How to Answer Vocabulary-in-Context Questions on SAT Passages

By Geraldine Woods, Ron Woldoff

Many SAT questions ask you to define a word as it’s used in a passage. Teacher-types call this exercise vocabulary in context. Never skip a vocabulary-in-context question because sometimes the definition is actually in the same sentence. Even if the definition is missing, figuring out the meaning of the word is usually easy.

Consider what the sentence or paragraph as a whole is saying. Insert a logical word or phrase of your own choice in place of the word they’re asking about. Match your word with an answer choice, and you’re done.

Try your vocabulary-in-context skills using this excerpt from a passage about a dancing mouse.

Sample Passage

As a rule the dancing mouse is considerably smaller than the common mouse. All the dancing mice have black eyes and are smaller as well as weaker than the common gray house mouse. The weakness, indicated by their inability to hold up their own weight or to cling to an object, curiously enough does not manifest itself in their dancing; in this they are tireless. Frequently they run in circles or whirl about with astonishing rapidity for several minutes at a time.

  1. In Sentence 3, the best definition of “manifest” is

    (A)emphasize

    (B)prove

    (C)discover

    (D)show

Sentence 3 tells you that the weakness of dancing mice “does not manifest itself in their dancing.” Mentally, cross out manifest and throw in a possible replacement. The passage tells you that the mice can “dance” rapidly for several minutes at a time. That activity isn’t weak. Okay, the activity doesn’t show weakness, a match for Choice (D), which is your answer.

Vocabulary-in-context questions do contain one big sand trap, though. Many of these questions ask you for the definition of a word you probably already know. But — and this is a big but — the passage may use the word in an odd or unusual way.

Of course, one of the choices is usually the word’s definition that you know, just sitting there waiting for the unwary test-taker to grab it. For example, the word deck may mean “a surface of a ship,” “a wooden structure outside a house,” or “to decorate.” In the Christmas carol, “Deck the Halls,” deck matches the last meaning. Don’t settle for any definition of the vocabulary word. Look for the definition that works in the context of the sentence.