It's not always easy to be smart, but at least you can fake it by sounding smart. Something that helps is a strong vocabulary. Because English is an amalgamation of so many different tongues, the language contains some of the most amazing words. Sure, there are still some words I wish English would adopt, such as Jugaad or my personal favourite, Pilkunnussija (also known in colloquial English as a “Grammar and Spelling Nazi” – we all know that special, annoying person who loves to correct every mistake we make!).

Still, English does have some erudite and ostentatious words that just sound cool. For example, the dog ululated at the full moon, waking up all its neighbours. Or, even cooler, the archaeologist tossed away the random finnimbrun after a bit of floccinaucinihilipilification determined that it was truly worthless. See? Don’t these sentences make me look smart? I may not fully know what the words mean, but at least other people will be wowed.

On the SAT, however, you actually do need to be smart, but thankfully you won’t need to know such crazy words. Still, in order to succeed on the SAT, you will need to have some knowledge of fairly daunting vocabulary. This article will cover in depth these different ways to build your vocabulary. All we ask is that you really start to practice these techniques. By doing this, you will become better suited to rock the SAT Verbal section, and all your friends and teachers will be shocked by how “smart” you’ve suddenly become.

Think Like a Pothole

During the monsoons, holes appear in many of the roads throughout Mumbai, where I live. I know what should go into them because I can see what the surrounding, remaining road looks like. I can figure out how to fill the pothole based on context.

It’s like entering a theatre once the movie has started, walking into the middle of a conversation, or opening a book to a random page. Without knowing what happened before (and even after), what you currently are watching or hearing or reading does not make sense. The same is true for words we do not know. I can learn a word by memorizing the definition, or I can simply figure out the meaning from the situation it appears in. So, what better way to conquer these questions than to practice them in a real life?

Here are some great ways for you to learn in context:

  • Read. A lot. And not easy books and magazines. Instead, challenge yourself. Pick books longer than 200 pages. Avoid the Young Adult and Children’s sections of book- stores. Attempt books written at least 50 years ago. Before 1900 is best. These will help you strengthen your vocabulary by i introducing you to words that also appear on the SAT (and, incidentally, in college).
  • When you come across words you don’t know, DON’T SKIP THEM. Instead, jot them down in a Vocabulary Journal. Before you move on, write down what you think the word means based on the context in the book. Then, after you’ve finally stopped reading, open a dictionary (or go online to a site like Dictionary.com) and see the actual definition. Write it down in your journal next to the definition you came up with.
  • Before closing the Vocabulary Journal, do one final thing. With help from your reading book and the entry at Dictionary. com, write out your own sentence using that word. And don’t be lazy. Remember that Sentence Completions will require you to use context to choose the right word...so test yourself and see that you can do this with your own creation. Think of it like this: If you gave YOUR sentence to your parents without the word, and then presented them with five options, would
    they be able to pick the right answer? For example, do NOT write “The boy was taciturn.” Instead, try “The boy was so taciturn that he rarely responded even when his teachers asked him questions.” If you write a sentence like this in your Vocabulary Journal, you will have a much better chance of remembering the meaning in context, which is exactly what is important on SAT reading comprehension section.
  • Lastly, read books that are specially designed to improve your vocabulary. SparkNotes publishes a series of books with tough words highlighted in context with definitions. In fact, I remember reading Tooth and Nail by Charles Harrington Elster and Joseph Elliot when I prepared for the SAT almost 10 years ago, and it helped me a lot. You can even check out the Direct Hits series, which takes excerpts from pop culture, literature, and events and chocks them full of great words. Reading difficult words in an enjoyable novel makes the process fun.


Practicing in these four ways will help you Think Like a Pothole. You know the consistency and colour of the asphalt that surrounds the hole, and thus you know how to fill it in. You learn from your surroundings. You learn from your context.

Think Like a Pothole, and you’ll be one-step closer to mastering the vocabulary necessary to surmount the Vocabulary in Context questions on test day.

Vocabulary Dictionary

The second technique for building your vocabulary will require you to Think like a Dictionary. Hopefully you can figure out what I mean by this. Think hard. Harder. Come on...yes! It means to learn the proper definitions of the words. But wait... which words? There are like a gazillion words in English, right? How do you pick and choose the best ones, and how do you remember them by the time you reach test day?

