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The following is a GRE question from the Hard practice question set of the Official ETS guide, 2nd Edition.

Select the two answer choices that, when used to complete the sentence, fit the meaning of the sentence as a whole and produce completed sentences that are alike in meaning.

Overlarge, uneven, and ultimately disappointing, the retrospective exhibition seems too much like special pleading for a forgotten painter of real but _________ talents.

A limited
B partial
C undiscovered
D circumscribed
E prosaic
F hidden

I think C, E and F can easily be ruled out. I picked A and B, but the answers given are A and D. Why is B considered wrong when partial can also mean limited?

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  • A word is known by the company it keeps. Have you looked at (a_ Google Ngrams, (b) raw Google data for the strings "limited talents" and "partial talents"? Though I'd expect 'circumscribed talents' to be rare also. 'Talents' would seem to be individual but non-decompositional: one can imagine someone possessing talents x, y and z, but one wouldn't usually consider someone having x, 0.8y and 0.3z. Nov 4, 2017 at 10:37
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    "Partial talent" yields more results than "circumscribed talent" in both of those searches. I agree that both of these terms are rare but if I were to make a wild guess I'd just assume more people would use "partial talent" or "limited talent" against "circumscribed talent" since partial is a more well-known word.
    – dnclem
    Nov 4, 2017 at 10:53
  • I suggested using the count usage (plural form). Nov 4, 2017 at 11:01

1 Answer 1

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The principal definition of partial, shown in your screenshot, is "existing only in part".

Talents can't exist only in part: either you have a talent or you don't.

This is different from partial answer or partial recovery, where a given answer may answer part of the question; or recovery may go part of the way to full health. It would be difficult to see a partial talent for cooking (what's the point of beautifully chopping vegetables if the end result is inedible?) or even painting. One might prepare beautiful colours and then apply them hamfistedly, or do a beautiful job of using poor materials — the end result is simply untalented. That's not to say that you cannot be talented at part of a job, chopping vegetables or mixing paint, but that is breaking down the job into constituent parts in order that the entire talent is resolvable.

This breaking down of the job into specific parts is what makes circumscribed the right answer: the painter does have some talents, perhaps mixing colours well, or composition at certain sizes; but they are discrete and not applicable to his whole oeuvre.

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  • Good argument. I was about to say "why must the principal definition matter when secondary definitions are quite common in GRE questions" but I agree that the notion of possessing a(n) "incomplete/partial" talent makes no sense.
    – dnclem
    Nov 4, 2017 at 10:59
  • What does special pleading mean in the context of the sentence? I read the dictionary definition but still couldn't understand what that part of the sentence implies Oct 14, 2023 at 16:11
  • @SahilSingh Please don't ask questions in comments. You've been a member here for 5 years and have 62 accounts: you know how the system works. Ask a new question, taking what material you need from this one. Do note that special pleading is actually a headword in at least one dictionary, so that should also form part of your question: does that answer the question, and if not, why not?
    – Andrew Leach
    Oct 15, 2023 at 7:47

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