I'm German and we distinguish between "Schüler" (pupil) and "Student" (student).

When reading English news articles, and I read the words "student" or "students", most of the time the articles seem to refer to school kids, not university students.

My questions:

Am I right or is my impression wrong? If I'm right, why is "pupil" used so rarely?

  • 5
    In English, a pupil is a student under the direct supervision of a teacher or professor.
    – Jim
    Aug 21, 2012 at 4:59
  • Thanks, @Jim - Does this mean a student seamlessly "moves" between being a student and a pupil as, e.g., the teacher advises him to solve some equations in front of the class, and then moves back to being a student, later as he goes back to his seat?
    – Uwe Keim
    Aug 21, 2012 at 5:09
  • 2
    No, I think they move seamlessly between being a student and being a pupil when they enter and leave the classroom.
    – Jim
    Aug 21, 2012 at 5:19
  • 1
    Consider that in German the suffix 'er' in this case means 'to be of'. Remember then that a pupil is 'of' a noun such as a teacher (as under supervision OF the teacher), rather than simply a noun as a student is described as.
    – deed02392
    Aug 21, 2012 at 7:33

6 Answers 6


In the UK all school children were once known as pupils. Now older ones at least, as well as people in higher education, are known as students, so the former term is disappearing. It retains its rather specialised sense in describing a trainee barrister.

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    And, I believe, at Oxford and Cambridge, where students who have not taken the M.A. are still denominated as in statu pupillari Aug 21, 2012 at 20:17
  • 1
    @StoneyB: I was aware of being ‘in statu pupillari’ at Oxford myself, but was never sure what it meant. The University of Cambridge’s website confirms your understanding of the term, but I can see no mention of it on Oxford’s website. Aug 21, 2012 at 20:53
  • 1
    Hmm - A ten-minute Google reveals several Oxford colleges and clubs restricting this or that privilege to members in statu pupillari, but the latest University document I turned up dates to 1906. Aug 21, 2012 at 22:44
  • 3
    An interesting piece from The Sunday Times on this: "There is general support in the room for Ms Alternative. Ms Sensible’s cheeks heat up. “Well, it’s only a proposal, of course. It isn’t so much for the sake of the pupils — ” “Sorry, Ms Sensible,” interrupts the head of science. “I think you mean ‘students’. As Mr Goodheart [the head teacher] has explained, ‘pupils’ is far too patronising a term.”
    – Alex B.
    Aug 22, 2012 at 1:18
  • 1
    @StoneyB: I know, but do they say what it is? The only authoritative source would be the university, rather than one or other of its constituent colleges. Aug 22, 2012 at 5:53

I am from the United States and work in the public schools. It's my experience that people attending school at all grade school are by far most typically referred to as "students," rather than "pupils," both in conversation and in writing. I have met non-native speakers who find it disconcerting that we use the same word for first-graders as college students, but it is the standard word to use, at least in the U.S. As one example, the school standards for the state of Minnesota refer to "students" throughout, regardless of age. For instance:

"The grades K–5 standards on the following pages define what students should understand and be able to do by the end of each grade." (K-5 means kindergarten through 5th grade, ages five to eleven or so.)

You can also just refer to them as "kids" or "children," if the school context is already there. If you know the specific grade, you can say "first graders," "second graders," etc. "Pupils" in any context is more unusual and sounds more old-fashioned.

If you're interested, the Minnesota K-12 Academic Standards in English Language Arts are available for download at http://education.state.mn.us/MDE/EdExc/StanCurri/K-12AcademicStandards/index.htm.


In the following, the use of student is correct while the use of pupil is incorrect.

I am a student of history.

I am a pupil of history.

In the following, the use of pupil is correct while the use of student is not (although it is sometimes misused as such).

I am a pupil of Feynman.

I am a student of Feynman.

The latter implies that you are studying Feynman ... The alternative usage of "I am Feynman's student" is not as commonly misunderstood and has entered common parlance.

  • 4
    Right, so I wouldn't say it is misused as such, I would say, "When you want to say you are studying Feynman's writings you should say, 'I am a student of Feynman.'" But if you intend to say that you were actually taught by him then you could use, "I was/am a pupil of Feynman."
    – Jim
    Aug 21, 2012 at 6:14
  • 1
    @Jim I have heard it misused quite often. I suppose that I should clarify that it's misused as "I am Feynman's student" rather than the provided example. Aug 21, 2012 at 6:29
  • 5
    @Jim Where I come from you would avoid calling yourself a pupil of anybody; pupil, although it no longer denotes an orphan or ward under the legal charge of a master, still has a childish feel: you'd only use it of primary-school students. If I were boasting of my association with Feynman I'd say I studied under him. Aug 21, 2012 at 20:22
  • 1
    @StoneyB- Interesting. From whence do you hail?
    – Jim
    Aug 21, 2012 at 23:49
  • 1
    @Jim East Alabama, for the period during which the question would have been relevant. Aug 22, 2012 at 11:28

I hope this may help you to understand the difference between Pupil and Student:

  1. A pupil refers to a young learner, usually those who are in secondary school and below, while a student refers to learners who are enrolled in a college or university.

  2. A pupil usually needs supervision and guidance from a teacher because of his young age or special needs while a student does not because he can already learn and study by himself.

  3. Pupils are those learners who are below 18 years old while students are those learners who are above 18 years old.

  4. The word “pupil” comes from the Latin word “pupillus” which means “minor or ward” while the word “student” comes from the Latin word “stadium” which means study.

Source: http://www.differencebetween.net/language/words-language/difference-between-pupil-and-student/#ixzz54yQxRdrT


In South Africa (British colony till 1910 and ongoing strong influence till 1961) children in junior school (5 - 12 y old) and high school (13 - 18 years old) were referred to as "pupils". "Students" was only used to refer to people enrolled in university or some form of post-secondary (tertiary) education. I was born and raised in South Africa and emigrated to the USA in the early 1990's. I never hear or read "pupils" in the US. "Students" is a term used throughout. Americans are funny! They do not speak English. They speak a closely related language, American English. Referring to pupils as "students" is just the beginning. They even have graduation ceremonies for preschool and graduation ceremonies for middle school. And high school graduation here is a big big deal.


That's largely a matter of personal taste and when it's not, it depends on the circumstances in which speaker and audience find themselves.

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