@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.


 How Ideas (and all else) are Related


Language limits the way that ideas relate to other ideas. And not just ideas, but events, phenomenon, places, animals, and chemicals can only be connected to each other in a finite number of ways. The relationship of one thing to another or of one event to another does not exceed three. Strange that we live in such a varied and complex world, yet we only came up with three fundamental ways to relate things.

The three modes are continuation, contrast, and cause-and-effect. (I am curious if other languages have more ways to connect ideas and events. If you have any insights, please leave me a note in the comments).

Knowing these different modes of relation will help you succeed on the reading sections, text completion questions, and writing measures of your test. But that’s only the beginning. By knowing the limits of language, you can begin to build meaning at the level of the sentence. And not only building meaning at the level of the sentence, but knowing that you can’t pack too much into one sentence. The means of relation limit how much can really be said in a sentence.

Don’t feel limited by this revelation. Although it may seem that with only three ways to relate ideas, you are limited. But complex relations can are still relatable.  From the building up of connections and relations over sentences and paragraphs, complexity emerges. But you have to first atomize your ideas before you can relate something complex. Think about the connection of the parts. Discern their relations. Then consider how best to relate what you want to relate. What will make it easy to understand? What will ensure that your reader will understand you?

For the test, you will want to identify these signals to understand what type of word you are looking for to complete a sentence or how a sentence might contain an example or a counterexample. With regard to sentences, a contrast word, like “despite,” will signal a change in the sentence, and based on where the blank is, you may be looking for a word with a positive connotation. But, remove “despite” from the sentence, and you will be looking for a word with a negative connotation.

For passages, signal words will let you know if the main idea is being summarized, if a scope is being established, or an example is being offered to explain some proposition. Noting these moments in the paragraph, either mentally or on paper, will allow you to navigate the passage quickly when you need to answer a question. You will know where to look for an answer, and you will be able to identify wrong answers that don’t fit with the structure and organization of the paragraph. For example, a wrong answer will test your ability to see that the tone has changed in a paragraph or that the author has moved from presenting a theory to critiquing it.

So when you are reading, make note of the words listed below. This is not a complete list, but will get you started on the path to understanding the connection of ideas in a sentence and in a paragraph.

Continuation Signals
as well
for example

Contrast Signals
even though
in contrast to
in spite of
instead of
on the contrary
on the other hand
rather than

Cause-and-Effect Signals
if … then
in order to
so … that
when … then

 Sentence Equivalence: Find a Partner


Square Dance circa 1944

“Grab your partner…swing them ‘round…do-si-do then promendo…‘til you’re back at the start for another roun’.”

Squaring dancing is a style of dance that appeared around the 17th century in Europe in which four partners (or eight dancers) organize themselves into a square with everyone facing the middle. When squaring dancing reached the shores of America and was bathed in the warm, romanticized image of American cowboys, it became known round the world. Sentence equivalence questions on the GRE and square dancing may appear as dissimilar as Kim Jung-un and the moons of Saturn. But they do share one important parallel–you need to find a partner to be successful in both.

With some questions, the test makers don’t use direct synonyms for answers. The direct synonyms might be placed as traps for the sleepy, bored, and distracted test takers. Instead, the two answers to pick are “partners,” not synonyms and not directly similar, but words with similar connotations. They are partners for special occasions, like a square dance.

Consider this sentence from the article, “Neutron Star And White Dwarf Confirm Einstein’s Theory of Gravity,” about testing Einstein’s theory:

“Some researchers previously believed that under conditions like these, the equations of General Relativity would not prove ________ in determining the level of gravitational radiation.”

Now what word would complete this sentence? The original word used in the sentence was “accurate.” So, we could place direct synonyms into the sentence, like “correct,” “precise,” or “factual.” I would not consider these partners; rather, these are more like brothers and sisters in the same family. Partners are close friends with no blood ties.

A good partner for “accurate” would be one that completes the sentence such that it conveys the same idea. Basically, we want a sentence that says, “Some situations were thought to exist where General Relativity would break down.” So what word should we place in the blank? What about the word “relevant?”

“Relevant” is not a synonym of “accurate,” but both these words do lead to analogous sentences. So “relevant” and “accurate” I would consider partners.

Let’s look at an example question from the ETS paper-based practice test:

From ETS paper-based practice, Section 4

In this sample question, we have some clues for determining what word should be in the blank. Anytime you see a colon in a sentence, pay attention to the information after it. Colons are punctuation marks telling you that something is being defined or elaborated on (Read article on colon usage for more information).

