The French Tutor: The SAT II Paragraph Completion Series

Posted by Manoah Finston on 8/9/13 9:43 AM

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Salut, mes chers lecteurs ! We’re back today with another post about the absolument formidable SAT II French Subject Test! In this post, we’ll be analyzing a new type of question: the paragraph completion series.

Beyond the one-off fill-in-the-blank questions that we’ve treated in previous posts, the paragraph completion series uses the same kind of setup, but with the added twist that there has to be contextual coherence among the answers. All this means is that when faced with a paragraph like the one below, you’ll have to select answers that make sense in view of the whole “narrative.” Let’s take a look at a sample paragraph and see if we can crack it:

 Avant ---(1)--- partir en vacances, Jean et Camille ont ---(2)--- à l’aéroport ---(3)--- demander ---(4)--- l’avion partait ---(5)--- .

The first thing we can do is try to fill in the sentence without even looking at the answer choices, relying on our existing knowledge of grammar and our instincts about what sounds right. While we are doing this, we can take note of the different parts of speech that are going to be necessary to complete the sentence above.

For example, we know that in blank 1, we will need a preposition, since we are dealing with a time-maker signifying the first event in a sequence: Before leaving on vacation, Jean and Camille did something. What that something is is clearly what will go in blank 2, and we note that we will be dealing with a verb in the composite past tense, the passé composé. We know this to be true because of the helping verb already given in the phrase, the ont, which is avoir conjugated in the third-person-plural in the present – the trademark construction for the helping/auxiliary verb in the composite past. So we’ve got a preposition in blank 1 and a verb in blank 2. Since we’re talking about a past action (the two clues there are the time-marker Avant and the helping verb), the blank will have to entail the second component of the composite past, which is the past participle of the active verb. What about blank 3? Well, it can’t be another verb, because right afterwards in the sentence, we have an infinitive, the verb demander, to ask or enquire. We can’t have a noun there since there’s no trace of an article to be found, so blank 3 must be another preposition, some kind of word that links the verb in the past tense of blank 2 to the action implicit in the infinitive form of demander.

 As for blank 4, again, it can’t be a verb, because we can’t have a double infinitive with demander as the first verb in a sequence, and it can’t be a noun since we have a noun and a definite article immediately following the blank. Blank 4 must be another linking word. And blank 5? Well, it’s going to have something to do with the plane leaving, since that’s what immediately precedes it in the sentence. It sounds like the best fit will be some form of description, some way of describing how the plane was departing. So we should be primed to look for descriptive terms, perhaps adverbs or temporal modifiers—words that color for us the way that an event happened or is happening.

With all this in mind, it’s possible that we can “solve” the sentence without even having to look at all of the answer choices. But if we do need to consult the available options, at least we know what we are specifically looking for. Let’s turn now to the answer choices and see where we can go from here.


1. (A) ------

2. (A) téléphoné

3. (A) ------

4. (A) si

5. (A) en temps

(B) à

(B) téléphonée

(B) à

(B) quand

(B) chaque heure

(C) de

(C) téléphonés

(C) de

(C) quel

(C) à l’heure

(D) que

(D) téléphonées

(D) pour

(D) que

(D) parfois


OK – let’s get to it! In blank 1, we are indeed dealing with a prepositional phrase, the combination of the time-marker Avant with a fixed preposition. But which one? We can eliminate the first answer choice because it just looks and sounds wrong—putting Avant right up against the infinitive is the “literal” translation (“Before leaving…”), but we know that French is rarely that straightforward. So, of the three remaining choices, what works? Many action verbs in French take à as their preposition, but what about time-markers? The same is true for de. These two prepositions definitely get around in French. What next, though? Well, what about que? We know that que is often used in time-order expressions, that is, expressions that help us put a number of events in sequence: après que, tant que, aussitôt que, dès que, lorsque, pendant que…and yes, also avant que. BUT we must recall that all of these que expressions are not followed by an infinitive, but rather by the subject of the clause. You can’t have an avant que + verb; you would need avant que + subject + verb, and even this is a particularly tricky construction, because in some cases it takes the subjunctive as well as a special form of negation called the ne-explétif. But that’s another story. For now, suffice it to say that que won’t work here. If we have made it this far, hopefully our instincts will kick in and we will recall that avant takes de before an infinitive. So, “Avant de partir en vacances…”

The answer is (C).

In blank 2, as we previously discussed, we are dealing with a construction in the passé composé. We’ve already got the subject (Jean et Camille – so, ils) and the helping verb (avoir in the third person plural – ont) so all we need is the past participle and we’re good to go. Fortunately, the answer choices are all different forms of the same verb, so we don’t even have to worry about the possibility of multiple meanings in the sentence. This just comes down to straight grammar: how do we conjugate the verb téléphoner in the past tense?

It is worth pointing out just for reference that French has a quirky way of handling phone calls. The two verbs predominantly used to express the act of phone-calling are appeler and téléphoner. Curiously, the former doesn’t take a preposition but the latter does—so formally, we say téléphoner à qqn but just appeler qqn. This explains the à in the position just after the blank. Fortunately, the test-makers were not mean this time, and they gave us four answer choices based on the same verb. If they were real jerks, however, they could have thrown in a few appeler permutations to throw us off. Even if that happens, you’ll be prepared, since you now know the difference!!

