Cracking the SAT
How to Crack the Writing Section
CAN YOU REALLY TEST WRITING ON A STANDARDIZED TEST?
ETS thinks so, but we would beg to differ. What the SAT calls a writing test is really a test of some grammar rules and your ability to crank out an essay in 25 minutes. But those two skills don’t really indicate anything about your writing ability. All this section tests is your ability to conform to what essay graders at ETS consider “good” writing. Based on these standards, William Shakespeare, Ernest Hemingway, and e.e. cummings would all be considered bad writers.
How Can That Be?
Once again, it’s all about the “best” answer. In the real world, no one writes an essay in 25 minutes, and many acclaimed writers have a fairly loose conception of grammar. But the SAT is not like the real world, as by now you’ve surely realized. All we can do is suppress our anger and try to do the best we can on the SAT.
WHAT’S IN THE WRITING SECTION?
In official ETS language, the Essay section and sections with multiple-choice grammar questions are called the “Writing section.” However, we’ll often just use the terms “Essay section” and “Grammar section” so you’ll know exactly what we’re talking about.
You will see three types of multiple-choice questions in the Grammar sections: error identifications (a.k.a. error ID, where you’re asked to find which part of the sentence is wrong), improving sentences (where you’re asked to make a sentence sound better), and improving paragraphs (where you fix errors in a poorly written passage).
Now, before you get worried about all of the grammar rules you’ve forgotten (or never managed to learn), relax; you have seen this section before. It’s simply the PSAT’s Writing Skills section, with a new name, but the same old attitude. As on the PSAT, ETS is checking only a few, select rules of grammar. Regardless of whether you remember these rules from the PSAT, we will be going over each of the ones you’ll need.
The essay is not as bad as it sounds either. The College Board will present a statement of opinion (roughly a paragraph long) often made by a notable person. Then, it will ask your position on a related question.
How to Ace the Writing Section
· Review and learn the rules of grammar, SAT-style.
· Memorize your plan of attack for each type of question.
· Know which questions to do right away and which to skip until the end.
· Understand what the essay graders want from you.
There will be two sections, one short and one long, dedicated to testing your knowledge of English grammar rules and style preferences. Although there are many grammar rules, ETS tests only a few of them, and you probably already know many of them. In this chapter, you will review the rules being tested and learn how to apply these basic rules to the three types of questions found on the Writing sections.
Every question type on the SAT can be cracked, and Grammar section questions are no exception. While reviewing the basic grammar you need, you will also learn how to crack error ID and improving sentences questions. After you solidify your approach to these question types, you’ll learn how to crack improving paragraphs questions by employing the grammar and skills you’ve already mastered. Of course, you need to practice this stuff to really make it work. After working through the drills in this chapter, be sure to take a full-length practice test.
Joe Bloggs and the Grammar Sections
Just as they do in the Critical Reading sections, some of the questions in the Grammar section don’t follow a noticeable order of difficulty. However, knowing how Joe approaches questions in these sections can still help you achieve a better score.
Joe’s biggest mistake on the grammar questions is basing his answers on what sounds right. This approach, unfortunately, is just about the worst way to go about answering the questions. Most people do not speak in a grammatically correct way. Consider the following conversation:
Alex (answering the phone): Hello? Who’s there?
Briana: It’s me.
Alex: Oh hey, where you at?
Briana: Me and my friends are headed to the movie theater. You coming?
Alex: Cool. I’ll be there.
Now note the same conversation, edited for grammatical correctness:
Alex: Hello? Who’s there?
Briana: It is I.
Alex: Oh, hey. At what location are you?
Briana: My friends and I are going to the movie theater. Would you like to join us?
Alex: Indeed. I shall be there.
Chances are you don’t talk like this, so it sounds strange to your ear. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Joe thinks that awkward or weird-sounding sentences or phrases must be wrong. ETS uses this tendency to set traps. Look at the following sentence:
Joe reads this sentence and something just sounds wrong to him. He can’t exactly put his finger on it, but he knows that he’s supposed to find an error. So Joe decides that something must be wrong with choice B because he would never use a word such as notwithstanding. Once again, poor Joe has played right into ETS’s devious little hands. ETS hopes that you select answers based on how you would speak.
In this case, the sentence is actually fine as written. Now, you may have noticed that or you might have fallen for a Joe Bloggs answer. In any case, the questions in the Grammar sections can be some of the most frustrating on the test. You can’t always be sure of the best answer, but make sure you get rid of any answers you know to be wrong.
To Do or Not to Do
Remember that not all grammar questions are arranged in order of difficulty; therefore, to do well, you need to determine when a problem is hard and should be skipped. What makes a question hard? It either contains grammar that you don’t know, or it’s long and time-consuming. As a general rule, you will approach the section like this: Plan on going through the section twice. On your first pass, do the questions that are easiest for you. These should include some of each question type. Make sure you hit some or all of the improving paragraphs questions on the first pass, because they are almost always easy or medium. Once you’ve been through the section once, answering all of the questions you know how to do, go back and try the more difficult questions. Answer them only if you can eliminate at least one answer choice, and stick with your pacing.
Before we begin reviewing ETS’s grammar, let’s take a peek at the first two question types you’ll see on the Grammar sections.
An error ID question gives you a sentence that has four words or phrases underlined, each with a corresponding letter underneath. At the end of each sentence will be “No error”—choice E. There are some important things you need to know about error IDs.
· There is never more than one error per sentence.
· If there is an error, it’s always underlined.
· Approximately 20 percent of all error ID questions are correct as written, so don’t be afraid to pick choice E.
· Error IDs are short, and you should usually be able to eliminate at least one answer choice, so guess on all error ID questions.
· Do error ID questions first.
This is an example of an improving sentences question that does not contain an error.
(A) that does not contain
(B) that has not been containing
(C) which has not been contain
(D) which is not being with
(E) about which there is nothing to indicate it being with
Improving sentences questions give you a sentence, part or all of which is underlined. The underlined part may or may not contain a grammatical error. There are some important things you need to know about improving sentences questions.
· Answer choice A is a reprint of the underlined section. Therefore, if you decide that the sentence contains no error, choose answer choice A.
· Approximately 20 percent of all improving sentences questions are correct as written, so don’t be afraid to pick choice A.
