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Your Word Against Theirs: Shades of Meaning in SAT Vocabulary

Consider the word “economy.” Every student knows what “the economy” is, right? It’s that thing that involves a lot of money and banks and corporations, and it nearly collapsed a few years ago (it still may. . . who knows?). So why does such a simple word pose such difficulty for so many students when it appears on the SAT?

“Economy” is one of a handful of words that, when they show up on the SAT, rarely mean what nearly all high school students assume they mean.  These words almost always cause problems for students.

For instance, consider the following sentence completion:

Favoring ——- expression, the professor urged his students to ——- a long-winded, convoluted style.

 (A) freedom of . . corroborate

(B) succinctness in . . embrace

(C) fortitude in . . validate

(D) economy of . . eschew

(E) reverence for . . adopt

Of course, nearly all of these answer choices contain tough vocabulary that will stump many students. But the correct answer (D) will likely be the first eliminated by students thinking of “economy” as “that big thing with lots of money” instead of “sparing, restrained, or efficient use,” which is actually the word’s primary definition in most dictionaries.

Here’s a very brief list of some of the other words that ETS has played around with:


Word                   “Everyday,” Student Definition        SAT Definition

check                    to investigate or search                     to stop

discriminating      being prejudiced or racist                 good at spotting differences

qualified                having abilities to do something        limited, restricted, or conditional

appointed              assigned to a position                        equipped or furnished with

currency                money                                                general acceptance or validity


So what do you do about this trickiness?

First, ensure that whatever SAT vocabulary lists you are studying are from a reputable source that has closely studied the SAT and knows how ETS works; most likely, they’ll include both the “everyday” and the “SAT” definition.

Second, simply be aware that ETS does stuff like this—especially on the harder sentence completions; that way, you can stay on your toes (but don’t be too paranoid or you’ll start thinking that every word has some meaning you don’t know!).

Third, you can READ MORE; the more good writing you read, the more you’ll become familiar with the multifarious ways words are used.


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