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Vocabulary in Context: The New York Times, The Economist, The Atlantic Monthly, and the New Yorker

Over the last few months, I’ve declaimed on many occasions that studying only from a deck of flashcards has limited efficacy. Instead, The Revised GRE requires us to have a far greater sense of how words function in context, and so one can’t simply start and stop with flashcards. Our free GRE flashcards do a great job of providing context, but even then I still recommend reading in context.

Instead I’ve recommend learning vocabulary by reading voraciously from prescribed sources. These sources include The New York Times, The Economist, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New Yorker. Most of the writing found within the pages of these august publications is not only replete with GRE-level vocabulary but is also similar in tone and style to that found on the Revised GRE.

Today I am going to take actual articles from the aforementioned sources. I will highlight important vocabulary and also discuss ways you should approach learning words when you encounter them in context.

Finally, the articles come from a wide variety of fields, e.g. business, science, literature, etc. I’ve done my best to select pieces that I think a majority will find interesting, a criteria that I recommend you employ when you embark on your own reading quest.

In each case, I’ve specifically taken excerpts that contain not only GRE words (though these are sprinkled throughout each article) but also engage in analysis of some issue.

(If you’re more interested in books than articles, head over to: GRE Vocabulary Books: Recommended Fiction and Non-Fiction).

Let’s start with an article taken from the business section of The Atlantic Monthly.

The Atlantic Monthly

Outsider, non-founder CEOs are often overvalued because many corporate boards think the answer to their problems is a superstar CEO with an outsized reputation. This leads them to overpay for people who are good at creating outsized reputations through networking, interviewing, and taking credit for other peoples’ achievements–all bad indicators of future success.

Rakesh Khurana has amply shown how this delusion of the charismatic savior creates a dysfunctional market for CEOs, allowing the small number of existing public-company CEOs to demand and receive extravagant compensation. The myth of the generalist CEO is bolstered by the many fawning media portrayals where CEOs say that their key jobs are understanding, hiring, and motivating people–leading board members to believe that you can run a technology company without knowing anything about technology.

This passage is great because it is full of relatively difficult words, many of which are high-frequency GRE vocabulary (fawning, bolstered, ample/amply). This excerpt is also filled with analysis, which will help sync your synapses for the Revised GRE.

The article also scores big points on topics of interest. After all, it’s Steve Jobs – revere him or fear him, most of us have an opinion of the company and its ubiquitous products (and now that this tech titan has just stepped down this article is more timely than ever).

Perhaps you find business blah or maybe you like to vary your reading. A great field to draw from is science. Part of the reason is the Revised GRE will typically have one science passage. While it may be drier than the typical fare found in the magazines cited above, often the science writing on the GRE is similar in tone and style to what you’ll encounter in these magazines.

So let’s take the article Bird Brain, which appeared in the New Yorker last year. It explores the development of language in human beings and whether language is the province only of humans. To do so, it tells the story of an African gray parrot, Alex, and his owner, Irene Pepperberg—namely how she trained Alex to say hundreds of words (though none, I believe, were GRE vocab) so that Alex, by the time he was an adult, was able to form relatively coherent sentences.

Below is an excerpt from the article, which is about 15-pages long. In general I would recommend the entire piece, especially if the above sounds intriguing. The excerpt includes a few vocab words (but of course) and some reflection and analysis.

The New Yorker

All children grow up in a world of talking animals. If they don’t come to know them through fairy tales, Disney movies, or the Narnia books, they discover them some other way. A child will grant the gift of speech to the family dog, or to the stray cat that shows up at the door. At first, it’s a solipsistic fantasy—the secret sharer you can tell your troubles to, or that only you understand. Later, it’s rooted in a more philosophical curiosity, the longing to experience the ineffable interiority of some very different being. My eight-year-old daughter says that she wishes the horses she rides could talk, just so she could ask them what it feels like to be a horse. Such a desire presumes—as Thomas Nagel put it in his 1974 essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”—that animals have some kind of subjectivity, and that it might somehow be plumbed. In any case, Nagel explained, humans are “restricted to the resources” of our own minds, and since “those resources are inadequate to the task,” we cannot really imagine what it is like to be a bat, only, at best, what it is like to behave like one—to fly around in the dark, gobble up insects, and so on. That inability, however, should not lead us to dismiss the idea that animals “have experiences fully comparable in richness of detail to our own.” We simply can’t know. Yet many of us would be glad for even a few glimpses inside an animal’s mind. And some people, like Irene Pepperberg, have dedicated their lives to documenting those glimpses.