· If you decide the underlined portion of the sentence contains an error, eliminate choice A. Also, eliminate any other choice that does not fix the error.
· If you are unsure whether the sentence contains an error, look to your answer choices for a clue (more on this later).
· KISS: Keep It Short and Sweet. Concise answers are preferable.
To do well on the Grammar sections, you need to remember some basic grammar rules. Now, don’t get worked up about being tested on grammar. SAT grammar is not difficult, nor is it extensive. In fact, the Grammar sections really test only five basic grammatical concepts:
1. Sentence structure
6. Other little things
These are the areas in which a sentence can “go wrong.” They will function as a checklist for you—every time you read a sentence, you will look at these five areas to find the error. If you don’t find one after checking these five things, then there probably isn’t one.
As we’ve mentioned, 20 percent of error ID questions and improving sentences questions contain no error. If you’ve used your checklist and can’t find a mistake, chances are there isn’t one. Because the questions get tougher, though, we find that “No Error” is more likely to be the answer on the second half of error ID questions than on the first.
We will use error ID questions to illustrate the first four areas of grammar. Before we get going on the grammar stuff, let’s learn how to crack an error ID question.
Cracking Error IDs
As we mentioned, an error ID question is a short sentence that has four words or phrases underlined and lettered. Your job is to determine if any one of those four underlined segments contains an error. If it does, you are to blacken the corresponding oval on your answer sheet. If not, you are to choose E, “No error.”
Let’s look at an example of an error ID to learn how to beat these questions:
For every error ID question, remember that you need to find grammatical errors. Not what parts of the sentence sound weird, or what parts you could write better, but what part of the sentence is a grammatical error.
Start by reading the sentence. Do you notice any grammatical errors? If so, what is the error? (As the chapter progresses, you’ll learn the names for the different errors.)
Do I Have to Read the Whole Thing?
Once you’ve found the error, do you need to read the rest of the sentence? Yes. If you’re sure of the error you’ve found, a quick read will be easy and reassuring. If you are not so sure, you will need to read the rest of the sentence to be sure you haven’t missed anything. Because error IDs are short and sweet, take a quick second to read them through.
If you don’t spot an error, that’s fine. Now you’ll do POE by looking at each underlined portion, and asking yourself what possible errors it could contain.
Look at the first segment of this sentence: Jose told the school counselor his plan.… Is there a problem with the phrase his plan? No. Put a slash through answer choice A. Next segment: he will.… Any problem with this verb? No, it’s in the future tense and it’s Jose’s plan we’re talking about, so everything is fine. Cross it off.
Continuing on: major in criminal justice.… No problem here—cross off C. Keep going: and to become a lawyer. Wait a minute—something doesn’t sound right. To become is a verb. Notice in this example, there is a series of activities (verbs): attend, major, to become. When in a series, all the verbs need to have the same form. Therefore to become should be become. The answer is D.
By the way, you have just learned the first verb rule: When a series of activities is described in a sentence, make sure all the verbs are expressed the same way—make sure they are parallel.
Trim the Fat
Often an error ID will contain extraneous phrases that distract from the meat of the sentence and cause you to miss an error. How can you avoid getting waylaid by distracting phrases? Trim the fat. As you work through a sentence, cross off anything that is not essential to the sentence: prepositional phrases, phrases offset by commas, and so on. Crossing out the distracting phrases puts the important parts of a sentence, the subject and verb for example, together and prevents you from making careless errors.
Let’s look at another example:
Here’s How to Crack It
First, trim the fat. What’s the subject of the sentence? Math. Once you see that there is no problem with choice A, developed, you can cross off the stuff between the commas—it’s there to distract you. What’s the verb? Have been. “Math have been?” Don’t think so. Math is singular, so it needs a singular verb. The answer is B.
Not only will the SAT test your ability to distinguish nouns, verbs, and such, but it will also test your knowledge of how sentences fit together. The main culprits when it comes to sentence structure errors are clauses.
There are two types of clauses: independent (or main) and subordinate.
Independent (or Main) Clauses
The independent clause is the easier one to spot; it could stand alone and be a sentence all by itself. When you join two independent clauses, you have a few different options. Let’s take a look at the following sentences:
Susie wanted to go shopping. She wanted to go to the sale.
Here we just have two independent clauses, each of which is its own sentence. If you have too many of these in an essay it can start to sound stilted. One way to make your original sentences flow more smoothly is to connect them with a comma and a conjunction.
Susie wanted to go shopping, and she wanted to go to the sale.
You could also join them with a semicolon.
Susie wanted to go shopping; she wanted to go to the sale.
The previous sentences are grammatically correct and show different ways to combine main clauses. ETS will test your knowledge of these clauses with the following errors:
1. Comma Splice
Susie wanted to go shopping, she wanted to go to the sale.
This sentence has two independent clauses separated by only a comma. This is incorrect.
2. Run-On Sentence
Susie wanted to go shopping she wanted to go to the sale.
You will see two independent clauses stuck together with nothing separating them. This is also wrong.
Subordinate (Dependent) Clauses
Unlike an independent clause, a dependent clause can’t stand on its own. It needs an independent clause to latch onto. Let’s look at the following sentence:
Since Sam is very dirty, he needs a bath.
This sentence has both an independent clause (“he needs a bath”) and a dependent clause (“Since Sam is very dirty”). Often subordinate clauses fall either at the beginning or end of a sentence, separated by a comma or conjunction. However, this isn’t always the case. Look at this sentence:
The shirt that he put on was too small.
In this case, the subordinate clause came in the middle. Notice that our independent clause is still intact, because if you remove the dependent clause (in italics), the sentence becomes “The shirt was too small.” The clause can stand alone. There’s your test for independent clauses!
The main trap that ETS will throw at you when it comes to dependent clauses is called a sentence fragment. Look at the following sentence:
When the students entered the school, much to their dismay, and following the announcement.
Well, this just sounds bad, right? Here’s the problem: You have three subordinate clauses and no independent clauses. When this happens, you have to fix the problem by finding the answer that keeps the idea of the sentence intact while inserting an independent clause.
