Understanding Sentence Completions on the PSAT/NMSQT

By Geraldine Woods

Each critical reading section of the PSAT/NMSQT leads off with sentence completions, eight in Section 1 and five in Section 3. Sentence-completion questions come in two varieties: one blank and two blanks.

The test-writers give you a sentence with — you guessed it! — one or two blanks, and you have to choose words to fill those blanks from five multiple-choice answers. The sentences contain clues to help you figure out what’s missing.

Sentences with complicated syntax (grammatical structure) often feature simple words, as in this example:

The governor decided to keep the restrictions in place but also agreed to open the hearings to those who had _____ them.

(A)    supported

(B)    considered

(C)    opposed

(D)    approved

(E)    judged

The answer is Choice (C). The word but signals a change in direction, so you know that the second action in the sentence has to contrast with the first, to keep the restrictions in place. What contrasts with keeping the status quo (existing condition, things as they are)? Listening to views from those who had opposed the restrictions. There you go: Choice (C) is the answer.

Two-blank sentences may have an even more intricate (complex) syntax. Check out this example:

Although he was not _____ by nature, Stan couldn’t resist making _____ comments about the reviewer, who was less than pleased with Stan’s new play.

(A)    unfeeling . . . positive

(B)    charitable . . . unfavorable

(C)    cruel . . . favorable

(D)    generous . . . critical

(E)    unkind . . . sarcastic

The answer is Choice (E). The answer choices are common words, and you probably use all of them in everyday conversation. The sentence, however, has a few twists and turns. You start with although, a word that signals something happening despite another action or condition. Then you hit a negative statement: talking about what’s not in Stan’s nature.

Next up is another negative: Stan couldn’t resist, which tells you that you’re looking for something Stan actually did after he read a review of his play. Another complication: The reviewer was less than pleased, as in, he hated the play. If you follow each of these clues, you know that you have to figure out Stan’s nature and an action that goes against that nature.

Choice (E) fits perfectly. Stan wasn’t unkind. Therefore, you’d expect him to be kind to the reviewer. However, Stan gave in to temptation and wrote sarcastic comments.

Not all two-blank questions are more difficult than single-blank sentences. Don’t skip a question without reading it! Some two-blank sentences are actually easier because they’re long enough to provide several clues.

Sentences with high-level vocabulary words tend to be written in a straightforward manner, like this one:

After she had eaten the last doughnut, Eve hurried to the grocery to _____ her supply of snacks before the children returned from school.

(A)    deplete

(B)    replenish

(C)    confiscate

(D)    retain

(E)    depreciate

The answer is Choice (B). The meaning of the sentence is simple: Eve pigged out, and her kids will starve to death if she doesn’t restock. The answer choices, though, are tough. Choice (A), deplete, means “reduce.” Choice (B), replenish, means “restock.” Choice (C), Confiscate, means “to take someone’s property with authority.” Choice (D), retain, means “keep,” and Choice (E), depreciate, means “decrease in value.”

If your vocabulary is up to the task, the answer is clear: Choice (B).

Of course, not every sentence on the PSAT/NMSQT fits these patterns perfectly. Sometimes the test-writers hit you with double trouble: a complicated sentence with vocabulary that only dictionary fans know. You may also find medium-level vocabulary and slightly complicated syntax. Luckily, you don’t have to categorize the questions; you just have to answer them.