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How to approach Vocabulary in Context questions

How to approach Vocabulary in Context questions published on


Are you struggling to tackle those vocabulary in context questions? Fortunately, they are the only type of vocabulary questions to appear on the ACT and SAT now. No more memorizing long lists of obscure words in the style of the old SAT. If you are doing this, you are wasting your time – STOP! (Arguably, you were wasting your time in the first place!).


Strategy for vocabulary in context

The best way to tackle these questions is to think of your own synonym (word with the same meaning) for the word in the sentence. Choose something really simple – even a short phrase will do. This way, you get your own idea of what the question means before you look at the answer choices. Make it as simple as possible, and be clear in your mind exactly what the word means before you answer the question. Otherwise, you’ll be falling into the trap of being accidentally persuaded by the answer choices.

What does the vocabulary in context question look like?

The type of question you’ll now see looks like this:

Secondly, we felt that without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy. All lawful modes of expressing opposition to this principle had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or to defy the Government.

Q1: The word “modes” most nearly means:

A. acts
B. reasons
C. methods
D. averages

Q2: Which of the following is not an acceptable synonym for “closed”?

A. removed
B. shut
C. prevented
C. disallowed

The first question asks you about a word you may not know the meaning of, and then to confuse you, throws in the most likely context in which you know it (mode as an average), which would be incorrect here. Think of your synonym, which in my case would be ‘ways’. Now I can clearly identify that ‘methods’ is the right answer.

For the second question, my synonym would be ‘stopped’. That’s the same as prevented and disallowed, and in this context is the same as ‘removed’. ‘Shut’ and ‘closed’ are normally interchangeable, but not in this context.

Let’s try a harder one:

“The Limes,” which had come to him by inheritance without any accompanying provision for its upkeep, was one of those pretentious, unaccommodating mansions which none but a man of wealth could afford to live in, and which not one wealthy man in a hundred would choose on its merits. It might easily languish in the estate market for years, set round with noticeboards
proclaiming it, in the eyes of a skeptical world, to be an eminently desirable residence.

Q3. The word ‘languish’ in the passage above most nearly means

A. bask
B. remain
C. droop
D. rise

A simple synonym here would be ‘stay’, because that’s clearly what’s intended by the meaning of the sentence.

You might be tempted to pick ‘droop’ or ‘rise’, since they are opposites, but don’t be! ‘Droop’ is inappropriate personification for a house – how can a house droop?. ‘Bask’ is also inappropriate personification for a house. ‘Rise’ is the opposite meaning to what’s intended, so ‘remain’ must be the correct answer.

I’d be really interested to hear other strategies for tackling these questions. Comment below!