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Dear Mitch,

I noticed you haven't gotten any questions about how to figure out what they want in those word problems with the weird wording, you know the ones I mean where they say everything completely different from how people really talk. Do you happen to have an good tips on figuring out what they're saying? Because a lot of the time, after you figure that out, the math is the easy part.


Jamie B-----n

Bethesda, MD


Dear Jamie,

I know just what you're saying, and you have to remember that we only answer a few questions per week that we post, but try to get to almost every letter with a private email response. Otherwise, you'd see too much information on the screen, and all of it would be fighting for your attention, and I believe that most people would find it to be less of an easy learning experience. Anyway, the point to all my blah-blah-blahing is that a bunch of students ask about the wording of the questions and what it's 'trying to say' but their questions tend to be very specific to a particular question that it might not be so helpful or interesting to as many people as your more general question.

Ironically, though, it comes down to specifics, and you definitely have to figure out what it is that they are asking you to find for that particular question. However, there are a few strange phrases they tend to use more than other strange phrases. So here are a few:

1. In a question about a certain number of students in a school who must take a particular course their final semester to graduate, the question usually has the students given two options: They can take French or Spanish, for example, and they cannot finish their year and graduate without taking one of the two foreign languages the school offers (French and Spanish). HOWEVER, the question almost always goes on to point out that if a student wishes, he or she may take both courses, as they are offered at different times of the day, but no student can slip by without taking one of the two. Then they give you some numbers, and then more numbers, and they finish up with this question: How many students are in one or both courses?

It's THAT phrase which students often say they do not understand: 'one or both classes'. ANSWER: All it means is how many different people are there all together? That's it.

2. Then there are the double negatives. Such as: "Which of the following numbers cannot be ruled out by the detective as being an impossible number of red or blue socks that Mr. Bill has in his sock drawer?"

Translation: Which of the number choices IS A POSSIBLE total for Mr. Bill's red and blue socks?

By the way, that is how they can ask a ratio question, and to answer it, if you do not know, involves a very easy technique. (See archived q&a about ratios).

3. But the most important thing you can to do prepare yourself to encounter confusing wording on test day is to become as comfortable as you can with math vocabulary. You may be a wizard at problem solving and calculating, but if you can't quite recall what defines something as an integer, you are going to have a bit of a challenge on a question that requires you to pick out the only non-integer (or the only integer from a group.) I've addressed that one before, so briefly, an integer is a number that appears under one of the big dots on the number line. 1 is on a big dot, 2 is, and 3 is. So is zero and negative 13. But 2 1/2 falls between big dots, as on a tape measure. That number (2 1/2) is NOT an integer.

4. Any review book will give you a list of words to know for the math sections, and such a list can grow quite huge. Here, though, are a few you must know (and probably already do):

prime, composite, odd, even, positive, negative, integer, scalene, isosceles, equilateral triangle, polygon, parallel, perpendicular, hypotenuse, right angle, acute, obtuse, adjacent, reflected, function, consecutive, distinct, cubed, dividend, divisor, quotient, product, surplus, deficit, equidistant, multiple, factor, prime factorization, aggregate, mode, median, range, domain, octagon, hexagon, trapezoid, rhombus, quadrilateral, absolute value, ray, segment, ...

Well, that's a start.  All together you could probably benefit from refreshing your memory of about a hundred to two hundred very basic terms such as the ones listed, as well as " increment" and "congruent". They're easy to find, lists are everywhere. A bit less easy, once you've found them, is to actually sit down and take a real look at them.

Anyway, good luck, and I hope this helps.