GRE Prep: Commonly confused words (Part 2)

GRE Prep: Commonly confused words (Part 2)

As part of our series on commonly confused words, this post will introduce some simple but tricky words that tend to appear in GRE papers.

Let’s first take a quick glance at the 5 words in question:


Ambiguous   Ambivalent   Equivocal   Indifferent   Impartial


Not too difficult, right?

Now let’s test how well we know each word. Here are three sentences each with a missing word:


“Analysts noted that the politician has taken to speaking about economic issues with a new candor that deviates from his usual ________________ slant.”

“The scholar was reluctant to publish his new theories as he was _______________ about what he perceived as a fetish in academia to treat theories as the key to unlocking texts and social patterns.”

“The increasingly __________________ attitude that young people have towards politics in this town shows a worrying trend towards apathy.”


Let’s solve these by starting with the last sentence, which is the most straightforward:


“The increasingly __________________ attitude that young people have towards politics in this town shows a worrying trend towards apathy.”


The keyword apathy tells us that the adjective has a similar meaning, i.e. a lack of interest, concern or enthusiasm. The only word above that fits this criterion is indifferent, which means “having no particular interest or sympathy; largely unconcerned”. Make sure to distinguish this from impartial, which refers to treating all parties equally. [A judge is always impartial, but not necessarily indifferent!]

Now we move on to the second sentence, which has a slightly more convoluted sentence structure:


“The scholar was reluctant to publish his new theories as he was _______________ about what he perceived as a fetish in academia to treat theories as the key to unlocking texts and social patterns.”


What is the adjective needed here? We know that the scholar is reluctant to publish, and this stems from his perception of a fetish (un unhealthy and excessive obsession with or devotion to something) that academics have with theories. Thus, the adjective must describe a certain negativity, or at the very least, a conflicted attitude towards this.

The only adjective that matches these definition criteria is ambivalent, which means “having mixed or contradictory ideas towards someone or something”. This must be differentiated from ambiguous, which means “open to more than one interpretation, unclear”. The ending of a film could be very ambiguous, and the person watching it could be ambivalent towards this lack of closure!

Finally, we look at the first sentence, which is actually quite straightforward. Highlighting the keyword in the sentence will immediately reveal the definition criteria of the missing word:


“Analysts noted that the politician has taken to speaking about economic issues with a new candor that deviates from his usual ________________ slant.”


Given that the politician’s new slant is aligned with candor (frankness, openness), his “usual” stance must, to some extent, be on the contrary. The word we are looking for could be similar to “vague” or “cryptic”.

The best word for this blank is equivocal, which means uncertain, usually with an intention to confuse or deceive. These overtones of intention are what distinguishes it from ambiguous; if someone deliberately speaks in a vague and uncertain way to achieve certain intentions, or to avoid committing oneself, equivocal is better than ambiguous.

Now that you have a clearer understanding of the five words, how about trying out this sentence?

Depending on its context, the usage of the word “secular” is not always neutral and might even connote a religious attitude that is far from _________________.

To check out more commonly confused words, click here.

[Answer to the above: impartial.]