GRE Learning by context

The Importance of Context in GRE Verbal

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Although, techniques and “know-how” will help you get a respectable score, they, by themselves, may not be enough to secure a 160+ on the GRE Verbal. To really push the envelope while preparing for the GRE, you’ll need to understand that some GRE verbal reasoning questions test –

1. Your ability to analyse and make sense of complexly constructed sentences.

2. High level vocabulary.

3. Your ability to understand the meaning of words in context

The first and the second are easily achievable by most students , but the third is a bit of a problem for many.

Understanding words in context:

This involves the understanding of nuances (fine distinctions) in meaning.

Let us illustrate this with an example:

The words ‘firm, obstinate and pig-headed’ have the same factual meaning; yet, contextually there is a tremendous difference between them. Look at the following sentences –

John is firm.

John is obstinate.

John is pig-headed.

These words betray the emotions, or in other words indicate the “tone” with respect to John. The word ‘firm’ has a strong tone of approval; ‘obstinate’ has a tone of mild disapproval and ‘pig-headed’ has a tone of strong disapproval.

Context in GRE TC and SE

In questions such as Text Completion (TC) or Sentence Equivalence (SE) there might be several answer choices that have the same functional meaning; the right answer, though, will be one which agrees with the tone of the sentence.

For example:

Janet was infamous for her __________ responses, which were seldom verbose and often disliked.

A. loquacious

B. curt

C. terse

D. brusque

E. prolix

F. laconic

We know that Janet is seldom verbose – her responses therefore are short and to the point – but we also know that she was infamous, and that people disliked her responses. We, therefore, need a word with a negative tone – or connotation.

Let’s look at the answers: prolix and loquacious are obviously wrong as these mean “talkative”, laconic and terse mean to be short and to the point – but they do not carry a negative connotation. The only correct answer pair therefore is curt and brusque!


Incredibly tricky questions in SE and TC are often created thus: by introducing answer choices that test nuances in meaning.

Context in GRE RC

Of course, the scope of context and nuances is not just restricted to SE and TC. It plays an important role in Reading Comprehension as well!

Understanding the author’s tone towards an issue or a person discussed in the passage will substantially increase your accuracy and quickness in gathering the overall idea of the passage.

The tone of an author towards a subject can be found by understanding the connotation of the words used by the author.

For instance: Words such as ‘admirable, commendable and notable’ have a positive connotation, whereas words such as ‘inadequate, unfortunate and absurd’ have a negative connotation.This extends to answer choices that relate to questions that ask for the author’s tone with respect to something in the passage.


Authors are seldom indifferent to the subject they are writing about. Think about it, no one in their right mind would bother writing about something they don’t care about!

Now that you know the importance of the finer, subtler aspects of GRE english, go on to –

1. Learn words in context- read this blog to know how!

2. Become familiar with tone words : here is a small list to get you started!


Do leave your comments in the comments section below!

If you are wondering where to learn more about nuanced language and thereby ace your GRE Verbal section, look no further – explore our top-notch GRE courses!

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