Though you may already know a few of these words, you should definitely look them up, especially if you are inferring the meaning based on the context. Always validate your hunch, don’t assume you can always glean the exact definition of the word simply by looking at context.

After looking up these words, you’ll notice a word with a secondary meaning, plumbed, and a couple of words from philosophy – subjectivity and solipsistic. After consulting Word Smart, Barron’s Words You Need to Know, or other vocabulary lists I’ve recommend you’ll notice that subjectivity (or subjective) is a very important word; solipsistic, on the other hand, is not as likely to pop up on the test. But if you already have a strong vocabulary, and are looking to score in the top 10%, then definitely learn solipsistic.

You will notice that the definition of interiority isn’t very surprising, as it is directly related to interior. You may also notice that it is similar to subjective. Finally, you learn the word ineffable, which say you’ve never seen before, and you also find it on a few lists. Write it down on a flashcard along with an example sentence (oh, the irony of ineffable – for to say something is ineffable is undermining the very essence of the word).

Following a process similar to the one above is important. You don’t want to simply underline the words and look them up. You want to digest them, so that, much like Alex the parrot, you will be able to use them in a coherent sentence.

Of course reading the entire article is also a good idea. Essentially you are training your brain to read through a long, relatively challenging piece, a skill that is indispensable for the much longer Revised GRE.

Let’s say that you read Bird Brain and enjoy it. You are already familiar with a number of words and want something more challenging, maybe something couched in academic jargon or that oozes literary style. (I’m assuming that if you fall into this category, you are also looking to get the difficult verbal section).

A good resource is the New York Times Book Review. Here you will find the truly erudite waxing literary on a recently published novel/book that is just as scholarly (Are these the very writers who craft byzantine Text Completions for ETS?).

Below are two excerpts from the same book review of a biography of Joseph Heller, the reclusive, and frequently irascible, author of Catch-22, one of the great novels of the 20th century.

New York Times Book Review

But again, Daugherty is often perceptive about Heller’s place in the larger culture, even if the novelist himself rarely comes into focus. For the human aspect, one turns to Erica Heller’s frank but loving memoir of her father, “Yossarian Slept Here,” which comes as close as possible, I dare say, to deciphering the enigma behind the obsessive, pitch-black fiction. Joseph Heller, the opposite of demonstrative, was given to oblique ways of showing affection…

That was the year Heller published his second novel, “Something Happened,” which Daugherty commends as follows: “Joe stepped beyond Wilson’s sentimentality and Yates’s bitterness to eviscerate modern America’s success ethic.” Such a pat comparison to Sloan Wilson, the author of “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” and Richard Yates, the author of “Revolutionary Road,” is the sort of thing Daugherty might have emended given a bit more time to think about it; at any rate, “Something Happened” is perhaps the one work of postwar American fiction that makes Yates seem positively Panglossian. Erica Heller, for her part, describes the novel (probably her father’s best) as “569 pages of hilarious but mordant, caustically wrapped, smoldering rage” — though of course it’s personal in her case. Primary among the targets of the protagonist Bob Slocum’s paranoid, solipsistic rant is his family…

This article is clearly the most challenging of all the ones printed in this post. There are many difficult words, some that may give even the literate amongst us pause (Panglossian is derived from a character in Voltaire’s Candide, Dr. Pangloss. The doctor was always optimistic, regardless of the circumstances).

