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GRE Reading Comprehension Question Type: Definitions in Context

On the GRE a special type of question asks you to determine the meaning of the word based on how the word is used in the context of the Reading Comprehension passage. These questions are called vocabulary-in-context questions and usually comprise a few questions per test.

The best way to solve a vocab-in-context is question is to think of your own word that works for the word in the context. Do not simply try to define the word without looking at the passage.

Below is a passage followed by a few vocabulary-in-context questions. This passage is aimed for the high scorers.

Montaigne’s pursuit of the character he called Myself—“bashful, insolent; chaste, lustful; prating, silent; laborious, delicate; knowing, ignorant”—lasted for twenty years and produced more than a thousands pages of observation and revision. When he died, he was still revising and, apparently, not at all surprised, since Myself was a protean creature, impossible to anticipate but also, being always at hand, impossible to ignore. I like to think of the essays as a kind of thriller; with Myself, the elusive prey, and Montaigne, the sleuth, locked in a battle of equals who were too close for dissimulation and too smart for satisfaction. And it may be that Montaigne did, too, because he often warned his readers that nothing he wrote about myself was likely to apply for much longer than it took the ink he used, writing it, to dry.

Practice Questions

1. The words “prating” and “laborious,” in context, most likely mean what respectively?

(A)  bold and relaxed

(B)  rough and harsh

(C)  awkward and talkative

(D) garrulous and quiet

(E)  chatty and ponderous


2. In context, the word “protean” most nearly means:

(A)  unfortunate

(B)  threatening

(C)  unwavering

(D) constantly changing

(E)  difficult to describe


3.  As used in the passage, the word “dissimulation” connotes a sense of:

(A)  deliberate fraud

(B)  outright audacity

(C)  hidden deception

(D) unfeigned delight

(E)  implied criticism



1. Notice that the list of words contains opposites, “knowing, ignorant.” Therefore “prating” has to be the opposite of “silent.” (D) garrulous or (E) chatty are possible answers.

For the second word (and remember the words in the answer choices should not be opposites), we need an opposite of delicate. Therefore ‘ponderous’, which means moving about with great difficulty, is the answer.


2. Unless protean was on your word list (in which case you lucked out), you will have to rely on context to figure out the meaning.

It is important to note that most of the times, vocabulary-in-context questions are easier words that have multiple definitions, and you should not assume you know the word without looking at the context.

Here we have Myself, “impossible to anticipate…elusive.” The answer that matches up best here is (D)constantly changing.


3. This one is a toughie. Dissimulation is not the opposite of simulate, which means to pretend or to imitate. Anyhow, we should be basing our answer on context, not on what we think the word means.

Montaigne is trying to describe himself. Each time he comes close to doing so, his self, as it were, flits away. He uses the phrase “too close” to describe why dissimulation wouldn’t work. So which pair of words best describe dissimulation? (C) hidden deception. (A) deliberate fraud is too obvious.


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17 Responses to GRE Reading Comprehension Question Type: Definitions in Context

  1. A.S. August 23, 2013 at 4:45 pm #


    I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the GRE course so far- I’ve learned and reviewed a lot of information since having first started the course.

    For this blog post, I think the answer explanation for question #1 actually meant to say “ponderous” rather than “laborious.” (I was confused until I looked up the definition of ponderous.)

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele August 26, 2013 at 11:39 am #

      Hi A.S.,

      Thanks for pointing that out! And sorry for any confusion :). I’ll make the change now.

  2. Nikhil April 26, 2012 at 11:06 am #

    I found a ridiculously difficult and abstract book review on the New York Times. One paragraph chosen at random alone can make for a short RC.
    I must admit- this review had me lost from the second paragraph.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris April 26, 2012 at 1:53 pm #

      Great! I’ve already excerpted a little piece from that article for a future blog post :).

  3. Prem April 26, 2012 at 10:41 am #

    Hi Chris,
    I couldn’t follow the explanation for third question.. Could you please explain further?


    • Chris Lele
      Chris April 26, 2012 at 2:04 pm #

      Hi Prem,

      I made some changes to the post so that the explanation to #3 is clearer. Hope that helps :).

  4. vignesh April 25, 2012 at 5:24 am #

    i got right answers for first two questions but spent 4 mins. i think need more pace to crack.
    we need more RC questions.

    Thank you.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris April 25, 2012 at 11:52 am #

      You did well! Definitely practice helps a lot in Reading Comp. I’ll continue to put up reading comp. questions :).

  5. nani April 24, 2012 at 10:48 pm #

    Hi Chris,

    I am about to write GRE. I got 2 answers and not completely satisfied. Can u suggest how to score well in Verbal Section.

    Thanks ! 😀

    • Chris Lele
      Chris April 25, 2012 at 11:51 am #

      Hi Nani,

      These are very difficult questions, so do not despair. To score well on these types of questions come up with your own word or words to describe the word in quotation marks. Do not plug the words back in the passage to see how those words sound.

      As for ways to improve on the Verbal section, this blog is a trove of information. Click on the ‘verbal’ on the bar at the top of the blog home page. Spend a few hours reading through posts. I’m sure you will get many helpful hints. At any time, shoot me a question, and I would be happy to answer it :).

      • nani April 25, 2012 at 7:54 pm #

        Thank you Chris…

        You are suggestion is quite worthwhile.

  6. Nikhil April 22, 2012 at 7:37 am #

    I got all three right! (does a little dance)

    • Chris Lele
      Chris April 23, 2012 at 1:40 pm #

      Great, those weren’t easy :).

  7. A.A April 20, 2012 at 4:59 pm #

    I only could answer Q2 for sure. Thank you Chris

    • Chris Lele
      Chris April 20, 2012 at 10:06 pm #

      Hi A.A.,

      I admit I made these questions pretty difficult. Perhaps my next Vocab-in-Context post will have questions that are a little easier :).

      • A.A April 21, 2012 at 1:20 am #

        Thank you Chris

        What I said is only as I was sharing my thoughts with you and definitely not meant to undermine your difficult choice of such questions. Even if it was difficult to me, I appreciate that you consider adding up more of what you think is having a high probability vocabulary that GRE often shows. Keep up the good work.


        Please consider using the PowerPoint as a new method of explaining your videos. It is a powerful tool for teachers and I am sure you know that well.

        Most of your videos are very important ,at least to me,and should be watched by any graduate student forever. What I mean is the HD videos with clean voice and also cogent explanations,and easy to remember presentations will attract thousands to Maggosh channel. Consequently, clients number will raise and be more confident of the product that Magoosh offers. Hope you like my ideas. Sincerely

        • Chris Lele
          Chris April 23, 2012 at 1:39 pm #

          Hi A.A.,

          No problem :). I always want to make sure students know what level of question they are attempting lest they become unnecessarily frustrated.

          Anyhow, thank you so much for your praise. I feel very honored to be part of Magoosh. And hope that our videos (and all the ones to come:)) will be helpful to legions of grad school-bound students :).

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