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When You Don’t Know The Word

As we mentioned, you can’t possibly memorize the whole dictionary, and, while you can learn the words in a list of words that occur most frequently on the SAT, there will inevitably still be some that you do not know. Don’t be discouraged. Again, there are some very effective techniques that can be applied when a word does not look familiar to you.

Put The Word in Context

In our daily speech, we combine words into phrases and sentences; rarely do we use a word by itself. This can cause words that we have little trouble understanding in sentences to suddenly appear unfamiliar when we view them in isolation.
For example, take the word

Most people don’t recognize it in isolation. Yet most people understand it in the following phrase:
To whet your appetite
Whet means to “stimulate.”


If you don’t recognize the meaning of a word, think of a phrase in which you have heard it used.
For another example, take the word


In isolation, it may seem unfamiliar to you. However, you probably understand its use in the phrase
The hallowed halls of academia
Hallow means “to make sacred, to honor.”

Change the Word Into a More Common Form

Most words are built from other words. Although you may not know a given word, you may spot the root word from which it is derived and thereby deduce the meaning of the original word.


  1. impotence
  2. obstruction
  3. prediction
  4. equanimity
  5. ​chivalry

You may not know how to pronounce PERTURBATION let alone know what it means. However, changing its ending yields the more common form of the word “perturbed,” which means “upset, agitated.” The opposite of upset is calm, which is exactly what EQUANIMITY means.


The answer is (D).



  1. prodigal
  2. reticent
  3. serene
  4. phenomenal
  5. accountable

TEMPESTUOUS is a hard word. However, if we drop the ending “stuous” and add the letter “r” we get the common word “temper.” The opposite of having a temper is being calm or SERENE.


The answer is (C).

Test Words for Positive and Negative Connotations

Testing words for positive and negative connotations is a very effective technique. Surprisingly, you can often solve a problem knowing only that a given word has a negative connotation.


  1. denounce
  2. deceive
  3. embrace
  4. fib
  5. generalize

You may not know what REPUDIATE means, but you probably sense that it has a negative connotation. Since we are looking for a word whose meaning is opposite of REPUDIATE, we eliminate any answer-choices that are also negative. Now, “denounce,” “deceive,” and “fib” are all, to varying degrees, negative. So eliminate them. “Generalize” has a neutral connotation: it can be positive, negative, or neither. So eliminate it as well.


Hence, by process of elimination, the answer is (C), EMBRACE.



  1. diffuse
  2. latent
  3. beneficial
  4. unique
  5. unjust

NOXIOUS has a negative connotation (strongly so). Therefore, we are looking for a word with a positive connotation. Now “diffuse” means “spread out, widely scattered.” Hence, it is neutral in meaning, neither positive nor negative. Thus, we eliminate it. “Latent” and “unique” are also neutral in meaning—eliminate. “Unjust” has a negative connotation—eliminate. 


The only word remaining, BENEFICIAL, has a strongly positive connotation and is the answer.

  • Any SAT Word That Starts With “De,” “Dis,” or “Anti” Will Almost Certainly Be Negative.



  • Any SAT Word That Includes The Notion of Going up Will Almost Certainly Be Positive, and any SAT Word That Includes The Notion of Going Down Will Almost Certainly Be Negative.
Examples (positive)



Examples (negative)

Suborn (to encourage false witness)


Be Alert to Secondary (Often Rare) Meanings of Words

The test writers often use common words but with their uncommon meanings.


  1. relinquish
  2. contest
  3. oppress
  4. modify
  5. withhold

The common meaning of CHAMPION is “winner.” It’s opposite would be “loser.” But CHAMPION also means to support or fight for someone else. (Think of the phrase “to champion a cause.”)


Hence, the answer is (C), OPPRESS.



  1. release
  2. differ
  3. expose
  4. betray
  5. enshroud

AIR is commonly used as a noun—indicating that which we breathe. A secondary meaning for AIR is to discuss publicly. The opposite is to ENSHROUD, to hide, to conceal.


Hence, the answer is (E).

Use Your Past Knowledge/Education

Since you are studying for the SAT, you have probably completed, or almost completed, your high school studies. Therefore, you have a wealth of knowledge from which to draw when it comes to examining the words that will appear on the test. In your classes, you studied history and probably one or more foreign languages. You may have even taken a Latin class. Because the English language has “borrowed” many words from other languages, especially Latin and French, these classes give you valuable clues to the meanings of many of the words you may come across


  1. egocentric
  2. complacent
  3. pretentious
  4. unostentatious
  5. unassertive

You may remember Narcissus from one of your literature and Greek mythology classes. One version of the story of Narcissus relates a man who falls in love with his own reflection in a pool. Because of his requited love, he dies. As a man in love with his own reflection, he portrays self-love to the ultimate degree. A man like this is pretentious. Unostentatious is the opposite of pretentious.


Hence, the answer is (D), UNOSTENTATIOUS.



  1. naïve
  2. seasoned
  3. ignorant
  4. amateur
  5. innocent

Recall from your Spanish class that verde means “green” and from your French class that vert means “green” as well. These words may remind you of the word verdant, which also means “green” and can refer to being “green” in experience or judgment.


Therefore, in this example, (B), SEASONED, is the answer because it means “experienced.”

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