Interestingly, solipsistic makes another appearance. Maybe it’s not such an arcane word after all. Higher-frequency words—GRE-wise—include mordant, caustic, emend, enigma, and oblique.

Also, you want to be careful not to rely too much on assumptions. Demonstrative does not simply mean to demonstrate (it means tend to expression one’s emotions outwardly). And pat, such a diminutive word, so folksy-sounding and innocuous, has many meanings. The adjective form, which is employed in the book review, could easily pop up on the GRE, and cause you to answer a text completion incorrectly. So be sure to look up such word (if an explanation is pat it is superficial/cursory and unconvincing).

Surprisingly, difficult vocabulary words and highfalutin prose aren’t only found in the esoteric niche of the book review. Let’s take an opinion piece we are far more likely to read: the movie review.

The New York Times

At a certain point, though — to say exactly when would ruin a fairly stunning surprise — the cat-and-mouse psychology is jettisoned in favor of something more procedural. The two halves of “Love Crime” divide according to the words of the title: the first explores the knotty, feverish, ambiguous bond between Christine and Isabelle, while the second is all about guilt, innocence, evidence and motive. It is interesting and ingenious, even if some of the kinky, queasy fascination that had been so intoxicating in the earlier scenes ebbs away.

While the words here aren’t as recondite as Panglossian, the prose style is relatively challenging and has echoes of the GRE Text Completion.

 

How do I know which articles I should read?

For tips on where to start, read my post on Reading Vocabulary in Context: Where Should I Start?

About the Author

Chris Lele has been helping students excel on the GRE, GMAT, and SAT for the last 10 years. He is the Lead Content Developer and Tutor for Magoosh. His favorite food is wasabi-flavored almonds. Follow him on Google+!

48 Responses to Vocabulary in Context: The New York Times, The Economist, The Atlantic Monthly, and the New Yorker

  1. reza March 25, 2014 at 7:35 am #

    Hi Chris.
    Kevin in the below page introduce the best part of The New York Times(i.e. Sunday Review).
    http://magoosh.com/gre/2014/gre-reading-practice-writers-in-the-new-york-times/.
    This part is excellent. But I am confused about the other sources: The Economist, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New Yorker.Do you think Which part of these magazines are the best? If you can, introduce some parts of those sources like Kevin.Because these online magazines have many topics and I do not have any idea about them.

  2. Archana February 23, 2014 at 1:57 pm #

    What all articles should i read in http://www.aldaily.com/
    there are sooooo many articles there… i m stuck…

    amd please also tell me that, just reading the economist will help??

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele February 24, 2014 at 8:00 pm #

      Hi Archana,

      I know it can seem overwhelming, given the number of articles. There are no “magic sequence” or articles one has to read. As long as you are reading challenging material that you find interesting (at least relatively speaking), then you are on the right track. Learn words as you read the article, and write these words down or store them somewhere convenient.

      The point is reading articles like these (whether from aldaily.com, economist) is just one small piece in the GRE vocab/ verbal puzzle. And being an avid reader will help improve your “reading brain”–which will help a lot test day.

      Hope that helps!

      • Archana February 25, 2014 at 4:12 am #

        You mean to say… that i can read anything and everything.. and from anywhere… it hardly makes a difference…right??
        What important is that i am reading articles and learning words from it… right?

        Can you just tell me , like where should i start from.. i am really confused…
        actually in one of your article you mentioned that.. reading about world politics and all is not that important instead we should focus on the literature section… so… like if i am reading from any magazine , say “the economist” , so should i leave the politics section and mainly focus on articles from the “arts, music,science,culture,book reviews” section ..??

        • Chris Lele
          Chris Lele February 25, 2014 at 10:58 am #

          Hi Archana,

          Well, yes and no. For aldaily.com, you can basically read anything, because all of those articles are of a high literary merit. With the economist though, or any newspaper, the news is usually written in a more straightforward style, and the vocabulary is not too difficult. So, yes, in that case you want to stick to three- or four-page articles (which tend to be more analytical than mere reportage). The Economist’s science section is not that bad, but they do not have as much in terms of culture, music, etc. For that I’d recommend the nytimes.com or The New Yorker.

