TOEFL Vocabulary – On the Edge

This week, we’re going to look at some words about edges—the far ends, away from the center. If you’re on the edge of something, you might be very, very close to it, but not quite in it, or you might be just barely inside, near leaving.

For example, you might be driving away from downtown, at the edge of the city. In that case, you’re almost outside of the city, but not quite. Or maybe you just left the city limits a second ago.

Or you might be on the edge of crying. In that case, you’re not actually crying, but you’re close to it.

And just like those two different meanings of “edge” above, there are some real-world edges and some metaphorical ones below.


(the) Verge

This one is pretty easy. The “verge” is, as I described with “edge” above, just the outside limit of something. It is more often used metaphorically, though, whereas the “edge” is often a physical, real thing.

Sometimes it is used as a verb, paired with the word “on.” To “verge on something” means that you are nearing something. Again, it’s mostly metaphorical. A country might be verging on war, for example, meaning that it’s becoming dangerous, and they might go to war soon.

TOEFL example: In the middle of the 1800s, the world was on the verge of a major advance in technology, as electricity would soon become an important part of the average person’s day.

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(the) Brink

In many cases, we could use “brink” in the same sentences as we would use “verge”; it’s usually metaphorical, and it means some situation is very close, possibly going to happen quite soon.

But a physical “brink” is the edge of a cliff, specifically. So then, it’s not surprising that a metaphorical brink is often a dangerous place to be. Both words can be either positive or negative, but a “brink” is often the edge of something bad.

TOEFL example: For decades after the creation of the atomic bomb, many Americans felt that we were on the brink of world destruction.


(the) Boundary

While the two words above are usually metaphorical, a “boundary” can be a concrete, real thing. It is similar to the word “border,” and is often used in the same contexts. The land of a country has boundaries, for example. If you cross that, then you will be in another country.

I don’t mean to say that there are no metaphorical boundaries. Parents must set boundaries for their children, for instance. Those are rules that the children should not break—metaphorical “lines” that they should not cross.

TOEFL example: Between the core of the earth, which is liquid, and the mantle, the solid layer that surrounds the core, there is a boundary which we still know surprisingly little about.


(the) Periphery

The biggest difference between the boundary and the periphery is that a periphery is actually an area, whereas a boundary is just a line. So things can actually be in a periphery, not just on, inside, or outside like a boundary.

For example, your friend’s friend whose name you know is in the periphery of your social group. And something that you can only see if you look to your left is in the periphery of your vision.

The adjective “peripheral” is an important word, too: it means “far from the center” or, metaphorically, “not very important.” TOEFL reading passages include many details that are peripheral to the main points, for instance.

TOEFL example: Many lesser known jazz musicians of the 1920s who created music in the periphery of popular culture were never recorded, and their music is now lost.


Why “the”?

Maybe you noticed that all four nouns above often have “the” before them. It’s possible to use “a” before each, but when we talk about edges, we often talk about the edge of [something]. Because we know what that “something” is, we know which specific edge we are referring to, since most things only have one edge. It is a single, defined, understood edge because of the words “of [something].”


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