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Considering the consensus of the world's leading meteorologists that there will be a vastly greater number of natural calamities (such as hurricanes and floods) during the first several decades of the twenty-first century, some experts recommended that more developing countries should do what Bangladesh has done--build into their development plans strategies to _______ the impact of such disasters on development.

a. ameliorate
b. attenuate
c. comprehend

The answer to the blank is ameliorate in the book Barron's GRE Verbal Workbook, 2nd Edition

I have heard many times phrases like to minimize impact, to soften impact etc. So, thought the answer should be to attenuate the impact.

Can you please explain why doesn't the word attenuate work here?

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    I agree with you (and not the book). Attenuate makes sense in that context. Ameliorate might sort of work, but it doesn't work well, and definitely not as well as attenuate.
    – Juhasz
    Commented May 18, 2020 at 15:42
  • @Juhasz: I think you are mistaken. Both attenuate and ameliorate are at least "credible" on semantic grounds, as you say. But if you check the last two links in my answer I think you'll have to agree that even though neither of them are in the "Top 10", ameliorate is in fact significantly more common than attenuate before (undesirable) impacts. Commented May 18, 2020 at 16:19
  • @FumbleFingersReinstateMonica, were I writing or editing this piece, I also wouldn't have chosen any of those three options. For a GRE question, where definitional precision is important, attenuate seemed to me like the better choice. In my experience studying for this test, these kind of frustrating questions were fairly common. Fortunately, they either didn't appear on the actual test, or else there were enough reasonable questions that my score wasn't seriously effected.
    – Juhasz
    Commented May 18, 2020 at 16:58
  • @Juhasz: Well, as [this NGram]() shows, ameliorate the impact is in fact twice as common as attenuate the impact - but obviously both those terms would practically "flatline" by comparison with more idiomatic alternatives such as reduce, minimise, mitigate, limit, lessen, alleviate, soften as flagged up in my answer. But if you think it's meaningful to say that attenuate is "the better choice" in the face of such evidence to the contrary and the fact that it's an irrelevancy anyway, I'm not gonna keep arguing the toss. Commented May 18, 2020 at 18:20
  • ...sorry - I meant this NGram Commented May 18, 2020 at 18:20

3 Answers 3

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See this NGram showing which words are most likely to occur in OP's context...

I wouldn't use attenuate here myself, and it doesn't appear in that "Top Ten" list.


BUT - nor do ameliorate or comprehend. And they're a curious pair of alternatives, given that so far as I'm concerned attenuate and ameliorate are just two "equally sub-optimal" choices, whereas comprehend simply makes no sense whatsoever.

Anyone who chooses comprehend is unquestionably wrong, but I see no good reason for preferring ameliorate over attenuate or vice-versa (those are links to many written instances of both terms). In short, the "test" is poorly-devised, so don't spend too much time analysing it.

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  • It is most definitely attenuate here. This are AmE GREs and they give words that wouldn't work on purpose. The only one that works here is precisely attenuate so it doesn't matter about the ngrams. Google this: natural disasters and attenuate the impact, as in lessen And the word is strategies, not measures. Of course, with measures attenuate won't work.
    – Lambie
    Commented Oct 26, 2022 at 21:43
  • books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – Lambie
    Commented Oct 26, 2022 at 21:48
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    I don't see the point of your comment or your chart link. The important chart is this one, showing that ameliorate the impact is far more common than attenuate the impact. The three choices offered by the test strike me as incredibly stupid. One doesn't work at all, and neither of the other two are in the top ten for the context. But to suggest the less common of those two is "correct" makes no sense to me. Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 11:27
  • ... and "strategies" and "measures" are synonymous in this context, so that makes no difference. Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 11:29
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    I don't see the point of you repeatedly telling me that you disagree with most other native Anglophones, who have clearly shown that they're perfectly happy to refer to ameliorating the impact. Your position may have some merit in terms of literal dictionary definitions, but at the end of the day, English is defined by how people use it, not what dictionaries and etymology would suggest. Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 17:48
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Looking at Google hits, ameliorate the impact is most often used for metaphorical impacts, while attenuate the impact is usually used for actual physical impacts, when two objects collide. Since this is a metaphorical impact, and since the instructions are probably something like "choose the word that fits best", you can certainly argue that ameliorate is the correct answer.

However, using attenuate the impact for metaphorical situations is not that uncommon, and it is not ungrammatical or incorrect here.

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  • The text is about natural disasters and there is nothing metaphorical about it. Also, attenuate or ameliorate here is about meaning, not grammar, which is irrelevant. Not part of the question.
    – Lambie
    Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 15:18
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    @Lambie: A literal impact is when somebody who is driving a pick-up truck hits your VW, or when a large meteorite crashes into Mars, or a similar collision. The first definition in Merriam-Webster is: an impinging or striking especially of one body against another. The first definition in Cambridge Dictionary: the force or action of one object hitting another. Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 18:22
  • Yes, but here it's not about grammar. It's semantics. Because these are all transitive verbs. Also, something can be 100% grammatical and nonsensical i.e. be wrong or inaccurate semantically. Lewis Carroll's poetry is often nonsensical, never agrammatical.
    – Lambie
    Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 18:33
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GREs work like this: They give you multiple choice.

Even if you think you have a better word, that is not the point. The point is to pick a word from what they give you in order to get a point on the exam.

Of these three: a. ameliorate b. attenuate c. comprehend

The only right answer in this case is attenuate. In the sense of lessen the impact of such disasters on development.

attenuate means to lessen or make less serious. The other two are frankly silly.

The other two words make no sense. You cannot ameliorate an impact. Make it better??

And comprehending the impact is not what the sentence is about.

Since 1940 forward there is increasing usage of attenuate the impact in ngrams, which I do not know how to copy. Sorry.

GRE practice exams and even the exams have Answer Keys. There is a list with the question number and a letter for the multiple choice. It is very possible that the answer key is showing the wrong answer.

ameliorate the impact: This spending has ameliorated the impact of these social programs on communities.

This program has attenuated the impact of the disaster on local populations.

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    I disagree entirely. Both "reduce the force of" and "make less bad" are reasonable senses, and I find a metaphorical sense of attenuate rather odd. I definitely prefer ameliorate.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Oct 26, 2022 at 22:09
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    I agree that améliorer l'impact would be truly silly in French, but this is ELL.SE, not French.SE. Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 20:35
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    I thought we were here to help people learn English, not pass specific exams. Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 21:35
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    Um, @Lambie, the OP said "The answer to the blank is ameliorate in the book". I think that's a good answer, and you don't, but either way it is clearly not the case that "only attenuate will get you a point."
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 22:09
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    @Lambie: What ameliorate usually means in English is to make less bad, so alleviate, mitigate, assuage, palliate are all good synonyms, but only rarely does it mean improve or upgrade. Commented Dec 2, 2022 at 2:14

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