This section focuses on the following topics:

  • Vocabulary Questions
  • Strategies to Master Vocabulary in Context Questions
  • Key Takeaways for Vocabulary RC Problems

Vocabulary Questions

What do we mean by ‘vocab in context questions’ and what are the best ways to approach answering these questions? In this article, we go over the basics of what vocab in context questions are, transition into more in-depth discussions of each of the two types (complete with examples, both official and homemade).

Finally, we end with suggesting strategies to use when tackling these types of questions.

Vocabulary in context questions are the questions on Reading passages that question directly about vocabulary in the context of a paragraph. While having vocab knowledge can help us with other types of questions, for the purposes of this article, we have focused on the types of questions where knowing vocabulary is essential to being able to get the right answer.

There are two types of ways the Reading passages will question you on vocabulary:

  1. Based on how the word is used in the passage, what does that word mean?
  2. How would you sum up the meaning of a few lines or a paragraph, using one word as your answer?

Read for a more detailed look at each of these types of vocab in context questions.

 

Question Type 1. What’s The Meaning of The Word In Context?

These questions are probably among the most straightforward of all the Reading questions. Take it as “Here’s the word – what’s the definition?” Of course, just because the questions are straightforward doesn’t mean that they can’t be tricky, but the way the questions are phrased they are pretty simple. In fact, they are almost always asked in one of the following ways:

  • In line 42, “stake” most nearly means…
  • In the context of line 42, the phrase “dark husband to the midnight” means…

The Placement test use the phrase “most nearly,” rather than always just straight up asking “what does this word mean?” Because

  1. The phrase is designed to trick us into picking an answer that kind of works (after all, stake only has to NEARLY mean the answer choice, right?)
  2. It’s the Test way of covering its butt (nope, you can’t just pick AN answer that works, you have to pick the BEST answer out of the available choices).

Most often, these “Here’s the word, what’s the definition?” questions are about words that have multiple meanings. Since the Placement test wants to trick us into rushing into thinking you know the answer, the test often will include an answer choice that is accurate for SOME definition of the word, just not the way it’s used in the passage. Here’s an example, taken verbatim from a Placement Test.

In line 34, “follow” most nearly means

(A) pursue

(B) result

(C) surpass

(D) join in

(E) listen carefully

Just going off the top of my head, the word “follow” can probably be used to mean any of the answers, depending on context. In order to figure out what it means in line 34, we have to go back to the passage. The source sentence for this question reads as follows:

“I came to realize that if I were able to record part of the dance – that is, the spoken part – and reenact it, the rest of the body would follow.” (lines 31-34; underline)

How to solve this question? First, replace the word with our own definition so that we have a preconception of what we’re looking for: “I realized that if I could record the spoken part of the dance and reenact it, the rest of my body would be able to do it, too.” As you can see, the rephrasing does not have to be super elegant, just accurate.

Next, substitute answers into your rephrased sentence. The answer should look something like what you rephrased in the first step. For this question, only “join in” works (“I realized that if I could record the spoken part of the dance and reenact it, the rest of my body would join in”).

Want to see another example? Here’s a trickier example

 Example A:

“The relationship of the vampire and his assistant seemed to have been reversed, and Igor, now in his early twenties, was the authoritative one; since boyhood he had been taking on one responsibility after another, until he had left the vampire with nothing to perplex him but how to while away the hours when the servants were busy and Igor was out searching for brains.”

In this sentence, “perplex” most nearly means…

(A) trouble

(B) bewilder

(C) astonish

(D) entangle

(E) embarrass

If you replaced the word “perplex” with any of the answer choices, with any of the answer choices, it would make thematic sense. After all, since Igor’s taking over all the responsibilities there its POSSIBLE there could be nothing to bewilder, astonish, entangle, or embarrass the vampire. In addition, doesn’t “perplex” sometimes have something to do with bewilder or astonish?

Danger! Danger! 

 Do NOT answer the question based on things that “could be right,” depending on information we do not know.Take that mindset into the Reading with you: Only the answer that is directly supported by the context of the passage is acceptable. In this case, the answer is (A) trouble: the vampire has no responsibilities to worry about and so has nothing to bother, or trouble, him. Even though all the other answer choices technically mean “perplex,” no other answer choice fits in the context of this sentence. This is the key point of this class of question. Sometimes, instead of asking about individual words, the Reading will question about multiple words, making the question more like “Here’s the phrase, what’s the meaning?” See example B:

In line 60, the phrase “home of the character” most nearly means

(A) way of understanding eccentricities

(B) social context surrounding the character

(C) environment for practicing acting

(D) forum in which the self is presented publicly

(E) source of a role’s psychological truth

In these cases, we have to define a phrase with another phrase. Either way, however, both word in context and phrase in context questions should be approached in the same way: always, always go back to the line in which the word or phrase appears – don’t let the question fool us into answering without checking!

 

 Question Type 2. What Word Is Defined By The Passage?

These questions task are to recognize the definition in the passage and relate them to the answer choice that matches the contexts, which is in contrast to the previous question type of vocab-in-context questions, as asking “Here’s the definition, what’s the word?”