A verb is an action word. It tells what the subject of the sentence is doing. You’ve already seen two kinds of errors. There are a total of three things about a verb to check out:
1. Does it agree with its subject?
2. Is it parallel in structure to the other verbs in the sentence?
3. Is it in the proper tense?
Do They Agree?
The rule regarding subject-verb agreement is simple: singular with singular, plural with plural. If you are given a singular subject (he, she, it), then your verb must also be singular (is, has, was). (In case you don’t remember, the subject of the sentence is the noun that the verb modifies—the person or thing that is doing the action.)
Easy enough, except, as you have already seen, ETS has a way of putting lots of stuff between the subject and the verb to make you forget whether your subject was singular or plural. Remember Math from the example on this page?
Look at another one:
Here’s How to Crack It
At first glance, this sentence may appear fine. But let’s pull it apart. What is the sentence about? The answers—a plural subject. If the subject is plural, then the verb must be plural too. Appears is the verb modifying answers, but it is a singular verb—no can do. The answer is B.
Why did the sentence sound okay at first? Because of the stuff stuck between answers and appears. The phrase given by the commission places a singular noun right before the verb. Get rid of the extraneous stuff (i.e., trim the fat) and the error becomes obvious.
Knowing When It’s Singular
Sometimes you may not know if a noun is singular or plural, making it tough to determine whether its verb should be singular or plural. Of course you know nouns like he and cat are singular, but what about family or everybody? The following is a list of “tricky” nouns—technically called collective nouns. They are nouns that typically describe a group of people but are considered singular and thus need a singular verb:
The family is
The jury is
The group is
The team is
The audience is
The congregation is
The United States (or any other country) is
The following pronouns also take singular verbs:
No one is
And or Or
Subjects joined by and are plural: Bill and Pat were going to the show. However, nouns joined by or can be singular or plural—if the last noun given is singular, then it takes a singular verb; if the last noun given is plural, it takes a plural verb.
Here’s How to Crack It
Once again ETS is trying to trip you up by separating the subject from the verb. You know what to do—trim the fat! What’s the subject? John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. We know the subject is plural because of the and. Cross off the stuff between commas and you have John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley…is. Can we use the singular verb is with our plural subject? No way—the answer is D.
Are They Parallel?
The next thing you need to check out about a verb is whether it and the other verbs in the sentence are parallel. In the first example used in this chapter, Jose was going to attend, major, and to become. The last verb, to become, is not written in the same form as the other verbs in the series. In other words, it’s not parallel. The sentence should read, Jose will attend college, major in criminal justice, and become a lawyer. Parallelism shows up most often with lists. So, any time you see a list of things, check to make sure that each item in the list is parallel.
Try another example:
Here’s How to Crack It
If an error ID contains an underlined verb that is part of a series of activities, isolate the verbs to see if they are parallel. In this sentence, George is required to shine, to carry, and revealing. What’s the problem? He should be required to shine, to carry, and to reveal. The answer is D.
Are You Tense?
As you know, verbs come in different tenses—for example, is is present tense, while was is past tense. You’ve probably heard of other tenses like “past perfect.” Well, first of all, don’t worry about identifying the kind of tense used in a sentence—you will never be asked to identify verb tense, only to make sure that the tense is consistent throughout a sentence.
For the most part, verb tense should not change within a sentence. Look at the following example:
Here’s How to Crack It
Our subject? Children. Our verb? Attend—which would be fine if the sentence hadn’t started out with In Colonial times.… Is the sentence talking about children attending (or not attending) school right now? No, it’s talking about Colonial times. The verb should be attended—the answer is B. If you missed that clue, you could have found another one by examining the other verbs in the sentence. The phrase were needed is in the past tense, and because it’s not underlined, we know the other verbs in the sentence should match it.
The only thing you really have to check for with nouns is agreement. Verbs must agree with their subjects, nouns must agree with other nouns, and pronouns must agree with the nouns they represent. When you read an error ID, if you come across an underlined noun, check to see if it refers to or is associated with any other nouns in the sentence. If so, make sure they match in number.
Consider this example:
Here’s How to Crack It
Take it one piece at a time. …such as the hedgehog… sounds good. Cross off A.
Continuing on, appear quite timid.… No problem that we can see. Cross it off. Going on, but they can become fierce enemies… checks out. The subject is some animals, not the hedgehog. So cross off C.
The last part of the sentence reads when they perceive a threat to their baby. Their is okay; we’re referring to a bunch of animals. But what about baby? Because we are discussing some animals, which is plural, we need to make sure baby is plural as well—in other words it should read thebabies of some animals. The answer is D.
As with verbs, there are three things you need to check when you have pronouns:
1. Do they agree?
2. Are they ambiguous?
3. Do they use the right case?
As you know, a pronoun is a little word that is inserted to represent a noun (he, she, it, they, and so on). As with everything else, pronouns must agree with their nouns: The pronoun that replaces a singular noun must also be singular, and the pronoun that replaces a plural noun must be plural. If different pronouns are used to refer to the same subject or one pronoun is used to replace another, the pronouns must also agree.
This may seem obvious, but it is also the most commonly violated rule in ordinary speech. How often have you heard people say, Everyone must hand in their application before leaving. Remember from our list of singular pronouns that everyone is singular? But their is plural. This sentence is incorrect.
To spot a pronoun agreement error, look for pronouns that show up later in a sentence. If you see a pronoun underlined, find the noun or pronoun it is replacing and make sure the two agree. Let’s look at an example:
Here’s How to Crack It
Is there an underlined pronoun late in this sentence? There sure is: they. Let’s trim the fat to check this sentence:
Everyone … who worked … congratulated her … and told her … they enjoyed…
Everyone is singular, but they is plural, so it cannot replace everyone.
The answer is D.
To Whom Do You Refer?
When a pronoun appears in a sentence, it should be absolutely clear which noun it replaces:
After looking over the color samples, Mary agreed with Martha that her porch should be painted green.
Whose porch is being painted green? Mary’s or Martha’s? This sentence is unacceptable to ETS because it is not perfectly clear to whom the word her in the sentence is referring. This is pronoun ambiguity, and it is unacceptable on the SAT.
If you see a pronoun late in a sentence, check to see if it clearly refers to a noun. Be especially wary if the early part of the sentence contains two singular or two plural nouns. Try the example on the next page.
