SAT For Dummies

Part III

Getting the “Write” Answers: The Writing Sections

Chapter 9

Joining the Grammar Police

In This Chapter

 Surveying the three types of grammar questions

 Reviewing the most frequently tested grammar errors

If you’ve ever had the urge to tear a grammar book into tiny little pieces, take heart. The SAT multiple-choice writing questions aren’t horribly difficult. Expect two sections, or three if you’ve been saddled with an equating section. (An equating section makes you an unsalaried employee of the College Board. Your work on an equating section gives the test makers statistical data but doesn’t affect your score.) In this chapter, I explain the three types of questions you face in SAT multiple-choice writing, show sample questions from each, and explain the best approach to solving them. I also review some basic grammar rules. (If you need a full-scale grammar course, check out my books [she said modestly], English Grammar For Dummies, 2nd Edition, and English Grammar Workbook For Dummies, 2nd Edition, both published by Wiley.)

Surveying Multiple-Choice Writing Questions

Before you jump into multiple-choice writing questions, you need to know a little bit about what you’re getting into. This SAT section hits you in three different ways:

 Error recognition

 Sentence revision

 Passage revision

These three types of questions check word choice, verb tense, pronouns, and all the other thorny details that English teachers love. You’ll also find questions that address style — whether you can write concisely (without extra words) and smoothly.

Bubbling the wrong answer: Error-recognition questions

These SAT questions call for the wrong answer. And if you’re wrong, you’re right. No, I haven’t overdosed on super-caffeinated lattes. I’m talking about error-recognition ­questions, a bunch of which show up in the SAT Writing section. Here’s an example:


The correct answer is Choice (B). However can’t legally join two sentences, according to the grammar cops. (See the section “Nailing Nouns and Capturing Commas: The SAT Grammar Review” later in this chapter for more on specific grammar rules.) The comma in front of howevershould be a semicolon.

The key to error-recognition questions is to pretend for a moment that the underlining doesn’t exist. Just read the sentence to see what sounds wrong, and then look for the letter. If nothing pops up on first reading, check each underlined portion carefully. Still no mistake? Go for (E), which is always no error. The following helpful do’s and don’ts can make answering error-recognition questions much easier:

 Do keep an eye open for incorrect punctuation. Always check apostrophes and commas.

 Do look for vocabulary mistakes. Error-recognition sentences sometimes contain mistakes in vocabulary. Words that are commonly confused (affect and effect, for example) or nonexistent but still popular (such as irregardless) may show up.

 Don’t worry about spelling and capitalization mistakes. They never appear in the error-recognition sentences. Assume that the words are spelled correctly and that the capital letters are in the right spots.

 Do watch out for verbs. Verb tense is a big deal, as is subject-verb agreement (choosing a singular or plural verb).

 Do pay attention to pronouns. The SAT-ists often mix singular and plural forms ­incorrectly.

 Don’t worry about the parts of the sentence that aren’t underlined. They’re always correct.

 Don’t waste time figuring out how to correct the error. Just find it and bubble it in.

 Do skip the sentence if the answer is a complete mystery. The SAT deducts a quarter point for a wrong answer and no points for a blank. If you can eliminate one choice, cut your losses and move on to the next question.

Don’t be afraid to choose no error if you can’t find anything wrong. Everybody makes a mistake sometimes, but everybody gets it right sometimes, too.

Improving sentences: Sentence revisions

One set of Writing section questions — sentence revisions — presents you with sentences that have a portion underlined. Choice (A) is the equivalent of “no error” — the underlined portion as it appears in the sentence. The other four choices, (B) through (E), change the original a little or a lot. Take a look at this sample question:

James spent his free time tearing up SAT prep books, setting fire to grammar texts, and ­diligent study.

(A) tearing up SAT prep books, setting fire to grammar texts, and diligent study

(B) tearing up SAT prep books and setting fire to grammar texts and diligent study

(C) in SAT prep book tearing, grammar test firing, and diligent study

(D) tearing up SAT prep books, setting fire to grammar texts, and studying diligently

(E) tearing up SAT prep books, setting fire to grammar texts, and he studied diligently

The correct answer is Choice (D). All items in a list should be in the same form. Diligent study doesn’t match tearing and setting.

