ANTONYM Fundamentals
ANTONYM Fundamentals
There are three factors that are fundamental to your success on this question type. Let’s take a look:
  • Vocabulary
  • Clues
  • Traps
We know we’re stating the obvious, but there’s simply no way around it: The better your vocabulary, the better you’ll do on Antonym questions. When you know the meaning of the original word and the words in the choices, Antonym questions are perhaps the most straightforward on the GRE. Much like in the childhood opposites act described earlier, the GRE may spit out word X, prompting you to immediately spit back opposite word Y. For example, say the word is sullen. You immediately think gloomy or brooding, which causes something along the lines of happy or joyful to pop into your head as its opposite. Scanning the choices you come across gleeful, and you’re done. Boom. Next question. This is the best-case scenario that will play out whenever you know the words, whether those words are easy or difficult.
The best way to improve your performance on GRE Antonyms is therefore to add high-level words to your vocabulary. We encouraged you in the “Meet GRE Verbal” chapter to read widely and deeply, and we suggest that you do so with a dictionary by your side. Look up any unfamiliar words you come across as you peruse the Economist or the New York Times. You might consider keeping a list of words you don’t know or don’t know well and adding those to the list of 400 GRE-level vocabulary words we provide in the tear-out chart in this book.
Use whatever methods work for you to memorize words. We won’t make fun of your silly songs or poems, and no one will hear you chanting strings of polysyllabic nouns in your car. What matters is that your methods work—and that you learn the words.
You could make a CD with words and definitions and listen to it while you drive or while you sleep, which, hopefully, are not simultaneous activities. You could read the dictionary. You could hang out with some really smart people who use big words whenever they can (an annoying behavior practiced by sesquipedalian individuals, people who use a big word when a small one would do). Here are some more suggestions.
Use Flash Cards. Flash cards are simple and portable. Write a word on one side and its definition on the other. Take these cards with you wherever you go and use them when you have a free minute or two. Think of a stack of flash cards as a mini-quiz: You look at each word, think of the definition, and then flip the card over to check yourself. If you get it right, set the card aside. If you get it wrong, keep the card in the stack. Repeatedly go through the stack until all the words are in your “got it right” pile. Going through your flash cards in this way gives you a clear-cut method for knowing when you know your words and when you don’t.
Create Mnemonic Devices. Some words are hard to remember, plain and simple. These are the words that never seem to make it to your “got it right” pile, no matter how many times you go through them. For these troublesome words, mnemonic devices may be just what you need.
A mnemonic device is a memory aid, usually in the form of a word association. The more off the wall a mnemonic device, the more effective it tends to be. For example, if you have trouble remembering that craven means “cowardly or weak-willed,” you could think of Cliff Claven, the character from Cheers. Among other things, Mr. Claven was pretty cowardly and weak-willed, so craven could mean “like Cliff Claven.” Be creative—you’ll find many tough words can be remembered through suitable mnemonic devices.
Make Up Sentences. Making up sentences is a great way to help you remember difficult words. For each word, make up a sentence that gives a clue to the word’s meaning. To be effective, your sentence must be specific. For example, “Edgar is very philanthropic” wouldn’t be very helpful, but “Since he always gives to charities, Edgar is very philanthropic” provides a strong clue that philanthropic means “of, relating to, or marked by charity.”
Expanding your vocabulary will help you craft a number of “blue sky” antonym scenarios—simply knowing the words and scanning to the correct choice. But it’s still likely you’ll comes across at least some cases in which you don’t know some of the vocab or have only a partial understanding of the words in question.
The rest of the fundamentals in this section are intended to help you at least narrow down the choices in such cases and at best eliminate all but the correct answer.
There are numerous clues that can shed light on words you don’t know. Will these clues help you to define unfamiliar words precisely? Probably not, but they may often help you distinguish possible choices from unlikely ones. Our first clue concerns how words are formed.
Roots, Prefixes, and Suffixes
New words aren’t created by people simply sitting around making them up on the spot. If they were, there would probably be more fun words like blissenfrazzle and fewer nasty words like deleterious. Words are comprised of pieces that reflect their origins and contribute to their definitions. Especially important are roots, prefixes, and suffixes. By learning some of these common building blocks, you’ll be able to make intelligent guesses on words whose meanings you may not have memorized. Consider the following fairly difficult Antonym question:
(A) revelation
(B) brevity
(C) responsibility
(D) understanding
(E) relentlessness
Circum is a prefix that means “around,” as in the words circumference (“distance around a circle”) and circumvent (“to go around or bypass”). Loc and loq are common roots meaning “to speak,” as in eloquent (“well spoken”) and ventriloquist (“one who speaks through a wooden dummy”). Putting these two pieces together, circumlocution means “a roundabout way of speaking.” The opposite of this is direct speaking or concision, another word for which is brevity, choice B.