Here’s How to Crack It
Let’s take it apart a piece at a time. The drummer told.… Do a quick tense scan of the sentence. Is it past tense? Yes. Cross off A and go on.
Let’s check the next answer choice:
The drummer told the guitar player that he was an integral part.…
Who was an integral part? It is not clear whether the pronoun he is referring to the drummer or the guitar player. The answer is B.
Case? What Case?
Pronouns come in two “flavors,” known as cases: subjective or objective. The subject, as you know, is the person or thing performing the action in the sentence. The object is the person or thing receiving the action. Think of it this way: An object just sits there. It doesn’t do anything; rather, things are done to it. The subject, by contrast, does something.
When it comes to pronouns, subjects and objects are represented by different pronouns. For example, I is a subjective pronoun, as in I did it, while me is an objective pronoun, as in it happened to me. Most of the time, you will know if the wrong pronoun case (as it’s called) is used because the sentence will sound funny. However, this is another area that is often butchered in our spoken language. When in doubt, trim the fat to figure out whether the pronoun is the subject (performing the action) or the object (receiving the action).
Try the following example:
Here’s How to Crack It
Read through the sentence, checking each underlined segment. The safety check of the new vehicle.… No problem here—cross off A and move on. Next segment:…an inspection of.… Again, it seems fine. Cross it out and keep going.
To check the next two, do a little cutting: The safety check … was performed by the mechanic and him. Performed by is fine. What about him? Get rid of the mechanic to check: The safety check … was performed by … him. Him is an objective pronoun and, in this sentence, is used correctly.He performed would need the subjective pronoun; performed by him is the correct use of the objective pronoun. The answer is E, no error.
I or Me?
Are you frequently being corrected on the I versus me thing? If so, you’re not alone. In the example we just did, if you were to replace him with either I or me, which would it be? You would use me because you need an object pronoun. It is often difficult to tell which case to use when the pronoun is coupled with another noun or pronoun. If you are having trouble deciding which case to use, remember to trim the fat: In this case, remove the other person (the mechanic in the example we just did).
Which One Is Correct?
The book belongs to Jerry and I.
The book belongs to Jerry and me.
If you’re not sure, take Jerry out of the picture:
The book belongs to _____.
Me, of course. It’s much easier to tell which is correct if the extraneous stuff is removed. Here’s a tricky one:
Clare is more creative than me.
Clare is more creative than I.
Be careful. This may look as though the pronoun is an object, but actually the sentence is written in an incomplete form. What you are really saying in this sentence is Clare is more creative than I am. The am is understood. When in doubt, say the sentence aloud, adding on the am to see whether it is hiding at the end of the sentence.
Don’t Be Passive
One final note about subjects and objects: ETS prefers sentences written in the active voice to the passive voice. If a sentence is written in the active voice, the subject of the sentence is doing something. If a sentence is written in the passive voice, the main player becomes an object and things happen to him.
Which of the following is written in the active voice?
She took the SAT.
The SAT was taken by her.
She took the SAT is active because she is the subject of the sentence and she is doing something. The SAT was taken by her is passive because her is now the object of by, not the subject of the sentence. This will be important to know when attacking improving sentences questions.
Remember prepositions? About, above, across, around, along…You use prepositions all the time to add information to a sentence. Using different prepositions can change the meaning of a sentence. Study the following examples:
I am standing by you.
I am standing for you.
I am standing near you.
I am standing under you.
Common SAT Prepositions
In the English language, certain words must be paired with certain prepositions. These pairs of words are called idioms. There are really no rules to idioms, so you need to just use your ear and memorize ones that are tricky. Here is a list of some common idioms you may come across. Fill in the blanks with the missing prepositions (some may have more than one possibility). Answers can be found on this page.
1. I am indebted _____ you.
2. I am resentful _____ you.
3. I am delighted _____ you.
4. I am jealous _____ you.
5. I am worried _____ you.
6. I am astounded _____ you.
7. The women had a dispute ____ politics.
8. You have a responsibility ____ take care of your pet.
9. My friends are not so different ____ your friends.
Try an error ID example:
Here’s How to Crack It
Let’s pull it apart: After seeing Andy fall into.… Both of these seem okay so let’s move on. Next phrase: his girlfriend admitted that.… No problem there. How about the next part, worried for him. You may have heard people say this, but it’s wrong. The preposition that should accompanyworry is about. The answer is D.
ERROR ID AND YOUR GRAMMAR CHECKLIST
Let’s do a quick review. On error ID questions, have your grammar checklist ready (keep it in your head, or jot it on your test booklet). It should look like this:
1. Is there an underlined verb? If so,
(a) does it agree with its subject?
(b) is it parallel in structure to the other verbs in the sentence?
(c) is it in the proper tense?
2. Is there an underlined noun? If so,
(a) does it agree in number with any other noun to which it refers?
3. Is there an underlined pronoun? If so,
(a) does it agree with the noun/pronoun it represents?
(b) can you tell to which noun it refers or is it ambiguous?
(c) does it use the right case (subjective or objective)?
4. Is there an underlined preposition? If so,
(a) is it the right one?
When you approach error ID questions, remember the following:
· Read them with your checklist in mind.
· Cross off underlined answer choices that are right.
· Trim the fat.
· Don’t be afraid to pick E, “No error.”
· Don’t get stuck on hard questions.
Use the following drill to solidify your error ID strategy. Answers can be found on this page.
So far we have been concentrating on error ID questions while reviewing grammar. The good news is that improving sentences questions test a lot of the same grammar. Let’s look at a sample question to see how to crack these questions.
Although both Senator Fritz and Senator Pierce have proposed plans to reduce the deficit, only one of the two are viable.
(A) only one of the two are viable
(B) only one of the two is viable
(C) only one of the two plans are viable
(D) only one of the two plans is viable
(E) one only of the two plans has been viable
Here’s How to Crack It
There are two ways to go about cracking an improving sentences question. The preferable way is for you to identify the error as you read the underlined part of the sentence. How will you do that, you ask? By using your handy-dandy grammar checklist, of course. Let’s try it on this example. The underlined portion of the sentence says only one of the two are viable. Let’s run through your list. Is there an underlined verb? Yes—are. Does it agree with its subject? What is its subject? If we trim the fat (in this case, the prepositional phrase of the two) we can easily see the subject is one. Is it correct to say one are? Of course not.
