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GRE: Word Groups

Word Groups

The GRE does not test whether you know exactly what a particular word means. If you have only an idea of what a word means, you have as good a chance of correctly answering a question as you would if you knew the precise dictionary definition of the word. The GRE isn’t interested in finding out whether you’re a walking dictionary.

While it is helpful to have a broad and diverse (but classically rooted) vocabulary, such as you would be likely to encounter in a graduate—level degree program, your critical reasoning skills are more important. Learning words in groups based upon similar meanings is an excellent way to expand your useful vocabulary. If you have an idea of what a word means, you can use contextual clues to help nail down the nuance of the correct answer choice.

The words in the list below all mean nearly the same thing. Some of them are different parts of speech, but that’s OK.They all have something to do with the concept of criticism, which often appears on the GRE. The goal is to be able to identify words that have similar meaning.


 aspersion                           disparage                                pillory

belittle                                  excoriate                                rebuke

berate                                    galnsay                                   remonstrate

calumny                               harangue                                reprehend

castigate                               impugn                                    reprove

decry                                      inveigh                                    revile

defamation                          lambaste                                 tirade

denounce                              objurgate                                vituperate

deride/derisive                   obloquy

diatribe                                   opprobium

On the test, for instance, you might see a Sentence Equivalence question like this one:

Select the two answer choices that, when inserted into the sentence, fit the meaning of the sentence as a whole and yield complete sentences that are similar in meaning.

The angry pedestrian ________ the careless driver for his recklessness.

  1. remonstrated
  2. reviled
  3. atoned
  4. vouchsafed
  5. lauded
  6. reproved

 The correct answers to this Sentence Equivalence question are remonstrated and reproved. If you know that remonstrate means something like “criticize”, that should be enough to know that reprove (which means “cchastise”) will yield a sentence that means nearly the same thing. Reviled is a tempting but deceptive choice. Reproved and remonstrated both have a connotation suggestive of criticism. Reviled, meaning “despised”, would produce a sentence that makes sense (especially under the circumstances), but it would not yield an equivalent sentence. The charge of the word reviled is far stronger that the other two and produces a sentence that is much more strident in tone.

You can certainly add to the word lists provided in the appendices to this edition, or you can start to generate your own. In addition to synonyms and antonyms, you can also put together lists grouped by etymology, similar meaning, positive and negative connotations. 


The criticize group is not the only group of synonyms whose members appear frequently on the GRE. There are plenty of others. And lists of synonyms are much easier to learn than many words in isolation. Learn them with a thesaurus. Make synonym index cards based on the common groups of GRE words and peruse those lists periodically.

 If you think this suggestion might be fallacious, consider the following: the words in the following list all have something to do with the concept of falsehood. Their precise meanings vary: erroneous means “incorrect,” whereas mendacious means “lying.” But the majority of test questions won’t require you to know the exact meanings of these words. You will most likely get the question right if you simply know that these words have something to do with the concept of falsehood. If you do have to differentiate between different shades of meaning, that’s where contextual clues will help you out.


apocryphal                            erroneous                                perfidy

canard                                     ersatz                                        prevaricate

chicanery                               fallacious                                 specious

dissemble                               feigned                                    spurious

duplicity                                  guile

equivocate                             mendacious/mendacity


  • Consider this Text Completion question:

Though he was prone to _________, the corrupt executive was still capable of moments of honesty. 

  1. displeasure
  2. mendacity
  3. failure
  4. levity
  5. histrionics

You might not know the exact denotation of mendacity, but, because you studied word groups, you’ll know that it has the connotation of “false,” which will be enough to get the question right. Additionally, you’ll be able to intuit the fact the answer is going to have the opposite meaning of “honesty,” if you recognize that the word “though” is signaling that the answer will be contrasted with “honesty.” Additionally, even if you have no clue what mendacity means, you can still eliminate all the other answers as incorrect.

Greek and Latin Roots

Because GRE words are so heavily drawn from Latin and Greek origins, learning roots can be extremely useful, both in deciphering words with obscure meanings and in guessing intelligently. Studying Latin and Greek roots can allow you to figure out the definitions of words you’ve never even seen before!

 You’ll learn more words in less time if you learn them in groups. Once you know that the root PLAC means “to please,” you have a hook for remembering the meanings of several words: placate, implacable, placid, placebo, and complacent.

Sometimes you can use roots to figure out the meaning of an unfamiliar word. Suppose, for example, you come across the word circumnavigate and don’t know what it means. If you know that the root CIRCUM means “around” and that the root NAV means “ship, sail,” then you can guess that circumnavigate means “to sail around”, as in “circumnavigate the globe.” Once you’ve learned the root, you will be able to recognize the meanings of other words with that root, such as circumvent or circuitous.

Consider the word panoptic. It comes from the Greek PAN, meaning “all,” and OPTIC, meaning “to see/observe.” If you put it all together, you’ll arrive at a definition like “everything visible in one view”. If you know that, you have an advantage in deconstructing other words that incorporate similar constituent parts. You’ll have an easier time parsing language with words like panacea, Optician, and pandemonium.

Roots offer a common denominator for words thousands of years old- but language changes a lot over time, and words take on new meanings or lose old meanings. Roots don’t always give accurate clues about meaning. For example, affinity seems to contain the root FIN, meaning “end”, but affinity means “a kinship” or “attractive forces”.

There are other problems with using roots to pinpoint a definition. Looking at the etymology of a word is a great trick if you know Greek, Latin, or French. For example, DEM in Greek means “people”. Democracy essentially means “government of the people”. This approach can be helpful, but it’s not without complications. Most notably, there are exceptions.

Example: The word venal. The root VEN/VENT means “to come” or “to move toward.” But venal means “corrupt or capable of being bought.” Adventure, convene, event, avenue, advent, and circumvent clearly spring from the root meaning. Venal is a bit of a stretch. 

Example: The word pediatrician has PED for a root. PED has to do with the foot. But a pediatrician is a children’s doctor. A podiatrist is a foot doctor. It turns out that PED in regards to feet is a Latin root but PED in regards to children is a Greek root.

The good news is that these aberrations are precisely that: exceptions that prove the rule. More often than not, you should be able to use etymology to your advantage.


Learning words in context is one of the best ways for the brain to retain word meanings. The test is trying to measure how well prepared applicants are for graduate-level academic study. Most graduate students spend much of their time deciphering dense, high-level writing. Given that, your best bet is to read material written for an educated audience and written at the graduate level.

As mentioned above, reading is ultimately the best way to increase your vocabulary, although it also takes the most time. Of course, some types of reading material contain more GRE vocabulary words than others. You should get into the habit of reading publications written in a sophisticated register with dense prose. And because you’ll have to read from the computer screen on test day, we recommend that you start reading these publications online, if possible. You might as well start getting accustomed to reading in the testing mode.

This is also a good place to incorporate a technique mentioned earlier: composing practice sentences using the words you’re studying. This will ingrain the words in your mind by situating them within a meaningful context.