College Students More Loquacious Than Erudite: Vocabulary Test Results

The results of the Great Vocabulary Test of 2010 are in. Two weeks ago, in this thread, after announcing my surprise that no student in any of my classes knew the word virile, it was suggested to see how anemic student vocabulary was.

I decided to add an extra credit section to my next exam, awarding students points for correct definitions of common, but non-trivial, words. Examples of trivial words: car, run. The words themselves were given by reader AJK, who took them from a standardized test.

The instructions verbatim:

Write the definition of each word. For each word you correctly define, you will receive 1 point. But, for each incorrect definition, you will lose 1 point. Leaving an answer blank incurs no penalty. Be careful! You could end up with negative points here. Nobody is forcing you to try the extra credit.

This was followed by the words, themselves followed by blank spaces. The definition had to be written, not chosen from a list. Here are the results in percentages (out of 160 students).


Word Right   Wrong   Unanswered  
venerate 3 1 96
erudite 5 0 95
insular 3 2 95
precipice 4 3 93
assuage 6 1 93
banal 6 3 91
sanguine 8 1 91
loquacious 11 0 89
corporal 12 1 87
feign 15 3 82


There were no discernible differences between classes, so I grouped all answers.

I was generous with definitions; anything in the ballpark was enough to earn the point. One kid demonstrated that assuage rearranged was sausage, which happens to be my favorite food, so he got the point, even though he didn’t know what assuage meant. However, his result was coded as “Unanswered.”

Another calculus student created the mini-flip-book movie “Ninja Wars” in the bottom corner of his blue book (one Ninja, after a daring leap, dispatched another through the gut with a sword) so he received a couple of points.

The most common incorrect definition was for feign, which several students mistook for fiend: “He was a coffee feign” wrote one. Most students decided feign meant fake, which I accepted.

Most correct definitions of corporal used the military rank interpretation. One mistook the word for incorporate, and two thought it a set of rules which, when broken, bring punishment. These mistakes were coded as errors.

The results for banal were interesting. All the correct definitions came from one class, from a passel of students seated next to one another. This needn’t have been a nefarious coincidence: the students did know each other; several roomed together. But one was a roommate of another student who had taken the exam the night before. Banal was the last word on the list, and the only one these kids attempted to answer. If the answers were the result of anything but prior knowledge, at least nine students now know this useful word.

One student asked, “What does this list have to do with statistics?” and another, a Chinese student, said, “It’s not fair. Everybody else speaks English.” I asked her, “How much English should you know to be enrolled in college?” Her answer: “It’s not fair.” Whether or not you agree with her, the practical results of the extra credit were negligible: the median number of points awarded was 0. As is obvious from the table, most kids did not attempt to answer and risk negative points (two students lost one point).

My reply to the first student, and to those of you who think the extra credit unfair, is this: which of these words do you think a college student need not know? The extra credit should have been found money, not an occasion for angst or modern whining about “fairness.”

We might be able to explain that 97% of students did not know venerate because they live in a (now) secular culture. But how saddened should we be that 95% of college students do not know the meaning of erudite?

How general these results are is anybody’s guess. I encourage others to conduct similar experiments in their classes. If you do so, please submit your results to me via email (

The meaning appears obvious: students aren’t confident in their knowledge of what, at least at one time were, common words. The cause is likely prosaic: lack of reading.

Next to come: history. Last week, a student mentioned that another lived in a certain apartment on “Appian Way”, a local road. She asked, “Do you know where Appian Way is?” I said, in an attempt at humor, “Rome.” Silence. After I explained my punch line, another student complained, “You’re always expecting us to know things!”


  1. I would have thought the statistician in you would have wanted to know how common some of these words really are instead of relying on standardized tests. One could argue that their appearance in standardized tests implies uncommonality. I don’t know about the fairness of it but exactly why do you think anyone should know the definitions and which words would you leave off the list of must-know and why?

    In place of being erudite one can always hope that no one is their to catch you when you feign it (but hopefully so when you swoon)

    The history of how reddish brown became associated with cheerfully optimistic must be interesting.

