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GRE Vocab Wednesday: Similar, Confusing Words

Gregarious vs. Garrulous

These two words are commonly confused because they not only begin with a ‘g’ but they have very similar meanings. However, they are not quite the same. To be gregarious is to sociable. The word comes from Latin for flock, and retains some of its avian roots (think of geese, which are always in groups. They are gregarious).

To be garrulous, on the other hand, means to be chatty. True, social types tend to be chatty, but when is the last time you encountered a chatty goose. On the other hand you can have one of those unsociable curmudgeons who hang outside the subway station babbling on about the imminent apocalypse.


Enormity vs. Enormous

Oh boy, is this a controversial one. People are truly divided on how to define enormity. Traditionally, enormity has meant great wickedness, and NOT really, really big/enormous. However, over the years the use of enormity to mean enormous has become so prevalent that even Barack Obama himself has used the word in this way.

Indeed, even the estimable abounds in use of enormity (as long as you don’t look too far back in the archive).

As GRE test takers we should know both definitions, but we should also know that ETS tends to pretty traditional on such matters, and in all likelihood will only use ‘enormity’ to mean great wickedness.


Unconscionable vs. Unconscious

Unconscionable does not mean to be hit over the head and black out (that would be unconscious). ‘Unconscionable’ means totally unreasonable. It is usually used to describe an action and carries with it a negative connotation.

That he would steal from the very firm that had paid him such a generous salary was unconscionable.

It was unconscionable for an esteemed author to use ‘enormity’ to mean ‘enormous.’

This definition shouldn’t be that surprising if we remember that conscience means to have a sense of right and wrong. If something goes against conscience, then it is un-conscience-able.

Unconscionable can also mean excessive, as in:

He made unconscionable demands on her time, forcing her to quit.


Impending vs. Pending vs. Pendulous

Something that is pending is uncertain. Something that is impending is about to happen, or is imminent. To complicate things, pending, as a second definition, can also meaning impending.

Until the trial is held is guilt is pending.

The trial is pending, and will take place soon.

(Sorry, not my most eloquent sentences!)

You’ve noticed that I’ve invited another word to this confusing party of ‘pends.’ Pendulous relates to neither of these words, save for the ‘pend.’ Something that is pendulous is hanging.

Bracing against an impending winter the flowers became pendulous, drooping so low their withered crowns touched the scarred earth. 

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