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I came across the following two-blank text-completion question while preparing for the GRE:

① ______ by circumstance, the entrepreneur once known for his overweening ② _______ was now seen by others as the possessor of a broken spirit and timid demeanor.

The options for blank ① are:

  • unaffected
  • humbled
  • exalted

The options for blank ② are:

  • pretension
  • swagger
  • wealth

I was able to pick humbled for blank ① easily because it was the only one that made sense in the context of the sentence (which was the right answer).

I went with swagger for blank ② because I thought it was a good substitute for arrogance, but the correct answer mentioned is pretension. According to the definition given for pretension which is a claim or assertion of a claim to something, I feel it doesn’t quite fit in.

Can someone please explain the difference?

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  • I would have expected pride to follow overweening; of the alternatives provided, pretension is the nearest. There is another definition along the lines of trying to impress people. – Kate Bunting Dec 5 '19 at 9:18
  • I recommend changing the titles of your GRE questions to include the words in contention. That will make it more searchable for future users. – TaliesinMerlin Dec 5 '19 at 13:42
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If you look at examples of usage of overweening at Lexico, you will see that it is primarily used with such words and phrases as

pride       confidence       ambition       sense of self-importance       arrogance       hubris

What they have in common is that they describe a psychological trait, an inner disposition.

Swagger, on the other hand, usually denotes external manifestations of such dispositions:

         an arrogantly self-confident way of walking : an act or instance of swaggering

         arrogant or conceitedly self-assured behavior
         ostentatious display or bravado
              (Merriam-Webster)

In contrast, pretension means vanity (Merriam-Webster), and so it also refers to an inner attribute. This is why it is a better fit.

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  • I've just realised that this doesn't become 'good' until correct attributions rather than just covert links are given. Even a good ship needed a ha'porth of tar. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 5 '19 at 11:56
  • @EdwinAshworth Thanks to tchrist! – linguisticturn Dec 5 '19 at 14:56
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    Sounds vaguely irreverent. tchrist doesn't claim to be infallible; he even acknowledges that the subjunctive may be largely Old Testament in the UK. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 5 '19 at 19:59
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Was going to suggest ambition as the best fit, until I saw the list of allowed alternatives.

Of those pretension is the only one that feels satisfactory in context. You need an attribute of character, which rules out 'wealth' and 'swagger' is more suggestive of behaviour than personal nature.

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  • Not a bad answer, Chaconia, but @linguisticum gives a (good_ one. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 5 '19 at 11:54

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