Manhattan Prep GRE Blog

Idioms for Reading Comp: Not X, Let Alone Y


The Bruzowski Company’s competitor to the iPad, the $uperKoolTablet, isn’t ___________, let alone ubiquitous.

WIthout knowledge of the idiom “Not X, let alone Y” (as well as the word ubiquitous), many people would have a hard time filling in the blank in the sentence above.

This idiom is also precisely the sort of thing that leads people to not quite understand what they’re reading in Reading Comp. Many students say to themselves, “Why is the word alone in this sentence?”, but then they’re not sure what to look up, so they just let it go … and possibly miss a question.

“Not X, let alone Y” “ Not X and definitely not this even more extreme thing, Y.

For instance:

Our remaining funds are not enough to get us through the week, let alone enough to pay next month’s payroll.

In this sentence, getting through the week is less expensive than next month’s payroll, so if we can’t afford the cheaper thing, we definitely can’t afford the more expensive thing.

In the sentence about the $uperKoolTablet, the word in the blank should be a lesser form of ubiquitous (existing everywhere). Thus, a good fill-in for the blank would be “popular” or “widely available.”

The expressions “not to mention” and “much less” can be used in the same way:

I signed up for this GRE class because I have no memory of ever learning geometry, not to mention quadratic equations.

You let that man give you mouth-to-mouth after you ran out of breath at the pool? That guy doesn’t even know CPR, much less is he a “world class doctor.” He just likes to hang out at the pool and offer people mouth-to-mouth.

Origin Stories: Fractious (and Factious)


“Origin story” is an expression for a superhero’s backstory — for instance, Superman was born on Krypton just before it was destroyed. Many words also have fascinating origin stories. While English comes largely from Latin (and from Greek, and from Latin through French and Spanish, with some Germanic roots and a bit of Sanskrit, etc.), you’ll find that word usage can change quite bit over a couple thousand years.

Fractious sounds a lot like “fraction,” doesn’t it? It actually means “Unruly, troublemaking, quarrelsome,” or simply “irritable.”

There’s a good reason the fractious sounds a bit mathematical. The word fraction once meant brawling or discord (as in, “A fraction broke out outside the pub”) -“ even today, a fraction (in math) is something that has been broken up.

Don’t confuse fractious with factious, meaning affected by party strife, breaking into factions or cliques within a larger organization. (Actually, those two words are pretty similar, so if you confused them, it wouldn’t really be the end of the world. A factious group could easily become fractious.)

The Students for Progressive Action were a fractious bunch, always fighting with one another over exactly which progressive action should take priority.

Related Words:
Obstreperous – unruly, noisy
Refractory – stubbornly disobedient
Captious – faultfinding, making a big deal of trivial faults

Also, the GRE classics belligerent, bellicose, and pugnacious all mean “combative, quarrelsome, given to fighting.”

Latin is for Lovers: “Heteropaternal Superfecundation”


As you learn a plethora of GRE vocabulary words, you’ll soon discover that there are some unusual words and phrases you can easily puzzle out.

You may know the root “hetero” from heterosexual and heterogeneous. “Hetero,” of course, means “different.” Another interesting GRE word with “hetero” is heterodox. If you know that “dox/doct” means opinion or teaching (orthodox, doctrine, doctor), then it makes sense that heterodox would mean “different opinion” — in other words, it’s a synonym for unorthodox.

You probably know the word paternal — for instance, a paternal grandmother is your father’s mother, and a paternity test determines whether a man is a particular child’s father. This root also occurs in patriotic, patron, patronize, patricide, patrician, and many others.

“Super,” of course, means “above, upper.” Insuperable is a great GRE word — it means “undefeatable.”

Finally, fecund is an important GRE word meaning “fertile.”

So, if you happen to be watching the Maury Povich show (or reading this article about it) and you read about “heteropaternal superfecundation,” it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out that that term means something like “different father super-fertility.” And indeed it does! Apparently, you can have twins by different fathers, if that’s what you’re into.


Idioms for Reading Comp: Entree


Did you know that an entree (or entrée) isn’t just something you eat in a restaurant?

Entree (usually as entree into) can also mean “admittance, permission to enter.” Most people in the U.S. think of an entree as the main dish of a meal, but it originally was an appetizer -“ a dish that leads into the main course (the word is related to enter). A person who wants to rise in society might seek an entree into a certain social group.

You can also say seek entree “ sometimes in that expression, the word an is sometimes omitted.

For disadvantaged young people, good public schools can provide an entree into the middle class.

I have sought entree to the upper echelons of power for some time, but no one wants to play golf with me.

Easily Confused Words: Prodigy and Prodigal (Hint: “Prodigal” is BAD)


prodigy ≠ prodigal

A prodigy is an extraordinarily talented person, especially a child genius. For instance, Doogie Howser, of the TV show, “Doogie Howser, M.D.”


Prodigal is an adjective meaning “wastefully or recklessly extravagant,” or a noun meaning “a wasteful person.” This is Rembrandt’s painting “Return of the Prodigal Son,” based on a story from the Bible.

The guy on his knees is the prodigal one, but in the painting, he’s not being prodigal — he’s repenting for being prodigal.

The pith of the story is this: A man has two sons. Younger son: “Hey Dad, I know you’re not dead yet, but can I have my inheritance now anyway?” The munificent father gives the son the money, and the son goes off and spends it on wine and women, that sort of thing (what a libertine!) Then, famine strikes! The son becomes desperately poor and has to herd pigs. When it gets really bad, he decides to go back home and beg for a job as his father’s servant. But before the son can even ask, the father is already kissing him and having the servants dress him in fine robes and “kill the fatted calf” for a celebration. The older, obedient, non-prodigal son gets kind of pissed — nobody’s throwing a party for him, so why are they throwing a party for his jerk brother? We’ll leave aside the religious lesson (hint: the Dad is like God!), but the prodigal part is the younger son wasting all his money.

