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Sentence Equivalence

Sentence Equivalence questions are the newest and most unfamiliar test questions in the revised GRE verbal section. There are usually only 3 or 4 of this question type in each verbal section (remember, there are two sections).
Sentence equivalence questions consist of a single sentence containing one blank. You must choose from six answer choices the two that best fit blank. As with all GRE questions, there is no partial credit for getting only one of the answer choices correct.
The directions for sentence equivalence questions look like this:


Directions: 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.


In many ways, your strategy for these questions will be similar to the strategy used for the text completion section. For these questions, you will still:
  • Think of a word that “fits” the sentence before you look at answer choices; and
  • Be alert to transitional words
If you haven’t gotten those strategies down from the previous section, go back and review those now before proceeding to this new question type.

Use Process of Elimination

Unlike other GRE questions that ask you to select multiple answers, for these questions, you know how many answers you are looking for — two. So, we can use a very effective process-of-elimination strategy.


Despite receiving approbation for his work several times that year, Tim felt ________ about his job in the floundering economy.
A.  confident
B.  anxious
C.  apprehensive
D. stoic
E.  amenable
F.   secure


If you feel confident that you have fully comprehended the sentence, come up with your own word to fit the blank, and eliminate answer choices that are not similar in meaning to your word.
For this example, you might come up with a word like “unsure” or “insecure” to fill in the blank. Then, you could eliminate (A) and (F), which are the opposite of unsure, and (D) and (E), which also do not mean “unsure.” This would leave you with the correct answer choices (B) and (C).



Let’s try this out on another example.



Life, as the film demonstrates, is too complex for ________ endings.intricate

  1. facile
  2. ambiguous
  3. occult
  4. straightforward
  5. recognizable

The sentence for this example is pretty clear; we can confidently conclude that the blank must mean something close to “easy” or “simple,” if life is too complex for it. (A) intricate does not mean “easy” or “simple,” so eliminate it. (B) facile does mean easy, so keep it. (C) ambiguous and (D) occult do not mean “easy,” so eliminate them. (E) straightforward is close to “easy” or “simple,” so keep it. (F) recognizable does not mean either word, so eliminate it. This effectively leaves us with our two correct answer choices – (B) and (E).

Look for Pairs

However, you may not always entirely understand the sentence, so you may not feel confident about the word you come up with to fit the blank. In these instances, you can still use process of elimination.

It can be daunting to think of finding two correct answers out of six. However, by using a simple process-of-elimination strategy, you can instead usually decide between one answer out of two.

How? ETS gives us the answer. They ask you to produce completed sentences that are “alike in meaning.” In other words, you are looking for answers that are synonymous or closely related to each other. So, you can confidently eliminate any answer choices that don’t match up with any of the other answer choices — the lone rangers.

Eliminate carefully, however. “Alike” does not necessarily mean identical. If you think two answer choices are related, it’s best not to eliminate them for now.

Frequently (thought not always), for each question there will be two sets of synonyms and two lone rangers. By eliminating the lone rangers, you have essentially narrowed it down to two options — one set of synonyms or another.

Let’s refer to the example from the previous page:


Despite receiving approbation for his work several times that year, Tim felt ________ about his job in the floundering economy.

  1. confident
  2. anxious
  3. apprehensive
  4. stoic
  5. amenable
  6. secure

(A) confident is close in meaning to (F) secure, and (B) anxious is similar to (C) apprehensive. Thus, we can eliminate answer choices (D) and (E), which have no synonyms among the other choices.


These two remaining groups will often be antonyms. If you still can’t figure out which set is the correct one, here’s where your knowledge of transitional words comes in handy.


Let’s try another example.


The editor found the articles so ________ that he hesitated to print them.
A.     positive
B.     circuitous
C.     provocative
D.     inflammatory
E.     improbable
F.     archaic



In this example, there are myriad words that could fit the blank, so coming up with your own word may not be the most effective strategy. However, we can look for pairs of similar words among the answer choices to give us some guidance. 


(A) positive does not have any related words among the other choices, so we can eliminate it as a lone ranger. 
(B) circuitous is also a lone ranger (though if you are unsure of the definition, don’t eliminate this one yet).

 (C) provocative and


 (D) inflammatory are closely related, so we’ll hang onto that set of synonyms.
 (E) improbable, though it suits the sentence, does not have a related word, so it can be eliminated. So can
 (F), archaic. In this example, there is only one set of synonyms. Let’s put both of the words back into the sentence to make sure they make sense and give the sentence similar meaning.
They do, so we can feel confident about choosing (C) and (D).

Use Transitional Words and Apposition

Let’s return again to the first example.


Despite receiving approbation for his work several times that year, Tim felt ________ about his job in the floundering economy.

