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TOEFL Reading: Synonyms and Paraphrase Questions

This is my latest post on the skill that is the backbone of TOEFL Reading success: the ability to recognize and understand synonyms. Last time, in TOEFL Reading: Synonyms and Inference Questions, we used synonyms to find the answer to a sample inference question. Today, we’ll look at synonyms to answer a TOEFL Reading paraphrase question.

The paraphrase question comes from the reading task on pages 10 to 14 of this official TOEFL Quick Prep PDF. (Answer key on page 34.) Here it is:

24. Which of the sentences below best expresses the essential information in the highlighted sentence in paragraph 4? (“As a result of the crustal adjustments and faulting, the Strait of Gibraltar, where the Mediterranean now connects to the Atlantic, opened, and the water cascaded spectacularly back into the Mediterranean.”) Incorrect choices change the meaning in important ways or leave out essential information.

(A) The Strait of Gibraltar reopened when the Mediterranean and the Atlantic became connected and the cascades of water from one sea to the other caused crustal adjustments and faulting.

(B) The Mediterranean was dramatically refilled by water from the Atlantic when crustal adjustments and faulting opened the Strait of Gibraltar, the place where the two seas are joined.

(C) The cascades of water from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean were not as spectacular as the crustal adjustments and faulting that occurred when the Strait of Gibraltar was connected to those seas.

(D) As a result of crustal adjustments and faulting and the creation of the Strait of Gibraltar, the Atlantic and Mediterranean were connected and became a single sea with spectacular cascades of water between them.

Remember, synonyms can appear in both right and wrong answers. Still, it’s hard to write a good paraphrase without any synonyms. If an answer to a paraphrase question doesn’t contain synonyms for the original words, there’s a good chance the paraphrase is incorrect.

Answer (A) does not really contain any synonyms. It is tempting to think “reopened” is a synonym of “opened” from the original sentence. However, “reopened” is simply a different form of the original word “opened,” not a true synonym. “Reopened” also changes the meaning of the passage, implying that the Strait of Gibraltar had been opened before. This idea is nowhere in the original sentence. From “reopened” alone, you can know this answer is probably not right. (There are other reasons this answer is wrong, too. Can you find them?)

Answer (B) does contain synonyms. “Dramatically” is a synonym for “spectacularly.” “Refilled” is a synonym for “cascaded… back into.” Thus, the phrase “dramatically refilled by water” is a paraphrase of “water cascaded spectacularly back into.” “Are joined” is synonymous with “now connects.” Both phrases describe the linking of the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. All the information in (B) can also be found in the original sentence. No extra information is added to (B). This could be the correct answer. But does it really best express the key information from the highlighted sentence? Let’s look at (C) and (D) to find out.

Like (A), (C) and (D) lack synonyms. All of the key words in these answers are copied or only slightly changed from the original sentence. This means (C) and (D) might be wrong. But in the TOEFL, even in a Reading Paraphrase question, there are no guarantees. We need to take a closer look at these answers to see if they are truly wrong.

(C) is wrong because it says that the flow of water into the Mediterranean was “not as spectacular as the crustal adjustments that occurred when the Strait of Gibraltar was connected to those seas.” Nowhere in the original sentence is the spectacular nature of the flow of water compared to the quality of the changes to the Earth’s crust. In fact, the changes to the earth’s crust are not described as “spectacular” at all. Furthermore, the “crustal adjustments” caused the Strait of Gibraltar to link the Atlantic and Mediterranean. The adjustments didn’t happen when Gibraltar was already connecting the two bodies of water. To say nothing of the fact that the article talks about an ocean and a sea, not two “seas.”

(D) is similarly incorrect, saying the Atlantic and the Mediterranean became “a single sea” rather than a connected ocean and sea. You can spot this incorrect fact as you check for similes. “Single” is an important informational word that doesn’t appear in the original sentence. It is not a synonym for anything in the original sentence either. So you know the word probably changes the meaning of the sentence.

As you can see, synonym awareness is key to answering this question correctly. To understand a paraphrase, you need to know which words are synonyms and which aren’t. From there, you need to look for words that match the ones in the original sentence. If you find matching words, and make sure they’re being used in the same way. You also need to look for words that don’t match the original wording and are not synonyms. These words likely change the meaning or add information.


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