In sum, prodigal and prodigy are not at all the same thing! If I hear one more person tell me that prodigal means “genius,” I will be filled with a prodigious indignation!

Oh, I almost forgot. Prodigious isn’t the same as prodigy or prodigal — it just means “large.”

AdVocab: Aerie by American Eagle


When I wrote this post about the word aerie, little did I know that Aerie was a store you could find in the mall! (I found one on a trip to Boston).

An aerie, of course, is “the nest of a bird of prey, as an eagle or a hawk” — or, metaphorically speaking, “a house, fortress, or the like, located high on a hill or mountain.” Aerie can also be spelled aery, eyrie, or eyry.

So, the store American Eagle seems to have opened up a lingerie shop called Aerie. You know … eagle … aerie? Makes sense, right? As in, if an eagle wanted to get amorous, it might say, “Hey baby, come on up to my aerie.”

PopVocab: The Insipid, Inane, Vapid, Fatuous “Friday” by Rebecca Black


This week’s meme has been a fatuous music video by previously unknown thirteen year old Rebecca Black. The video, “Friday,” has been called “the worst song ever written.” See for yourself!


Fatuous means “foolish or inane, especially in an unconscious, complacent manner; silly.”

Here is an excerpt from the lyrics:

7am, waking up in the morning
Gotta be fresh, gotta go downstairs
Gotta have my bowl, gotta have cereal

Wow, isn’t that inane? (Lacking sense, significance, or ideas?) I might also call it insipid (without distinctive, interesting, or stimulating qualities). Here’s more:

Kickin’ in the front seat
Sittin’ in the back seat
Gotta make my mind up
Which seat can I take?

A lot of the insipidity or fatuity of the song has to do with the fact that the lyrics are so very mundane (or pedestrian). You have to have cereal before you go to the bus stop? Really? Is picking a seat in the car totally blowing your mind?

This song is so very bad that some might call it a travesty of modern pop music. A travesty is “a literary or artistic composition so inferior in quality as to be merely a grotesque imitation of its model.”

Yesterday was Thursday
Today it is Friday
We we we so excited
We so excited
We gonna have a ball today
Tomorrow is Saturday
And Sunday comes afterwards

Really? She tells us the days of the week? In chronological order? (Well, better than alphabetical order, I guess).

Because the song is so hilariously bad, it is spawned a number of parodies, or satirical imitations. Here is one lampoon of Black’s song:

Just when you thought nothing could get more fatuous, inane, insipid or vapid than “Tomorrow is Saturday / And Sunday comes afterwards,” this parody manages to lampoon those very utilitarian lyrics with, “Friday happens on Friday.”

PopVocab: Charlie Sheen and Moral Turpitude


PopEater recently ran this post about Charlie Sheen’s very public meltdown.

Notice the word turpitude. Turpitude means depravity, baseness of character, or corrupt or depraved acts. It is often used in the phrase moral turpitude, a legal term that describes depraved behavior.

Worried about her grandson’s turpitude “ as evinced by his constant detentions and a three-day stay in a juvenile jail “ Mrs. Worthington offered to pay for military school.

It’s hard to fathom the kind of turpitude required to make a movie that could get banned in modern-day Europe! When I read the screenplay, I nearly threw up.

Three related words are:

Base – morally low, mean, dishonorable; of little or no value; crude and unrefined; counterfeit

Debase – lower or reduce in quality or dignity

…and, of course, depraved, meaning morally bad, corrupt, or perverted.

Now, take a look at the use of turpitude in the Sheen article:

Do you spot the problem?

Turpitude is a bad thing. Sheen certainly wasn’t fired for a lack of it — he was fired for turpitude itself. Perhaps we could say he was fired for a surfeit of turpitude.

Anyone want to start a band called Surfeit of Turpitude?

Idioms for Reading Comp: Gloss Over, Paper Over, Whitewash


glossGloss over, paper over, and whitewash are all expressions for covering up a problem, insult, etc. rather than addressing it or fixing it. Think of a dirty floor that you just put a pretty rug on top of instead of cleaning.

Because gloss is slippery (think of lip gloss), gloss over often has the sense of trying to smoothly and quickly move on to something else.

Whitewash, literally, is a substance used to whiten walls, wood, etc.

He made a snide remark about short people and then tried to gloss over it when he realized his 5’2 boss had overheard.

The journalist accused the government of trying to whitewash the scandal, implying that the officials covered up the incident out of concern for national security rather than to protect themselves.

Origin Stories: Toady


“Origin story” is an expression for a superhero’s backstory — for instance, Superman was born on Krypton just before it was destroyed. Many words also have fascinating origin stories. While English comes largely from Latin (and from Greek, and from Latin through French and Spanish, with some Germanic roots and a bit of Sanskrit, etc.), you’ll find that word usage can change quite bit over a couple thousand years.

A toady is someone who flatters or acts in a servile manner for self-serving reasons.

Look at that toady, sucking up and offering to do the boss’s Christmas shopping for his kids. Gross.

Lackey, Sycophant, and Myrmidon are synonyms.

Fawn means to try to please in a submissive way.

Obsequious means servile, very compliant, fawning.

Truckle means to act subserviently.

Toady comes from toad-eater, after magicians’ assistants who would supposedly eat poisonous toads so the magician could show off his ability to magically expel the poison. Toadeat used to mean do any degrading thing for your boss, but today you can use toady as a verb (or toady up to someone) for this purpose.