@adamrab720: #GRE Vocabulary does pay off



@adamrab702, this is a great piece of news that really needs to be shared with more people studying for the GRE. And other tests for that matter.

So often students complain about the words on the GRE and SAT: “They are useless outside of the tests.” Many grumble, “They are only important to a small group of ‘nerdy’ people.” “The words are strange,” they say. “I’ll never use them again,” or “I never see these words.”

But these students miss the point.

For one, by taking these tests, students desire a higher level of learning and understanding. Receiving a masters degree is a big deal—students become the masters of a subject. Stop and think about that—a master. And I think that part of this advancement in learning and knowledge is also an advancement in consciousness, an advancement in perception. And one very important way to do this is by learning new words.

A rich vocabulary is like having a more precise ruler for measuring length. It’s an optical sensor that reveals all the wave lengths of light, not just the narrow band of color that human eyes perceive. With a breadth of words to use at different times, the subtleties of life, of human experience, of relationships shine brightly on our minds. What once was “interesting” becomes something more precise: “absorbing, engrossing, fascinating, riveting, gripping, compelling, compulsive, captivating, engaging, enthralling, attractive, amusing, entertaining, stimulating, thought-provoking, diverting, intriguing.” So when students complain about words being too esoteric and only for a small group of people, they forget that getting a master’s degree is about joining that elite club.

Lastly, students don’t see these words because they don’t know them. Humans are really good at ignoring things that don’t fit into our beliefs and perceptions of the world. Most likely, these students have seen these words, but have ignored them, glazed past them, and blocked them from their consciousness. Unless a student is dedicated to looking up words they do not know when reading, they won’t remember these words. They are actually non-existent. And let’s back up, if students aren’t dedicated to challenging themselves by reading outside of their comfort zone and above their reading level, then they won’t be learning anything new.

The greatest moment as a teacher is to have a student carp about the vocabulary words, and then later in the semester they come to class with a grin on their face, radiating because they used one of the words correctly in a situation that stumped people. My international students especially love this moment because they get to turn to a native speaker and tell them to look the word up. Or they beam accomplishment because they just read an article in The Economist and a couple of the vocabulary words popped up.

I find it hard to convince students that these words are useful, edifying, and even fun to use. They have to figure that out on their own. So, it was great to hear that you have reached that moment, @adamrab720. I hope that your story can help others to keep studying those vocabulary words, not just because they have a high frequency on the tests, but because they will get to use them in the future, get to expand their minds by knowing them, and enter into a small elite group of linguistic acrobats.


 Write in Active Voice—Avoid Passive Voice Answers



Which picture do you find more compelling? The player driving to the basket for a layup? Or a ball going through a basket? I assume that nearly everyone is more interested in the picture on the left than the one on the right. We are social animals, compelled by human stories and drama. To have a player scoring is far more interesting than a ball falling through the net because we don’t know who scored the point or how hard they strived to score.

Writing in active voice is the picture on the left; writing in passive voice is the picture on the right.


What is it?

In active voice the actor does the action. In passive voice the actor receives the action. It’s the difference between creating a sentence that tells the reader who did what, and in that order, or creating a sentence that tells us what was done by whom.

The basic structure of an English sentence follows the pattern subject-verb-object. In active voice the actor is in the subject position of the sentence. In passive voice the actor is absent or placed in the object position of the sentence.

Active Voice: The player drives to the basket.
Passive Voice: The basketball was shot. 

All passive voice contains a be verb (am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being). But not every sentence with a be verb is passive. The previous sentence is not passive because the be verb links an adjective (passive) to a noun (sentence).

Passive sentences may also have a prepositional phrase at the end to indicate who the actor is:

Passive VoiceThe basketball was shot by a player.

But if this sentence is about the picture at the top, then it infers who that actor is since no one is present in the picture. Yet another problem.


Write in Active Voice!

The difference between active and passive voice is simple really—the difference between putting the actor at the beginning of the sentence or at the end of the sentence. But the effects on your writing are dramatic.

Take a mundane sentence as an example: Ice cream was reimagined by Ben and Jerry.

The actors sit at the back of the sentence. What normally would sit in the object position of the sentence after the verb (ice cream) finds itself in the spotlight at the beginning of the sentence. Extra words crowd the sentence (by and was). Also, the compelling verb (reimagined) loses its punch in the passive voice. The -ed crumbles the word into a phantom of its true self.

What about this instead? Ben and Jerry reimagined ice cream.

This sentence has umph and power. It’s forceful and compels the reader forward. The actors sit at the front of the sentence and act out the action of the sentence. The verb sings now.

