SAT Sentence Completions – Working with Positive and Negative Words

On Sentence Completions, you should come up with your own answer before you look at the choices. Once you’ve done that, if you can pick out a printed answer that matches your answer, then you’re done.

But sometimes, it isn’t so easy to anticipate a specific answer; at best you have a general idea of what the word(s) should mean.

Q. Although the compromise didn’t entirely please either party, it represented a —- in the history of the small nation.

You can’t tell exactly what will go in the blank. It could be something like “event worth celebrating,” “milestone,” or even just “good thing.” But you do know that the answer will be something positive, so you can eliminate negative answers.

Negative Positive-Picture

Some SAT teachers recommend classifying answers as positive, negative, or neutral. I don’t think it’s helpful to classify answers as neutral, for several reasons. For one thing, once you’re dealing with neutral words, you’ve usually left the realm of what I call “plus/minus questions,” and there are better techniques to use. For another, it can be hard to distinguish between neutral and other words. Finally, a word can change its assignation in context:

Q. Kim was elated when she —- the interview.

Of course, such as sentence would never be found on the SAT, because there is no effective way to tell what the answer might be. Perhaps Kim was happy that she bombed the interview, because she hated the job, although her mother was pushing her toward it. But even if she did want the job, perhaps she was elated when she finished it. “Finished” is a neutral-sounding word, but it works here.

One thing to watch for – don’t assume your answer has to be positive or negative because it usually is in real life. Unless there are specific words in the sentence that point to an answer being positive or negative, you could get in trouble.

Q. The director searched far and wide for an actress who was —- enough to play the lead role.

Perhaps the lead role was that of an alien, and the director was looking for an ugly actress.

The plus/minus technique can be particularly helpful on two-blank questions.

Q. Even though the author’s writing style was annoyingly —-, I enjoyed the novel because the plot was —-.

Again, it’s hard to anticipate exactly what the answer words are, but you know you’re looking for a negative followed by a positive (-,+).

Watch out for the “flip”:

Q. The speaker —- to deliver an effective speech because he —- issues that were relevant to the mostly Hispanic audience.

Most students tend to think of positive words first, and we know that the SAT is very politica

lly correct. So it’s natural to anticipate something like “was able” for the first blank, and “talked about” for the second. That’s a (+,+), but two negatives would work here too: “The speaker failed to deliver an effective speech because he neglected issues that were relevant to the mostly Hispanic audience.” Note that there’s nothing politically incorrect about that sentence, since it’s the speaker who failed and not the audience.

The best case scenario is that you notice in advance that there are two possible combinations. But if you don’t, and you can’t find an answer that fits, see if switching both words would make sense.

Finally, on hard questions, watch out for words with more than one definition. Those are always tricky, but bear in mind that one definition may be positive, and the other negative.

Q. The arms manufacturing company was glad to have the —- of the government.

The wanted answer here is “sanction,” which can mean either “penalty” or “approval.”

There is no easy way to spot every word with multiple definitions, but be wary of words that seem inappropriate to the topic, or seem to be used as the wrong part of speech (e.g. “table” as a verb means to postpone).

The plus/minus technique can also be helpful when you don’t know a word or two. You can use it to eliminate wrong answers before taking a guess.


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