          Sorry if I was originally misleading. Hope that clears up any confusion :).

          • Archana February 25, 2014 at 11:54 am #

            Thank you Chris !

            Yeah now no confusion :)

            • Chris Lele
              Chris Lele February 27, 2014 at 11:58 am #

              You are welcome!

  3. Syed January 14, 2014 at 5:09 pm #

    Thanks Chris!

    I’m wondering if you are familiar with the New Left Review and would recommend it for GRE vocabulary. I really like that journal and I plan on going to graduate school for social sciences. Here is their link.

    http://newleftreview.org/

    Regards,
    Syed.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele January 15, 2014 at 10:43 am #

      Hi Syed,

      Thanks for the rec :). So, I definitely see some GRE vocab scattered in there. For me, though, the writing is a little bit on the dry side–but if you enjoy reading the articles, I’d say they are a decent source for vocabulary. Not as rich as a nytimes, New Yorker, of Atlantic Monthly article, but not bad. For a similar-themed–though different political slant–Foreign Affairs has article that usually use decent vocab.

      Hope that helps!

      • Syed January 19, 2014 at 6:20 pm #

        Thanks Chris. I have access to Foreign Affairs magazine through my university. I will start reading it now. :-)

        • Chris Lele
          Chris Lele January 23, 2014 at 10:54 am #

          Hi Syed,

          Great! Good luck :).

  4. Ravinder Bhatia October 21, 2013 at 10:14 am #

    Hello Chris,

    Will all these articles help me in improving my Reading Comprehension and Critical Reasoning skills on GMAT?

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele October 21, 2013 at 1:10 pm #

      Hi Ravinder,

      The articles will definitely help you become more adept at reading. You will be able to read longer without becoming fatigued. To say that these articles will directly help you at GMAT RC/CR is a bit of a stretch. Think of reading in context as jogging and soccer/football. Becoming a better runner will help you become a better soccer player, to an extent. You will still have to do soccer drills and play practice games, which is analogous to doing actual GMAT RC and CR question.

      Hope that makes sense!

  5. deepak sharma September 27, 2013 at 9:01 pm #

    Hey chrish .. i am little late .. only 1 month left only..
    I am little late here
    How much I should read every day. In mangoosh I am not comfortable with hard and very hard TC and RC these questions are killing my time and I think only reading can fix these week points, but I am not left with so much time , where I should concentrate so I can develop ‘wiring’ in less time and efficient way.I can devote 3 hours a day, but how can I be efficient during the reading time.
    One more thing, We have everything on the portal , can u put 1 lecture over ‘how to read’, yes it is quite basic stuff , still if u will tell , it will be very helping and save
    lot of time and efforts, I mean to say how to perceive these things like (‘’ “ ; – ‘’ etc) and things like (He’s anything but, He’s everything but etc) during reading.

    Well many thanks in advance

  6. Kat September 4, 2013 at 7:56 pm #

    Hi Chris,

    I’m following the 2-month Magoosh schedule and lessons. Accordingly, I’ve been reading a few articles as advised on one of your posts. My question is: is reading articles geared towards building vocabulary or reading comprehension? Can one replace a couple of the weekly articles with scholarly articles of more interest? The articles in these magazines can either be too boring or too political. So, I was wondering if I could find an alternative. Thanks…

    Kat

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele September 5, 2013 at 10:22 am #

      Hi Kat,

      Yes, the reading is meant to be both for comprehension and vocabulary. Granted, if you are already a big reader, the comprehension isn’t really going to increase that much by reading the Economist, etc. Something more scholarly would indeed do the trick :). aldaily.com is an excellent source of scholarly articles scoured from across the web, most of which aren’t overtly political.

      Hope that helps!

