In a piece in The Atlantic on vocabulary learning, journalist and SAT tutor James S. Murphy brought up the so-called "SAT word" unscrupulous as an example of a word you might memorize for SAT proficiency, but still have no idea how to use appropriately.
Merriam-Webster, Murphy points out, can only take you so far. To really understand the nuances of this subtle word, you'll have to tap into a resources like the ones that appear in the Vocabulary.com Dictionary.
Consider the example of “unscrupulous.” The Microsoft Word thesaurus provides as synonyms for “unscrupulous” “dishonest,” “corrupt,” “dodgy,” “immoral,” and “ruthless.” These words occupy a similar semantic space, but they are not equivalent to each other. One of the keys to speaking and writing eloquently is the power to select the most appropriate chisel for the context. You need to know, for instance, that it is appropriate to call the behavior of many mortgage lenders unscrupulous, but not to call a small child’s lie to his mother unscrupulous, since we do not expect young children to live according to principles. You would not find this distinction out, however, if you simply memorized the definition at Merriam-Webster.com: “not honest or fair; doing things that are wrong, dishonest, or illegal.”
So how can you be sure you're fully understanding words you're trying to learn?
You need someone to sit down and explain the word to you, pronounce it for you, show you a bunch of examples of how it's used, give you a list of its synonyms and antonyms, indicate how frequently you'll see it and what other words you might find in its family. But who is that person? Your mom? Your best friend? No, it's the definition pages and word learning game on Vocabulary.com! On nearly every page in our Dictionary, you'll find:
Want to see how it works? Check out unscrupulous here.