David Recine

Special GRE Post: Sentence Shift for ESL Students, Part 1

Over at Magoosh’s student support email service (available to our premium subscribers), I get a lot of questions about “shift” and “no-shift” sentences. These kinds of sentences are common in academic English. Understanding the structure of shift and no-shift sentences is helpful on the TOEFL—and is absolutely essential for GRE test-takers.

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Chris Lele has written a very helpful post on “sentence shift” over at our GRE Blog. Many other Verbal-related posts in the blog also touch on the concept of shift. And we also offer a tutorial on shift as a free sample from our GRE Premium lesson page.

English sentence shift is a complicated concept, especially for GRE test-takers whose first language is not English. ESL students who are studying for the GRE and TOEFL at the same time may find they still have questions about shift, even after looking over Magoosh’s GRE verbal content.

In this initial shift-for-ESL post, we’ll take a careful look at what shift is and how to recognize the grammar, vocabulary, and structure of English shift sentences.

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First, let’s look at the structure required for sentence shift. Shift sentences have at least two ​clauses​. A clause is a portion of a sentence that has a subject and a ​predicate​. A predicate comes after the subject of a sentence, and consists of a verb plus any words that follow the verb. Sometimes a predicate can just be a verb alone.

Before we look at complex two clause sentences with shift, let’s first take a look at the basic structure of a typical, simple two-clause sentence with no shift. I have put the first clause in ​bold​ and put the second clause in ​italics​:​

  • They had eaten all the pizza before he got to the party. ​

In the first clause above, the subject is the pronoun ​they​, and the predicate is ​had eaten all the pizza​; ​had eaten​ is the verb, and​ all the pizza ​as the remaining part of the predicate. And in the second clause above, ​he​ is the subject, ​got to the party ​is the predicate, and ​got​ is the verb within the predicate.

As I said before, the above example has no shift. This is because there is no significant change in meaning or tone between the two clauses. When a change in meaning does occur between two sentences, then the sentence is said to have shift.

In a shift sentence, the two clauses contain phrases which have either opposite ​meanings​ or opposite ​connotations​. A connotation is the idea or feeling that a word or phrase has, in addition to its literal meaning. For example, if you say you say someone is proud of their achievements, the connotation is positive. You are suggesting the person deserves to feel good. But if you say someone is smug about their achievements, the connotation is negative. People who are smug feel too good about their achievements, in a way that is unpleasant. Both “smug” and “proud” have very similar literal definitions, but different connotations.

Here is an example of a shift sentence using smug and proud:

  • The soccer team that lost the game was still proud of how hard they’d tried, but the winning team was smug, bragging a little too much about their victory.

The sentence above has a shift in both connotation and word meaning. “Smug” and “proud” have opposite connotations; “lost” and “winning” have opposite definitions. But with a few word changes, the meaning of the whole sentence can change significantly, so that it becomes a sentence with no shift in connotation or meaning (a no-shift sentence, in other words):

  • The soccer team that lost the game was still proud of how hard they’d tried, and the opposing team respected the losing team’s performance and pride.

A no shift sentence must have words with similar connotations and meanings in all clauses. A shift sentence can have a shift just in connotation, just in meaning, or in both connotation and meaning.

Notice that in the second no-shift sentence, but is changed to and. This is because but is a word that signals a shift in connotation or meaning. If a word like but is placed in a no-shift sentence, the sentence will sound confusing.

This should give you a basic idea of what shift is in sentences. In my next post on this subject, I’ll take a deeper look at sentence shift specifically for connotation. And in the third and final post in this series, we’ll look at shifts in meaning.


  • 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!