Since the blank comes before the colon, I know that what follows the colon will tell me about the blank: “each refrained…if the other doubted…” Here we find that the journalistic pair work together in reading each other’s pieces and advising each other on whether the articles are ready for publication. Each journalist seems to respect the other’s opinion.

Looking to the answer choices, I see some direct synonyms (“apologist” and “advocate”), but these are not the answers you are looking for. These words don’t contain the idea of trusted advisor that we are looking for—a person who gives a thumbs up or thumbs down rating.

But are there any other direct synonyms? “Intermediary” and “impediment” are fairly different, neither synonyms nor partners. Thus we are left with “check” and “brake.” Now these words are not obvious synonyms. “Check” means “to examine” and “brake” means “to curb or slow down.” However, both these words do contain the sense that we are looking for in this sentence—someone who gives advice on whether or not to proceed. Both of these words lead to two sentences that convey the same idea. In this way, “check” and “break” are partners.

So when you are do-si-doing with sentence equivalence questions, and promenading with the answers, don’t always look for direct synonyms to complete the sentence—you might need to find partners, instead, to complete the dance.



 Use a Semicolon to Save the Semicolon



The semicolon is dying a slow death. The blue droopy line in the graph above is from Google Ngram Viewer–a very cool off-shoot of Google Books. Based on the books already digitized, the Ngram Viewer provides a simple service: display the frequency of a word or phrase in a corpus of about 5 million books from 1500 to present. (Also, you can type in multiple phrases and words to see a comparison of usage. My favorite comparison: ketchup v. catsup. Watch this great TED talk about the tool if you are curious to learn more).

But not just for words, the Ngram Viewer can tell us about the usage of the semicolon. From the graph, it’s easy to see that semicolon usage peaked in the late 1700′s and has slowly been declining since then. We do see an uptick again once we hit the 2000′s, but I think this might be from the rise in computer programming languages and books printed about how to write those languages (30/46 languages use the semicolon as part of their syntax).

Still why the decline in usage? What has lead to this drop in its popularity? One culprit is that the semicolon was overused in the past. Authors were giddy with semicolon love and they used it as much as they could. In non-fiction, and even fiction, from the 1700′s and 1800′s, the semicolon seems to be on every page and in every paragraph, like authors needed semicolons like trees need sun. So the decline in usage could be a reaction to its overuse and a trend to a more normalization and balance.

But our work is not yet complete. Will we leave this punctuation to the teens and the programmers? By learning about how to use the semicolon, you can revive this failing punctuation mark and ensure that it isn’t relegated only to winking smiley faces in texts messages and end-of-line markers in computer languages.



I. Semicolons connect closely related independent clauses

A semicolon can add needed variety to the structure and rhythm of your sentences. Instead of always combining independent clauses with a comma/conjunction duo, try a semicolon. Make sure that the two independent clauses joined together are closely related. That means, they should be on the same topic, even have the same subject.

Ice cream is a delicious dessert; I can’t eat it every day, though.

A semicolon can be effective in linking two independent ideas that are contrasting or in opposition too.

To err is human; to forgive is divine.

Cookies are good; ice cream is better.

II. Semicolons separate items in a list when the list-items contain commas

Semicolons can fill the role of a comma when items in the list contain commas.

I have lived in Mumbai, India; San Francisco, California; Prague, Austria; and Tokyo, Japan.

Watching Casa de mi Padre made me realize that The Three Amigos, a quirky comedy about silent film actors heading to Mexico to protect a town from bandits, was ahead of its time; that Will Ferrell, although not thought of as a dramatic actor, is dramatic when he wants to be; and that more movies in the U.S. will be made for the rising population of Latinos.



John R. Trimble, author of Writing with Style, gives three succinct reasons for using a semicolon:

1. A semicolon adds variety.

Always using conjunctions and commas to join sentences can become boring and repetitive. A semicolon can break up this repetition, can give your reader something different to look at, and can change the rhythm and pace of your sentences.

2. A semicolon allows for compact and concise sentences.

Semicolons allow writers to be efficient with space and to eliminate the need for polysyllabic words, like however, unfortunately, and because, when linking ideas. The sentence is distilled down to its essence with a semicolon.

3. A semicolon allows for unity.

The semicolon can add smooth, clean, quick transitions from one idea to the next. Sometimes a period breaks the action too much and a conjunction-comma pair is too messy and cumbersome. A semicolon can eliminate these problems by linking clauses in an efficient, coherent bundle.


If you need one more reason to consider using the semicolon, head over to The Oatmeal, which has a wonderfully silly, yet informative poster on the semicolon (Click on the image).