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GRE Academic Structures

In both the GRE Reading Comprehension passages and the Text Completions, certain phrases may show up that can give a sentence a spin. If you are not familiar with these phrases, your head is likely to spin.

Take a look at the following two sentences.

He was ________ , always giving to those in need.

He was anything but _________, always giving to those in need.

What exactly does “anything but” mean? Well, it’s a rhetorical expression that implies that the “he” is many things, A, B, C, and D…but “he” is definitely not E. In this case, E would be the opposite of the second part of the sentence. A simple way to think about it is to make “anything but” equivalent to “not”. As in, “he was (not) _____, always giving to those in need.” The word “stingy” fits in very nicely. Notice how the words in the two blanks of the example sentences are opposite in meaning (“generous” would make a good entry for the first sentence).

The point here is not just to show you the meaning of “anything but”, but to also show you how these academic phrases can be highly misleading if you’ve never seen them before. Below are some of the most common academic phrases you can expect to see on the GRE. It’s a good idea to memorize them, and feel comfortable with how they are used in sentences. Otherwise, you could very well be scratching your head test day.


Nothing but

Nothing but = only (something).

When we went to her house she was nothing but kind, showering us with gifts.

In his book critiques, Jones was nothing but fair, always judging an author on the merits of his or her latest novel, regardless of previous flops.


Anything but

Anything but = not (see explanation in the intro)


All but

This phrase is identical to almost. It can also mean everything except the ones mentioned. Contrast the two sentences below to see the differences in how the phrase is used.

All but the most famous actors of our day will likely not be remembered 50 years from now.

At the end of the marathon Charles was all but dead; he stumbled across the finish line, mentioning something about his pet iguana.


At once X and Y

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This is a tricky structure! First off, X and Y are words or phrases that are opposite in meaning. Secondly, that is an “and” you see, and not an “or”. Finally, this phrase is used to imply an element of surprise because a person/thing embodies these contradictory qualities.

At once melodious and dissonant, Perkin’s symphony is full of beautiful melodies that are suddenly interrupted by a burst of clashing gongs and screeching sopranos.

Melodious = X; Dissonant = Y

He was at once hysterically funny, making people roll on the floor in laughter, and overly serious, as soon as the conversation turned to politics.

Hysterically funny = X; overly serious = Y

At once forward-thinking and traditionalist, the mayor’s new plan will usher in unprecedented changes while using approaches that have shown enduring efficacy in the civic sphere.

Forward-thinking = X, traditionalist = Y


Nothing more than

This phrase is used disparagingly to show that somebody is not very good at something. The word that follows “than” should be a negative description

He is nothing more than a second-rate musician, busking at a bus stop; his friends are always happy to escape his warbling falsetto.

Harry is nothing more than a seasoned Hollywood hack: his scripts are as numerous as they are contrived.


All the more so

If you want to add emphasis, but need an entire phrase to do so, you can use “all the more so”.

Quentin’s sudden termination was shocking; all the more so because he helped build the company as many know it today.


For all

This phrase is another way of saying “despite”.

For all his hard work, Michael was passed over for a promotion.

For all their talk on purging the environment of toxins, the two brothers can’t do without their hourly smoke break.


If anything

This phrase means “if at all”. It is meant to suggest that somebody is disagreeing with something, and wants to prove that the other case is actually true.


It seems like this city is getting more dangerous every day.


Actually, it doesn’t seem that much worse from when I first moved here. If anything, the crime rate has actually dropped, since the city’s population has almost doubled in the last ten years.


As such

This is a confusing phrase, because it is often misinterpreted as “therefore”. However, “as such” must refer to something that came before it.

Correct: The C.E.O. walked around the office as though he was King Kong, walking over anyone who came in his way. As such, all, save for* upper management, tried to avoid him.

Incorrect: We missed our train to Brussels. As such, we will have to take another one.

In the second sentence, there should be a clear answer to “as what?”. Notice in the first sentence, “as what?, refers to the way in which he walks around the office: like King Kong. (I definitely wouldn’t want to work with him!). With the Brussels example, there isn’t something that the “as such” clearly refers to. In other words, “as such” functions as a pronoun, which needs a clear antecedent. You wouldn’t say, “We missed our train. <Missed our train> we will take another one.

Let’s have one more example.

We were a wayward bunch, living for the moment and thinking little of the future. As such, it shouldn’t be surprising that none of us went to college.

Here the question “as what” is clearly answered: As a wayward bunch. Just substitute As <a wayward bunch> and the sentence makes perfect sense. In other words, the antecedent is the phrase “a wayward bunch”.


Not so much A as B

This phrase implies that something is not really A but a lot more B. The following sentences should hopefully make that less abstract.

The scholar was not so much insightful as he was patient: he would peruse texts far longer than any of his peers.

He was not so much as jealous as downright resentful of his sister’s talents, believing that their parents had put little interest in his education.


But for

This phrase is just another way of saying except.

But for her eloquence, she had little aptitude as an attorney.

His contribution to cinema has been mostly forgotten but for his Oscar-winning role.


*Save (for)

When you see this phrase know that is means “except (for)”.

Watching T.V. was mama’s favorite activity, save for eating chocolate cream puffs.

Randy did not consider any of the class ruffians friends, save for Donald, who once came to his defense in a playground scuffle.


Stem from

To stem from just means to “come from” or “be caused by.”

His insecurity stems from his lack of friends in grade school.

The current crises stems from the former administration’s inability to rein in spending.


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