GRE Verbal: Sentence Equivalence

On the GRE, approximately four of the test questions in the verbal section will be sentence equivalence questions. These sentences will look like the standard “fill in the blank” sentences, but there’s a twist: of the six answer choices provided, you have to choose TWO. Those choices, when plugged into the sentence, must create the same meaning; essentially, this means that the words must be synonyms. While the task might feel familiar, this new format means that there are new obstacles to navigate on your way to the correct answer. You will see approximately 8 total Sentence Equivalence questions on the GRE, 4 on each Verbal section. These questions should take approximately 1 minute each.
In this entry on Sentence Equivalence questions, we’ll first look at a basic approach to unlocking the meaning of a sentence, and then we’ll focus on a more subtle example where the correct answers are not themselves synonymous. Finally, we will look at causation on Sentence Equivalence questions.

Signposts and Synonymy

One of the main strategies that is applicable to all of the Verbal section of the GRE is looking for signpost words and phrases that are critical to the structure and meaning of a sentence or passage. These key words are often conjunctions such as “since, whereas, because, while, and, etc.” Here, though, is a practice question where a verb acts as the main clue.

“Early critics of Emily Dickinson’s poetry mistook for simplemindedness the surface of artlessness that in fact she constructed with such ________.”
a. astonishment
b. craft
c. cunning
d. innocence
e. naivete
f. vexation

If you are actively engaged with this sentence, you’ll notice that “critics…mistook” gives you a big clue as to where it will go. The implication is that Dickinson’s poetry was not at all simpleminded or artless. We can expect that the end of the sentence clarifies this position, and that the blank word will contrast with what the critics saw as artless. “Care” would be a good word to look for.
Note that “naivete” and “innocence” can be synonymous, but they are not the right answers. “Craft” and “cunning” here are similar to the idea of care, and opposite to the idea of artless; they are the correct pair.
It’s true that many of the questions will have synonyms as answer pairs. There are questions, however, where this is not the case and simply looking for synonyms will not yield the correct choices. Remember that the instructions for this question type ask you to find two words that would yield two sentences alike in meaning. Here’s another practice question:

“Dreams are ________ in and of themselves, but, when combined with other data, they can tell us much about the dreamer.”
a. astonishing
b. disordered
c. harmless
d. inscrutable
e. revealing
f. uninformative

We can start with our signpost “but.” Since the second clause says that dreams can tell us much, the first clause probably means that by themselves, they are not that informative.
At first glance, “disordered,” “inscrutable,” and “uninformative” match the sense of contrast that we’re looking for, but no two of these words are strictly synonymous. “Inscrutable” means that something is not readily interpreted or understood, while “uninformative” means that something does not convey knowledge or information. A poker-face might be inscrutable, while a brochure might be uninformative. Usually these words are not interchangeable, but in the context of this sentence they would shade towards each other in meaning. They both yield sentences that convey that by themselves, dreams don’t tell us much. What do we learn from this? Narrow down your answer choices based on your understanding of the sentence and your predictions, then, if there aren’t synonym pairs remaining, read each choice in the context of the sentence as a whole.
Test out your ability to choose the correct synonyms in this next practice question:

Nancy’s landlord told her and her housemates that because of their failure to pay rent for the previous two months, they would need to ——— possession of the residence by the end of the week.
a.  allocate
b.  surrender
c.  mandate
d.  designate
e.  relinquish
f.  circumvent

If your first step here was to look for synonyms, choices A and D might catch your eye; they have the same meaning. However, they don’t make sense in the context of the sentence. If you don’t pay rent, you have to get out of your residence, not “allocate” or “designate” possession of it. So you need to make the two-part inquiry here, searching for not only synonyms but words that make sense. That should lead you to another pair of synonyms: choices B and E.  “Surrender” and “relinquish” both mean “give up” possession in this sentence, which works.
And remember that accumulating that kind of well-developed vocabulary that will help you attain your maximum GRE score is an ongoing process; whenever you see a word that you’re not familiar with, look it up! That includes answer choices that you think are incorrect but that have a meaning of which you’re not confident. When you review questions from your studies, group and solo study sessions, and diagnostics, remember to take the time to review the wrong answers for that information. Here, then, are the definitions of the wrong answer choices:
a.  allocate: assign or set apart for a particular purpose
c.  mandate: order; authorize as by the enactment of a law
d.  designate: denote, specify, or assign
f.  circumvent: bypass;  avoid by artfulness or deception


Causation is one of the four types of Sentence Equivalence questions. Unlike Definition, Consistent Ideas, and Contrasting Ideas (the other three types), Causation might be less familiar to you. In Causation questions, the blank will be part of a cause/effect relationship with the rest of the sentence. You’ll be able to recognize this type because of certain constructions.
Here are common “Causation” key words and phrases to look out for on Test Day: resulting in, causing, making, thereby, being that, due to, because of, leading to, owing to, so as to, forcing, as, in view of, in light of, the reason for, effecting, consequently, etc.
Let’s look at an example question:

After being bedridden for months, James found that his muscles had atrophied, which initially ——– his ability to walk or lift heavy objects.
a. belittled
b. castigated
c. hampered
d. bolstered
e. curtailed
f. improved

We know this is a cause/effect because of the keywords “after” and “initially.” It shows an effect over time. So we’d ask ourselves, how would someone with atrophied muscles walk? Probably not very well! We’ll be looking for two negative words. We can quickly eliminate D and F since they are positive. Out of the remaining choices (A, B, C, and E), only C and E would logically refer to something muscles would do to an ability. “Castigated” and “belittled” is something people do to other people. That is how meaning plays a role in Sentence Equivalence. The answer is C and E.