      • Kat September 16, 2013 at 10:41 am #

        Thanks Chris! :-)

        • Chris Lele
          Chris Lele September 16, 2013 at 12:00 pm #

          You are welcome!

  7. Anand September 2, 2013 at 6:15 am #

    Thanx Chris

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele September 3, 2013 at 1:13 pm #

      You are welcome!

  8. Vamsi August 31, 2013 at 9:04 pm #

    Hi,

    I have my exam in a month and I really want to improve on my verbal and vocab. I am from India and I wonder if you have come across any newspaper or magazine which is of the same standard as New Yorker. Any suggestions in this regard ?
    I am very thankful for your posts.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele September 3, 2013 at 12:03 pm #

      Hi Vamsi,

      The New Yorker writes at a very high standard. Similar magazines that also have long articles full of GRE-level words, include the Atlantic Monthly, Harpers, and the weekend supplement from the New York Times.

      Sometimes a great place to get all of these–and more!–is aldaily.com.

      Good luck!

  9. Paris Hoang August 13, 2013 at 2:24 am #

    Hi Chris,

    Do I have to use the dictionary and look up for new words immediately when I see a new word? Is it better to look up later when we cannot guess about the meaning?

    Sincerely,

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele August 13, 2013 at 11:39 am #

      Hi Paris,

      I recommend looking up words after the article–that way your “reading flow” isn’t interrupted. However, if there are so many difficult words that you are not even sure what the article is saying, then you should scan the articles, making note of the difficult words, and then go look up those words. That way, when you go to read the article again, you’ll have a better sense of those words, and you should be able to understand the article better.

      Hope that helps!

  10. Dan March 27, 2013 at 6:42 am #

    Great list. I love The Atlantic and The Economist. I would only like to add Slate to the list. It is more entertaining and sarcastic, but still pedagogical.

    • Margarette
      Margarette March 27, 2013 at 12:16 pm #

      Hi, Dan

      Yes, that’s great! We love Slate as well :)

      Best,
      Margarette

  11. Arsalan Akram March 12, 2013 at 5:14 pm #

    Hey Chris,

    The info you have provided is great. Keep up the good work. Since you have mentioned about the blend of good reading with good GRE word lists, can you advise as to which word list should I refer to for my preparation. I would really appreciate a response on this as I have come across a huge no. of lists but am confused as to which one I should be focusing on.

  12. Emmanuel Taiwo August 22, 2012 at 9:44 am #

    Yeah, sure….you certainly are up to something….thanks a bunch…and keep up the GREat job!

    • Chris Lele
      Chris August 22, 2012 at 2:09 pm #

      You are welcome :)

  13. Emmanuel Taiwo August 20, 2012 at 1:00 pm #

    Your articles are great; and to be frank I’ll say that your vocab e-book is one of a kind. But I’lld like to know how you arrived at the conclusion that some words are high frequency while others are not. How did you discern this? Thanks!

    • Chris Lele
      Chris August 21, 2012 at 1:28 pm #

      Now that is a great question :).

      My approach isn’t incredibly scientific, because who truly knows what the wizards at ETS are cooking up behind the curtain. “High-frequency words” are those based on words I’ve seen throughout the years on the GRE, and for that matter, the SAT (which is also written by ETS). Many of these words are based on those typically found in the nytimes.com, economist, etc. and are typically words known by articulate Ivy League types (again, this all incredibly unscientific on my part).

      Most importantly, ETS has a penchant for words that are confusing (equivocate, ambivalent, prevaricate, etc.) for any number of reasons. It probably knows that making a question more difficult can sometimes entail nothing more than dropping one of these confusing words in there.

      As for my track record, on the most recent pdf/paper-based test GRE test, I believe about 20–if not more–of the words had been featured in my vocab posts/ebook. So again absolutely no scientific rigor behind my tag “high-frequency”, but it looks like I may be on to something :).

