Do Mince Words

Elsewhere in this blog, we’ve discussed why it isn’t a great idea to spend lots of time studying vocabulary as part of your SAT prep. But that doesn’t mean you should throw your hands up in despair when you see an unfamiliar vocabulary word lurking in a Sentence Completion question. Instead, you should employ these strategies:

1) See if the word sounds like any other words you know in English (try to preserve the consonants, but be flexible with the vowels):

  • tangible – sounds like tangent, “a line that touches a circle at one point” (sound familiar from math class?); tangible means “able to be touched” or “real”
  • plaudit – sounds like applaud, and it means “praise”
  • resplendentsplend sounds like splendid, and resplendent means “brilliant” or “shiny”
  • brevity – sounds like brief, and it means “shortness” or “conciseness”


2) See if the word sounds like any other words you know in a different language (especially a Romance language, such as Spanish or French—or better, yet, Latin, the source of all the Romance languages!):

  • tenaciousten sounds like the Spanish tener and the French tenir (both from the Latin tenere, “to hold”); tenacious means “holding strongly”
  • clairvoyantclair sounds like the Spanish claro and the French clair (both from the Latin clarus, “clear”); similarly, voy is related to the Spanish ver and the French voir (both from the Latin videre, “to see”); clairvoyant means “seeing clearly” (especially into the future)
  • salutary – when someone sneezes in your Spanish class, what do you say? Salud! (“To your health!”); salutary means “good for one’s health”

3) Even if a word doesn’t sound like other words you know in any language, see if you can break it down into prefixes, roots, and suffixes:

  • immutable

im is really the negating prefix in, usually meaning “not” (impossible, inarticulate)

mut is a root meaning “change” (as in mutation)

able is a suffix meaning, easily enough, “able”

Put it all together:  immutable means “not able to be changed.”

  • ignominious

ig is from the same negating prefix in (ignorant means “not aware of”)

nomin is from the root nomen, meaning “name” (as in nominate, “to call by name”)

ious is a suffix meaning “full of” (as in beauteous, “full of beauty”)

Put it all together: ignominious means “full of a not name” – having a name is very important, so to have an empty name is ignominious, or “shameful.”

And, of course, you can mingle these approaches on a single word:

  • convivialcon sounds pretty similar to the Spanish con, “with”; viv sounds like the English “vivid”; and ial is a suffix that indicates the word is an adjective; convivial describes something that is “with life” or “festive.”


You won’t necessarily be able to break down all the hard vocab words you see on the SAT, but if you look for opportunities to slice and dice, you can make a lot of them much more facile (sounds like the Spanishfácil, the French facile,the English word facilitate…).

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