How Ideas (and all else) are Related


Language limits the way that ideas relate to other ideas. And not just ideas, but events, phenomenon, places, animals, and chemicals can only be connected to each other in a finite number of ways. The relationship of one thing to another or of one event to another does not exceed three. Strange that we live in such a varied and complex world, yet we only came up with three fundamental ways to relate things.

The three modes are continuation, contrast, and cause-and-effect. (I am curious if other languages have more ways to connect ideas and events. If you have any insights, please leave me a note in the comments).

Knowing these different modes of relation will help you succeed on the reading sections, text completion questions, and writing measures of your test. But that’s only the beginning. By knowing the limits of language, you can begin to build meaning at the level of the sentence. And not only building meaning at the level of the sentence, but knowing that you can’t pack too much into one sentence. The means of relation limit how much can really be said in a sentence.

Don’t feel limited by this revelation. Although it may seem that with only three ways to relate ideas, you are limited. But complex relations can are still relatable.  From the building up of connections and relations over sentences and paragraphs, complexity emerges. But you have to first atomize your ideas before you can relate something complex. Think about the connection of the parts. Discern their relations. Then consider how best to relate what you want to relate. What will make it easy to understand? What will ensure that your reader will understand you?

For the test, you will want to identify these signals to understand what type of word you are looking for to complete a sentence or how a sentence might contain an example or a counterexample. With regard to sentences, a contrast word, like “despite,” will signal a change in the sentence, and based on where the blank is, you may be looking for a word with a positive connotation. But, remove “despite” from the sentence, and you will be looking for a word with a negative connotation.

For passages, signal words will let you know if the main idea is being summarized, if a scope is being established, or an example is being offered to explain some proposition. Noting these moments in the paragraph, either mentally or on paper, will allow you to navigate the passage quickly when you need to answer a question. You will know where to look for an answer, and you will be able to identify wrong answers that don’t fit with the structure and organization of the paragraph. For example, a wrong answer will test your ability to see that the tone has changed in a paragraph or that the author has moved from presenting a theory to critiquing it.

So when you are reading, make note of the words listed below. This is not a complete list, but will get you started on the path to understanding the connection of ideas in a sentence and in a paragraph.

Continuation Signals
as well
for example

Contrast Signals
even though
in contrast to
in spite of
instead of
on the contrary
on the other hand
rather than

Cause-and-Effect Signals
if … then
in order to
so … that
when … then

 How to Punctuate Quotes



In a previous article, we covered when to use quotation marks. Now let’s learn how to punctuation them.


Commas and colons are the only punctuation marks used before a quote. Using these two is straightforward and uncomplicated, and you may already have an intuitive sense of how to use them from your readings. (Sidenote: in your journey through older texts, you many find that some authors place a dash before a quotation. This use is now antiquated and should be avoided.)



Use the comma before a citation or direct speech. The comma introduces the quote, and allows the reader to pause momentarily before continuing. Nearly all quotations of direct speech will begin with a comma. Often the comma will come after phrases like ‘she said’ or ‘she asked.’

She turned toward the sun and asked, “When will a day truly be mine?”

Don’t use a comma, or any punctuation, if you lead into the quote with the word ‘that.’

Mark Twain said that “The coldest winter [he] ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”

And in some cases, you won’t even use quotation marks as shown in the example bellow.

I overheard her say that she wants the day to be hers. What does that mean?



In three situations, colons are more appropriate for introducing quotes:

(1) If you write a complete thought, and the quote that follows illustrates what you wrote, use a colon. This is most common with citations, but not exclusively so.

President Obama’s positive attitude is clear in his campaign slogan: “Yes we can!”


(2) When the quote is long—longer than a single sentence or longer than two short sentences—use a colon. Again this is more common with citations.

John Cleese wrote a clever piece of satire about European nations and their threat levelst. Perhaps stereotypical and a slight offensive, but this is the fault of most great comedy: “The French government announced yesterday that it has raised its terror alert level from ‘Run’ to ‘Hide.’ The only two higher levels in France are ‘Collaborate’ and ‘Surrender.’ The rise was precipitated by a recent fire that destroyed France’s white flag factory, effectively paralyzing the country’s military capability.”