Notice that each choice varies only a little from the original. You may find a question that needs a lot of changes to reach perfection, but in general, this part is the pickiest on the exam. Focus on details and keep the following in mind:

 Check for homonyms. These are words that sound the same but are spelled differently (who’s and whose, here and hear, for example).

 Don’t overlook punctuation. Check all the commas, semicolons, and other punctuation marks.

 Focus only on the underlined text. You can’t change anything in the sentence that isn’t underlined.

 Keep in mind verb tense and parallel structure. Verb tense is a big deal in this type of question. Also check that everything that is doing the same job in the sentence has the same grammatical identity — what English teachers call parallel structure. If you listen to the sentence in your head and you hear a pattern break, you may have found an error. See the sections “Tensing up” and “Staying between the parallel lines” later in this section for help with these grammar issues.

 Look for the best answer. The SAT asks for the best answer, not the right answer. The distinction between these two is subtle. On this sort of question, you may find two choices that are grammatically correct, but one is more concise than the other. Go for the shortest version that gets the job done.

Some test takers find it helpful to read the original sentence, reword it mentally, and then look for a choice that matches.

Revising for fun and profit: Passage revisions

Do you have any old compositions stuffed in a drawer somewhere? Perhaps something that you wrote a few years ago? If so, you have ready-made SAT practice material. Take out those sheets of paper and see how you could have improved the writing. Now you’re ready for SAT passage-revision questions.

The SAT passage revision presents you with what the SAT writers call “a typical student’s first draft” of an essay. The sentences in the passage are numbered and followed by a batch of questions. You may be asked to fix one sentence or to consider the transition between two paragraphs. Other questions deal with organization (is everything in the best place? does one paragraph lead logically to another?), repetition, and sentence combination. Other questions address the author’s purpose. The idea is to find out how you’d create a second draft without the hassle of actually writing a second draft. (Remember, hand-scored writing costs a lot.)

Here’s a sample with a couple of questions to go with it:

Also, don’t assume that you know everything.

1. What is the best revision of Sentence 1?

(A) Parents and teens arguing can be ugly.

(B) Parents and teens are ugly when they argue.

(C) Arguments between parents and teens tend to veer out of control.

(D) Parents arguing with teens are ugly.

(E) Parents and teens argue, and it isn’t pretty.

Choice (C) is correct. Choices (A) and (E) have grammar mistakes; you need an apostrophe after teens in (A), and you should eliminate the vague it in (E). Choices (B) and (D) change the meaning.

2. What is the best way to combine Sentences 8–10?

(A) We argued for two hours before finally coming to an agreement.

(B) We argued for two hours, finally we came to an agreement.

(C) Arguing for two hours, an agreement was finally reached.

(D) We argued and agreed for two hours.

(E) For two hours we argued and then agreed.

Choice (A) is correct. The others, apart from sounding clunky (don’t you love those technical terms?), have errors in grammar or meaning.

3. Which of the following statements best describes the purpose of Paragraph 3?

(A) to alert child protection agencies about a bad home situation

(B) to give an example of a parent/teen conflict that was worked out successfully

(C) to show how annoying teens can be

(D) to show how unreasonable adults can be

(E) to advertise my book

If you selected (B), you’re right on target, though I admit that (E) has some truth in it. Choices (C) and (D) are easy to eliminate: The SAT avoids criticizing groups. Choice (A) is from another universe, as “child protection agencies” aren’t in the passage.

Don’t expect to be thrilled by the subject matter or the writing in passage-revision questions. The material is boring, but the questions are reasonably easy. Keep these strategies in mind, and the experience may not be so agonizing:

 Read the whole passage before you hit the questions. Don’t skip over any text because you may miss something essential.

 Generally ignore everything the SAT writers don’t ask you about. Even if you’re itching to make a particular sentence better, don’t. But when you choose the best revision for something they do ask you about, be sure that your new sentence fits well with the sentences before and after it.

