While studying for the GRE Text Completion (TC) and Sentence Equivalence (SE) questions, you naturally want to study vocabulary. After all, that’s what the test is testing, right?
Yes and no. The GRE does test vocabulary, but it also tests your ability to analyze a sentence and divine the author’s intended meaning. (And for those of you keeping score at home, did I use the word ‘divine’ correctly? Are you familiar with this less common usage?)
And so, we preach (sorry, with the word ‘divine’ earlier, I had to!) a method for TC and SE that involves identifying the Target, Clues, and Pivots in the sentence. All well and good, but how do you to this? Here’s where the following limited grammar discussion should help, because although the GRE does not directly test grammar, a little grammar knowledge can be immensely helpful!
We begin with the core elements that every sentence contains: the subject and the verb. Separating the subjecting and the verb from other elements (which I will generically call descriptors) is part 1 of my TC and SE analysis. Part 2 is matching each descriptor to what it describes.
So let’s see two examples. One is a TC example from Lesson 1, the other is a SE example from the 5 lb. Book.
The director’s commercially-motivated attempts to (i)_______ the imperatives of the mass marketplace were (ii)_______, as evidenced by the critical acclaim but low attendance garnered by his film.
The new particles produced by CERN’s Large Hadron Collider are ________, lasting a millionth of a billionth of a billionth of a second before disintegrating into photons, quarks, or other particles.
(Notice what I haven’t given you? No answer choices! This article is not about vocabulary, so we’ll leave those for another day.)
What do you notice first in both examples? I’ll bet you overlooked something very, very important!
Look at the commas in both examples. Both 1 and 2 have a single comma that breaks the sentence into two large chunks. Example 2 also has a set of closely spaced commas near the end. The single comma in both examples creates a division between the main sentence and a descriptor element. The closely spaced commas at the end of 2 create a list of parallel nouns. Today, we’ll focus on the single commas.
I love seeing a sentence broken into large pieces, because it gives me a very clear structural clue: what half of the sentence is actually a sentence, and what half isn’t?
In both examples, the sentence is before the comma, which means the following half is descriptor. Neither “as evidenced by … acclaim… but attendance” nor “lasting … a second before disintegrating” can stand alone as sentences, as there is neither a subject nor a verb in these portions of the sentence.
So now, let’s find the actual sentence.
Example 1: The … attempts… were (ii) ______, …
Example 2: The particles … are ______ , … 
So here we have two excellent examples of when the blank is part of the core sentence. The blanks are verbs, and the targets are the subject of each sentence. Now onto the stuff following each comma – this must be our clue, this will tell us what the attempts were and what the particles are. Apparently the attempts were somehow critically but not commercially successful, and the particles are somehow not long-lasting.
So what have we learned? Hopefully, we’ve learned to use punctuation to help us break the sentence into manageable chunks. While breaking the sentence down, make sure to actually identify the subject and verb, and recognize that large elements separated from the main sentence are immense clues that can help us determine the intended meaning of the sentence.
As a final note, if this feels easy and natural to you, great! A huge part of TC and SE is getting what I call the ‘fast win’, the quick correct answer, and this immediate process of breaking down the question into main sentence versus descriptor chunk is a significant element to getting that win. Next time, we’ll dive into some more challenging elements!
 Two notes – first, yes, I am aware that I completely skipped the first blank in Example 1. No, I don’t care. Sentence first, other stuff later. Second, if you were momentarily debating whether ‘produced’ is a verb in Example 2, you need to reset the way you read. Things that look like verbs often aren’t verbs. Verbs must have meaning; if ‘produced’ is a verb, then what did the particles produce? The particles don’t produce anything! (Honestly, this may be too simple of an example of a word that looks like a verb not acting as a verb, but you need to be aware that debate does exist in some TC and SE examples. Always remember, verbs must have meaning: something must ‘do’ the verb or ‘be’ the verb.)