A Couple of Good Rules to Live By
Here are some very good points that will be very helpful for you when solving improving sentences:
· Eliminate any answer choice that changes the meaning of the original sentence.
· After you’ve gotten rid of any grammatical errors and you’re down to two answer choices that are error-free, choose the shorter one.
So you’ve identified the problem. However, improving sentences questions require you to go further than just identifying the error—they also require you to fix the error, thus “improving” the sentence. To do this, you will use your old friend: Process of Elimination. First, we know that answer choice A is simply a repeat of the underlined portion; therefore, once you’ve identified an error, cross off answer choice A.
Next, scan the rest of the answer choices and cross off any answer choices that don’t fix the problem you’ve identified. In our example, we know the verb are is wrong. What answer choice can we get rid of? Answer choice C.
So far, we have eliminated answer choices A and C. Let’s look at the remaining choices to see how they fix the error we found. Answer choice B changes are to is, a singular verb. That works. Answer choice D does the same thing. Both of these choices are possible. Answer choice E changes the verb to has been. A quick glance at the sentence tells us that this is in the wrong tense—we need present tense. Cross off answer choice E.
Okay, down to two. The last thing to check is the difference between the two choices that fixed the original problem. Sometimes the underlined portion of the sentence contains a secondary error that also needs to be fixed. Other times, an answer may fix the original problem but introduce a new error. In this example, the difference between B and D is that B uses the vague language only one of the two is viable while D clarifies only one of the two plans is viable. We know that ETS hates to be ambiguous, and B does not make it as clear that the sentence is referring to one of the two plans as opposed to one of the two senators. Therefore, our answer is D.
Let’s say you couldn’t tell if there was an error in the example we just did. You thought it might be okay, but you weren’t sure. How could you check? By scanning your answer choices. Your answer choices can tip you off to the error contained in a sentence by revealing what is being fixed in each choice. In the example we just did, a quick scan of the answer choices reveals that the verb is being altered:
(E) …has been…
Once you pick up on the error being tested, you can try to figure out which form is correct. Let’s try another example, using our back-up plan to illustrate how it works:
When students are told they will be tested on a subject, you tend to be more anxious and find it harder to retain the information.
(A) you tend to be more anxious and find it harder to retain the information
(B) students being more anxious find it harder to retain the information
(C) they tend to be more anxious and find it harder to retain information that will be tested
(D) they tend to be more anxious and find it harder to retain the information
(E) you tend toward anxiety and a failure to retain information
Here’s How to Crack It
When you first read this sentence, you may feel that something is wrong, but you may not be able to pinpoint what it is. No problem—let your answer choices do the work for you. A quick scan of the answer choices reveals a possible pronoun problem:
Now that you know what to check, let’s trim the fat:
When students are told they will be tested … you…
Is you the right pronoun to represent students? No. Cross off A and any other answer that doesn’t fix the you. That leaves us with B, C, and D. If you have no idea how the rest of the sentence should read, you’ve still given yourself great odds of “guessing” this question correctly. But let’s forge ahead.
Answer choice B doesn’t make any sense upon closer inspection. Cross it off. Now you’re down to two. Which answer choice is more clear and less awkward? Answer choice D:
When students are told they will be tested … they tend to be more anxious and find it harder to retain the information.
Other Little Things
We mentioned back at the beginning of this chapter that your grammar checklist should include a number 6: “other little things.” In addition to testing the four main areas we’ve already reviewed, other little grammar things will be tested on the improving sentences questions. Let’s look at some of these little grammar tidbits so you are ready for them when they turn up.
If everything else checks out, the sentence may be testing other little things, such as
· faulty comparisons
· misplaced modifiers
Can You Compare?
There are several little things ETS tries to trip you up with when it comes to comparing. These things are not difficult, but they are notoriously misused in spoken English, so you will need to make a note of them. First, when comparing two things, make sure that what you are comparing can be compared. Sound like double-talk? Look at the following sentence:
Larry goes shopping at Foodtown because the prices are better than Shoprite.
Sound okay? Well, sorry—it’s wrong. As written, this sentence says that the prices at Foodtown are better than Shoprite—the entire store. What Larry means is the prices at Foodtown are better than the prices at Shoprite. You can compare only like things (prices to prices, not prices to stores).
While we’re on the subject of Foodtown, how often have you seen this sign?
Express Checkout: 10 items or less.
Unfortunately, supermarkets across America are making a blatant grammatical error when they post this sign. When items can be counted, you must use the word fewer. If something cannot be counted, you would use the word less. Here’s an example:
If you eat fewer french fries, you can use less ketchup.
Other similar words include many (can be counted) versus much (cannot be counted):
Many hands make much less work.
Another pair to watch out for is number (can be counted) versus amount (cannot be counted):
The same number of CDs played different amounts of music.
Two’s Company; Three or More Is …?
Finally, the English language uses different comparison words when comparing two things than when comparing more than two things. The following examples will jog your memory:
· more (for two things) vs. most (for more than two)
Given Alex and Dave as possible dates, Alex is the more appealing one.
In fact, of all the guys I know, Alex is the most attractive.
· less (for two things) vs. least (for more than two)
I am less likely to be chosen than you are.
I am the least likely person to be chosen from the department.
· better (for two things) vs. best (for more than two)
Taking a cab is better than hitchhiking.
My Princeton Review teacher is the best teacher I have ever had.
· between (for two things) vs. among (for more than two)
Just between you and me, I never liked her anyway.
Among all the people here, no one likes her.
Try this one:
Suzie was excited because her fantasy baseball team was better than Justin.
(A) was better than Justin
(B) did better as Justin
(C) was better than Justin’s team
(D) did seem superior to Justin
(E) was better than the team of Justin
Here’s How to Crack It
What is being compared in this sentence? Susie is comparing her team with Justin. Can she do that? No! She really wants to compare her team with Justin’s team.
Because you have identified an error, immediately cross off A. Next, cross off any other answer choice that doesn’t fix the error. That gets rid of B and D. Now compare our remaining choices. While E technically fixes our comparison problem, it is awkwardly worded. ETS’s answer is C.
