Trivial pursuits

Gone are the bad old days when students who found an exam question difficult blamed either themselves for not studying enough, or perhaps (in quiet) their teachers for not teaching them enough. These days they blame the examiners. Last week we heard that many New Zealand high school students sitting their final history examination were stumped by the vocabulary in one of the questions. They were asked the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with a quote from Julius Caesar: “Events of importance are the result of trivial causes”.

An online petition to NZQA (the New Zealand Qualifications Authority) has been started about this, by “John Anonymous”:

The year 13 History Causes and Consequences essay has made the decision of including an unfamiliar word (trivial) which caused much confusion among the students who were sitting the exams on the 14th of November 2018. The word which many students were not particularly familiar with meant that student’s had to write the essay based on their own understanding of the word. Many of which were different to what the word actually means; meaning that the true potential of many students are going to be covered. This petition is made for the government to recognize the true potential of the students and mark the essay based on the student’s own content and understanding of the event. Please do not feel threatened for this is only a petition to recognize the hard work and efforts put in by many across the country.

Thanks and Best Regards

The petition currently has over 3,000 signatures. I confess I do wonder why “John” did not get someone to read it through and check his punctuation and grammar. But such surface issues aside, is he right? Is this word really “unfamiliar” for 17 and 18 year olds? I decided to check.

In my early days as a language teacher I was lucky to work as an assistant to Professor Paul Nation, a world expert in vocabulary acquisition, based at Victoria University in Wellington. Using computer analyses of large amounts of written and spoken language, Paul and colleagues have ranked English words in order of their frequency. I looked up “trivial”, and was not surprised to see that it is at the 5,000 word frequency level, which along with words such as “trot”, “trout”, “trumpet”, and “tub” is in the middle frequency range of English vocabulary. This is the general purpose range which most students starting secondary school will know, as was confirmed in a 2015 study of the vocabulary knowledge of native English speaking students in New Zealand.

So I am unclear about what is going on with the students who sat the history paper last week. Maybe their agitation is the result of examination stress. Or perhaps a belief that anyone who has sat through a year of classes – and sat the exam – has the right to a high mark. In any case, I do wonder if any student unfamiliar with words at this level was able to put a good argument together for the exam.

Trevi 3
Trevi Fountain, Rome. As far as I know it has nothing to do with Julius Caesar other than location, but as with “trivia” the name Trevi also comes from the Latin trivium, meaning “three roads”.


  1. I asked my class who knew what the word trivia meant.
    About a third did. Y7/8.
    I actually thought more would. Hmmm

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Oh dear looks like John anonymous needs a grammar lesson and a good lash of a cane……those poor student’s derrrrrrr….I enjoyed this as usual. I used to have an amazing tome by Noam Chomsky where, and I cannot remember the title, or page or chapter,(it may have been Noam Chomsky on language) but a punctuation error in a telegram almost sent two countries to war…wish I could remember it.

    My favourite NC quote “ It’s dangerous when people are willing to give up their privacy”


    Sent from Mail for Windows 10


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