  • The public’s response described in lines 42 most strongly suggest that Dracula’s acts were…
  • Based on the description in the last sentence, Dracula could best be characterized as…
  • In lines 42, Dracula is portrayed as…
  • The author uses the word “monster” (line 42) to convey the narrator’s sense of…
  • The author characterizes a “vampire” (line 42) as something…
  • In lines 42, the author describes vampires as…
  • The information in the second paragraph indicates that the vampire’s “modern reputation” is…
  • The second paragraph indicates that Dracula believes the “proper state” would be one of…”

“What word is defined by the passage?” questions can actually be easier than the “here’s the word, what’s the definition?” questions. Why? Because the definitions are in paragraph form, we may be able to gather more information to help answer the question. Here’s another example:

One academic who has studied and written extensively about both Plato and television suggest that Plato, rather than being anti-arts, was merely an elitist. Plato wanted to ban poetry readings and live theatre, the argument goes, because, being free and accessible and raucous and extremely popular, they were the mass entertainment of that era. “If instead of ‘tragedy’ and ‘poetry’, and ‘Homer’ and ‘Aeschylus’, you read ‘mass entertainment’ or ‘popular media’, you’ll recognize Plato’s arguments as the ancestor of all the reasons we have today for being suspicious of television.”

The “academic” (line 39) indicates that Plato was primarily characterized by his

(A) insight

(B) artistry

(C) cynicism

(D) irreverence

(E) snobbishness

If we know the definition of the word “elitist,” that can be an easy shortcut to the answer: Plato was an elitist, which probably means he was characterized by (E) snobbishness.

If we don’t know what elitist means, however, the author goes on to explain further in the rest of the paragraph: Plato wanted to ban things for being free, accessible, and popular…that sounds snobby. Okay, (E) snobbishness it is.


Strategies to Master Vocabulary in Context Questions

So what strategies to master these two types of Reading questions? To make it simple we have put together a 3-step strategy guide below.

Strategy 1. Rephrase the information given.

For questions that ask about words in context, define the word first in our head (or on scrap paper, whichever is easier) in the context of the sentence or paragraph, without looking at the answer choices. Remember, our rephrasing does not have to be elegant as long as it conveys the meaning. For instance, take a look at example:

“This article effectively concedes that Stoker’s magnificent story cannot be recovered from the misuse and distortion it has suffered since his death.”

In this line, “suffered” most nearly means…

(A) endured

(B) felt

(C) prolonged

(D) tolerated

(E) lamented

Thought process: Let me replace the word with one that keeps the meaning of the sentence. “This article effectively concedes that Stoker’s magnificent story cannot be recovered from the misuse and distortion it has had to deal with (in a negative and painful sense) since his death.” Yeah, that works. For questions that ask us to take a paragraph and choose the best answer that describes it, answer the question in our own words before looking at the answer choices. See example:

In college, young people continue to be assigned certain books, but far more important are the books they discover for themselves browsing in the library, in bookstores, on the shelves of friends, one book leading to another, back and forth in history and across languages and cultures.

In lines 35-39 (“In college …..cultures”), the education illustrated is best described as

(A) elitist

(B) philanthropic

(C) eclectic

(D) methodical

(E) rudimentary

Thought process: Question is asking about the education described in these lines. Okay, what does the paragraph say? In college there’s assigned reading, but the important thing is when students discover books on their own and jump back and forth across history, languages, and cultures. That sounds like a diverse education to me. Okay, I’ve got that, now I can look at the answer choices.

 

 Strategy 2. Cross out answers that clearly don’t fit.

Sometimes, can get to the right answer just by knowing what the wrong answers are. This is an especially useful strategy if there’s an answer choice with a word that we don’t know the meaning of. If we know that the other three answers are definitely wrong, it doesn’t matter that we don’t know what the meaning of the fourth answer is; by process of elimination, it must be the correct choice. Let’s take a look at this strategy in the context of example C, from before:

(A) endured

(B) felt

(C) prolonged

(D) tolerated

(E) lamented

Thought process: Okay, the choices are endured, felt, prolonged, tolerated, and lamented. Which of these are close to “had to deal with (in a negative and painful sense)?” Endured: yes. Felt: no. Prolonged: not really. Tolerated: not really negative. Lamented: no. The answer is probably (A) endured.

This strategy still works if you are trying to sum up the meaning of a paragraph in one word. I’ll copy and paste next example again, so we don’t have to scroll back up:

In college, young people continue to be assigned certain books, but far more important are the books they discover for themselves browsing in the library, in bookstores, on the shelves of friends, one book leading to another, back and forth in history and across languages and cultures.

In lines 35-39 (“In college …..cultures”), the education illustrated is best described as

(A) elitist

(B) philanthropic

(C) eclectic

(D) methodical

(E) rudimentary

Thought process: The choices are elitist, philanthropic, eclectic, methodical, or rudimentary. Which of these are close to meaning diverse? Elitist: I don’t think so. Philanthropic: doesn’t that have something to do with giving money to people? Maybe? Eclectic: someone with eclectic interests has a lot of different interests. Hmm. Seems more likely! Methodical: no. Rudimentary: looks like rude, but who knows [note: I know]. The right answer is probably (C) eclectic

 

Strategy 3. (Optional) Plug the definition back in.

