- Read the original sentence in its entirely, even if it includes two or more questions in the same sentence. Never stop reading until you hit the period.
- Determine if there’s anything wrong.
- If there is, identify the grammar or rhetoric issue and anticipate how you might fix it. By that, I mean name the rule. The test won’t ask you WHY something is wrong, but if you don’t know why, then you will never feel truly confident in your answer.
- Skim (not fully read yet) the other choices to quickly find your anticipated fix.
- Once you find it, slowly re-read the whole sentence with your potential answer to ensure everything is good. Sometimes new errors are introduced that weren’t in the original sentence. Sometimes the sentence sounds good up until a certain part, but it turns out, the sentence isn’t even really a sentence at all—it’s a fragment or a piece of nonsense.
- Re-read all the other possible choices in their entirety, along with the rest of the sentence, to determine what grammar rules they’re breaking. Remember, it’s critical to know why everything else is wrong, not just why one choice is right. Why? Because what if TWO choices sound right to you? What you gonna do then, bub? Most students in that situation just pick the one they “feel” is better for no real reason. This is called personal preference, which is NEVER a legit reason to pick one choice over another, okay? The test doesn’t care what you personally prefer. It only cares which choice is grammatically or rhetorically best.
1. Intruders.I call these special phrases “intruders” because just like intruders in your home, you want to kick them out. They are uninvited, so get ‘em outta here, man! Intruders take on many forms, but they are any non-essential phrases. They tend to be extra description about something else in the sentence. They’ll provide extra details or discuss how, why, or by whom certain actions were done. If you spot these, physically cross them out with your pencil, and re-read the remaining sentence. If you see an intruder, you should anticipate a possible sentence fragment or run-on. Often, there will be missing commas that should have bracketed off an intruding phrase. Or maybe there’s an extra comma for no good reason, inserted BEFORE the intruder was actually finished. Anticipate fixing these comma issues. Example: The importance of bees highlights the potentially disastrous affects of an emerging, unexplained crisis: entire colonies of honeybees are dying off without warning. One of the most common intruders is the prepositional intruders, especially those beginning with the word “of.” Let me cross off those prepositional intruders for you: The importance of bees highlights the potentially disastrous affects of an emerging, unexplained crisis: entire colonies of honeybees are dying off without warning. Read what’s left: The importance highlights the potentially disastrous affects. So check the subject-verb agreement now. It’s the importance (singular subject) that highlights (singular verb) some stuff. So we can anticipate that the correct answer will use the singular form (“highlights”), not the plural form (“highlight”). That would immediately knock off half the answers without even really reading them thoroughly. Now there’s just the issue of “affects,” which is the wrong word in this context. The form we’re looking for is “effects.” Affect = verb; effect = noun.
2. Relative pronouns (often create sentence fragments).Honestly, these are a type of intruders, but a specific kind. Relative pronouns are pronouns that connect, or relate, a noun to a group of words. They take the form of who, whose, which, and that. For instance, “The student who studies hard will ace the SAT.” The noun (student) is connected to the phrase “studies hard” by the relative pronoun (who). 90% of the time or so, relative pronouns indicate the start of an intruder, so you should anticipate an incomplete sentence, which is obviously wrong. Example: Last year, one of our university’s foreign exchange students, Phan Lê, who was originally from Vietnam and currently visiting the United States. So…did you notice that isn’t even a complete sentence? Cross off the intruder, starting with “who” all the way until the end of the phrase. Read what’s left: “Last year, one of our university’s foreign exchange students, Phan Lê…” Okay, what about Phan? There’s no verb here at all, and every full sentence contains at least a subject and a verb. Anticipate a way to make this sentence whole again. Help it find its soulmate. Sometimes that involves deleting the relative pronoun (try deleting “who” and read the sentence now). Other times, it means adding more to the end of the sentence to complete the idea.