 Don’t forget to check for wordiness. If more than one answer choice looks good, go for the more concise revision, as long as it maintains the meaning of the original.

 Remember that SAT passages have very simple organization. Check for an introduction that tells the reader the topic and the writer’s stance, a body that gives examples or that presents the situation’s complexity, and a conclusion that sums up and extends the main idea slightly. If any of these parts are missing or out of order, take note. You may find a question addressing these issues.

 Start with the easier questions. Questions that refer to one sentence are easier, in general, than questions that refer to the entire passage. If you’re pressed for time, go for the one-sentence questions first. You can always go back later to the whole-passage or whole-paragraph questions.

Nailing Nouns and Capturing Commas: The SAT Grammar Review

Okay, don’t worry. I make sure this grammar review is quick and painless, and if you’re pretty good at grammar, you can ignore this section entirely. Here I touch on the most commonly tested topics on the SAT.

Agreeing with the grammar cops

Stop nodding your head! I’m not talking about comments like “Yes, I also think we should defrost Antarctica.” I’m talking about matching singular to singular, plural to plural. In the grammar world, you can’t mix singular and plural without risking war.

In terms of agreement, the SAT loves to ask you about

 Subject-verb pairs

 Pronoun-antecedent pairs

Subject-verb agreement

verb expresses action or state of being; the subject is whoever or whatever is doing the action or in the state of being. Think of the subject-verb pair as a marriage: The two have to be compatible, or potted plants start sailing across the room. In grammarland, compatibility means that a singular subject takes a singular verb and a plural subject takes a plural verb. Check out these examples:

Felicia flounders in the face of an SAT test. (Felicia is a singular subject; flounders is a singular verb.)

All Felicia’s friends happily help her. (Friends is a plural subject; help is a plural verb.)

The SAT doesn’t spend much time on the simple subject-verb pairs. Instead, the exam concentrates on the ones that may be confusing, such as the following:

 There/hereNeither of these words are subjects. The real subject comes after the verb. Match the verb to the real subject.

“Here are three crayons.” Crayons is the subject.

 Either/or and neither/norThese words join two subjects. Match the verb to the closest subject.

“Neither Mary nor her parakeets are eating that leftover lettuce.” Parakeets is the closest subject.

 Interrupters between the subject-verb pair: If a description or an addition without the word and comes between the subject and the verb, ignore it.

“Barry, not his parakeets, likes honey-flavored seed.” Not his parakeets is an interrupter.

Don’t ignore anything tacked on with and. Two singular words joined by and make a plural subject. (“Frank and his partners are investing in that bird-cage factory.” Frank and his partners is a plural subject.)

Pronoun-antecedent agreement

An antecedent is a word that a pronoun replaces. In the sentence “Mary told John that he was a drip,” he is a pronoun and John is the antecedent because he stands for John. The rule on antecedents is super simple: Singular goes with singular and plural with plural. You already know all the easy applications of this rule. In the Mary/John sentence, you’d never dream of replacing John with they. The SAT makers, however, go for the confusing spots, and so do I.

 Pronouns containing -one, -thing, or -body are singular. Match these pronouns with other singular pronouns.

“Everyone brought his or her teddy bear to the SAT.” His or her is singular.

 Either, neither, each, and every are singular. These words are sometimes followed by phrases that sound plural (either of the boys or each father and son), but these words are always singular.

“Neither of the boys has brought his teddy bear to the SAT.” His is singular.

 Sentences with the only one who and one of the few . . . who need special attention. The expression the only one who (or the only one that) is singular and calls for a singular verb and singular pronoun, and one of the few . . . who (or one of the few or many . . . that) is plural and calls for a plural verb and plural pronoun.

“George is the only one of the SAT takers who gnashes his teeth.” Or “George is one of the many SAT takers who gnash their teeth.”

As in the preceding examples, when you’re deciding singular or plural for a pronoun, you may be deciding the same issue for a verb. Check both!