This strategy works best for the “here’s the word, what’s the meaning?” questions, because word-for-word substitutions are a lot simpler than word-to-sum-up-entire-paragraphs-of-information substitutions. Let’s take one more look at example, a “here’s the word, what’s the meaning?” question:

“This article effectively concedes that Stoker’s magnificent story cannot be recovered from the misuse and distortion it has suffered since his death.”

In this line, “suffered” most nearly means…

(A) endured

(B) felt

(C) prolonged

(D) tolerated

(E) lamented

Thought process: Substitution time! “This article effectively concedes that Stoker’s magnificent story cannot be recovered from the misuse and distortion it has endured since his death.” Yep, that’s right. Just to double check with the maybes:

“This article effectively concedes that Stoker’s magnificent story cannot be recovered from the misuse and distortion it has prolonged since his death, that doesn’t make any sense

“This article effectively concedes that Stoker’s magnificent story cannot be recovered from the misuse and distortion it has tolerated since his death.” I mean, sort of? But why bother with “sort of” when I have a definite yes? (answer: do not bother with “sort of” if you have a definite yes)


Key Takeaways for Vocabulary RC Problems

Vocabulary (Meaning of words)

  • The word “_______” is used to mean …………….
  • A word that could be used in place of “________” in this passage is ………

 

Strategy

  1. Read the question to determine what word is being asked about and underline that word in the passage.
  2. Check to see if the meaning of the word is given before it is used.
  3. Check to see if the opposite meaning is given somewhere in the passage
  4. Replace the word with each of the possible answers, eliminating the ones that do not fit the meaning or the part of speech.
  5. If we are left with two choices, choose the one that is the most explicit (does not require additional conclusions).

The best way to study for this portion is to read books, magazines, and newspapers to exercise your brain. The time limit for this section is 20 minutes. The passages are chosen from Humanities, Science, and Social Science texts. The questions test both your literal and inferential comprehension.

 

Sample Passage

In the sixteenth century, an age of great marine and terrestrial exploration, Ferdinand Magellan led the first expedition to sail around the world. As a young Portuguese noble, he served the king of Portugal, but he became involved in the quagmire of political intrigue at court and lost the king’s favor. After he was dismissed from service to the king of Portugal, he offered to serve the future Emperor Charles V of Spain. A papal decree of 1493 had assigned all land in the New World west of 50 degrees W longitude to Spain and all the land east of that line to Portugal. Magellan offered to prove that the East Indies fell under Spanish authority. On September 20, 1519, Magellan set sail from Spain with five ships. More than a year later, one of these ships was exploring the topography of South America in search of a water route across the continent. This ship sank, but the remaining four ships searched along the southern peninsula of South America. Finally, they found the passage they sought near a latitude of 50 degrees S. Magellan named this passage the Strait of all Saints, but today we know it as the Strait of Magellan. One ship deserted while in this passage and returned to Spain, so fewer sailors were privileged to gaze at that first panorama of the Pacific Ocean. Those who remained crossed the meridian we now call the International Date Line in the early spring of 1521 after ninety-eight days on the Pacific Ocean. During those long days at sea, many of Magellan’s men died of starvation and disease. Later Magellan became involved in an insular conflict in the Philippines and was killed in a tribal battle. Only one ship and seventeen sailors under the command of the Basque navigator Elcano survived to complete the westward journey to Spain and thus prove once and for all that the world is round, with no precipice at the edge.

(1) Magellan lost the favor of the king of Portugal when he became involved in the political ______.

a. entanglement

b. discussion

c. negotiation

d. problems

e. none of the above

 

(2) Four of the ships sought passage along a southern __________.

a. coast

b. inland

c. body of land with water on three sides

d. border

e. answer not available

 

(3) The passage was found near 50 degrees S of __________.

a. Greenwich

b. the equator

c. Spain

d. Portugal

e. Madrid

 

(4) The sixteenth century was an age of great __________ exploration.

a. cosmic

b. land and sea

c. mental

d. common man

e. none of the above

 

(5) One of Magellan’s ships explored the _____ of South America for a passage across the continent.

a. coastline

b. mountain range

c. physical features

d. islands

e. none of the above

 

Read the question first and mark the keywords

In the sixteenth century, an age of great marine and terrestrial exploration, Ferdinand Magellan led the first expedition to sail around the world. But he became involved in the quagmire of political intrigue at court and lost the king’s favor. But the remaining four ships searched along the southern peninsula of South America. Finally, they found the passage they sought near a latitude of 50 degrees S. Magellan named this passage the Strait of all Saints, but today we know it as the Strait of Magellan. One of these ships was exploring the topography of South America in search of a water route across the continent.

ANSWERS: (1) a (2) c (3) b (4) b (5) c