  2. I agree with you about the lack of reading being the problem.

    How would I have scored on the extra credit? (I assure you, I did NOT look these up and I also assure you, most of them would have been in my vocabulary during college). I could be wrong on some of them, many I know only contextually. Maybe it’s obvious that I’ve read every day of my life since I learned how.

    venerate: to worship or revere (might have something to do with making someone a saint, but I’m not Catholic, so I’m not sure on that one)
    erudite(good one): urbane, witty and glib
    insular: self-contained and not outward looking, keeps to one’s self
    precipice: a precarious peak or point
    assuage: lessen
    banal: both trite and boring
    sanguine: (literally)of the blood, can’t quite remember the definition as it refers to someone’s personality
    loquacious: talkative
    corporal: of or having to do with the body
    feign: to play at in such a way that people are fooled by what you are doing, e.g. feigning death would be appearing to be dead when you are not dead

    This reminds me of something that happened recently at work. I’m the editor on the reports for my project. One recently report had a sentence about an employee who “utilized” a shovel to dig. That bothered me, but I wasn’t sure why, so I looked up the finer usage of the word. Turns out, one should one use utilize when you mean that you didn’t have the right tool, but you made do with what was there. So, I changed it to “used”.

  3. Vocabulary is a major component of the SAT which presumably your students did sufficiently well on to be where they are.

    Could they select the closest match out of four options with high probability even though they don’t know the words well enough to provide a definition unprompted? If so, it’s sad to think they have excelled at test-taking without learning.

  4. George,

    Amen, brother. At least you can be happy I did not saddle you with a p-value.


    Good point. But before I do a text analysis of, say, major newspapers, I’ll let you tell us which is these words you think a college student needn’t know.


    I would have given you all of them. We differ on erudite, but, had you really taken the exam, I would have understood what you meant.


    I was told that the entering class this year averaged below the 50th percentile on the standardized entrance test.

    j ferguson,

    You mean, ask them words they know? It might not be such a long list, after all.

  5. Briggs,
    Surely they must be able to cook up lists of words they think every graduate should know. It might be even more interesting not to spring this on them, but let them know it’s coming.

    i actually do wonder what words such lists might include. Perhaps totally, supersize, heart,to suggest a few.

  6. A vocab test in a stat class? For stat dummies?

    You are messing with your students. Playing them like trout on barbed hooks.

    What fun!

    Other than hurting the feelings of spoiled children, however, there has to be some useful purpose to all this. Did anyone excel? Have you discovered any students of passing normal intelligence? Because maybe if you eartagged the normals, they could be identified and selected for important non-fast-food jobs in the future.

  7. I think hurting the feelings of spoiled children is easily sufficient rationale. The reaal world does not reward the unprepared.

  8. I was making a purchase in a department store. The clerk who was serving me started coughing.
    I said that’s quite a cough you have there. You should see a doctor.
    She said “I know. I’m worried I have ammonia.”
    I thought she was kidding and laughed.
    She scolded me and said “People die from ammonia you know.”

    I suppose she’s right though, if you drink enough of it. ;p

    (True Story)

  9. On a student questionnaire a few years ago: “Dr *** likes to use old-fashioned words like ‘whether'”.

  10. I think you should have a go at it with “trivial” words next time. Some of them are not so easy to define, since they are the building blocks for other definitions. You could spice things up a bit by grading the trivial words a little tougher.

    I’d love to see, for instance, how some in your class would define “bring”.

    I’d also like to hear them explain why people say “my phone is ringing” or “please roll down your window”.

  11. Briggs, I looked up the words after I crafted my reply and I would have knocked off a point for erudite. I was pretty far off on that one. Scholarship has little to do with wittiness, urbanity and glibness – those are traits more appropriately applied to salesmen than learned individuals.

    I flatter myself that I could have passed the statistics test too :)!

  12. Sad that more of them didn’t try answering, still some of us have problems writing definitions. I find I spend too much time trying to include all the connotations and working out why a word differs from it synonyms or close synonyms (what is the word for these?).