There are a few different ways to memorize words. The most common way is to simply learn the words on a list. But of course, there are lots and lots of lists. Therefore, I recommend these two:

  1. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-adv/eduadv/kaplan/kart_ug_sat100.html
  2. http://education.yourdictionary.com/for-students-and- parents/100-most-common-sat-words.html

Many of the words between both lists will be repeated, so obviously don’t double-memorize! Instead, combine them into one big list of over 100 tough words that most commonly appear on the SAT. How do we know that these words appear a lot? Well...the people who came up with these lists looked through lots and lots of old SATs going back 10, 20, even 30 years! They then made a gigantic enormous list and saw which words appeared the most. Sounds like an awesome job to have, right? So, at least we can trust that these words will help us on the SAT, and of course, help us in college and beyond, too.

But, is this really the best way to Think like a Dictionary? No, actually. Word lists can be pretty pointless, particularly if you suck at memorizing words just as much as I do (which is a lot!). Instead, we take this list of words to the next level: Flash Cards. These can be really simple, or have lots of information on them. But the key is this: YOU make them! The physical act of making the cards will help you learn them. Here are some tips to help you create the perfect cards:

  • Make them small and thin so they you can stack many of them and carry them around easily
  • Don’t make them too small that you have to squint and/or go blind just to look at them
  • On one side of each card, write the vocabulary word in large capital letters
  • On the other side, write the definition in just a few words
  • Also on this other side, you can include a few other things to help you learn more than just the definition:
    >> Write the definition in one color for Noun, one for Verb, one for Adjective, one for Adverb, etc. to help you with Parts of Speech
    >> Include a + if the meaning is generally positive, a – if the meaning is generally negative, or a = if the meaning is generally neutral (or could be both + and –)
    >> Write a synonym or two, or even better, write down the Word Group to which it belongs (more on Word Groups next week)
    >> If the word can be broken down into roots, prefixes, and suffixes, include those here as well (more on this topic in two weeks)
    >> Write the word in a sentence to practice using it in context
    >> Draw a picture if this will help you visualize the word
    >> If you know someone, something, or some event that epitomizes that word for you, write that also (Example of a Flash Card given here) Notice that a lot can be written on the opposite side of each flash card – pick and choose what’s best for you. Now that you’ve created your cards, here’s how to use them most effectively:
  • Carry a small pile of flashcards with you everywhere and practice whenever you can – on the bus, train, car, a never-
    ending queue, etc.
  • Constantly make new cards
    >> Convert the words from your Vocabulary Journal into flashcards
    >> Carry some blank cards with you wherever you go so you can create new flash cards from words you see or hear while you’re out and about
  • Practice saying the words aloud, or at least whisper them lightly if you’re in a public place
  • Get quizzed A LOT from friends and family – the more they’re involved in the process, the better you’ll do at memorizing all those words

So now you know what you need to do in order to start learning definitions in a way that will make the process interactive and will allow you to KNOW that you’re improving. Flash Cards will ensure that you successfully Think like a Dictionary, and your score on the SAT will show it.

Master Vocabulary through Similar words that are Akin

Here’s what you should have done so far:

  1. You have filled at least two pages of your new Vocabulary Journal with tough words from these books, with definitions based on context and your own sentences using these words properly.
  2. You have created Flash Cards from lists of the commonly tested SAT words and have separated them into two piles: words you know and words you do not know.
  3. You have placed blank cards in your bag or purse so when you hear or see new words, you can create Flash Cards immediately and add them to your piles.
  4. You have been quizzed at least once by family or friends about some of the words you do not know. If you’ve done these, great! You are on your way to becoming a master of tough English vocabulary and thus a master of the SAT.

However, I have to be honest. While I enjoy learning in context, Like a Pothole, I struggle with memorizing words. I learn the word, and then three days later, I’ve forgotten it. It goes from the “Words I Know” pile back to the “Words I Do Not Know” pile...and my smile fades into a frown. This doesn’t mean that don’t bother with the flash cards. But this does tell me that there must be an easier way.

And then, I see it. I notice some patterns. I look at my flash card from last week. Amicable generally means agreeable or friendly. But then again, so does Amiable. According to the word list, Benevolent means something similar, though not quite the same thing. So does Cordial and Affable and Convivial and Genial.

