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The "Most Nearly Means" Question (Reading Comprehension)

Today we'll discuss a question type very common on the Reading Comprehension section of the SAT and ACT: "most nearly means."

You might have seen this question type crop up. It usually appears 1-2 times during each Reading Comprehension section, and is phrased in the following manner:

"As used in line -, the word "______" most nearly means:

The word in quotes is sometimes relatively simple because this is not a vocabulary check. Rather, it's a measure of your ability to draw meaning from context.

For such an innocent-looking question, the "most nearly means" question type garners enormous confusion. There's a simple reason for this: the way the word is used in the text is usually unconnected to its classical definition. In addition, many of these words have a common colloquial use, which causes test-takers to think that this is the "standard" meaning of the word. Students are most likely to choose the definition of the word as they know it, not as it's used in the text. And the common - but here, wrong - definition will almost always be an answer choice.

For this reason, you DON'T NEED TO KNOW WHAT THE WORD MEANS. If you come across a "most nearly means" question, and you're unfamiliar with the word they're asking about, there's no reason to be intimidated. In fact, knowing the word can be a disadvantage, because it gives you a bias in the wrong direction.


Forget the classical definition of the word with which you’re familiar; instead, imagine that there's a blank space where the word should be. If you’re taking a paper test, it might help to actually cross the word out with your pen. Now read the sentence again. What meaning would make the most sense in this context?

Very often, a word will flash to mind. With "most nearly means" questions, you should follow your gut instinct. If a word makes sense to you - even if you don't think it matches the one supplied in the text - choose it as your answer.

Note: do NOT look at the answer choices before implementing this method. First, find a word you believe is a good fit. Only then should you search for it, or its synonym, in the answer choices.

Otherwise, it will be harder for you to tune into your intuition and you'll get easily confused. I'll elaborate on this topic in future articles.

Keeping this methodology in mind, let's look at a few examples.


Example #1:


Grand buildings of the century featured imposing columns and grandiose steps, anticipating one of the grandest features of later Greek architecture. Question: As used in line --, “anticipating” most nearly means:

  1. expecting

  2. foreshadowing

  3. looking forward to

  4. eliminating

Many of you might be familiar with the word "anticipate," usually used to indicate (1), expectation. Colloquially, it often signifies excitement, or the feeling of (3), looking forward to.

But neither of these options is how the word is used here.

Now let's use the method we learned earlier. Imagine a blank space where the word "anticipate" should be. Try to read the sentence as is, without inserting the definition you know.

"Grand buildings of the century featured imposing columns and grandiose steps, ______ one of the grandest features of later Greek architecture. "

The sentence describes architectural characteristics at a certain time period. It then refers to later architecture.

The keyword here is "later," and it's the key to finding the answer to this question. (Identifying keywords in the Reading Comprehension section is important. I'll elaborate on this topic in a later article.)

Since there is nothing here indicating contradiction /negation, the logical conclusion is that the contemporary state of the literature indicated, predicted, or foreshadowed what would occur in later architecture. The correct answer is (2), foreshadowing.

Example #2


The planned event occupied her energies in a way which previous incidents at the residence had not; she became alert and eager in her attentions to the various components of what soon promised to be the most celebrated event in her region and field. Her thoughts turned from the worries and agitation which had hitherto occupied her.


As used in line 1, the word “occupied” most nearly means:

  1. Resided

  2. Remained

  3. Dwelled

  4. Engaged

As an aside, notice that (1), “resided,”, and (2), “dwelled” mean nearly the exact same thing. This is a thick hint that these two words couldn’t possibly be the answer, since there is only one answer and they can’t both be chosen. This is another powerful tool that will be discussed later in another article.

Using our method, insert a blank space where "occupied" should be:

"The planned event _______ her energies in a way which previous incidents at the residence had not."

That is, the event took up, engrossed, or engaged the woman's energy. The correct answer is (4), engaged.

Example #3

Text: The tiger population has declined by about 30% in the last few years, primarily due to a decrease in deer numbers, their main source of food in this area. Tiger hunts have harvested nineteen tigers in the last six months.

Question: Inline --, “harvested” most nearly means:

  1. Acquired

  2. Raised

  3. Killed

  4. Gathered

Most of us are familiar with the word “harvest” in the sense of collecting or gathering, which might indicate that (4) is the correct answer. Alternatively, “harvest” is often used in the context of organ harvesting.

But there’s another definition for the word, one which is slightly lesser-known. “Harvest” is defined as the capture or killing of animals. And this is the sense in which the word is used in this context. That is, (3) is the correct answer.

Let's look at the text again, blurring the place where the word should be:

The tiger population has declined by about 30% in the last few years, primarily due to a decrease in deer numbers, their main source of food in this area. Tiger hunts have ______ nineteen tigers in the last six months.

When you read the sentence "Tiger hunts have _____ nineteen tigers", the word "killed" should leap to mind. It's the most natural word in the context of the sentence, and the most natural word is almost always the answer to "most nearly means" questions.

The reason is that your brain is subconsciously picking up on contextual hints, even if you can't consciously identify what they are. An unintuitive word like "harvested" is deliberately inserted into that slot in order to confuse you and make you lose sight of what you would instinctively know.

Let's examine these contextual clues more closely.

In the context of the sentence above, there are two indicators that the appropriate word here should be (3), “killed.” One is the main indicator, and the other is a secondary indicator. The salient indicator is the word “hunts”:

“Tiger hunts have harvested nineteen tigers.”

Tigers are being hunted; that is, killed.

The second, more subtle, indicator, is in the previous line:

“The tiger population has the last few years.”

Though the text then goes on to cite that this is mainly because of the depletion of the tigers’ food source, this line introduces the theme of the elimination of the tiger population - which goes hand in hand with the later idea of tiger hunts.

Context is very important. We’ll discuss this further in future articles.

For more tips and methods, or to get help personally tailored to your needs, consider working with me. I've helped people from all over the world get into their dream school. In coaching you, I adopt my methods specifically to your personality, schedule, and learning style. For this reason, studying privately with a skilled coach is the best way to increase your test score.

Happy learning,



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