How to Get Every Vocab-in-Context Question Correct on the GRE

Every day, we learn something new – from the discovery of the supergiant amphipod to the latest innovative cancer treatments, humans are constantly discovering that there is more to our world than meets the eye. Your GRE test prep might not feel as exciting as some of these other breakthroughs, but Vocab-in-Context questions are good opportunities to discover new vocabulary in your GRE test prep, and like these discoveries, there is also more to this question type than meets the eye. V-in-C questions look simple, but can be deceptively challenging. Don’t you just have to know the definition of the word? Nope! In fact, the common definition is often wrong (but usually one of the answer choices).
Let’s look at how a question might appear on the GRE test.

In line 19, the word fathom means?

You may see this question and think, I know what “fathom” means. It’s like to be able to understand or comprehend. Scanning the answer choices, you’d see the following options:

A. plaintive
B. secondary
C. understandable
D. measure
E. florid

If you did not go back to the context of the word in the passage, you’d likely choose C quickly and move on to the next question, only to find out later that C was incorrect! This is because many words on the GRE have multiple meanings. You don’t have to know all of them, but you DO have to check to make sure the meaning you think is truly how the word is used in context. Remember, the question-type isn’t called “Vocab Definitions,” it’s called “Vocab-in-Context!”

English words often have many meanings, and can change meaning based on what part of speech they are. For example, “a fathom,” used as a noun, is a measurement of six feet. But “to fathom,” used as a verb, means to comprehend or understand. If the word “fathom” was not being used as a verb in the context, then you could guess C was incorrect, even if you did not know another definition for “fathom.”

When you practice GRE reading passages, always be out the look out for the part of speech of vocabulary words, and memorize words that have multiple or uncommon meanings! You may want to keep a notebook to help you organize these new words – add to it every time you practice!