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GRE Vocab Wednesday: What’s the difference?

Words have a way of blending together. Oftentimes we will mistake one word for the other, or even utter one word when we actually mean another. Of course you are probably intimately aware of this blurring-of-words phenomenon if you’ve spent any time cramming GRE words.

The real issue is learning ways to ensure that these words don’t trip you up test day.

Below, I’ve even come up with some mnemonics or associations to make it less likely for you to mix up words.


Ascetic and aesthetic

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There once was man named Donald, who, in attempt to lose 100 pounds, swore off all gastronomical delights. Many of his friends tried to ply him with drinks and invitations to all you can eat buffets, but Donald would rebuff them and stick to a strict diet of bread and water.

One day these mischievous friends ordered beer and pizza to be sent to Donald’s little cabin in the woods. When Donald opened the door and saw the pizza deliveryman standing there with the pizza, he said, “I don’t want to eat that greasy food. Don’t you hear me—I said ick!”  (If you don’t get it, try saying “I-said-ick”).

Aesthetic is a very different word: it means pertaining to beauty. In other words, if something is beautiful it appeals to our sense of aesthetics. No fancy mnemonic for this one—though there is something aesthetically pleasing about seeing the ‘a’ and the ‘e’ together at the beginning of the word.


Elicit and illicit

A good way not to confuse these words is to think of the ‘ill’ in illicit. To be ill is not good; illicit is not a good word. Of course it doesn’t relate to one’s state of health, but to the legality—or the lack thereof—of activities. In short, illicit means illegal.

Elicit is a much more poetic word. It means to draw forth a reaction or a response. Perhaps, the Donald mnemonic elicited a smile (or, more probably, a look of disgust).


Complacent and complaisant

To be complacent is to assume that everything is fine, and everything is going to be fine. As we’ve always learnt acting as if everything is fine can often lead to dangerous situations. So don’t be complacent about the definition of complacent—and come up with a creative mnemonic.

Complaisant comes from French (say the last syllable nasally). Think of a French maid who is doing her best to be obliging.


Tortuous and Torturous

This one doesn’t require much of a mnemonic. Notice that torturous has that extra ‘r’, just like the word torture. So if something feels like torture—perhaps taking back-to-back PowerPrep tests on three hours sleep—it is torturous.

Tortuous, on the other hand, means winding and twisting. A road can be tortuous, the last four letters of tortuous wind and twist (esp. if you right them in cursive), and this sentence—if I decide to throw in a few more clauses (which I won’t…oops, I just did!)—is tortuous.


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