GRE Sentence Equivalence Challenge: Work Around Unknown Words

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GRE Sentence Equivalence Challenge: Work around Unknown Words (Pictured: Poison perfume by Dior)

GRE Sentence Equivalence has a knack for finding the limits of your vocabulary. Fortunately, the GRE isn't a vocabulary test. You don't have to know every word in a question to know the answer. Sometimes filling in the blank is a matter of relying on easier words and eliminating answer choices. To see what I mean, try this tough Sentence Equivalence question. 

Sentence Equivalence
Difficulty Level: 4 (High)

Question Difficulty
  • Very High50
  • High420
  • Medium
  • Low26080
  • Very Low1100
% of Test Takers Who Answer Correctly

Unlike past challenge problems, this one isn't modeled after any particular question from ETS, maker of the GRE. But it has the marks of a hard Sentence Equivalence question, such as the use of some tough vocabulary. Most likely, less than half of test takers would get this question right.


In a prurient way, stories of perfume injection in the early twentieth-century echoed the observable tendency in learned discourse to discredit the __________ properties of fragrance and, more radically, to deem perfume use potentially toxic and aberrant.

  1. sensual
  2. noxious
  3. salubrious
  4. deviant
  5. carnal
  6. wholesome

The Explanation

Step 1: Find the context clues. To solve the mystery of the missing word, you need to follow the clues. Words, phrases, and even punctuation marks in the surrounding sentence will hint at how to fill in the blank. So find them!

In this question, the missing word describes the "properties of fragrance," where "fragrance" refers to perfume. Elsewhere, the sentence describes perfume use as "toxic and aberrant." Don't worry if aberrant is unfamiliar: it's closely coupled with the easier word toxic, so you know aberrant probably means something negative. (It means 'abnormal' or 'atypical' and can have negative connotations.) Focus on figuring out the connection between "toxic and aberrant" and the missing word. Break down the sentence and find more clues.

  • …the tendency in learned discourse
    • to discredit the __________ properties of fragrance
    • and, more radically,
    • to deem perfume use potentially toxic and aberrant.

The verb "discredit" tells you that the tendency is to deny that perfume has some sort of properties. The phrase "and more radically" signals that the next idea, perfume's being poisonous and aberrant, bears some SIMILARITY to but goes even further than the preceding idea, perfume's lacking certain properties.

Putting the key parts of the sentence in your own words, you could say something like this: 'perfume IS NOT ________ and maybe even IS very harmful/bad.'

But what about "prurient"? Like aberrant, the adjective prurient may be unfamiliar. That's okay; it's not crucial to filling in the blank. Essentially, the author of the sentence is saying the "tendency in learned discourse" is prurient (that is, 'overly interested in sex'). Whatever the author thinks about that tendency, your task is to complete the description of the observable details of that tendency, and the trio of phrases that close out the sentence are enough to do the job.

Step 2: Fill in the blank BEFORE looking at the answer choices. Now that you've figured out that the missing word contrasts with "toxic and aberrant", you know to fill in the blank with something like beneficial or, more precisely, healthful. Call this potential answer a prephrased answer, since you phrased it prior to considering the answer choices with the aim of predicting the meaning of the correct one.

Step 3: Select two answers. Sentence Equivalence questions ask you to pick two answers from among six. When you pick the two correct answers, your choices produce two sentences that each make sense AND have basically the same meaning.

For the challenge question, you're after the two choices that come closest to your prephrased answer. So eliminate options that don't match up well with the meaning of beneficial/healthful.

  • sensual, carnal
    • These words both mean 'related to or satisfying sensory/bodily desires'. (Note carnal shares a root with carnivore, which means 'devourer of flesh'.) They're an attractive pair, since perfume can make the wearer more physically appealing—a potential benefit to the wearer. Still, just as food can taste good yet be bad for you, perfume can smell good yet be toxic. Rule out (A) and (E).
  • noxious, deviant
    • Even if you don't know their definitions, you may sense that both of these words are negative, unlike beneficial/healthful. If you do know their meanings—'poisonous' and 'different from accepted norms or standards', respectively—then you know they're unrelated and thus won't produce equivalent sentences. Equally important, you know that neither word matches your prephrased answer. In fact, noxious and deviant are synonyms of toxic and aberrant, respectively. Eliminate (B) and (D).
  • salubrious, wholesome
    • These two choices are all that's left. The easier word, wholesome, is an adjective that matches your prephrased answer. The harder word, salubrious, must also mean something like 'good for your health', given that you've safely eliminated the other options. And it turns out it does: salubrious means 'health-giving'. Pick (C) and (F)!

Step 4: Reread the sentence with your choices in the blank. Check your work in steps 1 through 3 by reviewing the sentence with your answers plugged in. If your answers don't sound right, step backward in your analysis to see where you may have gone wrong. Here, (C) and (F) fit the sentence best.

In this challenge, you faced three high-difficulty words—prurient, aberrant, and salubrious. All three are representative of GRE-level vocabulary, so remember them for test day. Also remember that even if you don't know some of the words on the exam, all is not lost. Stay confident and look for a path to the answer that leads around unfamiliar vocabulary. 

Ready for another GRE Verbal challenge? Check out these Reading Comprehension posts:

Photo: POISON Dior by kuzmanovizc.

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