Root, suffix, and prefix clues may not always lead you all the way to the correct choice, as in the example above, but they can help you get in the ballpark. It therefore pays to have a solid command of these common word components. Here are some of the major building blocks of English words, along with the related GRE words you might see on test day. You’ll see some of these GRE words again in our vocabulary list in the tear-out chart in this book. If you see a word that you don’t know, look it up and learn it.
Helpful Roots
Root What It Means Example
aco(u) to hear, hearing acoustic
act, ag to act, to do, to drive active, agent
agog(ue), agogy to lead, leader, guiding, inducing demagogue
agon, agonist struggle, content agony, antagonist
alg, algesia, algia pain analgesic
am, amat to love amiable, amorous
ambul to walk circumambulate, amble
andro, andry male android, androgynous
anim mind, feeling, life animate
anthrop man, human being philanthropy, anthropology
aqu water aquatic, aquarium
arch first, ancient, rule archaic, archive
aud to hear, hearing, aloud audible, audience
aug, auct, auth, aux to increase, to create augment, author, auxiliary
auto of, by, for, or in oneself autobiography, autocrat, autodidact
bene, bon good bonus, benefit
brac, brachi the arm brachiate, bracelet
cant, cent to sing canticle, chant, recant, incantation
cap, capt, cep, cept box, to take, contain, seize capture, receipt, capacious
capit, capt, cipit head, chief capital, precipitate, chapter, capitulate
carn flesh carnal, incarnate, carnivore
caus, cuse to cause causal, excuse, accuse
ced, cede, ceed, cess to yield, to go cede, accessible, necessary
cern, cert, cret, crim to separate, to distinguish discern, uncertain
chrom, chromat color chromatic, polychromatic
chron time synchronous, chronicle
cid, cide to kill regicide, suicide, genocide
cis, cise to cut excise, scissors
cog, cogit to think cognitive, cogent
coll glue, to stick together colloquy, collage
corp, cors body corporeal, corpulent
cosm universe, order cosmic, cosmopolitan
creant, cred, creed to believe, to trust credence, credit, incredible
cruc, crus cross, significant crux, crusade, crucial
de, div concerning God or deities divine, deity
dic, dict, diction to say, speech, word dictate, indicate, edict, benediction
doc, doct, dog, dox to teach, learning doctrine, dogma, orthodox
dom house, master domestic, dominate
equ, qui equal, even equate, adequate, equinox
esthe, esthesia to feel, sensation anesthesia, esthetics
fid, fidel faith, trust fidelity, confidence, infidel
fin, finite end, purpose infinite, definite
flu, fluor, flux, fluv to flow affluence, fluid, superfluous
for, fort strong fortress, enforce, comfort
fract, frag, frang, fring to shatter fracture, fragment, fragile, refract
gen, gon birth, race, kind genetic, gonad, congenital, gender
ger, gest to carry, to produce gestate, gesture, digest
grad, grade, gress to step, a degree or grade gradual, degree, progress
gram, graph a written record, to write telegram, autograph
grat pleasing, thankful gratitude, congratulate, ingratiate
greg society, group aggregate, gregarious
gynec, gyn, gynist female gynecologist, misogyny
hier, hieratic holy, sacred hierarchy, hieroglyphic
hol whole holistic, hologram
hydr, hydro water, liquid hydraulics, hydrant
ideo idea, philosophy ideology, idol, ideal
idi, idio personal, private idiosyncratic, idiom
iso equal, similar isometric, isotope
ject, jet to throw eject, inject, jettison, projectile
jud, jur, just right, law jury, judgment, judicious, injury, perjury
jug, junct a link, to join juncture, conjunction, conjugate
kine, kinesia, kinesis movement, energy kinetic, cinema
lat, late, lation to bear, to carry collate, correlate, legislate, translate
lect, leg, lig to choose, to read legible, intelligent, dialect, collect
lev, lieve, life to lift, light in weight alleviate, elevator, relief
lign, line line delineate, lineage
locut, loqu, loquy to speak, speech locution, circumlocution, eloquent, ventriloquist
log, logue, logy, lexico speech, word, study of logic, lecture, analogy
luc, lumin, lux light, to shine illuminate, lucent, luminary, elucidate
macro large macrocosm
mal bad malady, malcontent, malefactor
medi, meso, mid in the middle of intermediate, mediocre, medium
micro small microscope
mis hate misanthrope, misogyny
mor, mort death mortal, mortician, mortify
neg to deny negate, neglect, renege
neo new neologism, neonate
noct, nox night nocturnal, equinox
nom, num law nomad, economy, astronomy
od, odia smell odor, odious
opt, optic eye, vision panopticon, optics,
ov, ovul egg, egg-shaped oval, ovulate
par, pare equal pair, parity, peer, compare
part, patri father patriot, patronage, patriarch, paternal
path, pathic, pathy emotion, suffering pathological, pathetic, sympathy, empathy
pel, puls to drive, driven pulse, compulsion, expel, impulse
phil, philia love, fondness for philosophy, philanthropy, philander, philology
phob, phobo fear phobia
plaud, plaus, plod, plos to make a loud noise applaud, explode
plen, plet to fill, full plentiful, plethora, replenish
prim, prin first primary, primate, premier
pur, purg to clear of guilt, to get rid of something unwanted purge, pure, expurgate, purgatory
quest, quir, quisit to ask request, inquest, question, acquire, conquer
qui, quil, quit rest quiet, quit, acquiesce, acquit
rad, radic root radical, eradicate
