In this article, GRE instructor Tom Anderson asks a smart question: is it better to sort of know a lot of GRE words, or to really know a few GRE words? It turns out that you’re better off if you learn fewer words, but really learn them well. If you don’t, here’s one way the GRE could trick you.
Most of the toughest GRE words are adjectives: descriptions of people, situations, or things. Adjectives are a bit like cupcakes. A sweet cupcake is good, but a cupcake that’s too sweet can make your teeth ache. They’re both sweet, but one is tasty, and the other is, well, gross.
Likewise, lots of GRE adjectives have “evil twins.” One word is sweet, but the other is too sweet. Here are some examples.
thrifty – miserly
sentimental – mawkish
respectful – obsequious
devout – priggish
ornate – ostentatious
All of these pairs share the same relationship. Someone who’s miserly is too thrifty. If a poem is mawkish, it’s too sentimental. If an employee is obsequious, she’s not just respectful, she’s so respectful that it’s kind of weird. And so on. The second word is a “too sweet” version of the first word.
If you only sort of know these words, you can see how you might assume they mean the same thing. After all, thrifty and miserly both mean “cheap,” and ornate and ostentatious both mean “fancy.” But do they mean the same thing on the GRE? Nope.
So, what if you see both of them in the answer choices? It depends.
Suppose you’re doing a GRE Sentence Equivalence problem—the type of problem where the two right answers will be synonyms. Here’s one possible set of answer choices:
The first three answer choices are right out, since none of them has a twin. That leaves us with miserly, stingy, and thrifty. Let’s call this ‘situation number 1’—where you have three answer choices that sort of mean the same thing.
This is what we call a charge trap. The three words have similar meanings, but one of them has a different “charge”—thrifty is a neutral word, while miserly and stingy are much more extreme, and therefore bad. Since only two of the words really match each other, you should choose miserly and stingy, regardless of what your fill-in was.
When you learn a new word, take note of whether it has a strong charge, either good or bad. This is especially true if it’s a more extreme version of some other word you already know. If you’re not sure what the charge of a word is, search for it online and check out how people are using it!
Okay, here’s situation number 2, with a different set of answer choices:
Two answer choices—pragmatic and rustic—are definitely out, since they have no twins. That leaves four possibilities, of which you need to choose two. Take a moment and divide those four words into two pairs, based on their charge.
Ready? Here we go. Elaborate and ornate have the same (neutral) charge, while gaudy and ostentatious share a negative charge. Other than that, they basically mean the same thing: fancy.
To choose a pair, let’s go back to the golden rule of GRE Verbal: Find the Proof. Every GRE Verbal problem has one and only one right answer, and you can always prove that the right answer is right.
If you can’t prove that a strong word is right, you should choose a neutral one. However, if the sentence contains proof for the stronger word, the stronger word is the right answer. Here’s a sentence that might go with those answer choices from above:
“Gilding the lily” is a 19th-century expression that was first coined to describe the ________ décor adopted by those who were too eager to display their recently acquired wealth; some owners of Beaux Arts homes, for instance, would cover up the beautiful but subtle carvings of flowers around their entranceways with a layer of flashy gold gilt.
There’s a lot of proof here for ostentatious and gaudy. The homeowners were too eager to display their wealth; they covered up beautiful but subtle features of their homes in favor of something more flashy.
This next sentence doesn’t have proof for a strong word, so you should pick the neutral pair:
In the late 19th century, architecture and decoration took a turn for the ________, with many owners of Beaux Arts homes embellishing their entryways with intricate carvings of flowers inscribed with gold gilt.
There’s no proof here that the decoration was too ornate—and if you can’t prove the stronger answer, you can’t pick it. If this is the sentence you’re dealing with, choose ornate and elaborate.
In short, here’s how to avoid charge traps:
- Pay attention to charge when you learn new GRE words;
- If you see three similar words in the answers, ask yourself whether they have different charges;
- If you see two pairs with different charges, only pick what you can prove using the sentence.
If you follow those guidelines, you’ll deepen your vocabulary knowledge and protect yourself against trap answers on GRE Sentence Equivalence!
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Chelsey Cooley is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Seattle, Washington. Chelsey always followed her heart when it came to her education. Luckily, her heart led her straight to the perfect background for GMAT and GRE teaching: she has undergraduate degrees in mathematics and history, a master’s degree in linguistics, a 790 on the GMAT, and a perfect 170Q/170V on the GRE. Check out Chelsey’s upcoming GRE prep offerings here.