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Easiest clue: absolute vs qualified

TOEFL reading clues

Today I will talk about the easiest way to identify wrong choices in TOEFL reading and listening: absolute terms. Choices with absolute terms can often be false because they present statements or options that claim something to be universally true or universally false without considering exceptions or nuances. Reality, however, is nuanced. Absolute terms ignore the complexity and nuances of real-world scenarios. Many situations have exceptions or variables that can lead to different outcomes or interpretations. What may be true in one context may not be true in another. What may be true for one person or group may not be true for another. Absolute statements may not account for these variations. For all these reasons, absolute terms can significantly impact the validity of a statement. These are examples of absoluteness indicating words:

all, every, none, always, never, impossible, only, and superlative forms

If there is even one counterexample, a claim with an absoluteness-indicating word will be wrong. So when an option contains absoluteness indicating words, you should be suspicious of its truth. To avoid absoluteness, people use qualifiers. When an option is qualified, counterexamples cannot make it false. Thus, options with qualifiers are almost always true (You see I just used a qualifier, almost, to hedge myself!) 

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Qualifiers are especially useful clues when the passage talks about a theory or a hypothesis that cannot be shown to be demonstratively true. So for instance, hypotheses about distant past or far away places like Mars and Saturn, the option choices that do not use qualifiers have to be false. Consider these two sentences: 

  1. Some scientists believe that the chemical elements constituting cells are likely to be present on most planets. 

  2. Since the most common elements for life are universal, the universe is filled with life. 

1 is properly qualified by “some, believe, likely” and “most.” So, 1 has to be true even if we don’t know anything about the passage. By contrast, 2 makes an absolute claim. For this reason, 2 is most likely to be false even if we do not know anything about the passage.  

Using another example, assume that the passage talks about the coastal migration hypothesis that people using watercraft, possibly skin boats, moved southward from Beringia along the Gulf of Alaska and then southward along the Northwest Coast of North America possibly as early as 16,000 years ago. This is the question: 

Question 1

The discovery of the remains of large land animals supports the coastal migration hypothesis by providing evidence that

  1. Humans were changing their hunting techniques to adapt to coastal rather than inland environments

  2. Animals had migrated from the inland to the coasts, an indication that a midcontinental ice-free corridor was actually implausible

  3. Humans probably would have been able to find enough resources along the coastal corridor

  4. The continental shelf was still exposed by lower sea levels during the period when the southward migration of people began

By just examining the answer choices, we can identify the correct answer. The hypothesis is about something that happened 16,000 years ago, which means that none knows its absolute truth. That is, it can never be “proven” to be true. So it must be worded carefully using qualifiers. 

A is definitive, so questionable.

B also is not qualified, making it questionable.

C is properly qualified with “probably.” So C is a good choice.

D  is definitive, so questionable. 

By just focusing on the use of qualifiers in the choices, we can identify that C is the correct answer

Answer: C


What does the evidence from the study of red howler monkeys in French Guiana suggest about the theory of "Behavioral Resilience in Translocated Populations"?

  1. The theory suggests that translocated individuals never fully recover their original behaviors.

  2. The theory posits that translocated individuals adapt quickly to their new environment without any initial disruptions.

  3. The evidence supports the idea that translocated populations can eventually regain behaviors similar to those in their original habitat.

  4. The evidence indicates that translocated populations always exhibit the same behaviors as the original population.


A has an absolute term “never.” 

B has an absolute term “without any.”

C is qualified with “can.”

D has an absolute term “always.”  

Answer: C

Question 3

Introductory summary sentence:

The punctuated equilibrium hypothesis has presented a compelling challenge to Darwin's gradualism thesis.

Answer choices:

  1. Gradualism is the view that species change continuously but slowly and in small increments, and punctuated equilibrium hypothesis is the view that species give rise to new species in relatively sudden bursts, without a lengthy transition period.

  2. An examination of fossils of horses proves the truth of the punctuated equilibrium hypothesis. 

  3. Dawin was the first person interested in speciation, but he was entirely unaware of the punctuated equilibrium hypothesis.

  4.  The equilibrium hypothesis is supported by the facts that many species appear to remain unchanged in the fossil record for millions of years and that intermediate fossil forms, predicted by gradualism, are typically lacking. 

  5. No fossil evidence was provided by Darwinian gradualists.

  6. Those who proposed the punctuated equilibrium hypothesis maintained that the degree of Darwinian gradualism is virtually nonexistent in the fossil record, and that stasis dominates the history of most fossil species.


A provides general definitions of the terms, punctuated equilibrium hypothesis and Darwin's gradualism thesis. So we keep A.

B: is problematic in two ways. First, B says that the punctuated equilibrium hypothesis is proven to be true, which implies that gradualism has to be false, since the two are inconsistent. But this is not what is said in the introductory summary sentence; it only says that the punctuated equilibrium hypothesis is a strong rival to gradualism. So B is eliminated. Additionally, you cannot use “prove” for an empirical or scientific hypothesis. 

C has questionable qualifiers, “the first person” and “entirely.” Commonsensically, it is unlikely that Darwin was the first person interested in speciation. It is plausible that people prior to Darwin also have wondered about speciation, that is, how a new kind of plant or animal species is created: e.g., the creationism of the Bible and the essence theory of Aristotle.  Also, none can be sure that Darwin was entirely unaware of the punctuated equilibrium hypothesis. For these reasons, we eliminate C. 

D provides the reason why Darwin’s gradualism thesis has been convincingly challenged by the punctuated equilibrium hypothesis. D also qualifies properly with such words as ‘appear’ and ‘typically.’ So we keep D.

E: “No’ is an absolute term. Commonsensically, there has to be some evidence for a theory when the theory is proposed. That is, a theory without any evidence does not make sense. So E is eliminated.

F supports the introductory summary sentence. It also has a qualifying word, virtually. So, we keep F.  

Answer: ADF

From Dr. Byrnes's TOEFL reading guide, you can learn how to quickly eliminate wrong choices for TOEFL summary questions using her five strategies.