How to “Read in Context” for the GRE

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’s 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 read only 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 is to avoid thinking the following: 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.

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Yes, you will learn the inert, dictionary definitions of a 1,000+ words this way. But come test day, this manner of studying will fail your true potential.

In contrast, working through flashcards and exploring the many ways in which words function in context will help you test day. is a great resource. It exhibits sentences that are often as varied and complex as the words themselves. These example sentences aren’t drawn from random sites, but rather are taken only from respected resources: published works, eminent newspapers, and magazines.

In addition to Wordnik,  also features example sentences and examples from online sources that have recently used the word so that you can see it in context. Finally, major news sites such as can furnish further example sentences. Simply enter your word into the search field.

For instance, say I am learning the word stolid, which means unemotional, not reacting much. This definition doesn’t really help me understand how the word functions in context. Let’s see what my 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.

Just like that, the word stolid comes alive (somewhat ironically). By looking only at the definition, I imagined an old man drunkenly hunched over in the corner. So much for definitions! With these example sentences, I can see how stolid, embedded in the sophisticated prose of the GRE, might function in varying—and surprising—contexts.

Now, instead of imagining a person passed out, I think of the pacing of a book I recently (tried to) read. I realize that even inanimate objects, such as a bathing cap, can be 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 see only a static definition on a flashcard that looks no different from the other thousand flashcards in my deck.

So do your burn your flashcards, or block the site? Not at all. Use flashcards to help you re-conjure the associations of a word, associations you have created by looking at rich, multilayered sentences.


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