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GRE Vocab Wednesday: What’s the Difference?

The Same, The Opposite, or Unrelated?

Before looking at the description of the word pairs below, see if you can correctly guess if the words are the same, the opposite, or unrelated.

Gradation vs. Degradation

What happens when you are taken out of graduation? You get gradation! Ok, bad joke. Actually, gradation has nothing to do with graduation or, for that matter, grades. A gradation is a subtle change or difference, usually along a spectrum. For instance, if you’ve ever had to choose wall paint for your room (I’ve had to do so), you have a dizzying variety of colors. They are usually arranged in a gradation from one color to another, so that you barely notice the difference in adjacent colors. But if you jump over ten colors, you’ll see that sapphire blue has become deep purple.

If something degrades it falls in quality. This word can also refers to one’s character, or moral worth. To fall into a low, contemptible position is to suffer degradation.

Therefore, the words are unrelated.

Invaluable vs. Valuable

My best friend’s car is valuable (he owns a Tesla—jerk). His friendship, however, is invaluable.

Now, unless I really take his friendship for granted—which I don’t—you are right to infer that invaluable is actually something that is so valuable that you can’t put a price tag on it. Friends, family, and good times are invaluable to most: we can’t live without them.

Therefore, invaluable and valuable actually falls into this weird category of one thing is more extreme than another.

Ameliorate vs. Meliorate

Ameliorate means to make something that is bad less so. We often hear the term “ameliorate poverty”. The thing is we may have to ameliorate English, because meliorate—drum roll, please—means the exact same thing. I know, when you add an ‘a’ in front of a word it usually reverses the word’s meaning. Apparently, meliorate comes straight from Latin, whereas ameliorate comes from Old French, which in turn is influenced by Latin. Not that that factoid really ameliorates anything.

Pertinent vs. Impertinent

Pertinent means relevant. Pertinent to this post are words that look like they are related, but might not actually be.

Impertinent means to be cheeky and rude. The context is somebody is entitled to respect and deference, and the impertinent person does not accord this respect. If the head honcho at your work wears a jarring tie, you probably wouldn’t want to bring any attention to it. When the new summer intern blurts out “nice tie” in a company meeting, we have an example of classic impertinence (and likely dismissal!).

So, the two words are completely unrelated. Now, it is true that impertinent can also mean the opposite of pertinent, but this use is very dated and wouldn’t show up on the GRE. If it did, it would represent a degradation of the integrity of the test, and in order to ameliorate the situation, I might end up being a little impertinent to the august powers at ETS.


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