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MAT Word Game Analogies, Part 3: Pronunciation

MAT pronunciation

In the last post in this series, we took a brief tour of an unusual but important type of MAT analogy: questions based on a word’s spelling, rather than its meaning. A similar class of analogies are built on the basis of pronunciation. As noted in their official publications, the MAT test makers will sometimes use words with counterintuitive meanings, like “inflammable,” or with multiple meanings (e.g. “sanction”). Similarly, words with counterintuitive pronunciations – or multiple pronunciations, for that matter – can be used to crank up the challenge level. Like most types of question on the exam, MAT pronunciation analogies will vary in difficulty from “easy” to “extremely hard.” In the following discussion, I’ll use examples of moderate difficulty so that you can see the key principles at work.

Stop, Look, and Listen

English is full of words with silent letters: French borrowings, nautical terms, and so on. These words are exactly the sort of cultural shibboleth – like the Greek alphabet or the names of the U.S. presidents – that the MAT loves to include in its analogies. In fact, it’s quite possible that you’ll face an MAT pronunciation problem that gets its difficulty entirely from silent letters. Here’s what that might look like:

Worcester : Versailles :: Gloucester : _________

(A) Illinois
(B) Connecticut
(C) Saskatchewan
(D) Jalisco

All seven of these words – stem and answer choices – are place names. Worcester is a city in the English Midlands, and Gloucester is a city in South West England. Versailles is the site of the famous chateau of Louis XIV of France. Readers of Shakespeare might also recognize some characters from the history plays. The Earl of Worcester spearheads the rebellion in 1 Henry IV, and in Richard III, the eponymous evil king starts out as the Duke of Gloucester.

A good starting point might be: “what do these places have in common?” Worcester and Gloucester are in the same country, which seems promising, but Versailles is in France, and none of the answer choices are on the European continent. Worcester and Gloucester are both cities – again, a potentially useful lead – but Versailles is a palace (or the city nearest that palace), and the answer choices are all North American states and provinces. (MAT pronunciation analogies, like all MAT analogies, have a tendency to favor U.S.-centric subject matter.)

So neither size nor location helps us out much. Stretching a bit, we might try to fit Worcester and Gloucester together by the fact that they’re “Shakespearean bad guys named after places.” But there’s no such thing as an Earl of Versailles or a Duke of Versailles: the palace was built by, and for, the king and his court. And you won’t find a stage direction like “Exeunt Jalisco and Saskatchewan” anywhere in the Bard’s works.

However, if we step back from meaning and focus on pronunciation, a viable pattern emerges. Worcester (pronounced /ˈwʊstər/ or “Wooster”) and Gloucester (/ˈɡlɒstər/, to rhyme with “foster”) have silent letters in the middle. Versailles (English pronunciation /vərˈsaɪ/, to rhyme with “goodbye”) has a silent s at the end; only (A) Illinois (/ˌɪlᵻˈnɔɪ/) shares that trait. So our answer is (A), and our analogy goes something like this:

Worcester is to Gloucester as Versailles is to Illinois. The first two have silent letters in the middle; the latter two have silent letters at the end.

An MAT Pronunciation Puzzle

This next analogy is a bit more challenging. Take your best shot and then read on.

produce : permit :: profile : _________

(A) progress
(B) project
(C) program
(D) profiterole

As usual, the first thing to ask is “what do these words have in common?” Well, the three stem words all start with the letter P, but that doesn’t narrow things down: all of the answer choices start with P too. There’s no clear pattern of meaning here either. In fact, the sheer repetitiousness should put us on our guard for wordplay. Weird repetitions don’t guarantee that we’re dealing with a word game, but MAT pronunciation problems (and other wordplay problems) often have a singsong, riddle-like quality.

What holds these words together is their pattern of syllable stresses. In produce and permit, the stress changes based on the part of speech. As a noun, meaning “fruits, vegetables, and other farm products,” produce has its stress on the first syllable; in the verb form (“to make, yield, or create”), the stress comes on the second syllable: produce. Ditto for permit: a parking permit is what permits you to park your car in a given spot.

So much for terms 1 and 2. But how does that observation help with terms 3 and (blank) 4? Like the first two terms, profile represents multiple parts of speech. To profile (v.) someone – say, an artist you’re interviewing in a magazine – is to create a profile (n.) of them. But unlike produce and permit, profile has the same stress pattern in either form. That pattern – a similarity and a difference – puts us on alert for an answer with the same properties.

Progress (answer A) and project (answer B) are no good because they do change syllable stress depending on part of speech. A profiterole (known as a “cream puff” in US English) is a noun only; you can’t profiterole something (more’s the pity!). That leaves (C) program as the only word that

  1. exists as multiple parts of speech
  2. always has the same syllable stress pattern.


Once it’s grasped and explained, this type of analogy can often feel like a “gotcha” or a cheap shot. It’s tough stuff, I know! But bear in mind that we’ve been focusing on the most “puzzle-like” part of the MAT. Get familiar with these patterns, learn to anticipate the MAT’s traps and tricks, and you’ll gradually rob the exam of its power to surprise you.

About Michael

A fan of logic games, classic RPGs, and espresso (in no particular order), Michael likes to think of standardized tests as puzzles to be pulled apart and analyzed. He delights in showing students the trapdoors, pitfalls, and shortcuts that lurk in even the simplest of questions. When he isn't helping students navigate the GRE, GMAT, or MAT, Michael enjoys writing poetry, tinkering with microcontrollers, and taking long, leisurely hikes in the woods.

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