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How to Tidy up the Vocab Clutter—Synonym Trees (Part 1)

When studying GRE vocabulary, students soon realize that many words have very similar meanings. Take berate. It means to criticize harshly. So do, more or less, lambaste, censure, berate, and excoriate.

When you see words with similar meanings put them into groups. You can cluster them or make a little cloud, but what I recommend are synonym trees. (Phonetically this description can be a little confusing—many students have looked at me quizzically wondering why I was carrying on about cinnamon trees).

The reason I recommend making a synonym tree—as opposed to drawing an amorphous cloud, say—is that many words are similar to one another, but are not quite the same. When a word differs from another word, make a separate branch for that word and its related synonyms.

So let’s go back to berate. Berate could go under the “saying bad things” tree. (Note the tree is always a general everyday word.) This tree has many branches: criticize formally, criticize harshly, slander, verbally abuse.

Remember, the GRE is testing the general definition of a word so you do not need to be too precise. On the other hand you want to be careful about lumping words together that are different.

For instance, many think parsimonious and frugal are synonyms. Parsimonious, however, means to be overly frugal and carries a negative connotation. Therefore put them into separate branches of the saving money tree.

Finally, challenge yourself by coming up with a synonym tree on the spot. This is a great exercise to see how many words you have committed to long-term memory and helps you sort through the jumble of vocab that you’ve been trying to squeeze into your head in a short amount of time. Students who do very well on the verbal section can typically rattle off 3 or 4 synonyms for a GRE word.

Let’s try one: The happy/cheerful tree.

Off the top of your head how many can you come up that mean this. How many branches should you make? While you’re at it, see how you do with the opposite of this tree: the sad/depressed tree.

I’ll post my trees along with the branches soon!

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