16 October 2011

It’s not just about how much vocabulary you can memorize

Let me make it clear that this post is in no way a suggestion that you should *not* study vocabulary for the SAT. I don’t think anyone would dispute that the more vocabulary you learn, the better off you’ll be — especially if your vocabulary isn’t all that strong to begin with.

That said, however, I also feel obligated to point out that the sentence-completion portion of the SAT isn’t just a straightforward vocabulary test. Yes some of the words are a bit on the esoteric side, but the more time I’ve spent tutoring, the more I’ve become aware that the test is deliberately set up so that someone with a fairly strong vocabulary and a reasonable knowledge of roots and prefixes can figure the answers out through a carefully reasoned process of elimination — even if that person doesn’t know what one or more of the words mean. In some ways, just knowing lots of definitions is less helpful than knowing how to figure things out.

I seriously don’t think that the College Board intends for people to spend huge amounts of time trying to memorize 5,000 words; that’s just not what the test is about. (If you’re not a native English speaker or come from a home where the primary language spoken is not English, that’s a little different, however.)

One of the things the SAT tests is the ability to make reasonable conjectures — that is, the ability to use the information you do have in order to figure out the information you don’t have, and to determine the correct answer through a careful process of elimination.

For example, one of the questions that my students routinely have trouble with is the following:

Orangutans are ——- apes: they typically conduct
most of their lives up in the trees of tropical rain forests.

(A) indigenous   (B) transitory   (C) recessive

(D) pliant   (E) arboreal

The question is #5/8, and it’s usually a pretty safe bet that the average test-taker might not be 100% certain what (B), (D), and (E) mean. A lot of people tend to pick indigenous because they have a decent idea of what it means and have heard it used in the context of animals. The answer, though, is actually E, arboreal, a word that makes a lot of people screw up their faces and say, “How was I supposed to know what that meant?”

But here’s the thing: the College Board doesn’t really expect you to have memorized the word. It does, however, assume that you may have some basic knowledge of French or Spanish or Latin (given that most high school students take Spanish, this isn’t a terribly unfair assumption), all of which have words for tree (arbre, arbol, arbor) that are awfully similar to arboreal — and the sentence practically shouts at you that it’s talking about an animal that lives in trees. If you can make that connection, you’ll get the question no problem, regardless of whether you’ve ever seen the word arboreal before in your life. The ability to make that type of connection what the SAT is really testing.

Precisely the same logic applies to a word like “membranous,” often of late cited as the sort of “obscure” word the new SAT will no longer test. It’s true that it’s not a word that regularly gets thrown around in everyday conversation, but if you know what a membrane is (which should be the case for anyone who’s taken a halfway decent Biology class) and that adding “-ous” onto a noun turns it into an adjective, you’re pretty much set.

The SAT is also testing your knowledge of connotations. Another question that my students tend to have a terrible time with is this one:

Lewis Latimer’s inexpensive method of producing
carbon filaments ——- the nascent electric industry by
making electric lamps commercially ——-.

(A) cheapened…affordable
(B) transformed…viable
(C) revolutionized…prohibitive
(D) provoked…improbable
(E) stimulated…inaccessible

Most people can get it down to (A) and (B) pretty quickly by looking at the second side: prohibitiveimprobable, and inaccessible are all negative, and the phrase inexpensive method suggests that Latimer did something positive.

The problem generally hinges on the word cheapened: most people assume that it simply means “made cheaper” and that it goes along with the idea that Latimer lamps were less expensive. The problem, though, is that to cheapen means not to make cheaper but rather to debase or to reduce the quality of. It is a decidedly negative word, but the sentence is suggesting that Latimer did something positive to the electric industry. The answer is therefore (B).

While this may look like a “trick” question, the reality is that it’s simply testing whether you understand that a word can have a connotation apart from the one it literally appears to denote. Using cheapen in a more neutral way in your own writing wouldn’t make that usage of it any more correct.

Now, words like cheapen are unlikely to show up on any “hard words” list; it simply wouldn’t occur to anyone that they could be made hard. And unfortunately, there really aren’t any surefire ways to study for them — other than reading a whole lot.

So what to do? Well, you do need to know the top few hundred “hard” words, ones like trite and laconic, equivocate, and ineffable, which show up a whole lot. But beyond that, it’s probably not worth it to sit and try to memorize the dictionary. You’re better off reading Dickens (admittedly, I’m not much of a fan of his, but he uses a ton of SAT-level vocabulary) or Jane Austen or Oliver Sacks or Foreign Policy, for that matter. And when you look at sentence completions, take a minute and really think about just what it is they’re asking for. Provided you have some basic tools, there’s a chance you can figure it out.

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