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TOEFL Tuesday: Vocabulary – “Minimal” Words

Announcement! As of August 1, 2019, the TOEFL Reading, Listening and Speaking sections will be shortened. The TOEFL will also make changes to its prep materials and scoring system. Because of this, some of the info in our blog posts may not yet reflect the new exam format. We cover all the changes here.

A few weeks ago, I talked about the most recent TOEFL book by ETS, Official TOEFL iBT Tests Volume 2. This week, I’m going to start a short series of vocabulary videos using words from that book. In other words, the vocabulary below is completely from previous, official TOEFLs—so you know they’re appropriate to study!

All three words are about something small or minimal, but in very different ways…

(to be) Muted

You may know the verb “mute,” meaning “stop the sound of something,” which we use when we’re talking about videos or phone calls. This adjective, “muted,” is related but is not exactly the same. Specifically, it’s different because we use it to explain colors as often as sounds.  

For example, we could say that a painter used muted colors in her painting. That means they are not very bright or colorful. If there is a lot of gray, brown, and white, it’s muted. Muted colors could be boring or they could be relaxing—it’s not clearly a positive or negative word.

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This can also be used for sounds (unsurprisingly!) or even emotions, sometimes: if you see “muted anger,” it means the person is angry but not showing the anger strongly. In any situation, if it’s “muted,” it’s not very strong or noticeable.


(to be) Meager

Unlike “muted,” this adjective is definitely negative. A “meager” amount is very small; generally, it’s so small that you need or want more. A meager amount of food is not enough food, for example, and meager pay is not enough money. Note that usually, we use “meager” to describe good things. In both those cases, I want more! On the other hand, I wouldn’t say that I have a meager number of traffic tickets, even if the number is small.

(to be) Sheer

This word has a few definitions, but let’s look at two you might see on the TOEFL—both meanings of the adjective “(to be) sheer.”

The first, less important meaning is “straight up and down.” If you hear a geology lecture, for example, the professor might talk about “sheer cliffs” or “sheer rock faces.” In that context, we mean that the cliff is not a hill—if you climb it, you are climbing straight up!

The second, more useful meaning is similar to “only,” used for special emphasis that one specific aspect alone caused a result. For example, imagine there is a large rock that I want to move. I could use a tool or maybe even a car to help me move the rock. But if I decide not to, and instead simply push the rock using only my own strength, then I am using “sheer strength.”

In this use, the word “sheer” helps show that something is so large or powerful, it doesn’t need help. There are several words that pair with “sheer” often, including “size,” “number,” “strength,” “force,” and “skill.” All of them sound much larger, much more influential, when they have “sheer” in front. So in a way, this isn’t a “minimal” word like the others! Even if the “strength” or “skill” acts alone, it is powerful enough to make an impact.

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