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Source (One of many)

To say the actors were (i)______ their director is an understatement: a director who is visibly bored by his cast and their performances is hard to (ii)______.

The choices for (i) are:

A. disappointed in
B. accepting of
C. motivated by

The choices for (ii) are:

D. lambast
E. displease
F. suffer

There are three "semi-official" answers (not given by ETS) for this problem: AF, BF, BE. Any of them makes partial sense.

I originally chose AF. Since "understatement" means to say something less important than it really is, (ii) is supposed to be severer than (i).

I wonder how native speakers of English will approach this problem.

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  • It's a good question, but I think you should add your opinion too.
    – Cardinal
    Jun 19, 2017 at 17:53
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    I agree with @Cardinal – this is an interesting question, but it would be better if you explained why you think it's "controversial." Also, what do you mean by "semi-official answers"? Are those answer choices in the book, and only one of them is correct? Or are those three answers that people are regarding as ALL correct?
    – J.R.
    Jun 19, 2017 at 18:03
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    Asking how native speakers approach the problem is a great question! Sometimes this can provide some good insight to help learn English—by learning how the natives see it.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Jun 19, 2017 at 18:44
  • 21
    To be clear -- there are bad and ambiguous test questions out there, but this isn't one of them: the answer to this question is certainly AF and the unofficial guide that suggests other answers is simply wrong.
    – hunter
    Jun 19, 2017 at 23:24
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    @hunter. It most certainly is one of them.
    – Mars
    Jun 21, 2017 at 4:02

7 Answers 7

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If you focus on hard to you'll see that only suffer makes sense for blank (ii). Is it hard to displease a director who is visibly bored by his cast? No. It is hard to lambaste such a director? No.

And the colon indicates that the second clause flows from and is consonant with the first. The only phrase there which creates a clause that is consonant with the second one is disappointed in.

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  • 7
    You could argue that if the director is "visibly bored with his cast" then it is impossible for them to "displease" him/her, since he/she is taking no interest in them whatever they do. But as a native British English speaker, I would say the most obviously "correct" answer is AF.
    – alephzero
    Jun 19, 2017 at 19:20
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    @alephzero: Isn't boredom a kind of displeasure? Would you be happy to read A Treatise on Boredom?
    – TimR
    Jun 19, 2017 at 19:44
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    @Cardinal - It's a rather old-fashioned use of the word, and it leads me to believe this test either wasn't created by native speakers, or else it's intended to test for lesser-known meanings of common words.
    – J.R.
    Jun 19, 2017 at 20:07
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    @Cardinal: it is related to the adjective insufferable. Compare the phrase He does not suffer fools gladly.
    – TimR
    Jun 19, 2017 at 20:08
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    Yes, what @chrylis said—this is a challenging question for an English learner, but it's not intended for English learners. It's intended for university seniors or graduates who are applying for admission to (mostly American) graduate programs in everything from engineering to creative writing to philosophy, so some questions certainly are intended to test more advanced/obscure vocabulary (perhaps less so now than on older versions of the test).
    – 1006a
    Jun 19, 2017 at 23:05
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To say the actors were disappointed in their director is an understatement: a director who is visibly bored by his cast and their performances is hard to suffer.

Disappointed in is the only possibility for the first due to the use of understatement.

Suffer is used less often than its synonym tolerate.

The other choices don't really make sense.

