Thursday, August 5, 2010

Is Vocabulary Important?

In this article, we shall discuss vocabulary. Although direct vocabulary-based questions may not make an appearance in CAT (though it definitely does in other entrance exams such as FMS, IIFT etc as discussed later) in the sense that you are usually not asked to choose the correct meaning of a difficult or less-known word or its antonym or synonym from among the options, a good vocabulary is still quite crucial for doing well in the English section.

It is important to note that CAT does test your vocabulary indirectly. Often questions have appeared in which you need to choose the correct usage of simple, every day words. Quite often, these common words have multiple meanings, depending on the context of their use, and the CAT has tested whether you understand which all possible uses a common word can be put to. An example will serve to illustrate my point.

Consider a word such as ‘book’. The most common use of the word perhaps is when we use it in the sense of referring to a textbook or story book (fiction or non-fiction). But the word ‘book’ does have other usages. For example, we can say that ‘He booked a ticket’. Similarly, you can say that a show was ‘fully booked’. Another usage is when we say “The policeman booked the errant driver for over-speeding’.

In addition to being prepared for such kind of questions, a decent vocabulary will be important to do well in the Reading Comprehension section. Your failure to understand or misinterpretation of a particular word could result in your having greater difficulty in understanding the passage as a whole and answering the questions based on it. This is especially true for phrases or aphorisms that the writer may use-very often, these short aphorisms convey a lot in a few words, something which would have otherwise taken several sentences to explain. For example, if the author of a particular passage states that “the chickens have come home to roost”, what does he mean? Similarly, he may state that a particular situation was a ‘Catch-22’ situation. Rather than explain in long sentences what the situation entailed, the usage of the single phrase ‘a Catch-22 situation’, conveys a lot to a reader who knows the meaning of the phrase. Incidentally, this phrase was the title of a famous novel by Joseph Heller.

Of course, the answer options may contain some words which test your Vocabulary to some extent. This is particularly true when you are asked to choose the ‘tone of the passage’. And you shall be in a real soup if you do not know the meaning of words in the answer option!

Non-CAT exams

As mentioned before, the type of questions that you are given in the FMS, IIFT etc entrance tests are a little different. These entrance tests do contain direct Vocabulary questions. The FMS entrance exam, in particular, is known to bowl students over with some really esoteric words, which are not even used all that often in daily conversation! (don’t worry, there will be only a few such words, if any).

Hence, Vocabulary is something that you will need to work on during your preparation. As mentioned, doing well in Reading Comprehension does call for a decent Vocabulary. Plus, some entrance tests do test your Vocabulary directly by asking you the meaning of a particular word, its synonym or antonym etc.

How To Build Your Vocabulary

Now let us come to the crucial aspect of how you could build your Vocabulary. What is the best way?

In my opinion, in order to truly be good in Vocabulary (and also, not forget the meaning of a word just a few hours after you have learnt it), you cannot just mug up the meaning of words-after all, how many word-meanings can you just learn by rote? So what then is the best way?

The best strategy is to understand the ‘roots’ or the origin of certain words. From what ‘main root’ has a particular word been derived? If you approach Vocabulary is a systematic manner, you can rapidly improve on it.

Let’s understand this ‘root-based’ approach. Consider a word such as ‘demographics’. What does it mean? If you plan to mug up the meaning, it isn’t a good idea! Instead, look at its root: the root is ‘dem’ in this case.

What does ‘dem’ mean?

This root, from Greek, means ‘people’. We all know that India is a democracy. So it should be easy to remember the root ‘dem’ and people (democracy means ‘a Government of and for the people’.

Now ‘demographics’ refers to a population study, or the study of the various characteristics of the people that comprise the population.

• A related word is ‘Demographist’ : it refers to a person who studies demography

• Let’s take another word with the root ‘dem’: ‘demagogue’. You may have heard it a few times-what does it mean? It has the same root, so it must refer to people. You can check it out in any dictionary.

• Similarly, consider the word ‘demogenics’. It means ‘relating to a society based on citizenship’

• Have a look at these two words: ‘Demophile’ and ‘Demophobe’. While the former means ‘A friend of the people’, the latter refers to a person who has an aversion to people (the root ‘philo’ means to have an affinity for/ to love, while the root ‘phobe’ has the opposite meaning).

Hence you can see that knowing the meaning of the root of a particular word helps a lot-not only in understanding the meaning of that particular word, but also the meaning of words with the same root. If you now come across any word with the root ‘dem’, you shall know it has something to do with people.


Sidharth Balakrishna, an alumnus of IIM Calcutta, is an MBA preparation expert and has been involved in MBA coaching for almost six years. He has also held seminars across the country and can be contacted at:

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