My parents raised me to have a very clean vocabulary. In fact, I’m so reticent with off color language, that my youngest daughter was shocked when I said H-E-double-hockey-sticks the other day. Because of this, I find it difficult to describe to my students what happens when they’re working on the math section of the SAT and they don’t recognize a vocabulary word. Some of the phrases I’ve used in the past include:
- you’re totally out of luck
- you’re downstream without a paddle
- too bad, so sad, go cry to your dad, and
- not a snowball’s chance in H-E-double-hockey-sticks.
Usually I’m much more optimistic and encouraging about SAT questions, so why all the negativity? It’s because of the nature of mathematical language. Mathematical writing is dense. If you were to analyze a paragraph about history and one about math, on average there will be seven times as much information in the math paragraph! Unlike regular English, mathematical writing is totally devoid of context clues. Let me give you an example:
- Yesterday, it was so cold I had a real jebcov of a time getting my car to start.
- What is the luxbez of 7 and 9?
Jebcov and luxbez are both nonsense words; however, you can get a general understanding of what jebcov means from the sentence above. The context clue of it being cold outside helps you to understand that it was difficult to start my car that day. Not so much for the second sentence. Should you add, subtract, multiply, or divide 7 and 9? Whichever one you choose will result in a different answer, and there are no extra clues in the sentence to help you decide. My student, Emma, experienced this when I gave her the following question in a tutoring session:
What is the product of the integers between the numbers -3 and 5, inclusive?
Emma had forgotten the definition of product, so she added up all the numbers between -3 and 5 to get a result of 9. What she should have done was multiply the integers between -3 and 5 (including the endpoints), which would look like . Once she noticed that zero was one of the factors in the multiplication problem, she could have concluded the final answer would be B. Hannah’s error had nothing to do with her math ability but was due to a lack in her math vocabulary.
There’s good news in this story! Although mathematical vocabulary is a critical thing to learn, there’s not really that much of it. I’ve compiled the most important words for you to know in a glossary. Keep this glossary handy as you prep for the SAT, and put a star by every word you had to look up. Make sure to review those words until you know every one of them! I am constantly adding new words to my collection, so if you have any suggestions, put them in the comments below.