(3) Use a colon with block quotations—hefty, long quotes indented and separate from the rest of the paragraph. Blockquotes don’t actually have quotation marks since indenting and quotation marks indicate the same thing—a direct, word‐for‐word citation. But in the example below, due to formating limitations, I have left the quotation marks.

Milan Kundera begins his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, unlike other novels. He begins with philosophy:

“The idea of the eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we have experienced it, and the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum! What does this mad myth signify? Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing.”


Proficient writers can drop punctuation altogether at the beginning of quotes by crafting a sentence whose syntax matches that of the quote. This is especially true when citing only a phrase or clause.

Kundera’s book is about just that, about the “shadows, without weight, dead in advance.” Or to put it negatively, a life full of weight is more meaningful and desirable.



When a quotation is interrupted before completion, a comma will signal the beginning of the break and the end of the break. The first comma is placed inside of the closing punctuation mark; the last comma will proceed the initial quotation mark of the rest of the quote. Seeing an example will make this clear.

“Margaret, why is it,” asked James sternly, “that every time I leave the room, you eat all of my ice cream? I fill the bowl back up and you just eat it. Why?”

This is the primary way to break a quote into two parts. No other punctuation marks are used.



Periods & Commas

From the previous examples, you are able to see some of the typical ways to punctuate the end of a quotation: punctuation mark first, then the end punctuation mark.

Yet some differences in end punctuation do arise depending on your geography.

If you write for an American audience, always place a period or comma inside the final quotation mark, regardless of the original quote. The following quote comes from Plato’s Apology. This is Socrates speaking to the court which just condemned him to death:

AMERICAN AUDIENCE: “You are wrong if you believe by killing people you will prevent anyone from reproaching you for not living in the right way.”

AMERICAN AUDIENCE: Perhaps we need to define “living the right way.”

If you write for a British audience, placement of the end punctuation mark depends on the original quote. So, if the original quote did not have the punctuation, you need to keep the punctuation out of the quote. Although some exceptions do apply (as if this isn’t confusing enough), like in fiction, the punctuation marks can live inside of the quotation mark.

BRITISH AUDIENCE: Perhaps we need to define “living the right way”.


Colons & Semicolons

Americans and Britons agree–keep them outside of the last quotation mark. Unless, of course, it is part of the original quotation. Let’s look at a quote from the Rig-Veda X, a creation story:

“When neither Being nor Not-Being was”: in the Christian tradition, this same idea reads differently but is uncanny in its similarity.

“What did it encompass? Where? In whose protection?”; these questions, though, are not found in the Christian Bible.


Exclamation & Question Marks

If the original text contained an exclamation or question mark, keep the end mark inside of the end quotation.

ORIGINAL TEXT: What did it encompass? Where? In whose protection?

CITATION: “What did it encompass? Where? In whose protection?”

But if the text did not contain an exclamation or question mark, and it is your addition, place the end marks outside of the end quotation.

ORIGINAL TEXT: Wise seers, searching within their hearts.

CITATION: But what does this line mean: “Wiser seers, searching within their hearts”?


 Best Online Resources for Learning Vocabulary


The time has come to expand your vocabulary–a tortuous yet joyous endeavor full of set backs and just rewards, which will expand your consciousness and add precision to your thoughts and speech, like transitioning from finger painting to 3D printed sculptures. Your mental and spoken universe will expand in a multitude of directions creating deep webs of categories, imbued with your personal experience.

Like most students, you need to spend time learning new words and reading new material to prepare for the Test. One thing must be clear from the beginning, though, this task requires time and diligence. Learning new words should not only be something you do on flashcards during “study time,” but also a regular part of life, a habit like brushing your teeth or washing your clothes. We are blessed to have the ability to Know in seconds. Take advantage of those blessings and look up the unknown word.