3. Dangling Modifiers.These are my all-time favorites! Because if you spot them, you can zip through the possible choices so fast, the Flash (or is that just my favorite superhero recently because he’s on TV?) won’t even be able to catch up. The rule is simple: if your sentence starts with a modifier (a descriptive phrase describing something without actually naming the thing it’s talking about), then the thing being described must follow the comma immediately. Well, unless there’s an intruder in the way, in which case, the subject of the sentence must follow the intruder immediately. Most of the time, I just anticipate the first word (maybe first 2-3 words) after the comma. I expect it to be the person or thing being described because if it’s not there, the sentence is automatically wrong. Example: When asked what their favorite band is, the Beatles is a popular choice for many people. Notice the modifier/descriptive phrase in the opening: “When asked what their favorite band.” Ask yourself who is being asked what their favorite band is? Is it really the Beatles? Probably not. “Many people” are being asked, and they choose the Beatles (a band). So you should anticipate the correct answer starting with “many people” or some variation of that. You can quickly knock out many of the choices because most of them won’t start with the proper subject (“many people”). You don’t even have to read the rest of the choice, just the first few words.
4. Misplaced modifiers.These guys are similar to dangling modifiers. The rule is pretty much the same—put the modifier (descriptive phrase) as close as possible to the thing it’s describing, unless there’s an intruder in between. Furthermore, make sure the modifier is not “squinting,” which means potentially applying to two separate parts of the sentence. This causes ambiguity (vagueness) in meaning. Example: I often enjoyed Pasadena, peeking in boutique shops wandering the historic core of a city known for its storybook character. The phrase “wandering the historic core of a city…” is wrong because it sounds like the shops were wandering around, rather than the person. To fix this, we are anticipating a choice that cannot be misconstrued this way. There are several ways to fix this error, but the main thing is to make sure there can only be one interpretation of the sentence. Perhaps something like this: “I often enjoyed Pasadena, peeking in boutique shops as I wandered the historic core of a city known fro its storybook character.” Another example: Taking a moment to collect his thoughts and think clearly allowed the lawyer to approach the judge’s bench with newfound confidence. The modifier in question here is “clearly.” There are two possible interpretations, both of which seem possible and logical:
1. The lawyer was able to collect his thoughts and think clearly. (The “clearly” describes how he thought.)
2. Clearly, taking a moment to think allowed the lawyer to gain confidence. (The “clearly” here means “it is evident that.”)Misplaced modifiers are tested more frequently on the ACT, though they do occasionally show up on the SAT too.
5. Comma/Semicolon Issues.There’s a whole lesson I do with my students about using commas and semicolons to combine independent and dependent clauses together. Independent clauses are full sentences that can stand alone. Dependent clauses are sentence fragments that need to be attached to another phrase in order to form a complete sentence. I won’t get into all the possibilities here, but let’s take a look at one common error, the comma splice. The comma splice is an error in which a sentence tries to combine two separate independent clauses with nothing but a comma. If you see this, anticipate a fix by changing the comma into a semicolon, a period, or a comma followed by one of the FANBOYS (coordinating conjunctions: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). Example: I went to the store, I bought an apple. <– this is a comma splice Those are two separate, independent clauses, but they are combined with nothing but a comma. I like to imagine independent clauses like train carts, heavy and filled with cargo because they are complete sentences. So if you have two heavy train carts trying to connect together, you need a solid link, otherwise the connection is rip asunder as soon as the train starts moving. A comma alone is weak; it’s like Scotch tape. But a period or a semicolon is strong, like steel. Since the comma alone is so weak, it needs the help of a friend—one of the FANBOYS. Together, their combined strength becomes strong enough to hold two independent clauses together. Note that a FANBOYS alone is also too weak. You need both a comma and a FANBOYS together to link the two train carts together. So we have several options to fix this sentence:
- I went to the store. I bought an apple.
- I went to the store; I bought an apple.
- I went to the store, and I bought an apple.
