Hi Blair! —
Did you ever think that your LSAT prep would require you to email an instructor about the word “is”? And it’s totally understandable — the LSAT has made me spend countless hours sitting around thinking about words like “is.”
Crazy test, huh?
These are some interesting and important q’s, and I believe that if I can answer them well, it can be of great benefit to you in your studies — so, I hope I do an okay job (sorry in advance for the length), but if my explanations don’t satisfy you, or if you have any follow-up q’s, please don’t hesitate to let me know and we can keep talking until we work it out together —
Here’s what I’d like to do — first, I’ll walk talk about the various terms you brought up — necessary conditions, etc. — then I’ll talk a bit about what role this information should play in your LSAT prep process/LSAT strategies — and then we can finish up by talking about “is.”
1) LSAT Prep Terminology
Let’s take the statement, “All employees must wear a badge.”
So, this is a basic conditional statement, and you can think of it has having three types of components — the sufficient part, the necessary part, and the guarantee.
Sufficient means something is enough to guarantee a certain result.
In this case, being an employee is the sufficient condition, because it is the characteristic that guarantees a certain result.
Necessary means something that needs to be true based on the given guarantee.
Wearing a badge is the necessary result of this conditional statement, because, per the statement, if the person is an employee, he or she needs to wear a badge.
The guarantee is my way of describing the relationship between this sufficient component and the necessary result —
Per the given statement, having one characteristic (being an employee) absolutely guarantees another characteristic (has to wear a badge).
Certain words can give you a sense that you are going to be given the sufficient part of a guarantee — words like “every,” for example —
“Every cat likes to eat bananas.”
This relationship tells us that if something is a cat, it must like eating bananas. The “every” is called a sufficiency indicator because it tells us we are getting the “sufficient” part of the guarantee.
Certain words can give you a sense that you are going to be given the necessary part of a guarantee — words like “need to” —
“People need to eat.”
This statement tells us that if something is a person, it must eat. The “need to” is a indicator of necessity because it tells us what needs to be true.
And again, “guarantee” is just a way of describing the actual relationship between the sufficient and necessary components —
One example we used gives us a guarantee about cats and bananas — cats must like to eat bananas — and the other gave us a guarantee about people and eating — people must eat.
Lastly, the specific term “necessary condition” is typically used in situations such as the following —
“You can only drive if you are sixteen or over.”
Notice that in this case the guarantee is that if someone drives, that person must be 16 or over.
We call being 16 or over a “necessary condition” because it is the part that needs to be true for the statement to work.
2) Where this all fits into your study process
I think it can be useful to know certain terminology and study the test in relation to that terminology, but I do not believe it is good strategy to think too much about necessary conditions and such during the exam.
This is just my opinion, and I understand that there are other prep resources that do tell you it’s good strategy to actually focus on things like sufficiency indicators and such on test day — I’m sure these other teachers have good reasons for their recommendations and I don’t mean to offend any of them, but this is something I feel very strongly about, and you won’t see me discussing sufficiency indicators and such in any of the problem solutions I offer in the Trainer or anywhere else —
Here’s a long and boring explanation for why — you don’t need to read this if you don’t want to and if it gets too boring you can skip ahead directly to the “is” stuff —
As I often mention elsewhere, reading is an incredibly complex thing we do, and it’s based on using millions of intertwined habits and instincts — my opinion is that if you try to direct your reading actions too directly on a conscious level, you severely limit your ability to utilize all of this incredible ability —
Here’s a very simple way to see my point — try to take any sentence I’ve written here and think about it in terms of grammatical structure — identify the subjects, the verbs, the different types of modifiers and so on — I know most of you will not actually go through those motions, but if you were to do so, whether you were any good at it or not, here’s one thing that I’m sure you’d agree with me on: you’d be far worse at actually reading the sentence and understanding it well.
Is it important to be able to correctly understand what the subject of a sentence is, what parts of a sentence a modifier is meant to modify and so on? Absolutely, and if you have any trouble with those things it can be very useful to study them — but that doesn’t mean you want to be consciously thinking about those things as you are reading —
And I feel exactly the same way about indicators and such — reading with a focus on finding and understanding indicator words correctly is the equivalent of reading every sentence with a conscious focus on finding subjects, deciding on verbs, etc. You want to understand the rules well, and thinking about them in terms of formal terminology can be helpful for that, and you want to able to utilize a correct understanding when you feel stuck and uncertain in the moment, but, again, I don’t think indicators and such are things you generally ought to think about as you are solving most q’s — again, this is just my opinion, and I apologize if I offended anyone who teaches this differently.
Rather, what I suggest, and what I discuss often in the book, is to think first and foremost of goal — which is to correctly understand the given guarantee and see correctly the orientation of that guarantee (does A guarantee B or B guarantee A?) — and, throughout your studies, increase the arsenal of tools you have for serving that goal, and, perhaps more importantly, work to train your elephant (from chapter 1) to perform this task better and better throughout your studies.
3) The word “is.”
The word “is,” and its various siblings — am, were, will be, are, etc. — all the “to be” verbs, are, I would have to imagine, the most commonly verbs in any language, and, in fact, my guess is that they are the very first verbs humans ever came up with.
Okay, that’s a bit off topic, but the point I want to make is that the work “is” and all its other forms are so common and ubiquitous that we don’t have to think about the word in-depth in order to know what role it is playing in a certain context.
Ted is hungry.
The cats are crying.
The employees were underpaid.
We can just read those sentences, focus on what we think the meaning is, and move on, without having to separate out the word is.
And that’ll be the case with almost all “is” variations you read on the LSAT as well.
However, it is possible to think about the term is (and its variations) in a conditional way, because the word is does itself give us a guarantee.
Ted is hungry gives us T -> H.
And we can think of it as “being Ted is the sufficient condition,” “‘is’ represents the guarantee,” and “being hungry” is the necessary consequence. We can also remind ourselves of the contrapositive, that if one is not hungry, that person must not be Ted, and we can remind ourselves not to think of the statement in reverse — to know that this statement doesn’t mean that anyone who is hungry is Ted.
Again, we can think about all these things, but in general we don’t want to — if we did for every single “is” we would drive ourselves nuts and hardly finish any problems —
So when do we want to make sure we understand the statement in conditional terms? When do we want to, though we may not consciously use terms like sufficiency indicators and such, think about statements like “Ted is hungry” in terms of the guarantees they offer?
When we are asked to think about guarantees and things that must be true.
So, if you are asked an inference q where you need to identify an answer that “must be true,” you know you will be given a lot of guarantees in the stimulus, and you want to try and understand them as correctly as possible as guarantees. Similarly, if asked a sufficient assumption q, where the right answer must guarantee the validity of the argument, you should be more focused on thinking about any “is” statement in terms of the exact guarantee it offers. And also, when you see that within a certain stimulus the author has reached some absolute conclusion “All X must be Y,” and you can see that his support includes a series of such absolute statements, you know that your task is to see how these various guarantees relate to one another, and so you ought to be more focused on thinking about “is” in terms of the guarantees it offers. And there are other similar situations as well – again, the test will tell you when your focus should be on conditional thinking/guarantees.
I realize I’ve written a lot but, at the same time, I could write a ton more — I’ll stop myself here, but I hope the above gives you some clarification, and again, if you have any lingering confusion or any follow-up, please don’t hesitate to let me know —