  1. confident
  2. anxious
  3. apprehensive
  4. stoic
  5. amenable
  6. secure

Perhaps you aren’t sure of the definition of “approbation” in the above example. You can still use your knowledge of transitional words to increase your chances of selecting the correct pair of answers. The signal word “despite” at the beginning of the sentence sets up a contradiction, so you know the blank will be opposite in meaning to the beginning.


You may not know the meaning of the word “approbation,” but you probably can tell whether it has a positive or negative connotation. In this case, “approbation” has a positive connotation, so, since you’ve already established that the sentence is a contradiction, you know the blank should have a negative connotation.


Which set of answer choices — confident and secure or anxious and apprehensive — has a negative connotation? Anxious and apprehensive. Thus, (B) and (C) are the correct answer choices.

Let’s try another example using transitional words.



During Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, some prominent leaders in Europe opposed taking a severe stand against him, favoring instead a policy of __________ to make amends for the injurious Versailles Treaty.

  1. containment
  2. pacification
  3. capitulation
  4. appeasement
  5. apathy
  6. defamation

Notice the key transitional word, “instead.” So, we can deduce that the “policy of ________” must be in opposition to “taking a severe stand against him.” The opposite of being severely against someone would be being kind or indulgent to them. A policy of (A) containment is not indulgent, so it can be eliminated. (B) pacification is a possibility. (C) capitulation, or surrender, is a possibility. (D) appeasement is also an option. (E) apathy, or demonstrating no emotion, does not fit, so it can be eliminated. (F) defamation, or slander, can also be eliminated. Among answers (B), (C), and (D), (B) and (D) give the sentence the most similar meaning. The correct answer is (B) and (D).


Now, let’s combine all of the strategies we’ve learned to a couple of practice problems.


The writer of the scandalous magazine article exposing the indiscretions of a prominent politician found the public had an ambivalent reaction to her article; she was subject to both admiration and ________.

  1. reproach
  2. acclaim
  3. avarice
  4. censure
  5. adumbration
  6. commendation

If you are confident in your understanding of the sentence and all of its vocabulary, then you can effectively come up with your own word to fill in the blank. You might come up with “negative feedback” or “criticism.” Then, you can eliminate answer choices (B), (C), (E), and (F), and you are left with answers (A) and (D).


Another process of elimination tactic you might have taken is to look for pairs of synonyms among the answer choices. Even if you are not sure of the definition of (C) avarice or (D) adumbration, you should be able to spot that (A) reproach and (D) censure are synonymous as well as (B) acclaim and (F) commendation. Since there are usually two sets of synonyms that have opposite meanings of each other, you should still be able to eliminate answers (C) and (D).


If you aren’t sure of the meaning of “ambivalent” (if so, look it up in the vocabulary section), then the signal word you should spot is “both.” Since “admiration,” “acclaim,” and “commendation” are all fairly similar in meaning, it would be redundant to use two of them in this context. So, the blank must mean something different from “admiration.” The answer, then, is (A) reproach and (D) censure.


Finally, you might also recognize the use of apposition in this sentence. As there is no transitional word following the semi-colon, “she was subject both admiration and ______” modifies or defines an “ambivalent reaction.” If you know the meaning of ambivalent (having confliction emotions), then you know that the blank should be a conflicting emotion to “admiration.” This would be (A) reproach and (D) censure.



Though in acting circles he has a reputation of being a consummate professional, at times he can be quite ________ on the stage.

A.     jocund
B.     efficient
C.     playful
D.     adept
E.     aloof
F.     stern


Assuming you understand the sentence, first come up with your own word to fit the blank. One would expect a professional to behave seriously, so you might come up with “silly” to fit the blank. (A) jocund and (C) playful are synonymous to silly, while all the others can be effectively eliminated.


However, perhaps your word for the blank was something more along the lines of “unprofessional.” None of the answer choices would be the clear match for this word, in which case, we should use process of elimination to find pairs of words among the answers. (A) jocund and (C) playful are similar, so keep them. (E) aloof and (F) stern are somewhat related. (B) efficient and (D) adept are our lone rangers. Now, both sets of synonyms could arguably fit within the sentence, so let’s reexamine both sets to see which set gives the sentence the most similar meaning when both answer choices are plugged in to the blank. (E) aloof and (F) stern give the sentence different meanings, so the answer is (A) and (C).


If you struggled to understand the sentence, recognize the signal word “though” at the beginning. This key word clues you in to a contradiction between “professional” and the blank. Thus, since “professional” has a positive connotation, the blank should be negative.

 This can help you narrow down the answer choices.

Points to Remember

  1. If you fully understand the sentence, come up with your own word to fit the blank. Eliminate the answers that don’t match your word, and select the two that do.
  2. Or, look for pairs of synonyms or closely related words in the answer choices, and eliminate the other answers.
  3. Look for signal words that indicate whether the blank should be positive or negative, contradictory or supportive, and choose between the two sets of synonyms.
  4. Be on the lookout for use of apposition.

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