A modifier is a descriptive word or phrase inserted into a sentence to add dimension to the thing it modifies. Here’s an example:
Because he could talk, Mr. Ed was a unique horse.
Because he could talk is the modifying phrase in this sentence. It describes a characteristic of Mr. Ed. Generally speaking, a modifying phrase should be right next to the thing it modifies. If it’s not, the meaning of the sentence may change, as illustrated in the following example:
Every time he goes to the bathroom outside, John praises his new puppy for being so good.
Who’s going to the bathroom outside? In this sentence, it’s John! There are laws against that! The descriptive phrase every time he goes to the bathroom outside needs to be near puppy for the sentence to say what it means.
When you are attacking improving sentences questions, watch out for sentences that begin with a descriptive phrase followed by a comma. If you see one, make sure the thing that comes after the comma is the person or thing being modified.
Try the following example:
Clearly one of the most distinctive and impressive skylines in the country, New York City is a breathtaking sight to behold.
(A) Clearly one of the most distinctive and impressive skylines in the country
(B) Being one of the most distinctive and impressive skylines in the country
(C) Possessing one of the most distinctive and impressive skylines in the country
(D) Its skyline may be the most distinctive and impressive in the country
(E) More distinctive and impressive in its skyline than any other place in the country
Here’s How to Crack It
Is New York City a type of skyline? No, so cross off A. We need an answer that will make the opening phrase modify New York City. Answer choice B is still modifying skyline, so cross it off. All three other choices fix the problem, but C does it the best. D makes the sentence a comma splice, and E is correct but awkward. The answer is C.
Misplaced modifiers aren’t the only descriptive errors ETS test writers throw at you. Another way they try to trip you up is by using adjectives where they should use adverbs and vice versa. Remember that an adjective modifies a noun, while an adverb modifies verbs, adverbs, and adjectives. The adverb is the one that usually has -ly on the end. In the following sentence, circle the adverbs and underline the adjectives:
The stealthy thief, desperately hoping to evade the persistent police, ran quickly into the dank, dark alley after brazenly stealing the stunningly exquisite jewels.
First, let’s list the adjectives along with the nouns they modify: stealthy thief, persistent police, dank alley, dark alley, exquisite jewels. Now for the adverbs with the words they modify: desperately hoping (verb), ran (verb) quickly, brazenly stealing (verb), stunningly exquisite (adjective).
Now try the following improving sentences example:
A bacterium may not reproduce for months, but a sudden influx of heat, moisture, or food can cause its growth rate to increase tremendous.
(A) can cause its growth rate to increase tremendous
(B) can tremendously increase its growth rate
(C) increase the tremendous growth rate of it
(D) increases its growth rate in a tremendous way
(E) tremendously causes the growth rate to increase
Here’s How to Crack It
Hopefully you identified the error as soon as you read the sentence. What should the last word in the sentence be? Tremendously. Cross off A, and also D, because it doesn’t fix the error and changes the meaning of the sentence. C is way out there, so cross it off too. In E, the placement of thetremendously is awkward and slightly changes the meaning of the sentence. ETS’s answer is B.
Before we move on to improving paragraphs questions, try putting together what you’ve learned. Do the following error ID and improving sentences questions using your grammar checklist. Remember to trim the fat and use POE. On improving sentences questions, do not hesitate to check out the answer choices for a clue to help you spot the error. You may wish to jot down your grammar checklist before you begin. Answers can be found on this page.
7. Critics often debate whether the role of art is one that is simply aesthetic or if it should be instructional.
(A) one that is simply aesthetic or if it should be instructional
(B) simply one that is aesthetic or being instructional
(C) one that is simply aesthetic or if it should have instruction as well
(D) simply an aesthetic one or an instructional one
(E) aesthetic or should it be instructional
8. The civil engineers who designed the city’s streets in the 1800s could never have foreseen the sprawling metropolis that the town would have soon become.
(A) never have foreseen the sprawling metropolis that the town would have soon become
(B) never have foreseen that the small town would soon become a sprawling metropolis
(C) have not foreseen the small town turning into a sprawling metropolis
(D) not have foreseen the sprawling metropolis that the small town became
(E) have never foreseen the small town being such a sprawling metropolis
9. The director felt that the actress was perfect for the part, since he wanted her to research the character first.
(A) the part, since he wanted her to
(B) the part, however the director wanted the actress to
(C) the part, but he wanted her to
(D) the part, only after she had to
(E) the part, but wanting her to
10. Cable television, which strikes some television watchers as a modern convenience, actually debuted in the 1940s, it was used only in rural areas at first.
(A) Cable television, which strikes some television watchers as a modern convenience, actually debuted in the 1940s, it was used only in rural areas at first.
(B) Used only in rural areas at first, cable television, which strikes some television watchers as a modern convenience, actually debuted in the 1940s.
(C) To be used only in rural areas, and striking some television watchers as a modern convenience, cable television actually debuted in the 1940s.
(D) Debuting in 1940s, it was used only in rural areas at first and strikes some television watchers as a modern convenience is cable television.
(E) Cable television was used only in rural areas at first, striking some television watchers as a modern convenience and actually debuting in the 1940s.
11. Jade is commonly found in two colors, either green or the color is white, which is the more precious of the two.
(A) either green or the color is white, which is the more precious of the two
(B) either green or white, although white jade is more precious than green jade
(C) the color is either green or the color is white, with white being the more precious
(D) with green or white as the color and white the most precious of the two
(E) those colors are green and white, which is the more precious
12. The term “mach” does not refer to the speed of an aircraft or vehicle; rather they are the ratio of the speed of sound to the speed of the craft.
(A) rather they are the ratio of the speed of sound to the speed of the craft
(B) they are the ratio of the speed of sound to the speed of the craft rather
(C) instead it is the ratio of the speed of sound to the craft
(D) rather they are referring to the ratio of the speed of sound and the craft
(E) instead, it refers to the ratio of the speed of sound to the speed of the craft
After you have found and answered all of the error ID and improving sentences questions you can easily do, move on to the improving paragraphs questions. These questions come last in the section, and they are almost always easy or medium in difficulty.
The improving paragraphs questions require you to make corrections to a “first draft” of a student’s essay to improve it. The essay is typically three or four paragraphs long, and each paragraph contains numbered sentences.
