The command words accountants need to know when studying or working

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This article looks at key command words you might find in your studies as well as the workplace.  

When answering a question, take a second to establish what the command word is. Always ensure that you aren’t doing too much or too little.

A fun way to illustrate the point is with this image of the easily recognisable Tower of Pisa. You have been asked to describe the image, do you know what to do? Make a note of what you would give as a description before looking at a suggested solution.


You should stick to a simple and efficient answer.  A suggested description is given below:

A white tower surrounded by people, the tower is tilted left to right.  The tower is surrounded by grass and in the background there are hills. There is a blue sky with white cloud and the tower has decorative columns and arches.

Notice here that there is no real detail or analysis, the statement is clear and to the point. It addresses the command word in the task, describe.  If you were asked to explain why the tower tilts, how would this differ from the basic description above? The command word is explain and this warrants a detailed account as to how and why something occurs. A suggested explanation is given below:

The tower leans because the ground it was built on could not support the design.  The tower started to lean during the building which was completed in phases. The building of the tower was interrupted several times by wars and debt.  These interruptions meant that the soil under the tower became compressed and had the interruptions not taken place then the tower would have fallen over.

Confusing the describe and explain command words could result in time wasting by giving an explanation which isn’t necessary.  Equally, giving a description when an explanation is required could mean missing out on those crucial marks.

Obviously in an workplace setting, you would not be asked to describe the leaning tower of Pisa. So what could an Accounting Professional be asked to look at? Let’s have a look at some profit figures.

You have been asked to compare the sales figures for each year and analyse the gross profit margins between 20X6 and 20X7. Before looking at an exemplar answer, write some notes for both aspects of the task. Think about what the command words are asking for and how you will address them.

A comparison requires you to examine several subjects in detail, looking at the similarities and differences. In this case we are only comparing the sales revenue figures for two years. A suggested comparison may look like this:

The sales revenue for 20X6 was £50,000 compared to £110,000 in 20X7. This is an increase of £60,000 or 120%. This shows that between 20X6 and 20X7 the revenue has more than doubled. 

An analysis task requires you to break a subject down into separate parts and examine each part. Show how the main areas are related and why they are important. It is similar to a description but requires a higher level of critical thinking.

A suggested analysis of the gross profit margins might look like this:

The gross profit margin has dropped from 45% in 20X6 to 38% in 20X7. This is a 7% drop in margin and has occurred despite an increase in sales revenue of 120%. 

The cost of sales has increased substantially from 20X6 to 20X7 from £27,500 to £68,200, an increase of £40,700 or 148%. 

In percentage terms this is more than the rate at which the sales revenue increased over the same time period. The gross profit calculation itself (sales less cost of sales) shows how the different elements of data are connected to one another.  As the cost of sales grew proportionately more than sales, we have seen a drop in gross profit margin.

Students will be required to give written answers whilst studying for their qualifications. Aside from studies, Accounting Professionals should be able to follow command words clearly in common workplace communications.

The key takeaways

  • Read any task you are given thoroughly and identify the command word/words
  • Be efficient in your writing, get to the point and do not ‘waffle’
  • Do not miss out key information for complex tasks
  • Consider creating a ‘vocabulary book’ where you log any key words from your studies and their meanings. The glossary at the end of this article could be a good place to start. Remember to write the definitions in a way that makes sense to you

Glossary of command words

  • Analyse: Separate an object/subject into different parts. Look at each part in depth, use supporting evidence for and against. This will ensure you include how these relate to one another.
  • Compare: Identify and explain the similarities and differences between two or more objects, use connective or joining words to link the facts. Identify significant differences/similarities.
  • Define: Give a brief and clear explanation of what something means.
  • Describe: Detail the features of a subject/object.
  • Discuss: This is a written debate using the skill of reasoning, backed up by credible evidence to make a case for and against an argument. Or point out the advantages and disadvantages of a given contest. The response should include a conclusion which sums up the main points being discussed, weighs up the advantages and disadvantages of what is being considered, and comes to a decision or recommendation that is fully supported.
  • Evaluate: Give a verdict as to what extent a statement or finding within a piece of research is true and to what extent you agree with them. Provide evidence which both agree and contradict an argument. Come to a conclusion which sums up the main points being discussed, weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of what is being considered. Justify how you have made your choice or decision.
  • Explain: Clarify a topic by giving a detailed account as to how and why it occurs, or what is meant by the use of the term in a particular contest. Justify with relevant evidence.
  • Calculate:  To solve a mathematical problem using the information provided.
  • List/State/Identify: To create a list of a specified number of key points. To specify in clear terms the key aspects relating to a topic without being overly descriptive.
  • Suggest: State a possible reason or course of action (no development required).
  • Outline: To provide the main features of something rather than emphasising the detail.
  • To what extent: Evokes a similar response to questions containing ‘how far’. This type of question calls for a thorough assessment of the evidence in presenting your argument.

(Image of the Tower of Pisa: The History Hub)

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Mathew Pickering is an AAT lecturer at The Sheffield College, part of the team which won Training Provider of the year (medium size provider) in 2015.

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