MAT Word Game Analogies, Part 1

Some of the trickiest questions on the MAT are what we might call word game analogies. Although you won’t find this phrase in a Pearson publication, these are a distinct and important type of question that relies on the spelling, pronunciation, and usage of words rather than their meaning. These questions are, in essence, little puzzles that test your creativity in identifying different types of relationships. They perform a number of functions within the larger test structure:

  • Word game analogies can test your knowledge of a word in ways that extend beyond its dictionary definition. (Do you know how it’s pronounced? its language of origin?)
  • Because they play on relationships of form, rather than of meaning, word game analogies can be time-consuming, draining away precious minutes from later questions.
  • Even more deviously, word game analogies can make you second-guess your approach to other, easier questions, potentially causing you to overlook simple relationships of meaning.

It’s important to note that this type of analogy is relatively rare on the MAT. More often, MAT questions will depend on semantic relationships, or relationships of meaning. Bertrand provides a great overview of these questions in his series on MAT analogy subcategories. In the simplest case, the terms in an MAT analogy will be synonyms or antonyms; more complicated relationships include “part/whole” or “action/agent.” It’s safe to say that, for most questions on the exam, the meanings of words will be more relevant than their spoken or written form.

Because word game analogies are rarer than the semantic variety, it’s essential that you look for “word game” relationships as a last resort – after you’ve considered more conventional analogy-building strategies. The makers of the MAT are well aware that test takers tend to spot “word game” patterns even when they’re not important. To that end, the exam will include some questions that look like word games, but actually have a simpler solution hiding in plain sight. To see what I mean, consider the following practice question.

loaf : laze : _________ : young pig

(A) load
(B) foal
(C) strophe
(D) shoat

If you approach this question expecting some kind of language trick, you encounter a veritable smokescreen of distractions. Answer (A), load, begins with the same three letters as loaf, and answer (B), foal, is an anagram. Answer (C), strophe, may look like it should rhyme with loaf, but the final e isn’t actually silent: the word is pronounced /stroʊfi/, to rhyme with “Sophie.”

So three of our four answers have some kind of non-semantic relationship to loaf. (Loaf, as The Four Aces once sang, really is a many-splendored thing.) But none of those relationships serve as a basis for a complete analogy, because laze doesn’t have a corresponding relationship to the phrase young pig. The analogy here is strictly semantic: to loaf is to laze, and a shoat (answer D) is a young pig.

So What Are Word Game Analogies?

Now that we’ve skirted that potential pitfall, what do I actually mean by “word game analogies?” There are several different kinds, but I think it’s easiest to group them into three main categories. In a word game analogy, the relationship will be based on how the words are written, how they’re spoken, or when and how they’re used.

  • Some analogies will be based on the written form of the words. The “missing” word may be an anagram of one of the words provided (tape : pate), or have some pattern of initial or final letters in common (peal : pear).
  • Others will be based on pronunciation. Rhyme is the most obvious relationship here, but two words might also have some other phonological property in common, such as the number of syllables (nu : strengths) or the pattern of syllable stresses (carnival : Washington).
  • Finally, some word-game analogies reflect the context in which a word is used. Even within English, there are many examples where usage varies by country or region (truck : lorry). And there are many, many cases (thanks, Norman Invasion!) in which two words with the same basic meaning will have quite different etymologies (dog : canine).

In the next few posts, I’ll dive into each of these categories, providing examples of how they might appear on the test.