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Commonly Confused GRE Vocabulary

Artless vs. Artful vs. Artifice

Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet…surely they relate to the second word, and definitely not the first, which would be reserved for people like me who reached their artistic apotheosis with the drawing of stick-figures.

Well, as far as the GRE is concerned, neither word relates to art (both in the lower case and upper case sense). To be artful means to be cunning and wily.  To have artifice is to be artful. Perhaps you’ve read Dickens, and remember The Artful Dodger. The titular artful dodger did not have a penchant for watercolors, but was instead a devious, wily lad. This trait, presumably, allowed him to dodge tricky situations.

If somebody is artless, on the other hand, that person is innocent, guileless. It should come as little surprise, then, that the literary canon is absent an artless dodger, as he would be too innocent and naive to dodge much of anything.

Finally, artful and artless can refer back to the original usage of art. Therefore, Picasso is artful and I am artless. However, GRE rarely, if ever, tests this definition.


Expurgate vs. Expunge

They both mean to remove, but in different ways. To expurgate means to remove objectionable material. If you’ve ever watched a rated-R film that has been adapted for prime time, you’ll probably note that all those F-words—factitious, facetious, and fatuous—have been removed. That’s expurgation (think of the beep).

To expunge simply means to wipe out or remove any trace off. Many people who commit petty crimes have those crimes expunged from their records, given that person doesn’t decide to start running every other red-light. So, if you’ve been a good driver over the last 10 years, then that one incident when 85 became the new 65…well, that’s probably been expunged from your record.


Censure vs. Censor

Speaking of beeping out the F-word, we have a synonym for expurgate: censor. Censure, the much more common GRE word, has nothing to do with removing objectionable words and/or material. However, if you decide to start dropping the F-bomb in public—and I don’t mean facetious—then you can easily expect someone to censure you. To censure someone is to express strong disapproval of that person.


Ponderous vs. Imponderable

Ponder means to think over. So, ponderous must mean thinking. However, this is not the case. Ponderous is derived from ‘pondus’, which means weight (think of a pound). So, to be ponderous means to be weighed-down, and to move slowly and in a labored fashion.

Imponderable is not the opposite of ponderous. It actually relates to thinking. An imponderable is something that is impossible to estimate, fathom or figure out. Say a child were to ask, how long would it take driving in a car to go from one end of the universe to the other?  Unless you have a really big calculator—and a very fast car—then the answer to this question would be imponderable.

Read more about commonly confused words, and adapt this failproof method for learning GRE vocabulary.

By the way, students who use Magoosh GRE improve their scores by an average of 8 points on the new scale (150 points on the old scale.) Click here to learn more.

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