GRE Reading Comprehension: Meaning in Context

On the GRE a special type of question asks you to determine the meaning of the word based on how the word is used in the context of the passage. These questions are called vocabulary-in-context questions and usually comprise a few questions per test.

The best way to solve a vocab-in-context is question is to think of your own word that works for the word in the context. Do not simply try to define the word without looking at the passage.


Below is a passage followed by a few vocabulary-in-context questions. This passage is aimed for the high scorers.

Montaigne’s pursuit of the character he called Myself—“bashful, insolent; chaste, lustful; prating, silent; laborious, delicate; knowing, ignorant”—lasted for twenty years and produced more than a thousand pages of observation and revision. When he died, he was still revising and, apparently, not at all surprised, since Myself was a protean creature, impossible to anticipate but also, being always at hand, impossible to ignore. I like to think of the essays as a kind of thriller; with Myself, the elusive prey, and Montaigne, the sleuth, locked in a battle of equals who were too close for dissimulation and too smart for satisfaction. And it may be that Montaigne did, too, because he often warned his readers that nothing he wrote about myself was likely to apply for much longer than it took the ink he used, writing it, to dry.


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1. The words “prating” and “laborious,” in context, most likely mean what respectively?

(A) bold and relaxed
(B) rough and harsh
(C) awkward and talkative
(D) garrulous and quiet
(E) chatty and ponderous


Notice that the list of words contains opposites, “knowing, ignorant.” Therefore “prating” has to be the opposite of “silent.” (D) garrulous or (E) chatty are possible answers.

For the second word (and remember the words in the answer choices should not be opposites), we need an opposite of delicate. Therefore ‘laborious’, which means moving about with great difficulty, is the answer.


2. In context, the word “protean” most nearly means

(A) unfortunate
(B) threatening
(C) unwavering
(D) constantly changing
(E) difficult to describe


Unless protean was on your word list (in which case you lucked out), you will have to rely on context to figure out the meaning.

It is important to note that most of the times, vocabulary-in-context questions are easier words that have multiple definitions, and you should not assume you know the word without looking at the context.

Here we have Myself, “impossible to anticipate…elusive.” The answer that matches up best here is (D)constantly changing.


3. As used in the passage, the word “dissimulation” connotes a sense of

(A) deliberate fraud
(B) outright audacity
(C) hidden deception
(D) unfeigned delight
(E) implied criticism


This one is a toughie. Dissimulation is not the opposite of simulate, which means to pretend or to imitate. Anyhow, we should be basing our answer on context, not on what we think the word means.

Montaigne is trying to describe himself. Each time he comes close to doing so, his self, as it were, flits away. Yet obviously the two are “too close” for (C) hidden deception. (A) outright fraud is too obvious.

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12 Responses to GRE Reading Comprehension: Meaning in Context

  1. abhay May 5, 2012 at 3:41 am #

    Nice Questions.
    Got all three right however I did not understand passage in first go ( and i make only a single go).

    • Chris Lele
      Chris May 7, 2012 at 11:49 am #

      Hi Abhay,

      Good job on getting them all right :).

      I’ll be using this passage again for some Critical Reading questions! That way you’ll get to test your comprehension.

  2. Sneha April 23, 2012 at 3:19 am #

    I did not get your answer of the 1st question. The final answer is D or E because none of them contains the opposite of delicate.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris May 7, 2012 at 11:47 am #

      Hi Sneha,

      We need a word that is the opposite of ‘silent’ and another word that is the opposite of ‘delicate.’ Therefore, (E) chatty and ponderous.

      Hope that helps :).

  3. Aman April 12, 2012 at 10:14 pm #

    Ya right.

    Thanks Chris this was a new one.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris April 13, 2012 at 6:49 pm #

      You are welcome :).

  4. Gaia April 12, 2012 at 9:18 pm #

    Hi Chris,

    A quick question: During high school, I took the SAT Subject Test: Literature and did exceptionally well. Would it be safe to assume that the reading comprehension questions on that exam and the GRE are sufficiently similar? I still have my study materials for that exam and figured that, if the RC questions were similar enough, it would be an additional source for practice.


    • Chris Lele
      Chris April 13, 2012 at 6:04 pm #

      Hi Gaia,

      Actually, the reading comp. passages are very different on the GRE. They are dense with information and swollen with academic language. The SAT Lit. test is more about poetry and literary devices. A different beast altogether. So, it looks like you will need to use GRE prep books (the SAT general test is slightly more similar to the GRE than the subject test, but you should still use GRE material).

      Hope that helps :).

  5. Aman April 12, 2012 at 11:24 am #

    Hi Chris ,
    I got all the answers right even if the passage was not much understood by me on the 1st go .
    BTW i did’nt got your 3rd answer explanation.
    Thanks Chris

    • Chris Lele
      Chris April 12, 2012 at 12:35 pm #

      Hi Aman,

      For the third question: Montaigne is always too close to this self he is describing for any kind of deception (dissimulation).

      Hope that helps!

  6. vaisnavi April 12, 2012 at 12:10 am #

    Actually the solutions are given in the passage itself. For e.g , the clue given for the second question is IMPOSSIBLE TO ANTICIPATE AND IMPOSSIBLE TO IGNORE indicate the character’s nature to be volatile depending upon it’s context.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris April 12, 2012 at 12:29 pm #

      Good – you nailed it!

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