6. Subject-Verb Agreement.This is one the reigning rules on the SAT/ACT. The rule says plural verbs must match with plural subjects, and singular verbs match with singular subjects. This rule is huge, and in combination with intruders, the correct subject-verb agreement is often hard to hear with your natural ear. In fact, the correct grammar might actually sound wrong to you. The trick to getting these right is to circle any underlined verbs, then draw an arrow from it to the subject it’s referring to. Physically do this. Don’t just do it in your head. Use your pencil. Ask yourself who or what is doing the action? It’s not necessarily the closest noun or pronoun (that’s how the test tricks you). Ask yourself what could logically be performing the action because, remember, logical meaning must make sense, otherwise the sentence is wrong. Example: Also included in the bill was the proposed tax reform and the new enforcement policies that would reshape this corrupt nation. The main verb here is “was.” Ask yourself what was? Is it the bill that was? Or the proposed tax reform? Or the tax reform and the new policies? This is a tricky question because the sentence actually inverts the typical structure. Reword the sentence a bit and it’ll say, “The proposed tax reform and the new enforcement policies that were much needed by this corrupt nation was also declared by the bill.” I’ve taken the liberty and struck down all the intruders just like Star War’s Emperor Palpatine struck down Darth Vader with Force Lightning (too nerdy? Too old a reference? Okayyy…guess I’m showing my age a little now). The simplified sentence just reads, “The reform and the policies was.” Hopefully you see now that “was” is wrong because it’s singular, while “the reform and the policies” are plural (together, they form a compound subject, which is always plural). We need to use the plural verb “were” here. So that’s the change I would anticipate and start searching for in my answer choices. Just zone in on that one word and cross off any choice that doesn’t provide this fix.
7. Verb Tense.You’ve got to use your tenses properly Perhaps one of most misunderstood tenses is the past perfect tense, which uses the word “had” followed by a conjugated verb. For example, “had driven.” I swear, if I had a dollar for every time a student got this kind of question wrong, I’d be a millionaire. And you thought *you* were misunderstood? Psh! You use the past perfect form only when you’re trying to show that this action started and finished before another action in the same sentence. Using this tense helps clarify which action started first and which happened second. If you notice multiple actions in the same sentence, but neither of them use the “had” form, anticipate that you’ll need to change the first action (in order of time, not in order of mention) to include “had.” Example: By the time Jennifer arrived at the dance, her friends waited for over two hours, missing the entire first half of the party. The big clue here is the phrase “by the time,” which indicates that one action started and ended before another action even began. Even though the sentence mentions Jennifer’s arrival first, it’s clear that, in the real world, her friends started waiting first. So we must say, “By the time Jennifer arrived at the dance, her friends had waited for over two hours.” We can delete the rest of the sentence because it’s an unnecessary intruder, full of fluff. By saying her friends had waited, we are now properly indicating that her friends waited first, THEN Jennifer finally arrived. We must also use the simple past tense (i.e. Jennifer arrived) for her, not the past perfect tense (i.e. Jennifer had arrived) because with two “had”s, it’s impossible to tell which action started first.
8. Pronoun Number Agreement.Just like subject-verb agreement is all about matching singles together and letting couples go on their couples date, pronouns must also agree in number. Singular pronouns go with singular nouns. Plural pronouns match with plural nouns. Capiche? The main ones people miss are “its” and “their.” Keep in mind, “its” is not the plural form of “it.” I think our elementary school teachers have really messed us up bad when they told us that adding an “s” makes things plural. It doesn’t…at least not always. Adding an “s” to the end of a NOUN makes that noun plural. His shoe (singular) à Their shoes (plural). But adding an “s” to the end of a VERB actually makes it singular. He runs (singular) à They run (plural). “Its” simply means possession of a singular subject; after all “it” is still singular. The “s” at the end just indicates possession, not plurality. For example, “The team celebrated its victory.” The victory belongs to the singular team. The plural form of “its” is actually “their” as in, “The players celebrated their victory.” And you use “theirs” like this: “The book is theirs.” Example: The quality of the multivitamin tablets is determined by how long its potency can last. The pronoun is “its,” but what is it really referring to? Some people automatically think it’s referring to the “quality,” but they’d be wrong. A quality cannot logically have potency because potency is quality. What is considered quality? Why, the tablets of course. So the tablets are considered quality tablets if they have a long potency, or power. The potency belongs to the tablets, not the quality. Therefore, we have to anticipate that the correct choice would change “its” into “their.”
