Words in the English language are often confused because they look the same, sound the same, or somehow get tangled up in your synapses. Indeed, the experience can be so frustrating that many students fulminate, “English makes no sense!” By and large, they are right.
Nonetheless, we have to contend with the mongrel language that is English and accept that certain words are gobbled up from other tongues (how’s that for a mixed metaphor), sometimes with little consideration for spelling and phonetics. Of course some words simply change over the ages. Consider ponder and ponderous, which despite their kindred ‘pond’ have very different meanings.
As GRE students what are we to do? Well, roots will only get you so far, and often you are best off making your own list of confusing words, so you won’t get tripped up test day. In fact, the more aware you are of words that persistently confuse, the less likely you are to confuse them.
With that said, let’s take a look at some commonly confused words. And remember, it’s not you – English is a confusing language.
1. Veracious and Voracious
With the first pair of words, roots will be able to help us. ‘Ver’ means true, and ‘vor’ means to eat/swallow. Not too surprisingly then, veracious means true, and ‘voracious’ means very hungry. The noun forms of the words are ‘veracity’ and ‘voracity’, respectively.
After the eight-hour hike he was voracious and scarfed down his mother’s cooking.
The judge doubt the veracity of the defendant’s statement, and sentenced him to prison.
2. Vilify and Vivify
To vilify is to badmouth or disparage. A good mnemonic is the following: ‘evil’ ify is to say evil things about.
Vivify, from the Latin root, viva- life, means to breathe life into.
Hector was vivified by the fresh morning air.
The governor was vilified so harshly in the press so harshly that she resigned.
3. Indignant and Indigent and Indigenous
#3 is aptly this dreaded trio of confusing words. To be indignant means to angry over some perceived outrage. If somebody blatantly cuts to the front of the line, you will feel indignant.
Indigent describes somebody who is so poor he/she cannot afford a roof over his/her head.
Indigenous means native to a certain area. See, how kooky English is—those words sound so similar yet having nothing to do with one another.
The seeming arbitrariness of the English language made the GRE student indignant.
Many words in English are not indigenous to either America or England, but rather can be traced back to countries such as Turkey and India.
Don’t worry – not getting a perfect GRE score does not mean you will become indigent, roaming the streets and wailing about your indignity.
4. Feckless and Reckless
Reckless is an easy word; feckless is not. Often students assume the two are related. They are not. Feckless means lazy, lacking initiative.
He approached GRE prep with the same fecklessness that led to an undergraduate GPA of 2.5.
5. Ponder and Ponderous
These words mean totally different things, yet, as I’ll show here, they have a shared etymology that explains these divergent meanings. Ponder means to think over something carefully. The root comes from the Latin, ponderare, to weigh/reflect on. When you weigh something (second definition) you think over it carefully.
This use of ‘weigh’ (first definition), as in ‘to weigh 200-pounds (90 kg) relates to ponderous. If someone or something is ponderous they move about slowly and in a labored fashion, as though weighed down. Ponderous, however, has nothing to do with thinking.
He pondered his future, uncertain whether to take the GRE.
Bundled in 30 pounds (14 kg) of clothing, Martin, waddling like a penguin, ponderously made his way through the snow field.