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GRE Vocab Wednesday: Similar, Confusing Words

Gregarious vs. Garrulous

These two words are commonly confused because they not only begin with a ‘g’ but they have very similar meanings. However, they are not quite the same. To be gregarious is to sociable. The word comes from Latin for flock, and retains some of its avian roots (think of geese, which are always in groups. They are gregarious).

To be garrulous, on the other hand, means to be chatty. True, social types tend to be chatty, but when is the last time you encountered a chatty goose. On the other hand you can have one of those unsociable curmudgeons who hang outside the subway station babbling on about the imminent apocalypse.


Enormity vs. Enormous

Oh boy, is this a controversial one. People are truly divided on how to define enormity. Traditionally, enormity has meant great wickedness, and NOT really, really big/enormous. However, over the years the use of enormity to mean enormous has become so prevalent that even Barack Obama himself has used the word in this way.

Indeed, even the estimable abounds in use of enormity (as long as you don’t look too far back in the archive).

As GRE test takers we should know both definitions, but we should also know that ETS tends to pretty traditional on such matters, and in all likelihood will only use ‘enormity’ to mean great wickedness.


Unconscionable vs. Unconscious

Unconscionable does not mean to be hit over the head and black out (that would be unconscious). ‘Unconscionable’ means totally unreasonable. It is usually used to describe an action and carries with it a negative connotation.

That he would steal from the very firm that had paid him such a generous salary was unconscionable.

It was unconscionable for an esteemed author to use ‘enormity’ to mean ‘enormous.’

This definition shouldn’t be that surprising if we remember that conscience means to have a sense of right and wrong. If something goes against conscience, then it is un-conscience-able.

Unconscionable can also mean excessive, as in:

He made unconscionable demands on her time, forcing her to quit.


Impending vs. Pending vs. Pendulous

Something that is pending is uncertain. Something that is impending is about to happen, or is imminent. To complicate things, pending, as a second definition, can also meaning impending.

Until the trial is held is guilt is pending.

The trial is pending, and will take place soon.

(Sorry, not my most eloquent sentences!)

You’ve noticed that I’ve invited another word to this confusing party of ‘pends.’ Pendulous relates to neither of these words, save for the ‘pend.’ Something that is pendulous is hanging.

Bracing against an impending winter the flowers became pendulous, drooping so low their withered crowns touched the scarred earth. 

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2 Responses to GRE Vocab Wednesday: Similar, Confusing Words

  1. rmk May 13, 2012 at 8:18 pm #

    hi chris,

    thanks for all these great blog posts–they’ve been very helpful. i have some general questions regarding vocabulary:

    i took the gre in january and had only 1 month to study. scores were decent (75% percentile) but i am aiming to retake it mid-august and score 165+ on both sections. verbal comes much easier than quant, and i’m particularly good with reading comp and vocabulary. i’ve got a strategy for learning new words that works really well for me.

    i got a hold of that massive 1100 words barron’s book. do you think its necessary to study all the idioms that come in each section? a number of other vocal books talk about roots, suffixes, prefixes, the like; again, how helpful would studying those be? being that i’m not in a huge rush to take the test and have the luxury of studying as much as i want, can you talk about the pros and cons of studying barron’s idioms, and roots, etc.–and how that will actually affect a gre score?



    • Chris Lele
      Chris May 14, 2012 at 11:56 am #

      Hi R.,

      That’s a very timely question! I have a roots post that is just about to go up. In short, no: don’t bother with roots, especially if you’re vocabulary is already at a strong level.

      Also, ignore the idioms in the 1100 book, at least from a GRE perspective (many are interesting to know and may snag you a few points on Jeopardy).

      For more vocabulary, I’d recommend Princeton Review’s Word Smart series (since your vocab already seems pretty strong :)).

      Also, out of curiosity, what is your method for learning words?

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