The SAT and Vocabulary, Part 2

Posted on May 25, 2010


Look-Alike and Sound-Alike Words

The English language is confusing, and no one knows that better than the clever people who write SAT questions. Hundreds of words look like other words, but their meanings are most often completely different. For example, consider prodigal and prodigious. The first means wasteful of money, the second means big. You may be unfamiliar with either one. Adding to the trouble, you might know the word prodigy, and will try desperately to use that knowledge to figure out the other two words. It won’t work. You will scramble around, glancing nervously at the clock. You will eliminate a few choices, then either guess or leave the answer blank. The SAT will have won again.

So what’s the solution? You must first be aware of the tactic. And now you are. Then you must become familiar with the sources of this confusion, namely the actual words used most frequently by the testmakers. And finally, you must learn what the words mean — I mean really learn them, so the confusion tactic no longer works.

Here’s a simple example. At some time in your life, probably many years ago, the words tricktrack, and truck may have looked very similar to you. It would have been easy, then, to mess you up on a question by substituting one of these words for another. But you’re now so familiar with the words that you can always tell them apart and never confuse their meanings, even though they still look almost identical to each other. But what happens with less-familiar words? Given the time and emotional pressures of the SAT, will you realize that inane and innate are not the same words? Will you notice that they’re using causal and not casual? And will you remember their meanings?

What follows is a partial list of look-alike and sound-alike words. (Notice that some of the pairs actually have opposite meanings.) They appear frequently on the SAT and other standardized tests involving vocabulary. Make sure you know them. And be aware that there are plenty more!

To build your vocabulary quickly and painlessly, check out 500 Key Words for the SAT, and How To Remember Them Forever!