rati, reas to think, calculate rate, ratify, rational, reasonable
rect, reg, rig to rule or guide, proper, straight rectify, regal, region, regulate, rigorous
rupt to break, to sever rupture, abrupt, disrupt, corrupt, interrupt
salu, salv safety, health salubrious, salvage, salutary
scrib, scribe, script to write, something written circumscribe, ascribe, describe, inscribe, prescribe
secut, sequ to follow, to ensue sequence, consequence, execute, consecutive
sen, senil old, old age senior, senator, senescence
ser, sor a series, attachment serial, desert, assert
solute, solv to release, to loosen, to free dissolve, absolute, insoluble
soph, sophy wisdom philosophy, sophisticated
spec, spect, spic to look, to see aspect, specific, spectator, spectrum, specimen
spir, spire to breathe, breath, spirit aspire, expire, conspire, transpire
stant, stat, stit to stand, to stay, to state assistant, consistent, constant, status, stance, destiny
stru, struct to build, a building or pattern destructive, instruct, obstruct, structural
tact, tang, teg, ting to touch tactile, taste, tangible, contact, contingent
temper, tempor, temp time, balance temporize, temporary, contemplate, temperature
ten, tain, tent, tin to hold tenable, tenacious, tenet, contain, detain
tend, tens to stretch extend, distend, tension, tendril
top, tope, topy place topic, topology, utopia
tract, treat to draw, to extend, to attract extract, treatise, contract, retreat, subtract
trib, tribe, trit to rub, to wear down tribulation, trite, attrition
trop, tropic, tropy to turn, a change or turn trope, tropic, entropy
troub, turb confusion, whirling disturb, perturb, turbine, turbulence
vac, van, vast, void empty, desolate vacuum, vacant, vanity, devastate, avoid
vail, val to be strong, to be worthy valiant, valor, validate, valence
ver, veri true veracious, verdict, verify
vit, viv life, to live vital, survive, viable, vivify
voc, vok, vow voice, to call or summon vocalize, vociferous, avow, equivocate
vol will, desire, wish volition, volunteer, involuntary
vor, vorous, vour to eat, to swallow voracious, carnivorous
xene, xeno, xeny foreign xenophobe, xenogamy
zoa, zo, zoo, zoon life, living zoo, zodiac, metazoan
Helpful Prefixes and Suffixes
Prefix or Suffix What It Means Example
a, an not, without apathy, analgesic
ab, abs away, from, separated abdicate, abort
ac, ad to, toward acclaim, accrete, adhere, adjoin
ambi, amphi both, around ambiguous, ambidextrous, ambiance
ante, anter before, prior, in front of antebellum, antechamber, anterior, antique
ap, apo away from, detached apology, apostate, apostle
cata, cat, cath downwards, against, contrary to cataclysm, catapult, catharsis
circum around circumscribe, circumspect, circumference
co, com, con with, together cohabitation, comfort, collude, colloquy
contra against contradict, contrast
de down from, reverse, remove, out of, derived from decapitate, declare, deface, delegate, delineate
di, dif, dis separation disable, dispute, decrease, divert
dys bad, difficult dysentery, dysphoria
ec, ecto, ex outside of, external, away from eclectic, ecstasy, excursion, excuse, explode
em, en, ent in, into, within encourage, endemic, embryo, embargo, enchant
epi over, above, around epilogue, epitome, epidemic
eu, ev well, good euphoria, eulogy, euphemism
hyper more, beyond normal, excessive hyperkinetic, hypersonic
hypo less, under, below hypochondria, hypothesis
in, im, em, en in, on, amongst, within incarnate, insert, inspire, instruct, immolate, employ, enchant
in, im not immeasurable, improper, inadequate
men, ment result, means of or product of an action instrument, ailment, compartment, entanglement
meta, meth after, along with, transfer, changed metabolism, metaphor, metaphysics, method
mis worse, badly mischief, misadventure, mistake
ob, of, op toward, against, face-to-face object, obnoxious, occupy, oppose
par, para beside, near, faulty paradox, parasite, parody
per through, thoroughly perceive, permit, perpetrate, persuade
peri around, near, beside perimeter, peripheral
pre before, in front of precept, precede, prediction, predominant, pregnant
pro earlier, before, forward proclivity, pronounce, propose
re back, backwards recant, recount, recur
se aside, away secede, seclude, sever
syl, sym, syn united, together with, same synonym, sympathy, syllogism
tra, trans beyond, across, through transact, traverse, transport
un not unable, undeniable, undone
Word Charge
Even when you don’t know the exact meaning of a word, you may still get a sense of the general feel of the word; specifically, whether it carries a positive or negative charge. Sometimes you’ll be able to recognize the charge of an unfamiliar word by comparing it to similar words you do know. Consider, for example, the word morbific. You may not know what this means, but you do know that words like morbid, morgue, and mortuary all have negative connotations, and for a good reason: They all deal with death. You could reasonably infer therefore that morbific carries a negative charge and look for something positive and cheerful among the choices as your opposite. In fact, morbific means “causing disease,” so something life-affirming along the lines of healthful would do the trick. If, on the other hand, you can’t nail down a precise definition of a word yet sense it has a positive aura, then you can narrow the choices down to those that sound negative.
