Master Vocabulary in Context on the SAT Reading Test

By Geraldine Woods, Ron Woldoff

No section of the SAT tests vocabulary directly, but every section checks whether you grasp the nuances (shades of meaning) of an expression in a particular context.

Several questions in the Writing and Language passages highlight one word — usually a fairly sophisticated word — that appears where it doesn’t quite fit. The answer choices offer alternatives. These questions arise from the fact that English is rich in words, many with nearly the same meaning.

Nearly, though, isn’t good enough when you’re writing. For instance, your eyelids don’t tremble when you’re flirting; they flutter. Both words refer to quick, small movements, but only one is appropriate for a sentence about attracting a romantic partner.

The best long-term preparation for writing/language vocabulary-in-context questions is reading. When you read, you probably run across unfamiliar words. Make a note of every new word, along with the sentence or phrase the word appears in. The context helps you remember the meaning and gives you a head start in deciphering (figuring out) vocabulary questions.

To answer a vocabulary-in-context question in the SAT Writing and Language section, be sure you know both the definition and the connotation (feelings or situations associated with the word). Now it’s time for you to try one, which is embedded (implanted, set firmly) in a sentence that would be part of a longer passage.

Sample sentence

  1. Few in the community are pleased with the plan to construct a sewage plant on First Street. Opponents detract the proposed facility despite claims that it will bring much-needed jobs to the area.


B. criticize

C. degrade

D. diminish

To detract is “to take value away from,” a definition that is related to criticism but not exactly the same. Orange sequins may detract from the elegant outfit you’re trying to assemble, and if you wear them, someone may criticize you, but no one will detract you. Go for Choice (B). By the way, to degrade is “to treat with disrespect,” as in an advertisement that degrades women, and to diminish is “to lessen in value or amount,” as in his appetite diminished after he saw what the chef had prepared.