  14. dina July 22, 2012 at 12:56 am #

    hi chris,
    My brother will / wants to appear for the SAT – he still has 2 yrs time but since english is not his mother-tongue – he might mess up on CR and grammar
    any advice on the best books out ther for math,cr and writing?

    • Chris Lele
      Chris July 24, 2012 at 3:58 pm #

      Hi Dina,

      Actually, we have an SAT blog in which I’ve written book reviews. Better yet, we have an actual SAT Magoosh product. So far my SAT students love it!

      http://magoosh.com/sat/
      sat.magoosh.com

      Let me know if you have any other questions :)

  15. gaurav June 12, 2012 at 8:03 am #

    Hi chris,
    I am following your blog .I i know i have to diligently for improving my vocab.I just want to ask you what should i follow as i m from non english speaking background from above references.I am studying your vocab book and need to follow any of the given magazines or books.And want your suggestion if you have any.
    I am planning to take gre in coming two months.And soon i will get premium membership.
    Thank you for amazing stuff.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris June 12, 2012 at 11:48 am #

      Hi Gaurav,

      A good place to start is with a subscription to nytimes.com. Here you have high quality writing and a diverse range of topics. Read whatever interests you, taking sedulous care to look up the words you do not know and to turn them into flashcards and use them whenever possible.

      Hope that helps :)

  16. Jennifer Megibben March 28, 2012 at 8:55 am #

    What is an 85th percentile score in the quantitative section on the new GRE. I cannot find any information on it online.

  17. Amir September 7, 2011 at 6:04 pm #

    Hi Chris,

    Thank you for your great post.

    I guess the “indispensable” is misspelled in The New Yorker excerpt in your own prose at “…, a skill that is indispensible for the much longer Revised GRE.”

    I just found a website “www.vocabahead.com” which is free and has lots of nice cartoons and examples for GRE words and wanted to share with others.
    I hope they are high frequency vocabularies; not sure though.

    Keep up the good work. You’re really the master of the GRE.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris September 8, 2011 at 10:17 am #

      Thanks for the kudos – looks like spell check was a little buggy.

      I’ve checked out vocabahead.com and I’m wondering if this could be a useful supplementary approach for some, esp. visual learners. So thanks for that link!

    • Sarah March 10, 2012 at 2:01 pm #

      Amir,

      That’s a really great site you recommended! It’s great to have another resource for looking up and learning new words with.

      Thank you!! :)

  18. trubulu September 7, 2011 at 12:09 am #

    am big fan of ur hirsute / coiffure!!!
    I like de spikes u set !!!

    ok any ways, one question chirs,

    Will reading and only reading can help in new gre? ?

    i intended to ask because with in fortnight i will b appearing , so little tensed!!!

    • Chris Lele
      Chris September 7, 2011 at 2:02 pm #

      Hi Trubulu,

      Thanks for the kudos – phrased in GRE words to boot!

      So there is a post today addressing the very question you asked: will reading do everything?

      I don’t want to give the false impression that reading alone will help you with vocab. Lists are stil indispensable, especially those that provide example sentences.

      So prep with good lists and read a lot. That’s my magic recipe!

  19. Arif September 6, 2011 at 10:18 am #

    Chris i follow your posts religiously ! Thank you so much for all your hard work!!

    • Chris Lele
      Chris September 6, 2011 at 11:04 am #

      You are welcome, Arif. I am happy you are enjoying the posts. It’s great to know I have fans out there!

  20. Shreenidhi September 6, 2011 at 10:07 am #

    Thank you very much Chris for this much needed ‘meaning in context’ reading.

    The passages chosen are quite similar to what i have encountered in the practice tests, be it RC or Text Completion.

    Keep up the good work.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris September 6, 2011 at 10:48 am #

      Thanks!

      Yes, reading vocabulary in this complex context will definitely help people prepare for the Revised GRE. Also, by reading you end up learning more things (stuff that you could possibly apply to the AWA).

  21. Arif September 6, 2011 at 9:49 am #

    Hello everyone! Chris is back after 4 days of break hehe!


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