What follows is a selection of the best online resources for learning, researching, and expanding vocabulary. The first two are resources for looking up words, and the rest are games, flashcards, and other online applications to learn new words.


Wordnik is a clean, simple, robust site that gives you a plethora of information about a word. The UI is clean. The breadth of resources and information is astonishing. The people at Wordnik put thought into improving the online dictionary.

Wordnik definition for "penumbra"

For each word you look up, Wordnik returns:

  1. definitions from multiple sources around the web,
  2. multiple examples of the word in passages,
  3. synonyms,
  4. antonyms,
  5. hypernyms (words that are more generic or abstract),
  6. hyponyms (words that are more specific),
  7. words found in similar contexts,
  8. other words that contain the word in their definition,
  9. pictures that contain the word in their description,
  10. a word map: a visual representation of synonyms, similar words, antonyms, word forms, and rhymes (great resource for us visual, spacial learners),
  11. pronunciation sound files,
  12. and even the word’s scrabble score.

Also, users can create lists of words, which can be useful if you are unsure what words to study. Here is an SAT word list and a GRE word list.

 Google Definitions

I wonder sometimes if there is anything that Google can’t do–a searchable index of the largest collection of information the world has ever known, glasses augmenting reality, open-source operating systems, indexing all printed texts, mapping the world, online documents, self-driving cars, cell phones, translation tablets–and now, definitions!

To look up the meaning of a word, merely type “define” before the word, and Google will return a small card with the word, pronunciation information, a sound file, and definitions. Click on the “More Info” link (follow the red arrow in the image above) for more definitions, example sentences, synonyms, antonyms, and images.


Freerice has a special place in my heart. It has been around longer than any of these other resources, and as such, it is the one I have used the longest. The UI is not as up-to-date as some of the other sites, but this is the only site that has a mission beyond expanding your vocabulary. While you learn new words, Freerice makes a donation to the World Food Programme. So when you answer correctly, you have the double satisfaction of knowing a word and helping fight hunger.

I recommend signing up for Freerice so you can track your progress and save your vocabulary level since words you don’t know will cycle back through until you answer them correctly. Students preparing for the SAT should aim for levels 20 – 30, and students preparing for the GRE or GMAT should aim for level 40 and up.


Quizlet is definitely the new, cool kid in online vocab resources. There is a lot of intelligence built into this site allowing users a high level of customization. With a plethora of tools and lists (from worm vocabulary to monsters of Greek myth), this is a hard resource not to use. Below you can see all the user-created word lists for Standardized Tests.

The site is built around lists of flashcards created by users. Users can print out the words in multiple formats, including flashcards of varying sizes, embed the list somewhere else on the web, and the best part, play two fun vocabulary games based on the list. One game, Scatter, separates words and their definitions, and the player has to drag the word to the definition, or vice versa. The other game, Space Race, requires the player to type the word as the definition floats by on the screen. There is also functionality to learn spelling, an often neglected part of learning new words.



Vocabulary is another hot, new resource. The UI is clean and new, and the site provides a similar functionality to Freerice, but with more functionality. Questions adapt to your level, formats change from “choose the closest synonym” to “determine a word’s meaning in a sentence.” When you answer incorrectly, you’ll be presented with a short definition and explanation of the word.


 Living in Uncertainty: How to Understand What You Don’t Know



a picture Richard Feynman

By Fermilab (, via Wikimedia Commons

“I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing…If I can’t figure it out, then I go to something else. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things…”[1] –Richard Feynman

Time to face facts. You will read passages on the GMAT, GRE, SAT, and ACT that you won’t understand. Complex passages on topics that you aren’t familiar with, new and foreign terminology, jargon and more jargon, astronomy, physics, history, economics, written at a level that you are aspiring to reach–all these impediments liter your path to success. For some, this is crippling. Students will become frustrated, lose focus, and stop digging into the passage if they encounter something they don’t know.

But, not us!

