All the pretty words

Today I learned that the College Board would be changing the SAT by dropping its essay section and changing the vocabulary section to include less esoteric words. It’s a pity, and not just for a word nerd like me. In the last two days, I’ve had conversations with English professors and librarians about the poor quality of writing by the students at the university where we work. More than that, every week or so, I have to explain a word: sotto voce, schlep, curmudgeon, cantankerous, knackered. The list goes on and on.

English has more words than any other language in the world. There’s a word for every occasion and every nuance and I love that. I follow the OED on Twitter (word nerd) so that I can learn a new word every day. By changing the test and not requiring students to push themselves to learn more words, the College Board is making it okay to make do with a smaller vocabulary. When these students get to college, where they have to read scholarly articles, they’re lost. I know. I’ve seen them flail about in literary criticism, medical jargon, and articles from a host of other disciplines because they didn’t learn the skills to parse unfamiliar words and don’t have a big enough vocabulary base.

Worse, I think, is that the College Board no longer requires the essay. Learning to write well is a skill that takes years of practice. Students should start as early as possible to hone their skills. And yet, my university’s writing center is swamped with students every midterms and finals week. Those students who don’t avail themselves of the writing center turn in absolute dreck, even when they’re seniors. If they manage to pass, they enter the labor market not being able to express themselves coherently in words.


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