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TOEFL Vocabulary: “Big” Words

English is full of words that mean “very big.” It’s really amazing how many synonyms we have. Here’s a short list, to illustrate:

  • huge
  • humongous
  • giant
  • gigantic
  • enormous
  • colossal
  • mammoth
  • monstrous

There are some small differences between meanings, but for the most part, they just mean “extremely big.” That is, many of them are direct synonyms. You can say one word or another word—it doesn’t matter, because they mean the exact same thing.

And we like mixing them up, too. If ever spend time around American teenagers, you might hear invented combinations of words, such as “ginormous” (“gigantic” + “enormous”). That’s slang—don’t learn it for your TOEFL, and don’t use it—but it shows our love for words that describe very big things.

Below, we’ll look at four more specific words that mean “huge,” with a bit more attention to the specifics of usage and meaning.

 

Massive

This will be the most direct of the four words in this post. The root of “massive” is the word “mass”—just like what we weigh in grams (g) and kilograms (kg). So, literally, if something is “massive,” then it has a lot of mass. In other words, it’s large and heavy. In science, “massive” can be used in that way.

But outside of science, we use the word more generally. You can have, for example, a “massive headache.” Or we could say that smart phone technology has caused “massive changes” to how we communicate.

Basically, “massive” is almost the same as “huge,” but it’s a little bit more formal, which makes it great for the TOEFL.

TOEFL example: One of the largest craters on the surface of Mars, Hellas Planitia, was caused by a massive asteroid impact around four billion years ago.

 

Tremendous

Much like “massive,” the word “tremendous” can be used to describe very large physical things, such as mountains, or very important abstract things, such as opportunities. But “tremendous” things are often very powerful, specifically—they are big, strong, and sometimes scary. You might, for example, describe an explosion or a giant wave as “tremendous.”

Informally, people also use the word “tremendous” to mean “great,” especially to say that something was well done. You might, for example, tell your singer friend that her performance on stage was “tremendous.” That usage could easily show up in a TOEFL conversation recording, but it would not appear in an academic text.

TOEFL example: Although the center of the earth is, of course, extremely hot, it is also under tremendous pressure, which results in a solid inner core.

 

Vast

Unlike “massive” and “tremendous” things, “vast” things are not usually heavy. Instead, “vast” refers to large areas—often areas of open space. A desert, an ocean, or a city might be called “vast,” while a mountain would not be.

Again, it can be used metaphorically, too. You have a vast knowledge of sports history if you can name every World Cup winner since the tournament began. If your eight friends want to go out to lunch, and seven of them vote for Italian food, then the vast majority want Italian. But even in those cases, you might imagine that a lot of area is covered. That vast knowledge includes many pieces, as does the vast majority. A wide, metaphorical space is included.

TOEFL example: You might find that there’s a vast difference between your experience with high school teachers and your college professors.

 

Extensive

If you could consider “massive” and “tremendous” to be very similar, then you could also compare “vast” and “extensive.” Both refer to a very wide area. Just as deserts and oceans can be “vast,” so too can they be described as “extensive.”

The biggest difference is that “extensive” refers more often to the number of items included in a set (although “vast” can sometimes be used for this, too). An extensive collection includes many pieces. If your essay is written in extensive detail, it includes all of the small facts. So in some ways, “extensive” is related to number and completeness, not just size.

TOEFL example: Despite extensive evidence to the contrary, authors often cite the Wright brothers as the first to successfully fly in an airplane. 

 

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