Also, passive voice should be avoid because it is not emphatic and often a sign of an author who doesn’t know what to say. Or, sometimes people want to hide responsibility for some action or veil their lack of knowledge and so turn to passive voice to do so. Don’t come off as an indecisive writer shirking responsibility. Change your passive voice.

Put the actor at the beginning of the sentence. Activate your verbs. Eliminate the extra words. Passive voice will weigh down your sentences.


Choose answers that are in active voice

Test makers love to foil students with passive voice answer choices. Once you add this to your checklist of possible errors on the test, it will be easy to notice and easy to narrow down your choices. Whether you are dealing with GMAT Sentence Corrections or SAT Improving Sentences, testmakers will definitely test this skill, so be on the look out. Eliminate all answer choices in passive voice. You will start getting more answers correct if you do.


But don’t hate passive voice–sometimes it’s appropriate

Passive voice tends to get a bad rap. Yes, it does add extra words to sentences. Yes, it does make verbs less compelling. Yes, it does arrest the forward movement of sentences. And yes, it does result in tentative sentences.

Yet sometimes we need passive voice.

For one, sometimes we actually don’t know who the actor is. When an action has taken place, and we want to talk about it, then we need to use passive voice. For example:

The ball was thrown through the glass window.

At times, we would rather emphasize the action and not the actor or to emphasize the receiver of the action. This is a time to use passive voice:

The houses, the cars, the trees, the entire small town was demolished by the storm.





 Using Hyphens




The hyphen is for punctuating words, either for joining or separating them. Hyphens form compound words, connect prefixes to words, or create linked adjectives. Using hyphens to separate words is only necessary when formatting justified text for readability. So we’ll only look at hyphens as linkers.

Unlike the rules for using periods, the rules for hyphens are fluid. As such, most recommendations are based on what produces a readable sentence. Different style guides will recommend similar and different ways to use the hyphen, so the best way to know whether a word needs a hyphen is to consult an up‐to‐date dictionary (differences exist among British, Australian, and American dictionaries).

But sometimes the dictionary won’t provide the answer you need. For example, ‘up‐to‐date’ is in the New Oxford American Dictionary. But the unhyphenated form—‘up to date’—is also listed. So, how do you know which to use? How did I know to use the hyphenated form in the previous paragraph?

Test for Hyphen Usage

  1. If you can’t reverse the order, use a hyphen.
  2. If you can’t remove one of the words, use a hyphen.

‘Up‐to‐date’ met both of these criteria. It would sound strange, or can mean something else entirely, if a word were removed, e.g. ‘up to dictionary’ or ‘up date dictionary.’ Also changing the order of the words (to‐date‐up) causes a readability problem. Ergo, hyphenate ‘up‐to‐date.’



I. Use to join words that together are a single unit of meaning

This is the most common way to use a hyphen. When a group of words modifies a noun, link them together with hyphens. The test above applies to this usage.

“ultra-modern sofa”

“love-sick dog”


II. Suspended Hyphens

When more than one item modifies a noun, and you want to be concise, suspended hyphens save the day.

“nineteenth‐ and twentieth‐century political movements”

“single‐ or multiple‐blank sentences”


III. With compound Object-Verbal Noun

Sometimes an object and a verb need to be linked with a hyphen to avoid misreading and confusion:

“man eating shark”

means that a person is consuming a shark. Whereas:

“man-eating shark”

means that a shark likes the taste of human flesh.


IV. Use with some prefixes and suffix

More often than not, use a hyphen with the following prefixes and suffix: all-, ex-, self-, half-, quasi-, or -elect.

“the president-elect”




V. Use when a prefix is attached to a proper noun

When you place a prefix on a proper noun, it is best to use a hyphen. Again, this ensures that no one misreads what you have written.



“anti-Wal Mart”


VI. Use with fractions and compound numbers

Maybe the second-most popular usage, numbers and fractions need a hyphen.

“twenty-nine years old”

“two-thirds of ice cream cones”


 When to Use Quotation Marks



Quotation marks come in pairs, in multiple versions (single or double), and in multiple styles (vertical or curved). Most know that quotation marks are for letting everyone know that someone is speaking. We also know that quotes from a book or from a person should be surrounded by quotation marks. But there are some lesser known ways to use quotation marks that will help you to be more expressive in your writing.

In this post, we will look at when to use and not use quotation marks. Next week we will look at how to punctuate with quotation marks (not as straightforward as it sounds).


I. With direct quotations

Direct quotes come in two varieties: speech or citation.


This use is common in fiction or nonfiction when indicating what characters say aloud (although quotes can also be used to signify internal thoughts too), and in news articles and magazines when quoting an interview.

