A Guide to the GRE/Language Shifts

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Language Shifts[edit]

GRE reading passages often contain "language shifts", where the topic of the passage meanders or deviates. The ability to clearly follow a reading passage is an important skilling in scoring well on the test.


Normally writers are taught to write with a clear thesis backed up by supporting sentences. For example:

The grey wolf population was mostly eradicated in the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries. Since wolves were a nuisance to settlers and their livestock, they were targeted by these groups and as a result were exterminated in most of the U.S.. Though its range once extended all the way to Mexico, today the wolf is only found in a few isolated northern regions of the United States.

However, the GRE will typically not do this. Rather, the GRE tends to have passages with meandering topics, probably because clear readable passages would be too easy for test takers. Compare the prior passage with this one:

The United States was initially populated by many agrarian settlers with livestock. These settlers dealt with many problems in the new nation, one of them being wildlife on the frontier. Efforts were made to exterminate a common nuisance to the settlers - the grey wolf - and as a result, this creature is mostly extinct, save a few isolated northern regions of its former range, which once stretched all the way to Mexico.

While both passages say essentially the same thing, the first one clearly states its thesis and follows up with sentences clearly reinforcing or elaborating upon this thesis. The second begins with a sentence about settlers that does not mention wolves at all, and it is only after two sentences that the grey wolf is even mentioned. Furthermore, the third sentence mentions the grey wolf in a hyphen clause voice (the grammatical subject of the sentence is "efforts"). Yet both passages nonetheless are about the grey wolf population in the United States.

These wolf passages exemplify the common "language shift" seen on the GRE - that a passage will often be about something very different from what its initial sentence would lead a reader to think.

Signal Words[edit]

Pay attention to words like "but" and "however." Often a language shift will be denoted by one of these signal words. Consider the following passage:

Traditional economics has focused on the importance of the law of supply and demand - the notion that the value of a commodity is inversely proportional to its availability. The principle of supply and demand has long been a cornerstone of economics, though even it has some limitations. For example, the increased availability of a good might spark increased consumer knowledge of a product that they otherwise did not know existed, and prove to generate further demand.

This passage essentially makes the statement that sometimes, increased supply can actually increase demand. For example, if Bart gets a new iPad and shows all his friends - all of whom didn't know that iPads existed - this might generate more iPad demand Notice how the passage "smuggles" this concept in, shifting language with the word "though." The first two sentences seem to be leading up to the idea that supply and demand is a universal, infallible rule of economics, and in fact, the passage is stating something to the contrary.


The famous “Code of Hammurabi” is one of the oldest legal codes discovered by archaeologists, its earliest known version inscribed into an ancient stone found in modern-day Iraq. The code is frequently referenced as an ancient publication of laws to govern the people of Mesopotamia, a signof the early civilization developing in the region. Naturally, one would think the laws were inscribed in stone for the public to view them and understand them. The prevalent academic view, however, is that the stone containing Hammurabi's code, however, probably was not intended as a dissemination of laws to the general public or a publication of the rules of civilization. Few people could read in the early days of Mesopotamia, and written codes would only have been useful to scribes; thus, a public display could do little to inform the public. Scholars rather espouse that the code was in fact much more likely to have been made as a tribute to the king and the current ruling dynasty of Babylon and Mesopotamia, given its written nature and presence in stonework.

1. According to the author, why was the Code of Hammurabi most likely chiseled into stone?

2. What reasons does the author give for believing that the Code of Hammurabi wasn't publicly displayed to inform the public of the laws of ancient Mesopotamia?


The GRE frequently uses very "soft language", that is to say, language which conveys a point in a very subtle manner. Compare the sentence:

Bridget shut the door.


The door was quickly pulled shut with a slam, and Bridget managed to catch a glimpse out the window just as she was closing it.

Both of these sentences convey the information that Bridget shut the door. However, in the second sentence, the three operative words necessary to derive this information, that is "Bridget" (the noun), "closing" (the transitive verb), and "door" (the direct object of the verb) are so very far flung across the sentence that it makes it more difficult to derive this inference.

The GRE commonly employs language like this, which is why it is important for test takers to pay attention to the so-called "hard words" (subjects, verbs, and object nouns).

Answers to Practice Questions[edit]

1. The author believes that the Code of Hammurabi was probably made as a public tribute to the king. The passage begins as a discussion of the code and its historical significance, and explains that “[n]aturally” (line 9) one would think it wade made to inform people of the laws. The code, “however”(line 13) was probably not intended in this fashion.

2. As stated in the previous answer, the author doesn't believe the stone containing Hammurabi's code of laws was intended to inform the public, but rather, as a tribute to the king. The author's rationale for this is that few people could read at the time of Hammurabi; thus, it would have done little good towards informing the public.

This is a good example of a passage with shifting language, which begins as a mere discussion of a topic but later “smuggles in” the author's opinions and viewpoints on the matter.