Sentence Shift for ESL Students, Part 3: Shifts in Meaning

This is my third post on the complicated but important idea of shift in sentences. Sentence shift happens when there is a significant change in the tone or meaning of the words in a sentence. A shift sentence first says one thing, and then says something else that is almost completely opposite. This idea of English shift is central to the GRE Verbal section. Understanding sentence shift also useful in the academic reading and listening on the TOEFL.

For a full, detailed explanation of sentence shift, see the first post in this series. For a look at the shift in the connotation of a sentence, see my second post on shift.

As I mentioned in Part 2, some sentences show a shift in connotation. In connotation shifts, the emotional “mood” associated with the words at the beginning of the sentence is different from the emotional mood at the end. But there are other shift sentences that contrast the definitions of words, not the suggested tone. Let’s look at an example of this kind of “definition-shift”:

  • Despite the fact that he was born into luxurious wealth, Edward chose to live very simply, even uncomfortably.

Here, there is a change in meaning rather than a change in connotation. The phrase “luxurious wealth” in the first clause suggests a lifestyle that is fancy—complicated in a way—yet very comfortable. In the second clause, we see words that have the opposite meaning to this: “simply” and “uncomfortably.” Thisshift in meaning is used to describe a reversal of Edward’s circumstances.

Note that the shift sentence above contains an important word indicating that a shift will occur in the sentence. This word is despite, and it’s a very common shift signal word. (See the Magoosh GRE blog’s list of common shift words for more examples)

Whether a sentence has shift or doesn’t is an important distinction. So it’s important to notice the differences between shift and no-shift sentences. Below, I will modify the shift example you just read, changing it to a no-shift sentence:

  • SHIFT: Despite the fact that he was born into luxurious wealth, he chose to live very simply, even uncomfortably.
  • NO SHIFT: He was born into luxurious wealth, and he chose to continue his opulent and expensive lifestyle as an adult.

In the no-shift example, “luxurious wealth” and the words “opulent” and “expensive” have the same meanings and the same connotations. Together, the two clauses indicate that the rich man never had a reversal of circumstance. You can also see that the shift signal word despite gets removed when the sentence becomes no-shift. Putting a shift signaler in front of a no-shift sentence makes the sentence incorrect… and confusing.

No-shift sentences must have the same meaning and the same connotation in both clauses. Shift sentences are more flexible. They can have a change in connotation, a change in meaning, or a change in both! Be sure to read this post and the previous two posts in the series carefully. Shift is an important concept, very useful on many English language exams. And if you have any questions, feel free to ask them in the comments, or in messages to me through my Google Plus.


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  • David Recine

    David is a Test Prep Expert for Magoosh TOEFL and IELTS. Additionally, he's helped students with TOEIC, PET, FCE, BULATS, Eiken, SAT, ACT, GRE, and GMAT. David has a BS from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and an MA from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. His work at Magoosh has been cited in many scholarly articles, his Master's Thesis is featured on the Reading with Pictures website, and he's presented at the WITESOL (link to PDF) and NAFSA conferences. David has taught K-12 ESL in South Korea as well as undergraduate English and MBA-level business English at American universities. He has also trained English teachers in America, Italy, and Peru. Come join David and the Magoosh team on Youtube, Facebook, and Instagram, or connect with him via LinkedIn!

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