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Todd Shively

The Language of Math

One of the most vital pieces of math information that I have given to students is not about math at all.  It is about the language.  The math section is not so much about math–as you know, you had covered most of the actual content by the time you were finished with ninth grade.  What make this section especially difficult are the words of the question.

Think about this straightforward algebra problem:

If [pmath] h = 24t + {8t^2} [/pmath] , what is the value of h if t = 4?

This is a no-brainer.  Plug and chug, right?

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[pmath] h = 24(4) + {8(4)^2} [/pmath]

[pmath] h = 96 + 8(16) [/pmath]

[pmath] h = 96 + 128 [/pmath]

[pmath] h = 224 [/pmath]

But this isn’t how the SAT would word it.  The writers might ask it like this:

A projectile is shot upwards at a certain speed.  Its height, h, in feet, after t seconds is given by the formula [pmath] h = 24t + {8t^2} [/pmath]. How many feet high will the projectile be four seconds after it is shot?

You see what those test makers are doing?  They turn one sentence into three.  They introduce a clinical vocabulary.  They mix numerals and words.  So make sure that if you see a math question that you don’t get right away, you don’t panic and miss a mostly straightforward point.  And then use the standard algebra-solving tools you’ve been working on so hard.

Here are some related resources if you’d like extra help with this concept:


About Todd Shively

Todd Shively is an ancient graduate of Purdue University, where he changed his mind so many times that he finished with a major in English and a minor in math. He has taught high school in three different states and currently teaches in Scotland, where he lives with his family. In his spare time he bakes his own sourdough bread and tries to work those carbs off doing Crossfit.

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