Anyway, this is an easy one, since all we need to do is put the verb téléphoner in the past participle form. Some quick questions first: Is it a reflexive verb? Has it taken a direct object? Is it irregular? In this usage, the answers are no, no, and no. It’s just the classic conjugation of an –er verb, so we lop off the ending and add an é. Téléphoné, answer (A). Done.

In blank 3, we know we’re looking for a preposition, and indeed, the answer choices give us the usual suspects. In this blank, we are seeking the equivalent of the English “to,” since the sentence is “Jean and Camille called the airport TO enquire…” Easy right? Except that in French, à, de, and pour can all mean “to,” and further, they can all precede infinitives! Here, we are best served by remembering that we are dealing with an infinitive that is grammatically separate from another verb construction. What the heck do I mean by that? I mean that in the sentence, our setup is not verb + preposition + verb, but rather noun + preposition + verb. Some quick examples:

Je continue à apprendre le français. I continue to learn French. [ conj. verb + à + inf. ]

Tu arrêtes de fumer ? You (will) stop smoking? [conj. verb + de + inf. ] 

Nous allons au café pour manger. We go to the café to eat. This one is different because of the structure: [conj. verb + noun + pour + inf. ]

 In this instance, the meaning of the sentence depends on the implicit link, across the noun, between the conjugated verb and the verb in the infinitive, a link that is represented by the use of the preposition pour. If we got rid of the café, the sentence would still work: Nous allons pour manger -- We go to eat (as in, we are going somewhere to eat). But when there is a noun in the middle, and the meaning of the preposition in the sentence is “for/to,” the construction will look like our third example and the preposition will be pour. Another way of looking at this is to approach it from the angle of causation. We consider whether the first action in the phrase is really more of an action TO something else, or FOR something else. If it is more FOR than TO, it is likely that the preposition will be pour. In this example, Jean and Camille called the airport with the purpose of inquiring about their flight – that was their reason for calling – they called FOR that.

So in blank 3, we will go with (D) pour.

We’re almost done! We already ascertained, without looking at the answer choices, that blank 4 would be some kind of linking word. And indeed, as we look through the answer possibilities, we see that we’re getting a mishmash of parts of speech—interrogatives, relative pronouns, and the word si, which we know is used in hypothetical statements largely like we use “if” or “whether” in English. Now is in fact a good time to think about the English meanings of these words, because a quick review of the sense of these words will help us eliminate poor choices. So far for the sentence, we’ve got “Before leaving on vacation, Jean and Camille called the airport to inquire—” and our choices are roughly “if/whether,” “when,” “which,” and “who.”

Looking ahead in the sentence, we see that the next element after the blank is l’avion, so a noun with its definite article. Right away, we can kill two answer choices: qui and quel. Just from context and usage, we see that qui doesn’t work. And as for quel—with slight modifications, the sentence could accommodate this choice, as in “which plane was full,” or “which plane they were taking.” But in “which” phrases, the word quel takes the place of the article, and so the article is omitted. The sentence would need to read “…quel avion…” instead. Because the definite article is still present in the sentence, we can eliminate this answer choice. Alright, that leaves si and quand.

It will be better to tackle this one in context. A look ahead to the last blank reminds us that there’s another verb in between, the verb partait in the imperfect. We previously decided that the last blank would have to be a descriptor or time-marker. With this in mind, we can scan the answer choices for both blanks 4 and 5, and see what matches up. Regarding si and quand, both seem to work in theory—Jean and Camille could be trying to find out whether the plane was departing at a certain time, for example, or they could be trying to find out when the plane was leaving on that particular day. To help narrow the context, we need to go to the specific answers of blank 5 and work backwards to blank 4. Lo and behold, all four of the answer choices are time expressions, and some are idiomatic.

Here’s where we can flex our vocabulary muscles. We can recognize that “en temps” is an Anglicism with no real meaning; “chaque heure” expresses an action recurring each hour; “à l’heure” is the idiomatic expression for on time—literally “at the hour”; and “parfois” just means “occasionally or sometimes.” OK – in the context of air travel, we’re inclined to eliminate “en temps” and “parfois” without even thinking. As for the same plane (remember the direct article) leaving every hour, that would be a remarkable achievement for aeronautics, but an unlikely SAT-II answer. That leaves “on time,” which makes the most sense anyway, given the context. Great – we know that blank 5 has (C) as the answer. Now let’s jump back to blank 4. From here, it’s just common sense. Does a traveler inquire when a plane is leaving on time, or whether it is leaving on time?

Based on usage, we can safely say that the answer to blank 4 is (A), si.

So now we’ve got a paragraph that makes a lot of sense:

 Avant de partir en vacances, Jean et Camille ont téléphoné à l’aéroport pour demander si l’avion partait à l’heure.

This is all well and good, but one major question still remains: Who still calls the airport to inquire about a flight status? Don’t these people have the Internet?? We will have to explore this, and other pressing questions, in the posts to come. But for now, you’ve got a great window into how to dissect (and conquer) a paragraph completion series. Keep up the good work, and until next time, enjoy!

Tags: French, french sat subject test