TOEFL Reading: Sentence Simplification

For every text in the Reading section of the exam, there will be a sentence simplification question.  This question gives you a passage from the text and requires you to choose a sentence answer that best respresents the meaning of the original sentence.  As a first step, let’s take a look at a key part of the instructions for this question.

«Incorrect choices change the meaning in important ways or leave out essential information».

Because what is meant by «change the meaning in important ways» often reflects the fundamental SUBJECT + VERB + OBJECT relationship, the first step in attacking this question is to have a clear idea of each of these sentence elements.  That is, determine what:

X (the subject) is doing Y (the verb) to Z (the object)

Make this determination before looking at the answer choices and keep it clear in your mind.  The importance of doing this can be seen when we look at how they try to confuse you by transforming the sentence.  We’ll begin with a basic sentence and its transformation:

John bought the book.


The novel was purchased by a man.

What just happened?  First, the sentence changed from the active voice to passive with a synonym.  That is «bought» changes to «was purchased».  In addition, with the change from active to passive, the positions of the subject and object are reversed.  Further complicating matters, the general object «the book» becomes the specific subject «the novel», and the specific subject «John» changes to the general object «the novel».

By applying these multiple possibilities of change (active-passive, synonyms, general-specific) to a more complex TOEFL-style sentence, we can see the importance of the focus on the subject + verb+object relationship .  I recommend determining what the individual elements are and then restating them to yourself in even basic English before looking at the answer choices.  With this focus, choosing the correct answer becomes easier and more time-efficient.  Now, let’s look at a more realistic example.  Here’s the target sentence:

«Already struggling with a new language and culture, these workers could not speak out about working conditions for fear of losing their jobs, and this forced them to endure exploitation by the factory workers».

A close focus on the subject + verb + object relationship, followed by a simplification to its essential meaning reveals something like this:

«Workers had difficulties with language and control. They could not talk about their work conditions becaue they were afraid of losing their jobs.  The workers were exploited by factory workers».

Now, with this clear focus, let’s look at the possible answers:

a)  Because they did not speak the same language as the factory owners, the workers were not able to discuss conditions in the factory.

Tempting, but incomplete. as the exploitation of the workers is not mentioned.

b)  Langauge and culture were serious problems in the workplace, but workers were even more afraid of being exploited by the factory owners.

Again, tempting as all the concepts (language, culture and exploitiation are mentioned, but this answer adds a comparitive («even more afraid») that is not in the original sentnece.  Incorrect.

c)  The factory owners forced the workers to learn a new language and culture because it was necessary for them to succeed in their jobs.

Here we can best see how a subject + verb + object focus can reveal an incorrect answer.  The owners didn’t force the workers to learn anything.  Instead, fear forced the workers to accept the owner’s exploitation, a quite different meaning.  Incorrect.

d)  The workers experienced cultural difficulties, poor conditions and exploitation because they needed their jobs.

The correct answer because all of the important concepts are mentioned and the meaning of the original sentence is not changed in the process.  These concecpts may appear in different places and as a different grammatical category from what is in the original sentence but the essential meaning is respected.

To summarize.  attack this question by forming a clear idea of what the subject is doing to the object.  Only when that is firmly set in your mind in your own words, should you analyze the asnwer choices.  Expect to see synonyms, changes in the order of the ideas expressed, transformations between the active and passive voices and a change between general and specific nouns.