MAT Word Game Analogies, Part 2: Spelling

In a previous post, I pointed out a few ways that the MAT might construct an analogy based solely on spelling. Here’s a more detailed list of MAT spelling games, populated with fresh examples in each category.

• The analogy might be based on anagrams, words that are rearrangements of the same set of letters (e.g. lane : lean).
• Semordnilaps are a special case of anagrams in which the spellings of two words are not just rearrangements of each other, but mirror images. A well-known example is stressed : desserts. (The term semordnilap, if you’re wondering, comes from ‘palindromes’ spelled backwards – and yes, it’s a real word!)
• Sometimes, each pair of words will have a sequence of letters in common. Usually, the initial letters are the important ones, as in reach : realm, but you might also see an example in which the matching sequence occurs in the middle or at the end.
• Finally, you may come across an analogy in which the words have corresponding sets of letters, though not necessarily in the same order. In devious : audio, for example, the defining trait is the presence of four distinct vowels.

MAT Spelling Games in Practice

So how will those patterns appear on test day? Unfortunately, there’s no reliable cue to tell you when you’re dealing with a spelling- or pronunciation-based analogy, rather than the more common semantic kind. That said, there are a few circumstantial hints to look for, as I’ll show in the following two examples. You’ll see how a few basic patterns can combine to form a variety of MAT spelling analogies, from the elementary to the esoteric.

First, something nice and simple:

goal : gaol : bolt : _________

(A) bold
(B) gold
(C) blot
(D) boat

Here, there’s an interesting but vague semantic relationship between the first two terms, goal and gaol (a UK spelling of jail). Playing around with the meanings of the words, we might come up with a sentence like this:

“Brought up shoplifting charges, Harry made it his goal to stay out of gaol.”

But as rich as the potential for wordplay here is, we can’t say that goal and gaol are opposites. Moreover, it’s hard to see how the meaning of bolt and any of the answer choices could be worked into that pattern. For that matter, these words are oddly short and simple to be part of a vocabulary question. A “too good to be true” word list like this is often — but not always — a sign of an MAT spelling game.

When there’s no clear semantic cue to follow, it’s time to look instead at the forms of the words, starting with the spelling. As it happens, we can form a nice, succinct analogy that relates the spellings of pairs (1, 2) and (3, 4):

Gaol is an anagram of goal with the middle letters reversed. Blot is an anagram of bolt with the same property.

Here’s another practice problem to prime you in your recognition of MAT spelling patterns.

rhythm : _________ :: sequoia : euphoria

(A) pyx
(B) eudaimonia

Although you might feel a sense of euphoria among the giant redwoods of California, there’s no strong semantic relationship between terms 3 and 4 here. Instead, this question is built around spelling — specifically, around an unusual property of these three words. Sequoia and euphoria each include all five of the traditional vowels: AEIOU. Rhythm, in contrast, has no vowel letters – only the “semivowel” letter Y. That makes (A), pyx, the best match here.

Notice also that one of the incorrect options, (D) adagio, was thrown in simply because it has to do with music. An over-hasty test taker might choose it just because it seems to fit with rhythm. Another incorrect choice, (B) eudaimonia, was included mainly because of its visual resemblance to euphoria. (The two words refer to different kinds of happiness.) You’ll want to watch out for similar “too easy” answers on the real MAT.

Reminder: Word Game Analogies Are Uncommon

Whenever you suspect that an MAT question involves wordplay, step back and remember: most questions test relationships of meaning, not form. As this next example illustrates, there will often be (wrong) answers that seem plausible if you’re already looking for a word game analogy. If you go in with a meaning-first approach, you won’t fall into these traps.

ichthyosaur : giraffe :: pterodactyl : _________

(A) salmon
(B) flying fox
(C) ptarmigan
(D) cactus

When we’re thinking in “word game” mode, pterodactyl : ptarmigan seems like a reasonable pair, because of the initial “pt-” in both. But there’s no corresponding pattern in ichthyosaur : giraffe – in fact, those two words have very little in common spelling- or pronunciation-wise. To solve this analogy, we need to stick to the meanings of the words in front of us.

All three of the given terms refer to animals, so we can probably rule out (D) cactus at a glance. But even with that restriction, there are a bunch of analogies we could form. The trouble is that most of these analogies leave us with multiple correct answers:

Ichthyosaurs and pterodactyls are extinct; the giraffe and the {flying fox, ptarmigan, salmon} are extant.
Ichthyosaurs and giraffes are/were flightless; pterodactyls and {ptarmigans, flying foxes} are/were able to fly.

This is a warning sign! If an analogy seems like it would fit with more than one answer, the relationships involved are too vague. Instead, we need to be as specific as possible about what unites the terms:

Ichthyosaurs and pterodactyls are extinct reptiles; the giraffe and the flying fox (and only the flying fox in this list) are extant mammals.

By considering multiple types of semantic relationships, we can narrow this question down to a single answer: flying fox (B). The resulting analogy sorts the terms into two distinct, symmetrical categories, with no room for other answers to take the place of answer (B). That kind of clear-cut analogy is our goal in every MAT problem, and I’ll have more to say about it in the next post.