Shift Words and Phrases on the GRE

Doing well on the GRE verbal means being able to notice the flow of logic in a paragraph. The text is dense and the ideas expressed are complex and nuanced, so it is easy to miss what the passage is trying to communicate. By paying attention to several key words, which I call “shift words”, you’ll be better able to get the gist of what’s being said.

Compare the following two writing selections:

1. Detecting art forgeries has become easier with the use of technology. Computer algorithms are able to determine the number of brushstrokes common to each artist. A forger would have difficulty determining how many brushstrokes are used. Often intricate details require hundreds of brushstrokes, far too many for the unassisted human eye to count. Now many forgeries that were once thought to be genuine are, thanks to computer analysis, turning up in auction houses throughout the world.
2. The use of technology to detect art forgeries has become increasingly common since computer algorithms are able to capture details so subtle that they elude the human eye altogether. Nonetheless, the forgers themselves are exploiting this very technology to create forgeries capable of foiling the algorithms. While such attempts at reverse engineering a painting are not always successful—often a forger can focus on an aspect of the painting that is only part of or not at all included in the algorithm—many experts, complacent in the omniscience of a computer-based subject, are confirming work that is actually the hand of a forger. Yet, computer algorithms should not be discounted altogether, because they are capable of still exposing fakes and, when used in conjunction with an art expert’s testimony, provide the most accurate means we have of determining the authenticity of a work of art.
The first sample is pleasant to read. It’s what we would expect to encounter in a magazine (not including the New York and its ilk), or what we see in tests like TOEFL or SSAT, which is a test for middle school students looking to attend a private high school in the United States.

What makes this so easy to read is that not only that the sentences are pretty short, but also the ideas being communicated aren’t too complex. We are just learning a few details about how computers can pick up on forgeries. In other words, a statement is made and then evidence is provided. Next, a few supporting details are added. The end.

As for the second paragraph, we are on a totally different terrain. The ideas are complex. The paragraph is neither implicitly extolling the use of computers to detect forgeries nor making it seem that there is little nuance to the issue—the way first paragraph did.

To bring out the complexity of the issue, the writer it seems is almost disagreeing with or limiting with what she said. For instance, the first sentence basically reads as follows:

Technology is helping us determine forgeries.

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Then, the next sentence limits this statement:

Forgers are beginning to outsmart the computers.

The following sentence, again paraphrased, then limits this sentence:

Forgers can’t always outsmart the computers.

Again, another change in the direction, so it almost seems that the author is disagreeing with what she wrote. This time she is not limiting (or qualifying) what she said. She is showing a contrast between forgers sometimes outsmarting computers and the mentality of the experts wielding computer analysis:

Experts overly trust the computers judgment.

At the very end of all this twisting and turning, we finally get the conclusion:

Therefore, computers should be used together with an expert’s eye to determine the authenticity of a piece.

One way to show that the truth is complex and somewhere in the middle is by using what I call “shift words”. That is, they “shift” the direction of the sentence. By “shift”, I mean the sentence that follows the “shift word” is in contrast to the prior sentence or limits what that sentence said.

Being able to pick out these shift words in the sea of verbiage is a key to deriving the author’s intent and how he or she arrives at her main point. To become more adept at doing so, it helps to recognize shift words. You’ll notice that I bolded the “shift words” in the second paragraph and underlined the words that show cause and effect (you’ll want to be able to tell the difference between these two).

Below are shift words that you can expect to see on the GRE.

Common shift words

  • Though
  • Even (though)
  • Although
  • Despite
  • Yet
  • But
  • Nonetheless
  • Nevertheless
  • Still


Not-so-common shift words

  • Notwithstanding
  • Even so
  • In any event
  • That said
  • Just the same
  • All the same
  • In any event
  • At any rate
  • For all



Here are a few examples, followed by a simplification of each example so that you can see how the shifts limit the extent of what is said or show how the opposite of what was said actually applies. I will represent a shift with a black arrow (→). I will use an ‘L’, if the shift word limits what is said; I will use an ‘O’, if the shift word implies that the opposite is true.

1) It always rains during the winter in Northern California; however, in the last few years we’ve had a drought here so it’s been mostly dry. Nonetheless, meteorologists are predicting the drought to end very soon.

It rains in Northern California in winter (O→) the last few years no rain because of drought (L→) will change soon (rainy winters coming)
2) Though the GMAT is more difficult than the GRE as far as math goes, the difficulty of the verbal section is more subjective. Many claim that the GRE verbal is easier, since memorizing vocabulary only takes hard work. However, this claim overlooks the fact that understanding how words function in context is very difficult to master. Nevertheless, the GMAT verbal section is also very difficult, especially the Sentence Correction sentence, which entails learning complex grammatical rules.

GMAT more math difficult than GRE (L→) how hard verbal on each is depends. Many claim GRE easier because of vocab (O→) GRE verbal is more than just vocab (L→) that doesn’t mean GMAT verbal is easy.


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11 Responses to Shift Words and Phrases on the GRE

  1. Rino John May 26, 2017 at 4:40 pm #

    Thanks a lot, Chris 😀😀😀. As you said above, mastering the verbal section is not about memorizing arcane, obscure vocabulary from the dictionary, but knowing, when and understanding how each word functions in the said context. Although, learning new vocabulary can help with TC, SC and RC.

    See what I did there, I used shift words.

    Thank you again.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert May 27, 2017 at 12:43 am #

      On behalf of Chris, you’re very welcome! Happy studying 😀

  2. Chen Zhan September 24, 2016 at 1:21 pm #

    The signs L and O are brilliant!

    I will use them when I do my RC practice.

  3. Varun Kapoor August 31, 2016 at 10:13 am #

    Awesome and Very helpful. Had given the gist of RC passages.

    Thanks Chris!!

  4. Abdul haque June 21, 2016 at 12:23 am #

    Lovely writing

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert June 21, 2016 at 6:14 am #

      Thanks! It’s awesome to hear you liked the article 🙂

  5. Abu Sufian March 10, 2016 at 2:27 am #

    I need rule of shift or no shift sentence how can I solve it ?

  6. Arjun September 23, 2015 at 12:25 am #

    I really like what you have written there, that being said main concern that I have is to get into the habit of doing this at all times. That is some what tedious and need Sincere effort.

  7. Md Nafiul Alam January 20, 2015 at 12:38 pm #

    Excellent article. Although I have completed GRE, I like to visit this site regularly because I love your writing. I also recommending this article to my friends who will be sitting for GRE this year.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele January 21, 2015 at 10:49 am #

      Great! Thanks for the positive words. I hope your friends find the articles useful 🙂

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