Know What to Expect
This subsection of the ASVAB is essentially a test of your vocabulary. However, that’s not the entire story. While knowing the definitions of many words will certainly help you in this section, there are other ways to identify the correct answer and eliminate the wrong answers in ASVAB word knowledge questions.
On the WK section of the CAT-ASVAB, you will have 8 minutes to answer 16 vocabulary questions. If you are taking the paper-and-pencil ASVAB, you will be given 11 minutes to complete a total of 35 questions. Whichever version of the test you’re taking, your goal is the same: find the synonym for a given word in a fraction of a minute.
A little more than half of the questions in the WK section will ask you to define words with no context. We’ll call these No-Context WK questions. Here’s an example of this type of question.
If you happen to know the meaning of the underlined word, fantastic. If not, don’t get discouraged. Although questions of this type do not provide you with context clues, there are decoding strategies, or ways of guessing a word’s meaning, that can help you answer these questions correctly. Decoding strategies that involve understanding words’ prefixes, suffixes, and roots will be a major emphasis of this chapter.
The other type of question you’re likely to see in this section will ask you to define a word that appears in the context of a sentence. We’ll call these In-Context WK questions. Take a look at an example of this type of question:
Notice that in this type of WK question, you can use clues in the sentence to help you find the word’s meaning.
The Kaplan Method for Word Knowledge Questions
Let’s see how you’d apply that to a question in which you know the meaning of the underlined word.
|The unusually cold weather was an anomaly.||Step 1: Anomaly means “something unusual,” or “something that doesn’t seem to fit expectations.”|
|Answers:||Step 2: Make a prediction before looking at the choices: the answer choice will mean “out of the ordinary” or “unexpected.”|
|(A) oddity||Step 3: Correct. Oddity closely matches that prediction.|
|(B) ally||An ally is a friend. Incorrect.|
|(C) anonymity||Anonymity is the state of not being known. Incorrect.|
|(D) heat wave||A heat wave is not, by definition, out of the ordinary. Also, in the context of the sentence, a heat wave does not make sense. Incorrect.|
Decoding Strategies for Guessing the Meaning of a Word
Breaking Words Apart
One of the most effective decoding strategies is to break a word into parts. We can do this because many long words in English are composed of a prefix (a first part that affects the word’s meaning) and/or a suffix (a final part that can also affect the word’s meaning), plus a word root (a middle part that often derives from a Greek or Latin word).
For example, consider the word convolution. It breaks into parts like this:
con + volu + tion
prefix + word root + suffix
Suppose that you didn’t know what the word convolution means, but you did know that the prefix con– means “together” and that the word root volu means “turning” or “rolling.” The suffix –tion indicates that the word is a noun. So you could guess that a convolution is something rolled up together. And that’s a pretty good guess: In fact, convolution means a “coil or twist” or “the act of coiling.” It can also refer to a complicated thought process that might be described as “twisty.”
Using Positive or Negative Charge
One of the secrets to success in the WK section of the ASVAB is knowing that you don’t actually need precise definitions of the words that are being tested. As long as you can confidently eliminate three answer choices as being incorrect, you’ll find your way to the correct answer. That means that many times, just knowing if a word is positive, negative, or neutral will be enough to answer the question correctly. For example, let’s return to a question you’ve seen previously:
Do you know what the word gregarious means? If so, then great, this is an easy question for you. But let’s say you don’t know what it means. What do you do then? Well, you can start by breaking the word down into parts.
But let’s imagine that you aren’t familiar with the root greg. While you may be tempted to throw in the towel and give up, try something else: do you think gregarious has a positive, negative, or neutral charge? If you’ve ever heard the word gregarious used in conversation, then you probably heard it used to describe a person. And was the person using the word gregarious delivering a compliment or an insult?
Now, you may be thinking to yourself, “hmm, okay, I don’t really know what gregarious means, but I’m pretty sure I’ve heard it used to compliment someone, so this is a positive word.” Now look through the answer choices. Which of those, if applied to a person, would be considered positive? Three answer choices are either negative or neutral. Only (C), outgoing, is positive when applied to a person. Select it and move on.
Of course, using a word’s positive or negative charge should never be your first strategy when tackling a WK question. Use this approach only when you have a general but not specific understanding of the word.
(For the record, the root greg means “to flock to,” and the suffix –ious means “to be full of.” Therefore, gregarious means “living with others, like a flock of animals,” and the closest choice is (C) outgoing.)
Using Real-World Context to Guess the Meaning of a Word
One of the most common—and effective—ways of guessing a word’s meaning is to place the word in context. Even if you may not know a textbook definition of the word, perhaps you remember it being used in a specific phrase. Ask yourself, “where have I heard this word before?” Sometimes, you will realize that you did know the meaning of the word.
Take this question, for example:
Unfortunately, broach is one of those words that comes from Middle English, so knowing Latin and Greek roots won’t be very helpful. And if you can’t rattle off a specific definition of the word right away, you may think that this is a lost point. But ask yourself if you have heard this word used in a common phrase before. Does “broaching the subject” ring a bell? Perhaps you’ve heard a parent, teacher, or television character use this phrase. Something along the lines of: “Well, I didn’t want to talk about it, but Donny broached the subject anyway.” Using the context of how the word is used in a phrase you’ve heard before is a remarkable way to understand the “fuzzy definition” of a word. In this example, broach would mean something like “bring up” or “start to discuss.” The only word that is a close fit is answer choice (B), introduce.
Making the Most of Context
In addition to the decoding strategies discussed above, you can also use the sentence itself to help you answer In-Context WK questions. Context simply means the words or phrases surrounding an underlined word, and using context involves looking for clues in those other words in order to help you guess at the underlined word’s meaning.
There are several ways context can be helpful. Sometimes the sentence signals that the underlined word resembles another idea in the sentence. In other cases, sentences may contain words that signal that the underlined word contrasts with or forms an unexpected combination with another idea in the sentence. Sometimes context merely tells you whether an underlined word has a negative or positive connotation. In many cases, this deduction may be enough to answer the WK question. Finally, sometimes the context surrounding an underlined word’s meaning simply defines that word or hints at its meaning.
Eliminating Answer Choices Based on Logic
If you really can’t come up with a prediction, or if context is proving to be no help, then you may in some cases be able to eliminate answer choices by thinking logically about them. For example, if two answer choices mean nearly the same thing, they must be wrong, since the ASVAB has only one right answer for each question. If two answer choices have opposite meanings, it may be likely that one of them is correct. That’s because test makers often include an answer choice that means the opposite of the correct answer.
In conclusion, eliminating choices based on logic usually helps you to narrow choices down to two. You may need to use another strategy or simply guess in order to select from the remaining two choices.