TOEFL Tuesday: “Dark” Vocabulary Words

This week I’m looking at four more words from our free TOEFL vocabulary flashcards, all used to describe dark things. “Dark” is a simple, common word, so learning this more advanced vocabulary will help add variety to your English, instead of repeating that low-level word all the time. Words like the four below will help you show your deeper knowledge of English in the speaking and writing tasks, and could easily appear in any reading or listening task—especially one about art, which is a common topic.

(to be) Dreary

If you want to say not only that something is visually dark, but also that it is emotionally dark, “dreary” is a great word. It describes not only how something looks, but also how that makes you feel. It’s a sad word, used for boring and gray things. A dreary painting, for example, has little color.

(to be) Bleak

The line between “dreary” and “bleak” is very thin. The have almost the exact same meaning, but “bleak” is a bit darker. Whereas “dreary” sounds sad and negative, “bleak” sounds depressing. In both cases, the emotion is included with the visual image, but the emotions behind “bleak” are even stronger.

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You can also talk about “a bleak future” or “a bleak outlook” (“outlook” = how you see the world); in that case, it is similar in meaning to “hopeless.” There is nothing good in a bleak future, only destruction and sadness. If you have a “bleak outlook,” you don’t see any positivity in the world around you.


Alright, let’s look a word that is used more often for actual darkness. There is little metaphorical or emotional meaning to “dusk”—it is only used for a specific time of evening when the light disappears from the sky. After all, the sunset isn’t the complete end of daylight, is it? After the sun is gone, there is still a bit of light in the sky. Dusk is when that light is disappearing completely, after sunset, when night truly starts. It’s extremely similar to another word…


You can use “twilight” to mean the same thing as “dusk,” and nobody will ever correct you. It does have a slightly more general meaning, though—wheares “dusk” is when the light is almost gone, “twilight” is the whole time that the sun isn’t in the sky, but there is a small amount of sunlight. In other words, twilight comes before dusk in the evening. It can also be used to describe the time in the morning before sunrise (dusk is only evening), but that is uncommon.

The other difference is that “twilight” is sometimes used metaphorically, especially when talking about a person in old age, using the phrase “twilight years.” It’s a nicer way to say the final years of a life, without talking directly about death.

Well, that was all a bit bleak, wasn’t it? Next time, we’ll move on to some cheerier vocabulary.

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  • Lucas Fink

    Lucas is the teacher behind Magoosh TOEFL. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean. None of them come in handy, nowadays.

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