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  • 2
    B can make sense if you view the rest as a contrast, eg. the actors are more than accepting of their current director, because their previous director was insufferable. Jun 20, 2017 at 3:10
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    @BlueRaja-DannyPflughoeft That's a rather... creative way of interpreting the sentence. There's really no reason to think that each instance of "director" refers to a different person, especially when they're in the same sentence separated by only a colon. Yes, it's possible for B to make sense if there was very specific additional context, but as the text stands by itself, B really doesn't fit. Jun 20, 2017 at 12:15
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    @NuclearWang: I didn't say B is a better answer than A; I'm just saying there is a context in which a native speaker might reasonably write this sentence. Jun 20, 2017 at 16:35
  • @BlueRaja-DannyPflughoeft: My first inclination on reading the sentence was that actors who are willing to tolerate a director who was visibly bored would must willing to tolerate ("accept") anything. IMHO, "accepting of" generally implies merely willingness to tolerate the referent's reasonable actions, and reasonable directors should not be difficult to suffer. Saying the actors were willing to tolerate the reasonable actions of a director who was acting grossly unreasonably would thus be an understatement.
    – supercat
    Jun 21, 2017 at 15:12
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To say the actors were (i)______ their director is an understatement: a director who is visibly bored by his cast and their performances is hard to (ii)______.

I like the way Collins describes understatement:

If you say that a statement is an understatement, you mean that it does not fully express the extent to which something is true : To say I'm disappointed is an understatement.
[emphasis added]

So, if the word that goes with (i) is negative, it means the situation was even worse than described; if the word is positive, it means the situation was even better.

Therefore, if we say:

To say the actors were disappointed in their director is an understatement...

that would mean the actors resented and loathed the director.

However, if we say:

To say the actors were accepting of their director is an understatement...

that would mean the actors loved and admired their director.

Finally if we say:

To say the actors were motivated by their director is an understatement...

that would mean the actors always wanted to give 110% and put on the best performance possible.


At this point, we have one answer that is negative (choice A) and two that are positive (choices B and C).

Now we need to examine the second part of the sentence:

a director who is visibly bored by his cast and their performances is hard to (ii)______.

If someone is hard to lambast, that would mean they are above criticism. If (ii) were lambast, then (i) must be B or C, because someone who is hard to lambast is above reproach.

If someone is hard to displease, that means they are easy to please. If someone is easy to please, they are generally well-liked but they probably don't inspire a high degree of motivation. So the only answer I can see going with (ii) being displease is (i) B – accepting of.

That leaves the final option, hard to suffer. I have the most problem with this one, because the phrase "hard to suffer" simply isn't idiomatic English. (When I Googled "hard to suffer" in quotes, only 10 hits came back, and one of them was a link to this ELL question.) Maybe that's because the writers of this practice exam aren't native speakers.

Had the final option been hard to work for, I would have paired that with A:

To say the actors were disappointed in their director is an understatement: a director who is visibly bored by his cast and their performances is hard to work for.

My best guess is that this is meaning that is intended. After all, even though looking visibly bored with the cast might conceivably be a motivator (through some kind of reverse psychology), I'm guessing that the director's boredom is something that demotivates rather than motivates the actors.

In conclusion, I think AF is the best answer out of those provided, although I still find "hard to suffer" problematic. Thus, I agree with you: the question is indeed "controversial" and not easy to answer.

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  • 9
    As a native speaker myself (American), "hard to suffer" doesn't sound "wrong" to my ears, just a little old-fashioned. I don't find it any less idiomatic than the other two "hard" + infinitive clause constructions. And it actually returns more Google results than "hard to lambast", if that's your criterion.
    – MJ713
    Jun 19, 2017 at 22:10
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    @MJ713 - Those are all good points and I agree. However, it's also worth noting that "lambast" in particular is not a very common word.
    – J.R.
    Jun 19, 2017 at 22:15
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    @MJ713 - The OP asked for us to explain "how native speakers of English will approach this problem." I merely was pointing out that, upon initial read, I thought the expression sounded a little odd, even though I'm a native speaker. I think the way you described it – old-fashioned – is quite apt. It's not a phrase I'm likely to hear or use in day-to-day conversation. So, when I said "problematic," I didn't mean from a grammatical perspective, I was just acknowledging that I can understand how this might be challenging for a learner.
    – J.R.
    Jun 19, 2017 at 22:51
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    @AndyT - I guess my reasoning was, “If a cast is performing poorly, and the director’s visible boredom motivates them to perform better...” but I think you’re right – that’s probably too much of a stretch.
    – J.R.
    Jun 20, 2017 at 11:43
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    I think the issue with "hard to suffer" might be that hard used this way is generally a different register than suffer, and we also most often use suffer in the negative. I think most English users (at the level of GRE-prep) should have at least a background awareness of the biblically-inspired expression not suffer fools gladly, which feels quite formal. As a result, difficult to suffer feels a bit more natural than hard to suffer and something like not easy to suffer or not easily suffered more natural yet. But those expressions are probably too formal for the sentence.
    – 1006a
    Jun 20, 2017 at 13:51
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I agree with the other commenters that AF makes the most sense of all the options given. However, I would contend that the second-most reasonable answer is actually CF.