Tensing up

On the SAT Writing section, tense isn’t just what’s happening to your muscles. Tense is the quality of verbs that indicates time. The English language has a ton of rules regulating tense. To check tense on the SAT, make a timeline. You don’t have to write down the events; just use your reading comprehension skills to figure out what happened when. Then remember these rules:

 The helping verbs has and have connect present and past actions. When you see these helping verbs, something started in the past and is still going on. (“Rodney has been bubbling in SAT answers for about ten minutes.”)

 The helping verb had places one past action before another past action. (“Rodney had bubbled only three answers when the proctor called time.”)

 Don’t change tenses without a reason. Especially in the paragraph-revision portion of the exam, you may see a sentence that veers suddenly from past to present or vice versa. If the meaning justifies the shift, fine. If not, you’ve found an error.

Verbs also have moods. The only mood you have to worry about on the SAT is subjunctive (forget the name) and in only one situation: condition contrary to fact. Look for sentences that make statements that aren’t true. (“If I were making the SAT, I would dump all the grammar questions. If I had known about the grammar, I would not have burned my English textbook.”) The if part of the sentence — the untrue part — gets were or had, and the other part of the sentence features would. The SAT makers like to place a would in the if part of the sentence in order to trip you up.

Casing the joint

Pronouns, bless their little hearts, have case. Case makes the difference between me and I, him and his, and (gasp) who and whom, not to mention whose. The rules are actually quite easy. Use a subject pronoun (I, he, she, we, they, who, whoever) when you need a subject. Object pronouns (me, him, her, us, them, whom, whomever) cover almost everything else. To show possession, try myhisheritsouryourtheir, and whose. Naturally, the SAT tries to throw you curveballs, but the following strategies help you keep everything straight:

 Isolate the pronoun and check the sentence. By placing pronouns with nouns (in a list, perhaps), the pronoun gets lost. You have a better chance of “hearing” the correct pronoun if you ignore the distractions.

For example, if you see “The proctor gave the test to three boys and I,” you may not notice the error. Cut out “the three boys,” however, and you have “The proctor gave the test to I.” Now the error may be easier to spot: The sentence should read “to the three boys and me.”

 Make sure every verb has a subject. This tip is especially helpful with who/whom dilemmas. If you have a verb flapping around without a subject, you probably need who or whoever — the subject pronouns. (“The proctor gave a No. 2 pencil to whoever needed one.” Whoever is the subject of needed.) If the who/whom issue shows up in a question, change the question to a statement and then make the pronoun decision.

 Pronouns and nouns preceding -ing words such as swimming, skiing, crying, and so forth should be possessive. The possessive shifts the emphasis to the -ing word. (“Gonzo’s parents did not object to his taking the SAT 15 times.”)

Between you and I is a common error, so the SAT writers like placing it on the test. The correct phrase is between you and me.

One cardinal rule of pronouns: Confusing pronouns (she in a sentence with two female names, perhaps) are a no-no. Also avoid plopping this, that, or which into a sentence to refer to a subject-verb combination. Pronouns aren’t allowed to refer to subject-verb combinations (clauses, in grammar lingo).

Punctuating your way to a perfect score

Not many punctuation problems show up on the SAT, but you do find a couple of common errors. These rules help keep you on your toes:

 Sentences must be joined together legally. Sometimes a comma and a joining word — and, or, but, and nor, for example — do the job, and sometimes you need a semicolon. Some tricksters (consequently, therefore, nevertheless, however) look strong enough to join two sentences, but they really aren’t. When you have one of these guys stuck between two sentences, add a semicolon.

 Be careful to punctuate descriptions correctly. If the description is essential to the meaning of the sentence — you don’t know what you’re talking about without the description — don’t use commas. (“The play that George wrote makes no mention whatsoever of the SATs.”) If the description is interesting but nonessential, place commas around it. (“George’s first and only play, which he called The SAT Blues, flopped at the box office.”)

 Check apostrophes. You may find a missing possessive form in front of an -ing word. (See the section “Casing the joint” for more information.) You may also find an apostrophe where it doesn’t belong. The pronouns whose and its are possessives, and they don’t need apostrophes. (Who’s means “who is” and it’s means “it is.”)

