry. So the columnist tones it down a little (that’s what moderated means). But the article is still too angry. Therefore, the article is too ________________ for publication.

Here are some words of my own that can fit in the blank: shocking, angry, likely to make others angry (notice it says “divisive issue” in the sentence), controversial, and even the word divisive (likely to cause more hostility between people). Sure, I didn’t come up with the “perfect” word but I came up with a cluster of similar words that are consistent with the context.

At this point, I want to go through each answer choice, and not just grab at the first one that sounds good. Let’s start with (A) astute. To be astute is to be clever, especially when it comes to understanding other people’s motivations. Make sure not to try to “make” this word work. What I mean is don’t try to plug the answer choice back into the sentence and then contort the meaning of the sentence so it is consistent with astute. To illustrate, make sure you don’t think along the following lines:

If the columnist was really smart and understood what people were up to but he was so smart that he made people upset then he would have to tone down this writing because it is too smart.

This is a stretch, and requires you to think far more creatively than the GRE will ever ask for. Remember, the word should fit squarely in the context without any inferential leaps on your part.

Next, we have (B). Now, I’m guessing that if you missed this question, you picked (B). (B) is very tempting and, as you may have guessed, is the trap. If you just plug the word in and read it sounds perfectly—though superficially—reasonable. Things that are volatile are dangerous, after all. But what exactly does volatile mean? It means to change suddenly and unpredictably. The issue on fracking seems to be a volatile one according to the sentence (remember divisive). But is the piece the columnist submitting to volatile for publication, meaning that it will suddenly and unpredictably change? So while volatile refers to the general situation, it does not fit in the blank.

(C) incendiary may be one of the more difficult words of the five. It means likely to stir up trouble and upset people (remember divisive). And that’s a pretty good reason not to publish the article: doing so is likely to inflame anger on a touchy issue. Therefore (C) is the answer.

(D) is the opposite of what we are going for, since it seems that the piece could use a little censoring so that it is not so incendiary.

(E) inscrutable is a tough word; however, it does not fit the context. Inscrutable means difficult to understand.

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2 Responses to GRE One Blank Text Completions – Watch Out for That Trap

  1. Vivian July 7, 2014 at 11:29 am #

    Hi Chris,

    I’m still having trouble understanding why B is a trap and not the right answer. We want something that means similar to “vehement” for the blank. Vehement I interpret to mean strong feelings. Wouldn’t volatile be the best match here?

    I feel that with incendiary, it assumes too much. There isn’t evidence from the passage to suggest that the columnist’s vehement views will cause anger/irritation in the audience.

    Thanks in advance for your help!

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele July 9, 2014 at 11:27 am #

      Hi Vivian,

      “Volatile” means suddenly changing, usually for the worse. The article itself really wouldn’t be volatile, the way a chemical or somebody’s emotions would be. You wouldn’t say the article was–even after the writer had toned it down–still likely to change suddenly. What is volatile are people’s tempers and emotions on the issue of fracking. That’s why his views are likely to cause anger/irritation, because fracking is such a divisive, “hot-button” issue.

      Hopefully that helps!

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