As pointed out by other answers, the first part of the CF sentence means that the actors were always very motivated by this director. The second part states that it is hard to tolerate a bored and uninterested director.

Combined, CF paints a picture of a scenario in which a cast notices their director is uninterested with the performance, and finds this a strong motivational factor to improve their performances since the current situation is difficult to tolerate.

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    The more I think about it, the more I would upvote CF. Drop all of the fluff and rewrite the sentence as the causal: It's hard to suffer a bored director so the actors were ____. Written this way, "motivated" is much stronger than "disappointed".
    – claytond
    Jun 20, 2017 at 22:35
  • @claytond: For "disappointed" to really make sense, the second clause should have said that the actors' director was visibly bored. Instead, the second clause specifies that directors in general are hard to tolerate when they show boredom.
    – supercat
    Jun 21, 2017 at 14:51
  • That doesn't work with this particular (somewhat archaic) usage of suffer, which means something like put up with or tolerate with a side-helping of permit/allow. That is, this kind of suffering a director is not the type where someone who didn't want to do it would change their own behavior; rather, it is the kind where the actors would quit working for the director altogether (or better yet, get the director fired).
    – 1006a
    Jun 21, 2017 at 18:20
  • @supercat: I interpret the juxtaposition of the two statements as indicating that their director is characterized by the second part (i.e. boredom). The contorted sentence structure is just the test for fluency. This would allow for disappointment (but I find it less appropriate).
    – claytond
    Jun 22, 2017 at 16:01
  • @claytond: If the purpose was to say that the actors were disappointed in their director's apathetic behavior, why not say so directly? Why talk about apathetic directors in general? In many cases, the best way to glean the intended meaning of bad writing is to try to figure out what authors might have been trying to say that would cause them to use the sentence structure they chose. And the most logical reason I can see for a general vs specific statement would be to recognize a potential condition, rather than an actual one.
    – supercat
    Jun 22, 2017 at 16:09
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There are several other answers already, and they are correct, but since you are a non-native looking for what amounts to native opinion, I think it might be somewhat valuable to hear from several natives rather than just a few.

So, I will also agree that AF is correct.

The director is visibly bored, and the actors are disappointed in this fact. This makes the most sense.

Let me be more precise, since this may be part of your question. Due to the understatement, the statement is weaker than the truth. This implies the truth is stronger than the statement. So, they are MORE THAN disappointed. This is still best compared to MORE THAN accepting or MORE THAN motivated.

Meanwhile, "suffer" in this case means "tolerate." It isn't a very common usage, and may even be slightly archaic, but it still can be found sometimes.

Some phrases that come to mind are "doesn't suffer a fool gladly" or "don't suffer a witch to live." The first of these refers to a a teacher, boss, or other person of authority who is intolerant of such things. The second is a bible quote and suggests that a witch should not be tolerated (that is, should be executed).

