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GRE Sentence Equivalence Questions: What Makes a Pair?

Manhattan Prep GRE Blog - GRE Sentence Equivalence Questions: What Makes a Pair? by Cat Powell

There are two types of fill-in-the-blank vocabulary questions on the GRE: Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence. Text Completion questions ask you to fill in one, two, or three blanks with a single word; Sentence Equivalence questions ask you to fill in one blank with two words. Often, students think of these as the “synonym” questions, but that’s not entirely accurate; being too focused on looking for exact synonyms trips up some test takers. Others aren’t rigorous enough when looking for a pair. In this article, I’m going to discuss exactly what we’re looking for when we “pair” answers for Sentence Equivalence and what common traps we should avoid.

The official instructions for Sentence Equivalence questions are:

Select the two answer choices that, when used to complete the sentence, fit the meaning of the sentence as a whole and produce completed sentences that are alike in meaning.

We’re looking for two words that, when we plug them into the sentence, give us the same general idea of what that sentence is saying. This means that our correct answers don’t have to be exact synonyms, but they do need to be close enough that they don’t alter the core meaning of the sentence.

I sometimes use this test: if I were told that someone or something were X, could I reasonably assume it was also Y? Let’s try out this test with a potential pair of words that came up in a class I taught recently: demanding and critical.

Let’s say, for example, that I was told someone is demanding, meaning that they expect a lot or have high standards. Could I reasonably assume that this person is also critical, meaning that they are discerning or tend to pass judgments (which are often, but not always, negative)? In everyday life, maybe. People who are demanding seem like they’d be inclined to be critical. But for GRE purposes, no. Critical adds layers of meaning that demanding lacks. Consider each of these in a sentence:

(A) She was a very demanding teacher.
(B) She was a very critical teacher.

These are clearly different teachers. The teacher in sentence A sounds like a teacher you might like to have; she’d push you, but in a way that felt fair. The teacher in sentence B? Well, she might offer more negative or more judgmental feedback.

Try out this idea with a set of actual answer choices. See what pairs you can spot here.

  • Exciting
  • Dangerous
  • Opulent
  • Reportorial
  • Costly
  • Expensive

Here, I’d pair “costly” and “expensive.” These are the only words that really match one another. Notice that “opulent”—rich, luxurious—seems close in meaning (it has to do with money). It’s like “critical” when compared to “demanding,” though; one adds layers of meaning that the other lacks. “Exciting” and “dangerous” might be tempting, too, since dangerous things are often exciting—but this is even more of a stretch than “critical” and “demanding.”

Let’s double-check our thinking on this by consulting the sentence these answers go with:

The frequent and wide-ranging travels of a photo-journalist are often _______, racking up huge bills for freelancers working without a guarantee of payment.

Nice! I have the clue “racking up huge bills,” which further confirms that “costly” and “expensive” are the right pair. Notice that “exciting” and “dangerous” are both, on their own, tempting choices; they seem like good words to describe “frequent and wide-ranging travels.” However, by being rigorous about how I pair my answers, I can avoid this trap.

Pairing answers is a good step to add to your Sentence Equivalence process, if you don’t do this already. When the sentence is confusing, looking for pairs in the answer choices can help focus your reading. In this case, you might skip ahead to the answer choices and then return to the sentence to look for clues. Even when you do have a good understanding of the sentence, pairing answer choices can still help you to avoid falling into GRE traps. 📝


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cat-powell-1Cat Powell is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in New York, NY. She spent her undergraduate years at Harvard studying music and English and is now pursuing an MFA in fiction writing at Columbia University. Her affinity for standardized tests led her to a 169Q/170V score on the GRE. Check out Cat’s upcoming GRE courses here.

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