The wonderful, inquisitive Richard Feynman has the perfect attitude for you to adopt: embrace the unknown! Don’t be frightened by a foreign word or new concept. Embrace what you do know and move forward to find a correct answer. Remember that your task is not to fully understand everything written in the passage, but to choose a correct answer from a collection of wrong answers.

So, what does this mean for your test?

First, focus on what you do know, not on what you don’t. Your goal should be to understand the relationship between the words you do know and the words you don’t. To do this, look at the structure words in the passage. Aim to understand the flow and structure of a passage through words like also, however, therefore, first, second, and but. Let’s review.

The English language has three basic ways to relate ideas–continue, contrast, or cause-and-effect. Either an idea or topic continues along, the way it has been going (and, also, in addition, furthermore), or a contrasting idea or topic is introduced, something that changes the “direction” of the passage (yet, howeversurprisingly, but), or finally, an idea or topic is the result of something, a concluding statement, a cause that leads to an effect (thusbecauseergo, so, since). These words tell you how things in a passage connect, how things in a sentence connect. Pay attention to them.

Second, if you find a word you don’t know, abbreviate it. Either in your mind or in your notes, use an abbreviation. This is especially helpful when a passage is salted with terms describing biochemical reactions within algae, the strata of weather patterns in the Andes mountains, or astrological phenomenon that seem more like online passwords than the name of stars. Don’t worry about a strange new word. Give it a new name. A name you like. A name you can understand. If the passage says, “Averaging of incompressible flows on two-dimensional surfaces”[2], I say, “Avg. the flow!” Ultimately, try to understand the function of the abbreviation in the passage. Look at how the author uses the words and ideas–the author’s purpose. Remember, “Why is more important than what.”

Finally, ask yourself some questions about the word you don’t know:

  1. Is it person, place, thing, or idea?
  2. Is it an action?
  3. Is it an event?
  4. Is it something in the past, present, or future?
  5. Is it a description of something?
  6. Is it how to do something?
  7. Is it a fact or opinion?
  8. Is it a category, a relationship, or a type?

Alright, enough talking about it, let’s illustrate this with an example. I found a passage similar to something you might read on the test titled, “Evolution of gene neighborhoods within reconciled phylogenies.” The title alone is a intimidating. Here is an excerpt:

Here, we propose a method that takes a species tree and a set of gene trees as inputs, and models the gain and breakage of gene adjacencies along a pair of trees, taking duplications and losses into account. We consider two genes to be ‘adjacent’ if they are on the same chromosome in the same genome and no other gene is located between the two. We give an exact polynomial algorithm which minimizes the number of gains and breakages of adjacencies, or more generally, the gain/breakage cost of an evolutionary scenario for gene adjacencies. The result consists of sets of ‘adjacency trees,’ which are phylogenetic trees describing the evolution of a family of homologous adjacencies (adjacencies that share a common ancestor and derived from it).”[3]

Overwhelming? What if you had one minute to read and answer a question? Well, you should abbreviate and focus on the relationship of ideas:

  1. They took two types of GT, “gene trees.”
  2. Put GT into model–wanted to see where there was gainB, “gain and breakage.”
  3. gainB was at ADGE, “adjacent genes.”
  4. definition of ADGE.
  5. Something to minimize gainB–something to account for evolution.
  6. gainB related to evolutionary event.
  7. The result: another GT, which describes the evolution of similar ADGE.

Notice that this is not a complete summation of the passage, but merely a rough sketch of what is there, an outline of the passage’s flow from one idea to next. I may not really know what they mean by “gain breakage,” but I do know how it is used in the passage.

So next time you encounter something foreign, new, and potentially scary in a reading passage, think, “What Would Richard Feynman Do?” WWRFD? Abbreviate, ask questions about the words, look at the relationship of ideas, and embrace not knowing. You might even enjoy it.

[1] The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard Feynman, edited by Jeffery Robbins ISBN 0-14-029034-6


[3] Bioinformatics. 2012 September 15; 28(18): i382–i388. Published online 2012 September 3. doi: 10.1093/bioinformatics/bts374