07 July 2012

Worry about what it means, not how it sounds

Whenever I spend any amount of time going over sentence completions with a student, sooner or later, I almost inevitably become embroiled in the following conversation:

Me: So what made you pick (C)?

Student: Well… I was going to pick (A), but it just sounded… I don’t know, like, weird…

Me: But you knew what the word in the blank had to mean, right?

Student: Right.

Me: And you knew that (A) had that meaning, right…?

Student: Right…

Me: So why did you pick (C) then?

Student: Well, I was going to pick (A), but then I just thought it sounded wrong… Darn it!

I won’t argue that certain words do clearly and indisputably sound wrong when they’re plugged back into a sentence, but relying on your ear to guide you on sentence completions is, to put it nicely, a recipe for disaster. That is because sentence completions are about one thing only — definitions in context.

It does not matter whether the word in question sounds funny to you.

It does not matter whether it’s a word you would ever use, or whether you’ve even heard it before.

If you work by (careful, thorough) process of elimination and the only thing left when you’re done is a word that you think sounds totally, utterly completely bizarre, you have to pick it anyway.

Consider this: you’re sixteen, maybe seventeen years old. Unless you’re a truly voracious reader who reads SAT-level material regularly and never misses a sentence completion (in which case you probably don’t need to be reading this post), you’re probably not well-read enough to know what sounds right and wrong to educated adult ears. No offense, but you’re probably not. You might think it utterly bizarre for someone to say, “Thomas has a predilection for science fiction,” but although it might come off as a tad pretentious (depending on who’s saying it, and under what circumstances), there’s nothing inherently odd or wrong about it. The fact that you might rubbing your head and grimacing and saying, “But that sounds so WEIRD,” is totally and completely irrelevant.

Right and wrong answers exist independently of what you might happen to think about them.

Sorry if this is sounding harsh, but lately I’ve heard the words, “I never would have guessed that could be the answer” a few too many times, when in fact both “I” and “guessing” have nothing to do with it. The second you start to think that way, as innocuous as it might seem, you’ve already started down the wrong path.

I think I’ve belabored the point enough. Bottom line: figure out what the word is supposed to mean. Look for the word with that meaning. If you don’t know which word has that meaning, get rid of the ones that don’t have that meaning. The way they sound is of no concern to you.

Leave a Reply