    As an aside I was once asked what esoteric meant after I used it. Feeling a bit flustered at the time I replied that it was the antonym of exoteric. I suspect this wasn’t much use (despite its correctness).

    Nate, loquacious is easy; it pertains to the fruit of the loquat tree.

  13. Mike B,

    You’re right there’s a social context to the use of language. How many people, let alone university aged kids, would know what “cc” means in an email. I asked people I work with who are in their thirties and even when I explained it meant “carbon copy” they still didn’t get it.

    My 8-year-old son didn’t know what a tricycle was–you just don’t see a lot of them anymore–so he lost 4 marks on his math test because he guessed that it had 4 wheels and wrote out (perfectly) his 4x table. Know one, including me, has taught him that “tri” means three.


  14. Well,
    I did better on this one than your last test.
    Do not know if I am getting old or associating with Management too much!
    But I sure have lost a lot regarding fundamental probability calculations.
    Oh well.
    Back in the dark ages when I was in college I could read Buckley without a dictionary.
    So – – – I have this desire to issue a challenge to use all ten words in a single sentence.
    Which is exactly what I think your shill (AJK) had in mind when picking them.
    My entry will of course contain the phrase “venerate the erudite but sometimes banal
    professor Briggs” somewhere in it.

  15. A couple errors I’ve noticed that appear to be increasing in frequency.

    Improper usage of to when too is correct. Also usage of effect when affect should be used.

  16. On the Simpsons, many years ago, in Moes bar:

    Moe (to Homer): So wheres your car?

    Homer: I left it at home in the garage.

    Moe: Oooh, fancy talk! “Garage”

    Homer (annoyed): Why is it “fancy talk”? What do you call it?

    Moe: Why, “car hole” of course.

  17. Matt:
    For me, these results are worse than pitiful. I cannot see how these students could have obtained a sufficiently high SAT scores to get into a good school without knowing these words. What gives? Has the administration heard of these results. What is the average SAT Verbal score of incoming freshman? What was the last book they read – graphic novels excepted?
    I have decided to test this out on my kids. I will let you know the results.

  18. Update

    I went over the tests with two of the classes, and asked anybody who had not answered to volunteer definitions for fun. Same results: most did not know the words, nor could they guess them. There were some faint flickers of recognition for some of the words in some of the students, but that’s it. I’ll update this comment later this afternoon after I talk to the other classes.

    Update to the Update

    Same story with the other classes. However, I was able to confirm the banal suspicions. The group mentioned did hear about the word from a student who had taken the test the previous day. But I told them: if you know the word, you know it; it doesn’t matter how you learned it.

  19. I have to say that I would have known only about half of these during my undergraduate days. I know them all now thanks to studying for the GRE. Which subsequently inspired my interest in the more recondite words of the English language. They seem a bit difficult for undergrads.

  20. Mikey,

    Venerate recondite? I admit to being shocked that so few knew this. Even after I gave the test out, they saw the words, had the chance to return home and look them up, yet they did not. Except for banal.

  21. Recondite! It is one of those words Berand Russel would like. The set of all words that define themselvs. We could put sesquipedalian in that set.

  22. Three sentences:

    Corporal Banal followed the precipice in the book and cooked up some assuages for breakfast. They were feign. Then he sanguined down the insular to where workmen were eruditing the roadside venerate, but the noise was so loquacious that he had to go home.

    Makes perfect sense.

  23. Briggs,
    This might be a good time to short McMansions. It seems unlikely that your students will ever gather the wit and knowledge to earn enough to buy them when their present owners would like to mosey off to lala land.

    Maybe we’ve lost our apprehensions about our own futures and accordingly our concern that our futures do depend on the effectiveness of the cohorts who follow us. I don’t think it’s any joke.

    My first encounter with recondite was in David Kahn’s excellent “Codebreakers” read many years ago. He noted that the possibility that the US could be reading and comprehending Japanese codes was rejected by the Japanese who felt they could rely on the reconditeness of their language being impenetrable.

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