I’m flipping through more of the words, and I realize that Clichéd is like boring or commonplace or dull. For the most part, Hackneyed, Trite, Prosaic, Mundane, Pedestrian, Vapid, Vacuous, Insipid, Platitude, Quotidian,and Banal all mean the same thing.

Now I stop myself and I wonder: ‘Why should I have to memorize SOOOO many different definitions when I can just learn words that are similar to each other?’ And with that...I’ve started to Think Like a Thesaurus. On the SAT, there are many words that mean more or less the same thing. So, put them together into Word Groups, and now there’s a much easier way to learn vocabulary.

Let’s say, for example, that you run across this question on test day:

To someone new to animated films, this movie comes across as amiable and child-friendly, and thus might seem extraordinary, though in fact the story copies those of so many other movies that, to more regular audiences, this agreeability may seem dull and even prosaic.

In context, the bolded word most nearly means:

A) Affable

B) Florid

C) Canny

D) Agreeable

As you read this, you should blank the bolded word and predict what word may be in blank first. Simply pick the easiest, perhaps the first. As you read it, may be friendly seems like a proper prediction. Yes, you took these predictions straight from the sentence itself, a move that is quick, easy, and smart. Now you look at the answers choices:

You review the first words in each answer choice and the closest meaning to friendly is agreeable.

Let’s recap: You do NOT need to know the individual definitions of each word in the group. Therefore, it doesn’t matter what Affable and Florid actually mean...

However, please note that some of these words may be harder than those which might appear on the SAT.

And of course, the best is to create the Word Groups from your Flashcards and Vocabulary Journal. All you do is organize your Cards based on somewhat similar definitions. It doesn’t matter whether the words are Nouns, Verbs, or Adjectives, as long as the meanings are close. Then, simply write these down into separate lists each having one or two-word definitions in common. Once done, write the Word Group on the back of the Flash Cards, perhaps in the corner.

While this may seem like a lot of work, you’ll appreciate it when you realize that you’ve learned only 4-5 definitions for 30 hard words. How nice is that! Thinking Like a Thesaurus by paying attention to similar words will help you cover a lot of vocabulary with little effort. And your stronger Sentence Completions scores will thank you for it!

Getting to the Root of English Vocabulary

The English words are hard. No doubt about that! I wouldn’t be writing straight articles of vocabulary-building if this weren’t true. But why is it so tough? The language has changed a ton over the many years. English evolved from Germanic to Anglo-Saxon to Old English to Middle English to Modern English, and was heavily influenced by Latin and Norse and Norman French and Greek along the way. And then, from Modern English, it exploded to American English and Indian English and Australian English and South African English and Fijian English and so on, borrowing words from different languages that you probably haven’t even heard of.

For example, English has taken words from: Aboriginal, Afrikaans, Algonquian, Arabic, Cantonese, Cariban, Celtic, Cherokee, Danish, Dutch, Ewe, French, Gaelic, German, Greek, Hawaiian, Hebrew, Hindi, Inuit, Italian, Japanese, Latin, Malay, Malayalam, Mandarin, Maori, Nahuatl, Norse, Persian, Portuguese, Quechua, Russian, Sanskrit, Spanish, Swahili, Tamil, Tupi, Turkish, Welsh, and Yiddish... just to name a few! See why English can be such a tough language to know? See why new speakers struggle so heavily with pronunciation and vocabulary?

But, this weird, blended background can actually help you learn some of the nearly 2.5 lakh distinct English words. You see, two of the biggest contributors to English over the years have been Latin and Greek, and they were big fans of mixing and combining certain verbal pieces (called morphemes) to form different words. Think of it like this: Let’s say you have five coloured pieces of paper that can be grouped based on two or three colours each. White-Blue means one thing, while White-Red means something else. However, the White does the same thing to Blue and Red, thus altering the definitions of Blue and Red in similar ways. Now, let’s say Black means the opposite of White. Then, Black-Blue would be an antonym of White-Blue.

This, my friends, is Thinking Like a Puzzle. Understand your Roots, Prefixes, and Suffixes (RPS), and your vocabulary will improve immensely, as will your chances of success on SAT Verbal questions.

Let’s run through some examples to show how this works. Take the word Philanthropy. We can break this word into two pieces: The Prefix and sometimes Root Phil, meaning ‘Love,’ and the Root Anthropo, meaning ‘People.’ Even the –Y at the end is a Suffix indicating that the word is a Noun. Based on this information, we can define the word as a ‘noun representing the love of people.’ While this isn’t perfect, it starts to move us in the right direction.

