Saxon words prevail in new SAT vocabulary test

Saxon words prevail in new SAT vocabulary test

This spring, the new SAT vocabulary test will focus less on obscure vocabulary such as “abstruse,” “prodigious,” “vexation,” and “trenchant” and more on relevant words that college students need to know.

As the press release said: “SAT words will no longer be vocabulary [that] students may not have heard before and are likely not to hear again. Instead, the SAT will focus on words that students will use consistently in college and beyond.”

Hallelujah! In my technical writing webinar, I teach the difference between Latinate and Saxon words (longer versus shorter words for the same idea or concept). You may wonder why we have two sets of words that mean essentially the same thing. Here’s the shortest possible history of why:

  • The Romans occupied Britain from AD 43 to AD 410. The Romans imposed their language (Latin), which resulted in a Latinate base (multisyllablic [polysyllabic] words) for the English language.
  • The Anglo-Saxons invaded Britain in AD 410, bringing shorter words to English.
  • Today, we have both Latinate and Saxon words for the same terms and concepts.

Where possible, use the shortest words possible to balance the many words in technical writing that are Latinate, especially legal, medical, engineering, and medical terms. Look at this engineering example: “ubiquitous anthropogenic background contaminants.” That works out to 3.75 mean syllables per word! Compare that to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, where the mean syllables per word count was 1.28. If it was good enough for Lincoln, it’s good enough for me.

To be clear: I’m not saying that you should make up a shorter word for really technical terms such as “atrioventricular” or the engineering terms listed above. Just vary those lovely long Latinate words with easier-to-understand Saxon words, and we’ll all be better off, especially low-level readers and English language learners.

Read more about the new SAT vocabulary test

View the Plain Language.gov page of simple words and phrases

 

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