Don’t Get Stuck in Neutral
Some words don’t feel positive or negative, in which case they may be neutral. You won’t see any neutral words as the featured word in an Antonym question since it’s difficult to form an opposite of a word that doesn’t lean in a particular direction. However, you may come across neutral words in the choices and can eliminate those off the bat since nothing that’s neutral can be the opposite of the original word. What’s the opposite of statue, or computer, or turquoise? There are no genuine opposites for these words, so they can’t be correct.
Parts of Speech
Sometimes the test makers throw a curveball by using words with multiple meanings. Say you come to an Antonym question based on the word compound. This can be a noun meaning “a cluster of homes,” as in “the Smith clan retreated to their family compound.” As a noun, it can also mean “a chemical substance formed by two or more elements.” Compound can also be an adjective meaning “something composed of multiple parts,” like a compound sentence or a compound fracture. Then again, compound can be used as a verb, meaning “to combine to form a whole,” or, in a different sense, to “intensify” or “complicate,” as in “Jordan will compound his problems at work if he misses Thursday’s meeting.” Compound is clearly a complicated word with many possible meanings—how are you supposed to know which one is being tested?
One clue is the part of speech of the answer choices. If the choices are nouns, then the noun form of the stem word is the definition you should seek, since the part of speech of the choices must match that of the original word. If you’re unsure of what form of the word they’re after, take a quick look at choice A to see if it’s a noun, verb, or adjective. You need not look any further than that, since all the choices will be the same part of speech. If you don’t know the word in choice A, or it too can take various forms, then scan for an unambiguous word among the choices that you do know and note its part of speech. Check out how the choices help to clear up the ambiguity in our compound example:
COMPOUND: relinquish renounce simplify dismiss amplify
The choices are verbs, which means we should focus on the verb forms of the capitalized word. We saw above that compound could mean to “complicate,” which leads us to simplify, choice C, as the opposite. The choices provide the clue we need to help us zero in on the intended meaning of the original word, bringing us one step closer to the correct answer.
Even when you know the word, that doesn’t guarantee the question will be cake. Remember the test makers’ caveat: The questions may test “fine shades of meaning.” What this means is that you will often come across wrong choices that come close to being the opposite of the original but are one small and subtle step removed. Such choices often seem reasonably related to the word in question, and may even lean in the opposite direction, but they don’t make it all the way there. Take, for example, the word permeate. One definition is “to pass through or seep into,” as in “the aroma permeated the second story window.” An example of a trap for this question is solid. A solid may be an object that’s difficult or impossible to permeate, but solid itself is not the opposite of permeate. The words are related in a negative sort of way, but not negatively enough to be opposites.
Here’s a full example. See if you can not only get the right answer, but also figure out which choice is rigged as a trap.
(A) damage
(B) health
(C) inoculation
(D) fragrance
(E) antidote
Actually, there are two traps here, as the test makers hit you with a one-two punch in B and C hoping to waylay you before you make it to correct choice E. A toxin is a poison, and the opposite of poison is antidote, a substance that counteracts a poison. But B and C are sure tempting, because toxins are heavily associated with sickness and health is the opposite of sickness, while an inoculation is meant to prevent sickness. Health and inoculation both stand in contrast to toxin in some sense but don’t qualify as actual opposites. That’s what makes them traps. And speaking of antidotes, the only antidote to falling for such traps is a very careful consideration of each choice. Stay on the lookout for how the test makers manipulate the “shades of meaning” they warn you about in the directions. When you fall for traps in practice questions, analyze what sets the correct choice apart from the trap so you’ll be less likely to make the same kind of mistake again.
That takes care of the fundamentals, so let’s now turn our attention to a methodical process for attacking the nine or so Antonym questions you’ll see on test day.
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