You Must Know Your Vocabulary for the New GRE
Now that the new/revised GRE is simply the GRE, and the other GRE is officially the old GRE, many mistakenly assume that vocabulary is no longer an issue. True, the new GRE is no longer solely a test of vocabulary. Still, test takers must have a strong vocabulary in order to successfully interpret and deconstruct the formidable Text Completions and Sentence Equivalence Questions waiting for them on the actual test.
Now, more so than before, you have to know not just the meaning of the word, but the way in which a word is used in a sentence. In other words, robotically reciting a vocabulary word is not going to help much; constructing an eloquent sentence using a word, on the other hand, will mean you’re probably ready for the GRE.
To Group or not to Group – That is the Synonym Question
How does this increased focus on usage influence learning vocabulary? One specific area I’ll talk about today is grouping. Before, for the old GRE, an effective way of memorizing words was lumping them into the same group. For instance, the word sullen, meaning unhappy and brooding, could be thrown together with morose and saturnine, two GRE synonyms. We could go even further and include words that mean unhappy, though not necessarily brooding. Or, we could include even more extreme words for unhappy, such as doleful and dolorous.
Eventually, we’d have a large group of synonyms that more or less meant the same thing. In general, this level of differentiation would have been sufficient for the old GRE. At a certain point, however, synonyms have slightly different shades of meaning, so we cannot use them interchangeably in a sentence. This is especially the case for the new GRE.
What does ETS think?
In ETS’ Official Giude to the Revised GRE, one text completion has the words prosaic and hackneyed. Before, these words would inhabit the same synonym-sphere. Indeed, they still do. However, they are not quite the same thing. And it is this subtle difference in meaning and usage that the GRE is testing. Let’s take a closer look.
Hackneyed typically refers to an idea/movie plot/joke that lacks any originality, because it is overly familiar or stale. For instance, to call a writer a hack is to suggest that he/she is bereft of talent and is simply churning out the same type of story over and over again.
Prosaic means dull and unimaginative, and doesn’t have the strong negative connotation that hackneyed does. If I told a prosaic story it would simply be boring and straightforward – you wouldn’t be too interested. If I told a hackneyed story, even one with imaginative details, you would think, “Hey, I’ve heard that before – that sounds like countless other stories. Come up with something new”!
Of course, memorizing words from rote – especially from Barron’s 3500 word list, which gives vague, watered-down definitions – you would never be able to pick up on these nuances.
The Dangers of Synonym Over-Generalization
But Barron’s is by no means the only vocab offender in this case. A more egregious example would be Kaplan, at least as far as synonym grouping goes. Kaplan blithely lumps vocabulary into general groups – something they did on the old GRE, and which they continue to do in their recently released New GRE Verbal Workbook. Learning words this way is potentially harmful, as you will have, at best, a vague understanding of certain words, and, at worst, a total misunderstanding of some words.
For instance, Kaplan has piled aberrant, eclectic, anachronism into one heap, with the facile tag eccentric/dissimilar. That grouping is so general to the point of being useless. After all, a word is either similar or different. That is, the converse of the dissimilar group, the similar group, would house all the words in the English language that are not dissimilar.
Somewhat ironically, in this particular case, a student will end up associating words that end up being wildly dissimilar to one another: out of the context of the time (anachronism), a person who defies convention (iconoclast), a mixture of diverse elements (eclectic) and deviant (aberrant) are all now part of the same group.
The Verdict on Synonyms
So, how should one group vocabulary for the new GRE? By knowing not just the definition, but also how the words are used in context. If words are used in the exact same sense, like hackneyed and trite, then you can put them in the same group. To learn how words are used in context, you can rely on the Internet. How? Well, simply enter a word into Google and you have a virtual treasure trove of how that word is used in context (my one caveat: make sure the source is reliable – The Economist vs. Joe’s Daily Blog).
Learning vocabulary, and then – and here is the important part – learning how that vocabulary functions in the context of a sentence, will be the single most beneficial strategy for success on the GRE verbal section. So, don’t throw your flashcards away…though you may want to think of getting that subscription to The Economist.
- You must still learn vocabulary for the New GRE
- Know important differences between synonyms
- Learning words from context is key to success