9. Missing Antecedent.When you see an underlined pronoun, you should also draw an arrow from it back to its antecedent (the noun it’s referring to). If there is no noun to draw an arrow to, then the sentence is automatically wrong. There needs to be a single word or term that you can literally point the arrow at. Implied antecedents do not count. So anticipate changing things from singular to plural, or vice versa, for pronouns. Example: According to NASA, the ongoing Californian drought will leave the state without water within a year, which instigated a new deluge of resource rationing bills from various policymakers. The pronoun here is a little tough to see. It’s the word “which,” a relative pronoun. What is “which” referring to though? It comes right after the word “year,” yet it doesn’t make logical sense that a year would instigate these new bills. There’s no antecedent for “which” to refer to here. As intelligent people, we can decipher the true intention of this sentence, but still, the sentence is grammatically wrong. We need to say, “According to NASA, the ongoing Californian drought will leave the state without water within a year, a situation which instigated a new deluge of resource rationing bills from various policymakers.” Now we’re able to draw the arrow from “which” to “situation.” It’s the situation that instigated the bills. Another example: Most students recognize the importance of maintaining strong GPAs by studying hard, yet so few are disciplined enough to do it. What is “it”? Logically, we can infer that “it” refers to “maintaining strong GPAs by studying hard,” but that’s not a single word or term. That’s a whole muthatruckin’ phrase! We know that breaks the pronoun-antecedent rule. We have to change the sentence to say “just do so” because “so” is the appropriate word to refer to whole phrases or actions. I like to tell my students that the Nike slogan, “Just Do It,” is usually wrong. What does Nike mean by “it”? If they mean winning the game, defeating your inner demons, or overcoming the challenges, then “it” is wrong. We’d have to say, “Just do so” because all those aforementioned phrases are actions, not nouns. If Nike meant, “Just do the job,” then sure, that works because “job” is a noun. But let’s just assume Nike is wrong for simplicity’s sake, okay? You can’t do it (referring to a noun) because that’s like saying, “Just do chair” or “just do ball.” What the hell, right? Another example: The gluten-free diets that have been widely popularized by people with Celiac disease are nothing but a fad according to scientists who contend that eating it does not trigger gastrointestinal distress. Eating “it”? Eating what? Obviously the sentence is trying to say “eating gluten,” but the problem is the word “gluten” is never explicitly mentioned anywhere in the sentence. Sure, we see “gluten-free,” but that’s the literal opposite of “gluten.” Furthermore, “it” needs to refer to a noun, not an adjective like “gluten-free.” The anticipated fix should be changing the “it” to “gluten.” Yes, we have to spell it out because a pronoun can’t work here at all—there’s no antecedent for the pronoun to refer to. Last example: The carbon cycle describes its exchange among the biosphere, pedosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere of the Earth. Anticipate the answer when you see the pronoun “its.” Ask yourself what is being exchanged among all those spheres? Obviously carbon, but “carbon” is never mentioned as a noun. The only mention of “carbon” is an adjective. And remember “its” is a pronoun, not a pro-adjective, so there’s no antecedent for “its.” Sometimes students tell me “its” refers to “cycle,” which maybe makes more sense because “cycle” is a singular noun (remember “its” is singular, not plural). The problem is it makes no sense to say the cycle is exchanged in all those spheres. The cycle doesn’t move at all. Instead, the cycle is an abstract concept that describes the exchange of carbon. We have to reword the sentence as, “The carbon cycle describes carbon’s exchange among the biosphere, pedosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere of Earth.” When you realize “its” is wrong, you can immediately start scanning for choices that fix this error and use “carbon” instead.
