How to Deal With 'Most Nearly Means' Questions on SAT Passages

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This tip on improving your SAT score was provided by Veritas Prep.

Occasionally, on SAT Passage-Based Reading questions, you will see a question stem worded as follows:

“In line x, “[some word]” most nearly means ….”

The question stem is then followed by answer choices with single words as possible answers, and each of the words is a possible synonym of the word in the passage. This type of question is testing your ability to use “context clues” to infer the way the word in the passage is being used. In the English language, a single word can take on many meanings, depending on the context in which it is used. For example, the word “spike” can have many meanings: a stick in the ground, to strike violently, to add alcohol to a drink, etc. You have to infer from the context to determine the actual way the word is being used.

On the SAT, as a test of your critical reading skills, you will be asked to identify how a word is used in context. Let’s take a look at the following excerpt from the 2010-11 Official SAT Pre-test:

That dance is a sketch of something that is inside a person, and not fully revealed by the words alone. I came to realize that if I were able to record part of the dance—that is, the spoken part—and reenact it, the rest of the body would follow.

At the end of the excerpt, “follow” most nearly means:

Our task here is to understand the context in which the word “follow” is used and determine the way the word is used. To deal with this kind of question, you should use the following strategy to maximize your accuracy:

1.  Do not look at the answer choices right away.
2.  Treat it like a Sentence Completion by replacing the word “follow” with a blank.
3.  Come up with your own synonym or description of how the word is used.
4.  Look at the answer choices and eliminate (don’t try to look for the right answer first) all the answer choices that don’t match up with what you came up with in step 3.

So let’s do steps 1 through 3 first and come up with a word or phrase that could stand in for the word “follow”:

“… the rest of the body would ______.”

In context, a reasonable phrase could be “do it also,” since it makes sense if we plug that in:

“… the rest of the body would do it also.”

Now let’s look at the answer choices:
(A)   pursue
(B)   result
(C)   surpass
(D)   join in
(E)   listen carefully

We’re looking for something that matches “do it also,” so we can eliminate everything except D, the correct answer.

Notice how answer choices A, B, and E can also be synonyms for the word “follow.” By not looking at the answer choices first, we avoid tempting synonyms that may not exactly match in the context of the sentence. Also, by coming up with our own short word or phrase to describe how the word “follow” is being used, we can use it as a filter to eliminate any answers that are off base and help us get to the right answer.

Practice this strategy and make sure to focus on the context around the word rather than the word itself, so that when you come across a “most nearly means” questions on the SAT, you’ll be sure to ace it.

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