But what makes RPS so great is that we can now combine these separate pieces with a bunch of other ones to get new words. Let’s say we had these pieces:

  1. Soph: Wisdom
  2. Mis-: Not or Against
  3. –Ate: Verb
  4. Biblio: Book
  5. -Ology: Study of
  6. –Ize: Verb
  7. Graph: Write
  8. –Ion: Act of doing

Now that we have the pieces, let’s put them into words. Based on what we know from above, write the LITERAL definitions of the following words. Then, look them up in a dictionary and see how closely they match to the actual definitions:

  1. Philosophize
  2. Graphology
  3. Miscalculation
  4. Bibliography
  5. Anthropology
  6. Bibliophile
  7. Misanthrope

How did you do? Hopefully you see that, by learning these smaller word pieces, you can master larger and more complex words. For example, by knowing roots, you can at least start to understand the meaning of the longest English word (tha appears in a dictionary):
Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis

Let’s actually try to figure this out following a few simple steps.

First, we break it apart into its various pieces:
Pneumono-ultra-microscopic-silico-volcano-coni-osis

Second, we recall the meanings of each piece:

  1. Pneumo: Lungs or Air
  2. Ultra: Beyond
  3. Microscopic: Too small to see
    a. Micro: Small
    b. Scope: See
    c. –Ic: Adjective
  4. Silico: Silicon
  5. Volcan: Fire
  6. Coni: Dust
  7. –Osis: Disease

Put it all together, we get something like: A lung disease caused by breathing in a lot of really really fine silica volcanic dust. And actually, that’s about right! (BTW, the longest word in English contains 1,89,819 letters – you can see it in the previous articles, if interested)

Thankfully, you will not have to face such large words on test day. Start to Think Like a Puzzle by reading this magazine. Don’t memorize all the RPS, because that would be a massive information overload. But take the ones you think would appear on the exam and make them into Flash Cards. Practice them as you would practice learning new words.

Roots, Prefixes, and Suffixes can be very helpful on test day as long as you are careful. If you do not know a meaning of an RPS well enough, then DON’T use this technique. There are two reasons for why RPS can be misleading:

First, some of the meanings have changed over time because they were created based on context. For example, look back at sample question 3 above: Miscalculation. Actually, this properly combines the Prefix Mis- and the Suffixes –Ate and-Ion with the Root Calc. But wait. Why didn’t I give you that Root before? Because it would have created confusion. Did you know that Calculator and Calculus are actually related to the word Calcium, in that they all deal with the word ‘Stone’ or ‘Pebble.’ I can see the quizzical look on your face. Think back to the original calculator, the abacus. Now can you see the connection?

The problem is that, over time, we have moved away from using pebbles to solve maths problems. But the word has not changed. The same problem can occur with words like proscribe, which should combine ‘public’ with ‘write’ to maybe come up with the definition ‘to write something publicly.’ But in fact, it means ‘to forbid,’ ‘to denounce,’ or ‘to banish.’ How did that happen? It’s because of context. In ancient Rome, officials would publicly post written lists of banished people. We can blame time for such a change.

Second, while most of the Roots, Prefixes, and Suffixes come from Latin, many also come from Greek. And sometimes they are the same piece, but with different meanings. This, of course, can cause problems if you do not know the origin of the RPS. For example, Democracy and Demon contain dem but mean completely different things. Democracy comes from Greek, from which the dem means people. Demon comes from Latin and is shortened from daemon and demn, the first meaning ‘spirit’ and the second meaning ‘to inflict loss upon.’ Such different meanings for the same three letters, all because of the language!

A simpler example is this: Anticipate. We should all know this definition. Also, we should know that the Prefix Anti- means ‘against.’ But does that make sense? Nope. The reason is that the meaning of ‘against’ is Greek, while the word is Latin. And what is the Prefix Anti- in Latin? ‘Before’ or ‘Prior to.’ Now it makes sense!

As we can see, Thinking Like a Puzzle by knowing Roots, Prefixes, and Suffixes can be ridiculously helpful on the SAT. We should immediately start to learn those that we think will be useful on the exam. We just need to be careful not to get confused by context or by language.

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