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GRE Vocab Wednesday: Commonly Misused Vocabulary

In polite conversation, seldom will a person stop his interlocutor and say, “Oh, by the way, you just used that word incorrectly.” Perhaps this phenomenon can account for the spread of solecisms, or the misuse of words. Unfortunately, many of us end up using such words incorrectly—which can become a big problem when prepping for the GRE.

Below are just a few of many misused words. What these words have in common is they could show up on the GRE.



“Oh yes, I heard, how terrible. What a travesty!” Actually that should be tragedy. What’s truly a tragedy is how often the two words are mixed up. A travesty of something is a poor imitation of that thing. Indeed it is so poor that it debases that very thing.

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For instance, a travesty of justice would describe a corrupt court in which the judge has been bribed to deliver a certain verdict. The attorneys argue their positions but it’s only for show. I’ve used this word in one of my GRE book reviews, saying that the book’s “GRE questions” were so poorly constructed that the book was a travesty of GRE prep.



If a fly is dive bombing on to a friend’s head, he or she may say, “Gosh, this fly is aggravating me.” Colloquially, this is fine…at least to some. But as soon as you are writing, or dealing with English the written language (which means the GRE), aggravate should only be used to mean to make something that is already bad worse.

Some pundits predict that the recent economic downturn is only going to be aggravated by the implosion of the housing market.



Fulsome sounds like ‘full’, ‘complete’, and this is often how fulsome is used in conversation. The word, however, means excessive to the point of being offensive. Therefore, fulsome praise, a common phrase, does not mean that a hearty round of applause. Rather, it means applause that goes way overboard to the point that it becomes obnoxious.

At first he found her pleas for help touching—as though someone of his lowly position could help her—but soon her entreaties became so fulsome that he had to hang up the phone on her. 



“I don’t agree with what you’re saying about me. I’m going to refute you.” In this sense, refute is meant to mean argue/argue with. To refute something, however, is to completely disprove it by using evidence. For instance, if someone says the GRE is out of 1600 points, I would refute that person’s claim by providing a link to the site.

Despite the fact that any evidence regarding the existence of the Loch Ness monster has been deemed spurious, it is very difficult to refute the existence of such an animal: how does one disprove that which does not exist?  



“Wow, it’s 3:00 in the afternoon and I’m so tired…I need some coffee to get enervated.” This sentence implies that the person is going to drink coffee and promptly fall asleep. See, to enervate means to sap energy, not to energize. Therefore, this person should have said, “I’m feeling enervated—coffee time!”

The workers were not so much enervated by the constant blasting of car horns and wailing of sirens, but by the monotonous nature of their work—from morning till night they would input numbers into a spreadsheet.


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