No possessive pronoun (whose, its, theirs, his, hers, ours, and so on) ever has an apostrophe in it.

Choosing the right word

The SAT makers love to throw words at you that are almost right. Unfortunately, in grammarland, not quite right is completely wrong. In this section, I take you on a quick tour of the most common sights in the SAT Writing section, at least in terms of word choice.

 Affect and effect: The SAT affects your life; its influence is inescapable. The effect of all this SAT prep is a high score. See the difference? The first is a verb and the second a noun. But — and the SAT loves this trick — effect can sometimes be a verb meaning “to bring about” as in “Pressure from the colleges effects change.”

 Continuous and continual: The first of this pair describes something that never stops, and the second describes something that stops and starts. So a baby needs continuous care, but a refrigerator’s freezing cycle is continual.

 Disinterested and uninterested: The first means fair, as in the SAT is supposed to be a disinterested measure of your ability. The second means you’re yawning because you couldn’t care less.

 Except and accept: I accept all the awards offered to me except the one for Nerd of the Year.

 Farther and further: Farther is for distance and further for time and intensity.

 Fewer and less: Fewer is for stuff you can count (shoes, pimples, cavities) and less for stuff you measure (sugar, ability, toothache intensity).

 Good and well: Good describes nouns, and well describes verbs. To put it another way, a person or thing is good, but you do something well. The SAT is good, and you study well for the exam.

 Lie and lay: Two words created by the devil. You lie down when you plop yourself on the sofa, and you lay a book on a shelf. But in the past tense, you lay down for a few hours yesterday, and you laid your SAT prep book on the bonfire. With present and past participles, you have lain (yes, lain!) awake all night worrying about the SAT because you had laid your SAT prep book on the bonfire before going to bed.

 Like and as: The first one can be used with a noun but not with a subject-verb pair. (Think like a pro when you take the SAT.) The second is the one you want for a subject-verb pair. (Do as you like.)

 Sit and set: Sit is what you do to yourself, and set is what you do to something else. Therefore, “May sits down as soon as Al sets a chair on the floor.”

Along with these pairs of commonly confused words, be on the lookout for the following “words” or phrases that you should never use because they don’t exist in Standard English:

 Irregardless (use regardless)

 Different than (the correct version is different from)

 The reason is because (should be the reason is that)

 Could of/should of/would of (use could have, would have, should have)

This list obviously doesn’t contain all the errors you may encounter on the SAT tests, because English has thousands and thousands of words and a lot can go wrong. But now that you’ve read this section, these tricky words won’t trap you on the SAT.

Staying between the parallel lines

A favorite SAT question concerns parallelism, the way a sentence keeps its balance. The basic principle is simple: Everything doing the same job in a sentence must be the same type of grammatical element. You can’t “surf and soak up sun and playing in the sand” because playingbreaks the pattern. You can “surf and soak up sun and play in the sand” without any problems — well, without any grammatical problems. I’d slather on some sunblock, if I were you. To parallel park in the high-score spots, keep these ideas in mind:

 Look for lists. Whenever you have two or three things bunched together, they probably have the same job. Make sure they match.

 Be wary of paired conjunctions. Conjunctions are joining words. Three common paired conjunctions are either/or, neither/nor, and not only/but also. When you encounter one of these pairs, examine what follows each conjunction. If a subject-verb combo follows either, a subject-verb combo should follow or. (“Either I will go to the store or I will order it online.”) If only a noun follows either, only a noun should follow or. (“Either the store or the Internet will have the sweater I want.”)

 When two complete sentences are joined together, usually the verbs are both active or both passive. In an active-verb sentence, the subject is doing the action or is in the state of being expressed by the verb. (“Archie flies well.” “Archie is happy.”) In a passive-verb sentence, the subject receives the action of the verb. (“The window was broken by a high-speed pitch.”) A parallel sentence generally doesn’t switch from active to passive or vice versa.