The Perils of Half-Remembered GRE Vocab Words

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Manhattan Prep GMAT Blog - The Perils of Half-Forgotten GRE Vocab Words by Tom Anderson

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I’m going to give you two options. Which do you think would be more beneficial for your GRE Verbal score?

1) You are granted the ability (via some kind of magic lightning bolt) to memorize 500 GRE vocab words instantly with really thorough definitions.

2) You are granted the ability (via some similar magic bolt) to memorize the gist of 1000 GRE vocab words instantly.

So which would you choose—fewer words memorized in detail or more words memorized halfway?

In my years teaching the GRE, this is actually something I’ve put a little thought into. Of course, there are no magic bolts (that I know of) which enable you to instantly memorize GRE vocab words. But every GRE student does face a similar dilemma: is it better to memorize more words sloppily or fewer words with greater precision?

If I had a choice like the one above, I’d choose option #1, hands-down. In my opinion, 500 really solid definitions are a lot more useful than 1000 tenuous definitions.  

Why? Because the people who make the GRE Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence questions deliberately test you on the nuances of definitions. A half-definition is usually more dangerous than no definition at all.

I. What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You (But What You Halfway Know Can Hurt You Worse)

Here’s a little quiz. Pause for a second, stop reading the article, and write down the clearest definitions of these GRE vocab words you’re able to conjure. If you don’t have paper around… at least state a definition to yourself and try to remember the terms you used.

Manhattan Prep GRE Blog - The Perils of Half-Remembered GRE Vocab Words by Tom Anderson

Now compare your results with these, taken from Google Dictionary. The accuracy of a definition is not a matter of black-and-white or right-or-wrong. Think of yours falling somewhere on a spectrum of accuracy. Where did they fall? Mostly accurate? Halfway there? Totally unknown?

Manhattan Prep GRE Blog - The Perils of Half-Remembered GRE Vocab Words by Tom Anderson

It is most definitely a good practice to push as many GRE vocab words as possible toward the green end of this spectrum. If you can use a word fluently, then you’ll likely know whether or not it fits a given fill-in-the-blank question. That said, we all have limited time and resources. Inevitably, many of the ~1,000,000 words that make up the English language will elude us. You don’t need to memorize all of the words and you don’t need to get all of them to the point of perfection.  

In your vocabulary memorization practice, though, you should not let words sit in the “red zone” outlined above. Words partly known are often more harmful than words you don’t know at all.

To illustrate, look at the results of a couple of “students” doing the same little exercise you just did. We’ve got Beauregard’s and Antoine’s answers to the same little mini-quiz listed below:

Manhattan Prep GRE Blog - The Perils of Half-Remembered GRE Vocab Words by Tom Anderson

It might be tempting to think that Beauregard has a slight edge on his GRE exam, but I’d argue that his answers are much more problematic than Antoine’s. Admitting you don’t know is much better than faking it. Beauregard scribbled out some half-answers and complete guesses; in the process, he whipped up some truly nebulous concoctions: fragments of connotations swirled into a cocktail of forgotten contexts and misremembered details.  

Such half-remembered definitions are more likely to be harmful to your GRE Verbal score. Here are a few reasons why:

1) Connotations matter: The GRE loves to test you on the nuances of words. Especially in Sentence Equivalence.

2) Denotations matter: The GRE loves to test you on precise definitions—and it often tests you on less-common second and third definitions too.

3) Context matters: The GRE also loves to test you on the idiomatic usage of words. Practice the “correct” use of those words in context.

4) Finally, and most importantly, GRE vocab words you don’t know at all can become strategic wildcards. It’s tempting to choose a word you half-know by “forcing” it to fit the blank in the sentence. If you admit that you don’t know, you won’t be lulled into picking a half-known word that you’re more comfortable with.

II. Embrace the Wildcard

GRE vocab words you don’t know become strategic wildcards. Consider, for example, this mockup of a Text Completion question:

After a long day of toilsome labor in the fields, the farmer’s energy level deteriorated and she felt quite ________________.