10. Ambiguous Pronouns.Ambiguous means “no worries.” Oh wait…that’s “hakuna matata.” Sorry, I was watching The Lion King. An ambiguous pronoun is a pronoun that has two or more possible antecedents. It’s not clear which noun the pronoun is actually referring to. If you spot this, anticipate an answer that clarifies the confusion, usually by explicitly spelling out the correct antecedent. Example: Governor Brown’s son revealed to the press that he would not be running for reelection because the position had been too stressful. “He” would not run again? Who is he? The Governor or his son? It’s not clear, so anticipate the correct answer fixing this by changing “he” to “the Governor.”
11. Subject vs. Object Pronoun Case.Subjects are the things actively doing the action in the sentence. Objects passively receive the action or just kind of float around in the sentence, not really doing anything. The one most people guff up is “who” (subject) versus “whom” (object). If you see an underlined pronoun, ask yourself if it’s using the correct form—subject or object. If not, anticipate a change to the correct pronoun case. Example: The President invited many guests, many of who were distinguished honorees, esteemed chancellors, or dignified royalty. The sentence needs to say “many of whom” because using the object form of that pronoun is the only way to correctly refer to the guests. The President is the main subject in the sentence, actively inviting the guests. The guests are receiving the invitation, so they are objects. So “whom” (object form) correctly refers to these guests (also objects). Now you might be thinking, “But Peter, the sentence says ‘many of who WERE…’ Doesn’t that make the subject form (i.e. who) acceptable because they are the ones who were actively being distinguished honorees and so forth?” True, there is another active verb here, “were.” But look carefully. There’s an intruder: many of who were distinguished honorees, etc. Remember how I said “of” is one of the most common intruders? There it is. So “many” is the subject attaching to “were.” Look for an answer that changes “who” to “whom.” If you anticipate this change, you can spot the correct answer much faster. Of course, you still need to read through the entire sentence carefully after you hone in on your highly likely choice.
12. Parallelism.Ah, this one’s good. It’s an extremely prevalent rule, which states that each element of a pairing or list in the same sentence must be constructed in the same fashion. Putting things into an identical format is called parallelism, like two parallel train tracks. If this sounds confusing, check out the example below. It should become crystal clear. If you spot things in a pairing or list that that aren’t in parallel form, anticipate a fix that makes the un-parallel part parallel. Remember, there may be a ton of intruders clouding your view of the things that need to be parallel. Physically cross those intruders out with your pencil. Example: During the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. organized hundreds of protests, advocated for civil rights, and his famous “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered, all before his untimely death. The sentence is trying to set up a list of things that MLK did, but notice how the format of the last item in the list (“his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech was delivered”) is not in the same format as the other two items that came before it. Anticipate fixing this by looking for a choice that is parallel, or has an identical construction.
13. Illogical Comparisons.Yay, I love these guys. They don’t show up too often, maybe a couple per test or so on the current pre-2016 SAT. But when they do, they’re so easy to catch if you’re being careful! Basically, don’t compare apples to oranges. You have to compare the same category to the same category. Furthermore, the comparison structure must be parallel. I personally get a kick out of catching these illogical comparison errors—now that I’ve drawn you into the know, you’re a part of my secret group that knows of this awesome grammar rule. If you see any comparison words, such as than, as, like, more, less, greater, fewer, or compared to, then be on especially high alert and anticipate an illogical comparison. Example: Although both George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World dealt with a dystopian future, she preferred Orwell’s masterpiece to Huxley. Let’s identify the two things being compared here. Look at the latter part of the sentence and you’ll notice that the comparison is between 1) Orwell’s masterpiece and 2) Huxley, the author. You can’t compare a book to an author. You have to compare book to book or author to author in order to be logical. The anticipated fix might look like this: “Although both George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World dealt with a dystopian future, she preferred Orwell’s masterpiece to Huxley’s novel.” This correctly compares a masterpiece to a novel. They are both books, so they are of the same category. All is right in the world again.
