HSC Exam Verb

Throughout the HSC course you will notice a variety of verbs used to phrase questions. These verbs play a surprisingly important role in directing how the question is to be answered, and as you will find it is far easier to get the marks if you know exactly what is expected of you, it is definitely  worth the effort going over exactly what these verbs mean. Write beyond the scope of the question and you will waste precious time, and write without sufficient focus and you may miss the point of the question entirely. Read the question carefully, and you might find that the extra time spent in reading and planning each question is returned by way of higher marks.




Identify is the most basic verb that you will encounter. All it requires is for you to recognise and name the required subject. However, as this is extremely simple, it is uncommon for identify questions to be used by themselves, but rather they will be used in conjunction with other verbs such as explain. Unfortunately, this is often impliedly expected from the question, and as such, it can be difficult   to ascertain the precise degree of detail a question may require. For example, Identify instruments and processes that can be used to detect radiation requires you to name several instruments used to detect radiation. However, this question is likely to expect, at the very least, a brief description of each named process. For example, a base answer for a one-mark question may name the Cloud Chamber, and then state that this device actually consists of an air space with supersaturated water or alcohol vapour which condenses into water droplets with the passing of radiation. Your best bet is to touch on all the main parts of a question briefly at the very least so as to cover all your bases. However, do not waste time expanding upon such question if it means sacrificing other questions for the sake of a one-mark question Identify is meant to be an extremely straightforward verb.




Explain essentially picks up where identify left off, making a subject known in detail rather than simply recognising and naming it. This might mean a variety of things in different contexts. It may require you to explain ‘Why’ in some questions and ‘How’ in others, but its intention will always be to make a certain issue clear.  As a note, it often helps to define your terms before launching into an in-depth explanation of a subject. For example, Explain the formation and effects of acid rain would ideally begin with an explanation of what acid rain is first before leading on to how it arises largely due to the solubility of gases such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide in the atmosphere. Its effects should then be explained by identifying the effects and explaining why they occur for example, limestone structures gradually disintegrate as the acid reacts with the calcium carbonate.



If identify and explain existed on a scale, define would lie somewhere in between. While it doesn’t require the degree of detail required by explain, define requires you to not only to recognise and name the meaning of the given subject, but also to identify its essential characteristics. For example, Define the molar heat of combustion of a compound and calculate the value for ethanol from first-hand data should ideally be answered with the sentence ‘The molar heat of combustion is the amount of energy released in the form of heat when one mole of a substance is combusted to form products in their standard states (solid, liquid or gas) at 100 kPa and 25◦CC (298K)’. This not only states the meaning of the required term, but also provides its essential features.





Compare is an extremely simple verb to grasp if you can answer in your mind two questions before writing anything down:


  • What similarities do the subjects have in common?
  • What differences exist between the subjects in question?


For example, Compare the properties of the oxygen allotropes O2 and O3 and account for them on the basis of molecular structure and bonding provides a rich opportunity to name key differences in boiling points, structure and density between oxygen and ozone. It is of the utmost importance that

you learn to link your observations together so that you demonstrate to the examiner that you are noting the characteristics of one subject in relation to one or more other subjects, and not simply rattling off unrelated comments. To do this, make use of phrases such as ‘whereas’, ‘in contrast’, and ‘similarly’. Note that contrast questions are simply compare questions without any attention to similarities. Your focus in a ccontrast question is simply on the characteristics between two or more subjects which are different if not altogether opposite. Providing similarities will not give you any marks in a contrast question.




This is perhaps the most common verb used as its comprehensive nature allows for the examiner to test vast areas of knowledge in depth. Broadly, it consists of two parts. The first is a simple identification of issues, and the second part requires you to provide arguments for and against the issues being discussed. Note that this is not for or against. You must thus take the time to first identify relevant issues and then develop opposing lines of argument. For example, Assess the potential of ethanol as an alternative fuel and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of its use states quite specifically that you should identify both the advantages and disadvantages of using ethanol as an alternative fuel after identifying its appropriate as an alterative fuel as the issue to be resolved.

Ethanol is renewable and cleaner-burning. However, it requires a large area of arable land, leads to large wastage of biomass, and can currently consume more energy to produce than it outputs.’ Straight away we establish an argument for, and an argument against. Clearly in an exam these points would be elaborated upon, and possibly even an equation provided for the combustion of ethanol in comparison with octane.

As a note, you will do yourself a favour if you structure your response appropriately, separating arguments for and against so that they are distinguishable from one another. This makes it far easier for a marker to read your response and allocate marks accordingly.





Analyse is an odd fusion of identify and explain while going a little bit further.  You not only need to identify the main components and explain the relationship between these components and their essential features, but you also need to make use of data and draw implications and/or conclusions.   For example, Analyse the position of these non-metals in the Periodic Table requires you to examine the Periodic Table and then make an inference as to the nature of each metal based on their location on said table. Once you identify the oxides of most elements on the right are acidic, you can infer that non-metal oxides are generally acidic. Pay particular attention to any information that is provided, and where possible, factor that into your response.




Evaluate is an extremely straightforward dotpoint which requires you to discuss an issue and by implication arguing for and against an issue you’ve taken time to identify and then taking an ac- tual stance supported by your arguments. For example, Gather, process and present information to interpret secondary data from AAS measurements and evaluate the effectiveness of this in pollution control requires you to argue for any against the effectiveness of the use of AAS in pollution con- trol, and then actually state whether or not you believe it should be used in this context. Where appropriate, include a real life example such as the detection of heavy metal poisoning in seafood. For example, you could argue that although AAS is an extremely costly and slow process, it is highly accurate and easy to understand, and has enormous potential to prevent health emergencies from occurring. As such, you would state that the process is effective and should be continued. The key to this question is identifying what the issue to be resolved really is, and for this, the answer lies in the question. Note that this is extremely similar to the verb assess. The only difference is that where evaluate calls for a general judgment to be made, assess targets a judgment made on value, quality, outcome, or results. Despite this, the difference is usually quite negligible.


General Tips


It should now be obvious that every verb has a specific direction which it seeks to take you. Your best bet in the exam is to actually take the time to consider exactly what the question wants from you on a case-by-case basis and then do your best to answer it, using the verb as guidance.

Do this, and you will find that you give your response structure, and avoid the time-wasting waffle that most students do in an attempt to fill up the provided writing space and hopefully get the marks. Conciseness and relevance are the key to maximising marks.