Manhattan Prep GRE Blog - The Perils of Half-Remembered GRE Vocab Words by Tom Anderson

Yeah, I know, that last word is in Chinese. And no, of course that won’t happen on the real exam, but humor me for a minute. Even though one word is in Chinese, I bet you can still get this question correct. Do any of the other words fit?

Working a long day in the fields does not usually make one excited or purple. Maybe you could make a case for sad, but there is no direct link to what the sentence is talking about. And the same goes for “angry.” There is no direct clue for any of those words in the sentence.

So what’s the right answer? Lei. It’s Chinese for “tired.” That’s a perfect fit for this sentence. Obviously you’d never be put in this position on the real exam—they don’t include other languages in the answer choices. Similar situations do arise on the GRE, though. Despite memorizing hundreds of GRE vocab words, you’ll likely encounter a few that you don’t know on the real exam. When you have a breakdown like this…

Manhattan Prep GRE Blog - The Perils of Half-Remembered GRE Vocab Words by Tom Anderson
…pick the one you don’t know.

If you treat the unknown GRE vocab words like strategic “wildcards,” you’re still in a really good spot to get the questions correct. Pick the wildcard if you have no other word that makes a good fit.

Note that this only works if you admit what you don’t know. If, instead, you were in a situation like this…

After a long day of toilsome labor in the fields, the farmer’s energy level deteriorated and she felt quite ________________.

Manhattan Prep GRE Blog - The Perils of Half-Remembered GRE Vocab Words by Tom Anderson
…it would be much harder to make an accurate guess. Even if the right word is still choice E, you’d be lost in a sea of half-definitions, tempted to pick something that sorta-kinda seemed like it should fit. And on the GRE, something that “seems right” usually results in wrong answers.

III. Bringing It Back to Reality

We’ve journeyed down a few hypothetical rabbit holes in this blog entry, so let’s bring it back to the actual test. Here’s a question from the Official Guide. It’s actually the “hardest” question in the entire book—only 10 percent of students got it correct when it was live on the real GRE exam. I bet that if you admit when you don’t know the meanings of words, you’ll have a pretty good shot of getting it right. Even if you’re able to eliminate one obviously wrong answer, your guessing odds will be significantly better than the percent of students who got it right when it was an actual test question. The key will lie in not letting yourself get lured in by a half-known word.

Manhattan Prep GRE Blog - The Perils of Half-Remembered GRE Vocab Words by Tom Anderson

I bet you know the word “irrelevant.”  

You may know the word “frivolous” too.  

Don’t try to answer the question based on half-knowledge of the other words. Try to admit it: either you know them or you don’t.  

Can you be both “irrelevant” and “worthy of attention” at the same time?

No.

And can you be both “frivolous” and “worthy of attention” at the same time?

Also no.

If that doesn’t sit well with you, go look up “frivolous” and “irrelevant.” There is an element of the definitions you must be missing.

If you know it, you can rule out “didactic” in a similar way. “Intended to teach” has no relation to the clothing descriptions being mentioned. And “syntactical” fails as well. We are not discussing grammar or word order here. The only choice left is “sartorial.” Pick it. It’s the correct answer.  

What does sartorial mean? Who cares. If you picked it, you just got the question right.

…Okay, maybe you care a little bit. Look up the definition of sartorial here. Sure enough, it’s a perfect fit for the sentence.

One way or another, remember the big point: You don’t have to know all the GRE vocab words on the test, but don’t try to fake it if you don’t really know the word.  

Now get out there and start moving a few more words from the “red zone” further to the right in your vocabulary spectrum! And if you hear of any magic vocab memorization lightning bolts out there, choose wisely. 📝


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tom-andersonTom Anderson is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in New York, NY. He has a B.A. in English and a master’s degree in education. Tom has long possessed an understanding of the power of standardized tests in propelling one’s education and career, and he hopes he can help his students see through the intimidating veneer of the GRE. Check out Tom’s upcoming GRE courses here.

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