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PSAT/NMSQT Sentence Completions: Dealing with Difficult Vocabulary

If the words on the PSAT/NMSQT were baseball players, a fair number of them would be in the Major Leagues, and a few would be all-stars. Your best bet is to accumulate (gather) and know the definitions of a large fund of PSAT/NMSQT favorites.

No matter how many words you know, however, chances are you’ll still run into a few strangers when you take the test. You should apply the guessing rules, of course. But if you have time, you may be able to crack open the meaning of an unfamiliar word by analyzing its parts. Try these techniques:

  • Look for a similar word. You know that mistake means “to do something wrong.” You can probably figure out that misdiagnosis refers to a doctor’s errors and that to mischaracterize is “to give a faulty description or impression.” (Characterize means “to describe, to list the qualities of.”)

  • Apply your knowledge of prefixes, suffixes, and roots. In whatever time you have before the exam, memorize a few common prefixes (letters or syllables at the beginning of a word), suffixes (letters or syllables at the end of a word), and roots (the middle!). For example, anti is a prefix meaning “against,” and path is a root meaning “feeling.”

    Knowing these facts, you can figure out the definition of antipathy (strong feeling against someone or something). Bonus: If you see apathy on the exam, you may conclude, correctly, that the word has something to do with feeling, even without knowing that the prefix a means “without or not.” Apathy means “without feeling or caring.”

Because so much of English comes from Greek and Latin, you can find lists of word parts derived (originating) from those languages. A quick search on the Internet turns up plenty of great reference sites. Don’t attempt to memorize a huge list; aiming for a thousand word parts is likely to result in confusion. Instead, pick a realistic number and glue them to your brain.

Take note of prefixes, suffixes, and roots in Questions 1 through 3.

  1. Although the most efficient design for that instrument resembles a dentist’s drill, customers prefer _____ robots, probably because people look for reflections of themselves.

        (A)    anthropomorphic
        (B)    temperate
        (C)    idyllic
        (D)    philanthropic
        (E)    prolific
  2. The new dam _____ water from its natural path, to the dismay of farmers who depend on the river to irrigate their crops.

        (A)    converts
        (B)    diverts
        (C)    separates
        (D)    disburses
        (E)    allocates
  3. The nation welcomed _____ aid but denied entry to weapons inspectors.

        (A)    unselfish
        (B)    geocentric
        (C)    alternative
        (D)    cautionary
        (E)    humanitarian

Now check your answers:

  1. A. anthropomorphic

    The root anthrop refers to human beings, so Choices (A) and (D) are possibilities. The prefix phil, however, means “loving.” The definition of philanthropic is “loving humankind” and is generally applied to those who donate or work for good causes. Choice (A) is a better answer because another root contained in the word, morph, means “form or shape.” Therefore, anthropomorphic means “shaped like a human being.”

  2. B. diverts

    The root vert means “turn.” Choices (A) and (B) are possible at first glance because the river has been moved away from where it used to flow. Now look at the prefixes: con means “with,” and di means “apart, in different directions.” Clearly, Choice (B) is better because the river has been turned in a different direction.

    Two more things to add to your vocabulary file: burse is an old word for purse, where you carry money and valuable things. To disburse is “to pay out” (and the bursar is the college official who’ll collect your money someday). The root loc means “place”; you see it in locate, location, and Choice (E) allocate, which means “to set something aside — in a place! — for a specific purpose.”

  3. E. humanitarian

    You don’t have to be a mega-brain to realize that humanitarian refers to human beings. The word itself may be defined as “concerned with saving human lives” and works perfectly in this sentence. Were you fooled by Choice (B)? The prefix geo means “earth,” and the root centr is “centered.” There you go: geocentric means “centered on the earth.”

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