Here is a sample passage:
(1) I’m not sure exactly how I turned out to be a hockey fan. (2) My father was always a big football fan, my mom loves baseball. (3) And my brothers and sisters don’t like hockey, either. (4) In any case, I’ve loved hockey for as long as I can remember.
(5) But despite my love of hockey, I wasn’t really that good at playing it. (6) Part of the problem is my skating, as in I’m not very good at it. (7) I didn’t even learn to skate until I was twelve. (8) Most hockey players have been skating for their entire lives. (9) Still, I wanted to play and I asked my father to have me enrolled in a hockey camp. (10) He did and I went to it, not knowing what to expect. (11) On the first day of the camp, I barely knew how to put my equipment on. (12) Although the other kids were all about my age, they seemed to know so much more and be better players. (13) The first day on ice I was intimidated because they were all so good. (14) I thought that I didn’t belong, but I love hockey so much that I wanted to stay. (15) I wanted badly to be able to play the sport that I loved.
(16) And it was worth it. (17) After I got more comfortable with my skills, I became confident. (18) The coaches at the camp really helped me a lot. (19) They told me exactly what I needed to do to be better. (20) Now, I’ve been playing hockey for three years and while I’m not the best player on the ice, I’m certainly one of the most passionate.
Go to the Questions
Instead of wasting a lot of time reading the rough draft, skim it only for the main idea and structure. Then go directly to the questions. There are far more errors in the passage than you’ll ever be asked about—reading the passage first will waste your time and confuse you.
Also, for many of the questions, the sentences you need to fix are reprinted right under the question, so you won’t necessarily need to go back to the paragraph to answer a question.
There are three basic types of questions that you will be asked:
1. Revision questions: These questions ask you to revise sentences or parts of sentences in much the same way as improving sentences questions do.
2. Combination questions: These questions ask you to combine two or more sentences to improve the quality and/or flow of the paragraph.
3. Content questions: These questions ask you about passage content, typically by asking you to insert a new sentence or paragraph.
As we mentioned, these questions are very similar to improving sentences questions. Therefore, you can follow the same basic approach. One warning: There is normally no such thing as “No error” on improving paragraphs questions. Do not assume that A is merely a repeat of the given sentence.
Even though the sentence you are revising is provided for you, you may still need to go back to the passage to gain some context when trying to fix a sentence. Before going back, however, use POE. If you have spotted an error in the given sentence, cross off answers that don’t fix it. Also, cross off answer choices that contain obvious errors. After doing some POE, go back and read a few sentences before and after the given sentence. This should be enough context for you to determine the best edit.
Try the following revision question—refer back to the sample passage when needed.
In context, which is the best way to revise sentence 6 (reproduced below)?
Part of the problem is my skating, as in I’m not very good at it.
(A) One of the problems was my limited skating ability.
(B) Not skating well was a big problem of mine.
(C) A problem was that my skating needed to be better than it was.
(D) Of my problems, I would say that my bad skating was the biggest.
(E) Skating, I’m not very good at it, was part of my problems.
Here’s How to Crack It
The correct revision will be concise and unambiguous. It will also connect to the rest of the essay. You can get rid of choices B, D, and E before going back to the passage. Choice B is as clunky as the given sentence; choices D and E are awkwardly written.
After doing some elimination, go back and read, beginning with sentence 5. The author states that he wasn’t good at playing. Why not? Apparently the problem is his skating. Answer A is the best choice. When you read this segment, the word next should be jumping into your brain. Sentence 6 seems out of place until you realize that it is a new thought, the next step. ETS’s answer is A.
Combination questions are revision questions with a twist: You are working with two sentences instead of one. The sentences are almost always reprinted for you under the question, and you can usually answer these questions without going back to the passage at all. As with revision questions, do what you can first, then go back to the passage if necessary.
To combine sentences you will need to work with conjunctions. If the sentences are flowing in the same direction, look for an answer with words such as and, since, and as well as. If the sentences seem to be flowing in opposite directions, look for trigger words in the answer choices such ashowever, but, and on the contrary.
Try the following without going back to the passage:
Which of the following represents the most effective way to combine sentences 18 and 19 (reproduced below)?
The coaches at the camp really helped me a lot. They told me exactly what I needed to do to be better.
(A) The coaches who helped me a lot told me exactly what I needed to do be better.
(B) Those coaches at the camp who told me exactly what I needed to do to be better were the ones who helped me the most.
(C) Helping me a lot was the coaches, telling me exactly what I needed to do.
(D) By telling me exactly what was needed to be done by me the coaches helped me a lot.
(E) The coaches at the camp really helped me by telling me exactly what I needed to do to get better.
Here’s How to Crack It
First, the sentences are moving in the same direction. Your job is to find a clear, concise way to combine them. A and B are out because they are poorly worded. Choice C contains an agreement error, and D is passive. The best answer is E. Note that you can answer this question without going back to the passage.
Which of the following represents the best revision of sentences 7 and 8 (reproduced below) ?
I didn’t even learn to skate until I was twelve. Most hockey players have been skating for their entire lives.
(A) I didn’t even learn to skate until I was twelve, even though most hockey players have been skating for their entire lives.
(B) I didn’t even learn to skate until was twelve, compared with most hockey players have been skating for their entire lives.
(C) I learned to skate when I was twelve, and; most hockey players have been skating for their entire lives.
(D) Although most hockey players have been skating for their entire lives, I didn’t even learn to skate until I was twelve.
(E) Skating, which most hockey players have been doing their entire lives, I didn’t learn how until I was twelve.
Here’s How to Crack It
First, check the flow of the sentence. It appears as if the sentences are going in opposite directions. Get rid of A and C, which don’t change the direction. Answer choice B compares the two ideas but doesn’t establish a contrast. E is horribly awkward, so ditch it. The best answer is D.
ETS will occasionally ask you a question regarding the content of the passage. These questions may ask questions like:
1. Which sentence should immediately follow or precede the passage?
2. Which sentence should be inserted into the passage?
3. What is the best description of the passage as a whole?
If you are asked the third question, you will need to read the whole passage. However, you will more likely be asked one of the first two questions. To answer these, you will need to read the relevant paragraph.