14. Word Pairs.Word pairs are idiomatic pairings that just go together. Some examples: Not only…but (also)… NOTE: the “also” is optional Either…or… Neither…nor… Both…and… Between…and… If…then… Just as…so… As…as… So…that… From…to… More…than… Less…than… At once…and… No sooner…than… If any of these sound weird to you, that just means you haven’t been exposed to these constructions enough. I assure you they are correct, and you must follow them on the SAT/ACT. There are plenty more word pairs, but the point is if you see one part of the pair, you must use the other part of the pair, otherwise the sentence is idiomatically wrong. Furthermore, the phrases in the ellipses (the three dots) must be parallel to one another. So if you see a sentence include one part of the word pair, anticipate the correct answer will have the other corresponding part. Look for the fix. Example: Just as Ireland has produced many famous writers and the Netherlands an abundance of famous painters, Finland provides famous architects, and by large numbers. Notice the “just as” in the beginning of the sentence. That tells us we must anticipate a “so” somewhere down the line and to set up a parallel construction. If you scan the answers, there probably will only be one answer that even begins with a “so.” A possible correct answer might read: Just as Ireland has produced many famous writers and the Netherlands an abundance of famous painters, so Finland has provided a large number of famous architects. Notice that right after the first part of the word pair, we have “Ireland has produced…” and right after the second part of the word pair, we have “so Finland has provided…” That’s as parallel as things get! Both parts of the sentence start with a country followed by a verb. Also notice that “an abundance of famous painters” is parallel with “a large number of famous architects.” The repetition of the “of” makes the Finland part much more parallel than the awkward phrase “famous architects, and by large numbers.”
15. Adjectives vs. Adverbs.This is a much rarer, but extremely easy rule you should know. Adjectives describe nouns and only nouns. Adverbs describe verbs, adjectives, and even other adverbs. Basically adverbs describe how or in what manner something was done. If a question includes an underlined adjective or adverb, check to see what that word is describing and adjust accordingly. Anticipate the easy fix. Example: The research study reveals startling proof of a constant changing seafloor that comprises the major part of the underwater landscape. I spot two adjectives here: “constant” and “changing.” Since they are adjectives, they are supposed to describe a noun, but let’s think for a moment. What are they really describing? “Changing” seems to quite obviously describe the seafloor. It’s a changing seafloor. Okay, cool, so far so good. But what about “constant”? What exactly is constant? The seafloor? That can’t be because we just said the seafloor is changing. Constant is a direct contradiction, so that makes no logical sense. “Constant” is wrong because it’s not able to describe a noun here. Instead, we should use the adverb form, “constantly,” which could then properly describe the adjective “changing.” How was it changing? Constantly. And that’s it, folks! Of course there are more than 15 tested rules on either the SAT or ACT, but the bigger point to remember is this: Always be anticipating. You’ll become much more confident in your answers and faster to wit. I’d love to share three more bonus tips on special ways to predict an error beyond just recognizing the grammar error. To get your paws on them, just share below: [wpsharely]
- In the Error ID section on the current pre-2015 SAT, be especially wary of underlined pronouns and verbs. They often, though not always, point to pronoun errors or subject-verb agreement errors. This is why I always tell my students that the number 2 step is to circle any underlined verb or pronoun, then draw an arrow to the thing it refers to. The number 1 step is to cross off all intruders to simplify the sentence.
- The last sentence improvement question in each SAT Writing multiple choice section (#11 in the long section and #14 in the short section) tends to deal with a tricky parallelism issue. Of course, this isn’t always true, but more often than not, it is.
- If a vocation is mentioned, such as a scientist, a geologist, or a professor, then be on the lookout for noun-noun number agreement (singular nouns match singular nouns, and plural nouns matches plural nouns).