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GRE Vocab Wednesday: Words Students Always Mix Up

Comprehensive vs. Comprehensible

Many mix up these two words, thinking that both refer to comprehend, as in to understand. However, only ‘comprehensible’ relates to comprehend, and means intelligible.

Comprehensive, on the other hand, means thorough, wide-ranging in scope.

Until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, hieroglyphics were not comprehensible, but seemed nothing more than a jumble of pictograms and slashes.

Rosetta Stone is a language program that provides a comprehensive immersion into another language: dialogues, grammar, and visual stimuli are all employed to help a person acquire a foreign tongue.


Overweening vs. Overbearing

These two words aren’t actually too far apart in meaning. Overweening means excessive and overbearing means bossy and arrogant. I doubt both will ever be the answer choices and that you’ll have to discriminate between them. Nonetheless, it is a good idea not to mix them up completely.

Charles is overweening, puffing his chest out like a troubadour whenever he walks into a room full of people.

My boss became overbearing, treating me like some mere lackey, adept at only bringing coffee and making photocopies.


Portentous vs. Ponderous

Portentous actually has two definitions, neither of which relates to ponderous (a word that recently surfaced on a vocab Wednesday session). Portentous can mean pretentious (which come to think of it sounds very similar to portentous) in a way that you take yourself way too seriously.

The other definition of portentous is ominous, threatening, premonitory.  As in:

The clouds were portentous, great gray billowy beasts ready to burst forth in a deluge of apocalyptic proportions.


Seamy vs. Seemly

Neither of these words relates to seem or seemingly, both of which mean to give the appearance of something. Both ‘seamy’ and ‘seemly’ relate to decorum: what is considered proper—and by extension—improper behavior.

‘Seamy’ refers to the inappropriate side of things. Celebrity rags are filled with seamy scandals regarding certain stars who manage to become pixilated and drive a vehicle into a fence, only to wake up in jail with a mug shot making the rounds on Twitter feeds.

‘Seemly’ refers to behavior that is proper and fitting. Needless to say it is rarely used to refer to celebrities.

Of note is the word ‘unseemly.’ It is the opposite of ‘seemly’ and a synonym with ‘seamy.’ Just a little confusing, right?.


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13 Responses to GRE Vocab Wednesday: Words Students Always Mix Up

  1. Anjali August 16, 2016 at 10:12 am #

    Hi Chris,

    I have doubt in the first sentence –
    “Until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, hieroglyphics were not comprehensible, but seemed nothing more than a jumble of pictograms and slashes.”

    I am not able to comprehend the use of “but” in above sentence.
    There is no change in the meaning of the sentence before and after “but” – both places we point to the fact that hieroglyphics were not understood.

    Can you please explain the role of but in the sentence?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert August 21, 2016 at 7:24 pm #

      This sentence is in an interesting grey area– you could probably use “but” or “and” to join the two parts of the sentence. There is a shift of meaning in a way, because the word “comprehensible” is in contrast with the phrase “nothing more than a jumble.” On the other hand, the word “comprehensible” is modified by “not.” And “not comprehensible” is very similar in meaning to the phrase “nothing more than a jumble.” So it is just as appropriate to join the two full phrases with “and,” because they’re similar.

      Either choice is valid. “But” creates a greater sense of contrast, and could be used to introduce the idea of the comprehensibility hieroglyphics eventually had, after the discovery of the Rosetta Stone.

  2. Lloyd May 21, 2015 at 11:06 am #

    Overweening also means arrogant right, So that does relate to the arrogance meant in the word overbearing right?

  3. sudhir March 6, 2013 at 6:25 pm #

    for the words,ingenious and ingenuous,one can remember the latter ‘i’ in ingenious as ‘inventive’.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele March 8, 2013 at 3:15 pm #

      Hi Sudhir,

      Yes, that’s a great little memory trick! I know many people who mix those words up. And don’t forget ‘ingenue’, with an accent over the ‘u’. It describes a young and innocent woman. Which is easy to remember if you link it back to ‘ingenuous.’

      Thanks for the insights :).

  4. Aman July 25, 2012 at 10:30 pm #

    The words seeming,seemingly ,seemly daunt me when doing TC questions .
    They seems to be easy so one neglects them.


    • Chris Lele
      Chris July 27, 2012 at 3:46 pm #

      Hi Aman,

      Seeming and seemingly are the same, except for one is an adj. the other an adv. Seemly means decorous. Those can be quite confusing!

  5. Wajhi July 4, 2012 at 4:33 am #

    I always mix up these three words Ingenuous, indigenous, ingenious .

    • Chris Lele
      Chris July 4, 2012 at 3:15 pm #

      You can also add indignant and indignity to really make for a confusing group :).

    • Hash July 6, 2012 at 9:39 am #

      Thanks to “U”, “I” never even noticed the difference between ingenUous and ingenIous 😛

      • Chris Lele
        Chris July 6, 2012 at 5:36 pm #

        Clever :). Or should I say ingenious!

  6. vaisnavi June 30, 2012 at 8:20 am #

    Lol some words which confuse me are1) Content and contend 2) Vivisection and vivacious. I know their meaning, yet i make mistake to acknowledge the meaning of these following words 🙂

    • Chris Lele
      Chris July 2, 2012 at 7:26 pm #

      Content and contend are great words that I’m sure many mix-up. Thanks for pointing that out, I will include those (as well as ‘contentious’) in a future post :).

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