Words with Similar Meanings and Subtle Differences

Monday, February 8th, 2021

Words with Similar Meanings and Subtle Differences

In the series on confusing words (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3) we looked at words that sound similar or look similar but mean different things. There is another class of words you should be careful about – these are words that are often used interchangeably (and wrongly at that, I must add). This generally leads to bad writing than bad comprehension when used.

You do not need to look far away for instances of not knowing the difference between these similar sounding words. Just ask any MBA aspirant whether have any preferences for specialization and a lot of them say ‘Marketing’. Just follow this up by asking what exactly is the difference between marketing, sales and advertising and see what happens.

Now the smart-ass answer would be ‘Well, I want to get into IIMs to figure out just that’ but this is actually something pretty basic that a Google search will tell you. In case you’re interested – marketing is the sum of a lot of activities that bring together sellers and buyers (one of these methods being advertising of course) while sales is an actual conversion of potential buyers into paying customers.

All this is great, but from CAT perspective or in fact any MBA exam prep perspective, the value in knowing these is eliminating confusing options or writing better in the post exam procedures (WAT or similar tests)

In the section that follows, what we’ll do is group words based on usage and then, for each group, I have given specific examples which may help you decide the right word to use.

Words meaning ‘to get rid of’

Do you know the words abolish, exterminate, extinguish, eradicate, and obliterate – all these words in some form mean ‘to get rid of’ but how do we distinguish the usage of these words?

Abolish applies only to doing away with conditions, practices, or regulations, not material things or persons. For e.g. The legislature passed a law to abolish the state taxes and replaced them with the central GST. Exterminate suggests total destruction, as of living things, by a deliberate, selective method. For e.g. Having a pest-control service kill the ants in your home is an example of exterminate.

Extinguish means to put out a flame or something similar: For e.g. We called the fire brigade and meanwhile, my friends and the staff at the cottage tried to extinguish the fire but in vain. Eradicate is generally used for diseases or social evils: For e.g. if Hepatitis is given specific attention, it can be eradicated from the country

Obliterate means to destroy so as to leave no trace: For e.g. North Korea threatened to obliterate US military bases in Japan

Bottomline: Abolish taxes, exterminate pests, extinguish fires, eradicate diseases and obliterate the enemy

Words meaning adverse criticism intended as a corrective or caution.

Admonish implies the giving of advice or a warning so that a fault can be rectified or a danger avoided: For e.g. The law does not allow parents to use physical punishment to admonish a child. Rebuke and reprimand both refer to sharp, often angry criticism; of the two reprimand more frequently implies formal or official censure: For e.g. John Oliver called on Congress to rebuke Trump for firing Comey. In the case of reprimand: For e.g. The judge was reprimanded by the Judicial Conduct Committee for his actions.

Bottomline: admonish the kids, rebuke Trump, reprimand the Judge

Words indicating a compatible relationship between people or things.

Conform stresses on basic characteristics, sometimes referring to meeting established standards: For e.g. Students are required to conform to the rules. Harmonize implies a relationship of unlike elements combined or arranged to make a pleasing whole: For e.g. The East African Community has started the process of harmonizing technical and vocational training

Accord implies harmonious relationship, unity, or consistency, as in feeling or essential nature. For e.g. On 16th May, the US signed a new defense accord with its ally UAE. Correspond refers either to actual similarity in form or nature: For e.g. The Diet in Japan corresponds to the American Congress. Coincide stresses exact agreement in space, time, or thought: For e.g. His interest happily coincided with mine.

Words meaning to disturb or disquiet a person so as to evoke moderate anger

Annoy refers to mild disturbance caused by an act that tries one’s patience: For e.g. The noise annoyed the downstairs neighbors. Irk indicates a something that tires or bores quality: For e.g. The city council’s failure to take action on the legislation irked the community. Vex applies to an act capable of bringing on anger: For e.g. Students in the crowd asked irrelevant questions for the sole purpose of vexing the professor.

Provoke implies a strong and often deliberate incitement to anger: For e.g. No behaviour was enough to provoke the Buddha. Aggravate is an approximate equivalent of provoke but following it by making it much worse or taking it much further: For e.g. Threats only served to aggravate people in most cases. Peeve, somewhat informal in tone, suggests a minor disturbance: For E.g. The sense of superiority in your answer peeved me. To rile is to upset one’s composure and stir one up: For e.g. It riled me no end to listen to such lies.

Words meaning engaged in a particular activity

Energetic suggests sustained enthusiasm: For e.g. an energetic program for the college. Dynamic implies energy and forcefulness that is often inspiring to others: For e.g. A dynamic speaker, the senator often persuades her colleagues to change their votes.

Vigorous implies with some forcefulness: For e.g. It was a vigorous defence of the school. Lively suggests brisk alertness, animation, and energy: For e.g. I take a lively interest in politics.

Words meaning ‘not clear’

Ambiguous indicates the presence of multiple meanings: For e.g. Frustrated by ambiguous instructions, the parents weren’t able to assemble the new toy. Something equivocal is unclear or misleading, sometimes as a result of a deliberate effort to avoid exposure of one’s position: For eg. The diplomat’s equivocal opinion of the ruling was highlighted by the media.

Obscure implies that meaning is hidden, either from lack of clarity or difficulty of understanding the matter: For e.g. Those who do not appreciate Kafka’s work say his style is obscure and too complex.

Recondite and abstruse imply that the matter is somewhat specialized information that is not generally known: For e.g. some recondite problem in historiography. The professor’s lectures were so abstruse that students often avoided them. Another word in this category is esoteric which also means the same.

What is vague is unclear because it is expressed in an indefinite form or because it reflects thoughts that are not precise: For e.g. He had just vague memories of his childhood. Cryptic suggests a puzzling terseness that is often intended to discourage understanding: For e.g. The new insurance policy is written without cryptic or mysterious terms. Something enigmatic is mysterious, puzzling, and often challenging: For e.g. I didn’t grasp the meaning of that enigmatic comment.

You can also see Tones of Passages for Reading Comprehension Questions in CAT Exam

So that’s all in this post. Are there any words that you think should be added to this list? Let us know by adding your comment below.

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