01 March 2012

Second meanings are usually right

One of the cardinal rules of SAT sentence completions is that the closer you get to the end of the section, the less you can take for granted. On number one or two, or even three, you can be pretty sure that if a word doesn’t initially appear to fit the sentence, it’s not going to be the answer. The same does not hold true at the end of the section, however. Mindlessly eliminating words that seem obviously — perhaps too obviously — wrong can get you in a whole lot of trouble.

Sometimes the word that you want to show up just won’t be among the answer choices, and sometimes the right answer is something that never would have occurred to you,  even if you’d spent ten minutes staring at the question. That’s why #8 is #8 and not #2. And that’s also why, as you get close to the end of a section, you need to be particularly on the lookout for words that are being used in their second or third meaning. Why? Because the people at ETS know that those are exactly the last words that it would occur to most test-takers to pick. Which is precisely why they’re likely to be correct.

The following question is a classic example of this kind of question. It’s also a question that lots of my students tend to get wrong.

The judges for the chili competition were ——-, noting subtle differences between dishes that most people would not detect.

(A) obscure
(B) deferential
(C) discriminating
(D) sanctimonious
(E) unrelenting

Most of my students don’t have much of a problem figuring out that the word that goes in the blank has to go along with the idea of “noting subtle differences” and that it has to be relatively positive. As a result, they’re usually pretty quick to cross out C because everyone knows that discrimination is a bad thing, especially on the political correctness-obsessed SAT. In other words, it doesn’t occur to them that they’re being played by the test, and it never even crosses their mind that “discriminating” might have another meaning. (As a side note, I feel obligated to mention here that people who read on a regular basis and are familiar with phrases like “a discriminating palette” don’t have any problem with this kind of question. It doesn’t even occur to them that it could be a “trick.”)
So there we have a problem: it’s not much help to know that second meanings are usually right if you can’t recognize them! Admittedly, there’s no surefire way around it. As a general rule of thumb, though, you need to pay particular attention to “easy” words on hard questions: if you’re on question #8 and see a simple, everyday word that you’ve known forever and that seems to obviously wrong, you need to think again. There’s a pretty good chance it’s being used in some other way. And if it’s being used some other way, there’s a very good chance it’s correct. That’s not to say that you should automatically pick it, but you shouldn’t be too quick to get rid of it either.

So remember: if you’re on sentence completion #8 and you think that a word sounds funny, it’s probably because someone at ETS wants you to think just that.

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