“Hello, who is it?” asked Major Maulthweitz.

“It’s Honey Bee,” came the response on the other side of the door.

“Honey Bee, who?” said Major Maulthweitz with a questioning look.

“Honey, be a dear and bring me my coat,” said Major Maulthweitz’s wife.


This occurs when writers copy other writers word-for-word with no changes. Writers do this to provide support for an idea, provide proof of a thesis, to analyze a text, to refute another author, or merely to express an idea in more eloquent language than the author may be able to.

Kundera begins his novel not with setting or character or plot, but rather with philosophy. The Unbearable Lightness of Being begins here: ”The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum!  What does this mad myth signify?”


II. For titles of small works

For the title of things that are published or released within a larger work, use quotation marks. This includes the titles of chapters in a book; of TV episodes; of articles in a newspaper, magazine, or journal; titles of songs; of short stories; and of poems. If you are unsure it you should use quotes, ask yourself a simple question, “Is this the title of something that is part a larger work?” If you answer, “yes,” use quotes; if you answer, “no,” italicize or underline the title.

newspaper article: “The High-Flavor, Low-Dogma Healthy Diet,” by Mark Bittman of The New York Times

song title: “Like a Rolling Stone,” by Bob Dylan

chapters: “Why are People,” The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

TV episodes: “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen,” M*A*S*H

short stories: “Master and Man,” by Leo Tolstoy

III. For times when referring to a word or phrase

Use quotes to indicate that you are talking about a word or phrase, not using the word for its meaning. In this way, the word or phrase is under discussion. Italicizing the word or phrase is another common way to let the reader know the same thing: “I am talking about this word. I’m not using this in my writing right now.”

The word “patronizing” has two meanings that don’t seem to be related: one about being a customer and the other about being kind to hind a feeling of superiority.


IV. To indicate irony

Use quotes around words when you don’t intend them to be taken seriously, that is, to indicate verbal irony. (Verbal irony is when a person says one thing but means the exact opposite.) This is actually the only time, too, when a punctuation mark has a life outside of written text–air quotes with your fingers indicate that the speaker is being ironic. The comic above is funny for this reason. (Is he really handsome?)

That is such a “beautiful” painting.

The recent “democratic” election in Venezuela had many irregularities.

The comic is also relevant to the next point.


V. To indicate a special usage of a word

At times, authors use words in ways that don’t adhere to normal usage. Maybe they using a word in a creative way, or using a phrase in an abnormal fashion. Use quotes for these times. After establishing this unconventional use of a word, though, the quotes are usually dropped in subsequent uses.

Stephen Fried coined the neologism, “fashionista,” in his book, Thing of Beauty: The Tragedy of the Supermodel Gia.


VI. Use with nicknames

Use quotation marks around a nickname.

ex‐wrestler Jesse “the Body” Ventura

ex‐governor Jesse “the Brain” Ventura



VII. NOT with indirect quotations

Unless you are writing word‐for‐word what an author wrote or a person said, don’t use quotation marks. Paraphrases or a summaries do not need quotation marks.

ORIGINAL: All through the house, no animal stirred, not even a mouse.

INCORRECT: “All through the house, nothing moved, not even a mouse.”

CORRECT: “All through the house, no animal stirred, not even a mouse.”

But if you need to change a single word for clarity, this can be accomplished with brackets [ ]. This is sometimes necessary when fitting the quotation into the syntax of your sentence or when clarify who or what is being discussed

ORIGINAL: He knew that it was a good idea, but he didn’t know it would turn into a billion dollar idea.

QUOTE: “[Mark Zuckerberg] knew that [Facebook] was a good idea, but he didn’t know it would turn into a billion dollar idea.


VIII. NOT with a cliche

Cliches should be avoided, but if used, they definitely should not be surrounded by quotes. For one, a cliche is already a violation of style–aim to be unique–and by surrounding a cliche with quotes, the writer highlights this offense. Second, and even worse, the quotes indicate that the writer knew about the violation and went ahead with it anyway. The quotes seem to be asking the reader to forgive the writer for such an offense. But quotes are not meant as an entreaty for forgiveness.

INCORRECT: The problem is similar to “searching for a needle in a haystack.”


IX. NOT To add emphasis

Store signs and billboards incorrectly use quotation marks to add emphasis to the words, often with unintended comical repercussions. This is not correct and should not be imitated. There is also an entire blog dedicated to this fault.

INCORRECT: Sale “Fresh” Apples

INCORRECT: Don’t let “back” pain keep you from enjoying the summer.

INCORRECT: Produce for “you”