GRE Vocabulary Words that Change the Whole Sentence


Manhattan Prep GRE Blog - GRE Vocabulary Words that Change the Whole Sentence by Chelsey Cooley

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Let’s take a look at some of the most useful GRE vocabulary words. These words don’t look that important on their own, but they can reverse the meaning of an entire phrase or sentence! Get started by trying out this GRE Text Completion question:

Incensed, and perhaps spooked, by the implications of the bureau’s purportedly _______ inquisitions, the Hollywood film director shuttered his studios, suspended production of numerous projects, and decamped with his wife to Europe.

(A) suspicious
(B) benign
(C) risqué
(D) vainglorious
(E) orthodox

The word that fits in the blank will describe the bureau’s inquisitions. What else do we know about these inquisitions? They were so bad, they caused the director to flee the country—so they must have been dangerous, or intense, or perhaps revealing.

However, the right answer to the problem doesn’t match up with any of these! The answer is actually benign, which means “harmless.” That’s pretty strange. After all, if the inquisitions caused the director to close his studios and run away, they couldn’t have been harmless at all.

The key to understanding this paradox is in another word in the sentence. It’s a word that’s easy to overlook when you first read it. (If you spotted it, give yourself a pat on the back—but keep reading!) That word is purportedly.

This word, and others like it, are among the most important GRE vocabulary words. Technically, its meaning is similar to “claimed” or “stated.” But, in a sentence, it actually reverses the meaning of whatever it’s describing! An experienced employee is a good hiring decision, but a purportedly experienced employee is one who claimed to have experience, but actually didn’t. A healthy meal is great, but a purportedly healthy meal is one that seemed healthy but really wasn’t.  

In the problem we just solved, a purportedly benign investigation is an investigation that isn’t harmless at all. The bureau might have claimed that the investigation was harmless—but, in fact, the opposite was true.

Let’s try another, similar problem. This one is a Sentence Equivalence problem, so you’ll need to choose two different words that could fill in the blank.

The _______ adventurer James Branson spends the majority of his autobiography trying to make his life sound like something out of an Indiana Jones movie, but in the end, according to some reviewers, it all comes off rather forced and unconvincing.

(A) hapless
(B) bold
(C) self-styled
(D) unlucky
(E) so-called
(F) intrepid

James Branson might think or claim that he’s an adventurer. However, the sentence focuses on a contrast between what Branson writes in his biography and how the reviewers interpret it. He isn’t really an adventurer, after all! That’s what makes self-styled and so-called the right answers.

So-called is similar to purportedly: a so-called intellectual, for instance, isn’t really much of an intellectual at all! Self-styled is also similar, but with an extra twist: a self-styled intellectual is someone who incorrectly describes him or herself as an intellectual, as opposed to someone who’s called that by other people.

Here are a few more words that behave the same way:

  • alleged
  • seeming
  • supposed
  • ostensible
  • putative

These are very high-value GRE vocabulary words to learn. A word like so-called or purportedly can make the difference between getting a problem right and picking an answer that’s the opposite of the correct one. Just remember that every time you see one of these words, there’s some kind of twist or reversal about to happen. The right answer might be the opposite of what you expect at first glance! 📝

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Chelsey CooleyChelsey Cooley Manhattan Prep GRE Instructor 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.

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