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  • That makes sense; I yet think the question is poorly formulated. Would the actors be “disappointed in” their director, or ‘disappointed by’ the director's response? Was their expectation that their performances would be received well, or that this specific director would be able to correctly assess their performance? The question implies that the actors know their performance is good, and do not approve of their director's failure to recognize that fact — hmm, actually, maybe it isn't that far off … Jun 21, 2017 at 5:48
  • An actor might be satisfied with a director whose manner during rehearsal was hard to bear if the final result was that they performed well, and might be disappointed with a director whose manner during rehearsal was pleasant if the final performance went poorly. The causal relationship with AF seems weaker than with CF [it's important to keep the director from becoming bored and thus insufferable] or BF [actors who were willing to tolerate visible boredom from a director would have been willing to tolerate/"accept" anything from him].
    – supercat
    Jun 21, 2017 at 15:55
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To say the actors were accepting of their director is an understatement: a director who is visibly bored by his cast and their performances is hard to suffer.

Suffer means to continue to do something despite hardship.

Since the actors did this, they were accepting of their director. Since it was something they suffered through, it required extra effort to survive the effort, therefore merely saying "accepting of" is an understatement.

Disappointed in would be more appropriate if the sentence was talking about some effect or consequence after the acting/performance was completed and exhibited. We don't know how well the performance went yet from this sentence alone. The sentence might be talking about a completed yet unreleased performance.

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  • So you're arguing that the intended meaning of the sentence is "It is an understatement to say the actors did X, because X is difficult to do"? I disagree. If X is difficult to do, that would lead the actors to do it less strongly, which is at odds with the concept of understatement. (How can the words be weaker than what they describe, if what they describe is already weak?)
    – MJ713
    Jun 19, 2017 at 21:53
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    To me, the phrase "To say the actors were accepting of their director is an understatement" makes it sound like the actors were eagerly welcoming of the director's behavior. That's the opposite of the meaning that would fit here. Jun 19, 2017 at 23:34
  • I don't think 'accepting of' necessarily implies that the actors were eagerly welcoming the behaviour. I think you can also read 'accepting of' to mean that the actors were very accomodating despite the director's visible boredom. Therefore the interpretation here is that saying the actors were merely 'accepting of' is an understatement, because it took a lot of effort for them to suffer his behaviour with a positive attitude.
    – Lunakshc
    Jun 20, 2017 at 11:20
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    @Lunakshc: I see what you mean - but the problem is that "accepting of" implies that the acceptance is willing, not that it's an effort - so saying that them being "accepting of" was an "understatement" would mean that they were very willing to accept, not that they had to make a huge effort to do so.
    – psmears
    Jun 20, 2017 at 16:32
  • @psmears: There are different kinds of willingness and acceptance. If X is accepting of Y, that would generally imply that X is willing accept anything Y does, within reason. A willingness by X to accept unreasonable actions by Y would go beyond that--hence "understatement".
    – supercat
    Jun 21, 2017 at 14:56
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BF. To be "accepting of" the Director's bad behavior means essentially the same as to "suffer" his bad behavior. The alternative answer could be that they were "disappointed in" his bad behavior, but there is no corrolary to that in the second set of choices. I.e., it is clear that it would not be hard for the Actors to "lambast" (criticize) his behavior, and "hard to displease" is exactly the opposite of the meaning that would be required to describe his behavior, since the sentence insinuates that he is already displeased. So, a more appropriate answer might say that he is "hard to please". Answer 'A' doesn't fit either, because the Director's behavior as described makes it plain that he believes they are not motivated at all, much less highly motivated as the phrase "is an understatement" insinuates.

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    You've missed "hard to".
    – TimR
    Jun 19, 2017 at 18:27
  • By answer 'A' (disappointed in), do you mean answer 'C' (motivated by)? Also, is there something wrong with "disappointed in" and "suffer" (AF)? Jun 19, 2017 at 23:39
  • Someone who is bored will often be simultaneously hard to please but hard to displease. If someone was bored before you showed up, the only way to displease that person would be to make that person's displeasure worse than it already was.
    – supercat
    Jun 21, 2017 at 14:59

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