Words are elusive, chimerical creatures. They shift connotations depending on the situation, rearing their heads in surprising contexts. A dictionary, or denotative definition, can become all but useless. So it is no surprise that any attempts to cage the semantic beast in the static, one dimensionality of a flashcard will be doomed.
What does this all mean for the GRE? Well, there appears to be a trend towards Text Completions and Sentence Equivalence questions in which relatively common words are used in contexts you would not expect were you to only read the dictionary definition. Oftentimes words are employed figuratively, which can throw you when it comes time to picking an answer on a Text Completion.
The take away from all this is to not fall temptation to the following way of thinking: I am making a lot of progress on the GRE Verbal. I’ve studied 500 flashcards. Now I’m going to study another 1,000 flashcards. Then I will be ready for the test.
That you will learn the inert, dictionary definitions of a 1,000+ words is not worth debating. What is clearer is your performance test day: it will not show your true potential.
Working through flashcards as you explore the many ways in which various words function in context will help you test day. Wordnik.com is a great resource. It plucks sentences that are often as varied and complex as the words themselves. And these example sentences aren’t drawn from some random person’s blog, but are taken only from respected resources: published works, eminent newspapers and magazines.
In addition to Wordnik, dictionary.com also features example sentences, and often a quote from some literary luminary. Another option you have is to go to nytimes.com (or any major news site, for that matter) can furnish further example sentences. Simply enter your word into the search field.
For instance, let’s say I am learning the word stolid, which means unemotional, not reacting much. Such a definition does not really help one understand how the word functions in context. Now let’s see what my nytimes.com search coughed up (I looked back over the last 30 days):
The productions are ornately stolid: far more traditional visually than the Met’s current version of either opera. Early in the film the shimmering …
Mr. Jones and Ms. Streep keep the therapy scenes lively, despite Mr. Frankel’s stolid direction, as he cuts between Dr. Feld, murmuring
… as he hugs a bright young Toumanova, crowned not in her usual tiara but a rather stolid rubber bathing cap.
Wow, just like that the word stolid comes utterly alive (which is slightly ironic). By only looking at the definition, I imagined an old man, hunched over drunk in the corner. So much for definitions! With these example sentences, I can see stolid, embedded in the sophisticated prose of the GRE, function in varying—and surprising—contexts.
Now instead of imagining a person passed, I think of the pacing of a book I read lately (or at least tried to). I realize that even inanimate objects, such as a bathing cap, can be legitimately described as stolid. Instead of dealing with an inert word, I have a wealth of associations and contexts pertaining to stolid.
Such a multifaceted presentation of the word allows me to spot the word in context; I will also be more likely to remember the meaning of the word than if I were to only see a static definition contained within a flashcard that looks no different from the other 1,000 flashcards in my deck.
So do your burn your flashcards, or block the quizlet.com site? Not at all. Use flashcards to help you re-conjure up the associations of a word, associations you have created by looking at rich, multilayered sentences.