Try this example using the sample passage from earlier in this section:
Which of the following sentences, if added after sentence 4, would best serve to link the first paragraph to the second paragraph?
(A) I found it quite odd that I ended up loving hockey.
(B) I wanted to be more than just a passionate hockey fan, though.
(C) My brothers loved baseball, while my sisters were bigger fans of football.
(D) Perhaps it was my uncle, a big hockey fan, who helped me to love the game.
(E) Actually, hockey is not a very popular sport in the United States.
Here’s How to Crack It
To solve this question, you need to read the first paragraph and the first sentence of the second paragraph quickly. At the end of the first paragraph, he states his love for the game. The next paragraph talks about playing the sport. Find the answer that connects these two ideas.
A, C, and D are out because they focus on the “problems” theme from the first paragraph instead of making a transition to the second paragraph. E is not implied anywhere in the passage. The answer is B.
MORE THAN GRAMMAR
When you look at improving paragraphs questions, you’re going to see more than grammar rules. You will need to know the rules we’ve discussed, but it’s not just about that. When you’re answering these questions, keep the following things in mind:
· Think about what the author is trying to convey. Your job here is to improve the paragraphs that they give you. Think about if you were to edit a friend’s essay. The way to make it better is to help him get his point across as clearly and effectively as possible. To do that you have to know what he’s trying to do and say with the essay. That’s what you’re doing here.
· Pay attention to the logical flow of ideas. Many of the questions are going to ask, either directly or indirectly, about the order in which ideas are presented. You want to make sure that each part of the essay leads to the next, that there is a logical progression.
· Avoid ambiguity and wordiness. The most effective revisions are short and precise. You want to be able to get your point across in as few words as possible, without going overboard or repeating yourself again. And again. Got it?
Final Words of Wisdom
As with all the sections of the SAT, you are rewarded for answering the question. Don’t be afraid to do some POE and guess. You will almost always be able to eliminate some answer choices, so allow your partial knowledge to earn you credit on the test.
Try the following improving paragraphs drill to practice what you have learned. Answers can be found on this page.
(1) Many people dismiss comic books as just something for kids. (2) But comic books, sometimes they are called graphic novels, have held an important place in our culture. (3) You may be surprised to find out that comic books, in one form or another, has a beginning in nineteenth-century Europe. (4) In the United States, the golden age of comics is generally thought to be in the 1930s. (5) Those years saw the birth of two of the most popular characters of all time. (6) Superman was introduced in 1938 and Batman then follows in 1939. (7) The attraction of these two characters, to both adult and children readers alike, elevates the comic book in the public consciousness.
(8) Today, comic books are a major industry. (9) They are able to generate millions and millions of dollars in licensing and movies, as well as toys and other collectibles. (10) Even old favorites like Batman and Superman, now seventy years old, keep coming out new comics. (11) No longer just for kids, the stories of graphic novels are increasingly complex. (12) Now, you can even take a class on the writing of comic books at your local college. (13) You can’t say that comics are just for kids anymore.
1. In context, what is the best version of sentence 2, reproduced below?
But comic books, sometimes they are called graphic novels, have held an important place in our culture.
(A) (As it is now)
(B) But comic books, also called graphic novels, have long held an important place in our culture.
(C) But comic books, which are also called graphic novels by some people, hold an important place in our culture.
(D) Comic books, sometimes being called graphic novels, hold an important place in our culture.
(E) Comic books, or graphic novels as they are called, are important to our culture.
2. Which of the following would be the best subject for a paragraph immediately preceding this essay?
(A) A discussion of popular children’s toys
(B) An overview of nineteenth-century European culture
(C) A critical perspective on the writing style of graphic novels
(D) An examination of the toy and game industry
(E) An analysis of the appeal of comic books to youngsters
3. The author wishes to divide the first paragraph into two shorter paragraphs. The most appropriate place to begin a new paragraph would be
(A) between sentences 1 and 2
(B) between sentences 2 and 3
(C) between sentences 3 and 4
(D) between sentences 4 and 5
(E) between sentences 5 and 6
4. In sentence 3, the word you could best be replaced with which of the following?
(A) Young people
(D) Comic book fans
(E) Comic book detractors
5. Which word could best replace birth in sentence 5 ?
6. Which would be the best way to revise and combine the underlined portions of sentences 8 and 9 (reproduced below) ?
Today, comic books are a major industry. They are able to generate millions and millions of dollars in licensing and movies, as well as toys and other collectibles.
(A) a major industry, generating
(B) a major industry, which has generated
(C) a major industry, ably generating
(D) a major industry, being responsible for generating
(E) a major industry, one that has been generating
· Don’t forget to use POE on writing questions.
· To solve an error ID, read the sentence and look for an error. If nothing strikes you as incorrect, check each underlined word for the errors that occur for its part of speech.
· To solve an improving sentences question, read the original sentence and look for an error. If nothing strikes you as incorrect, go to the answer choices and look for errors in the answers. Remember that if a part of speech changes among the answer choices it is likely to contain an error.
· When it comes to sentence structure, make sure independent and dependent clauses are being used correctly. Avoid
· comma splices: two independent clauses connected by a comma
· run-on sentences: two independent clauses not separated by anything
· sentence fragments: two dependent clauses with no independent clauses
· A verb is a word that shows action or a state of being. Check any underlined verb for agreement, parallelism, and tense.
· A noun is a person, place, thing, or idea. Check any underlined noun for agreement with related or connected nouns in the sentence.
· A pronoun is a word that replaces a noun. Check any underlined noun for agreement with the noun it replaces, ambiguity or unclearness, and case.
· Remember that everyone, no one, either/neither, and each are singular and take singular verbs and singular pronouns. A group of people—such as the government, the family, or the company—is also singular.
· Prepositions are words that show position or place, such as in, of, with, and by. Check any underlined preposition for idiom errors.
· Descriptive phrases must always be kept near the noun they are describing. Be especially attentive to long, descriptive phrases at the beginning of the sentences; the nouns that follow must be the things the opening phrases are describing.
· On improving paragraphs questions, don’t bother reading or correcting the entire essay.
· Also, on improving paragraphs questions, consider what point the author is making, the logical flow of ideas, and clarity.
· Keep in mind that right answers are usually short, clear, and direct. Wrong answers are usually long, redundant, and unclear.