The SAT Prep Black Book

SAT Writing Multiple Choice

Unwritten Test Design Rules of Identifying Sentence Errors on the SAT

There are only a few rules for these questions that are worth pointing out, but they’re very important, so don’t forget them!

SAT Identifying Sentence Errors Rule 1: No Style Points

For these questions, you should think ONLY about grammar—don’t worry about style at all. That means you can’t mark an answer choice just because you have a vague notion that there might be a better way to say it! Actually, there often IS a better way to say most of the things that appear in these questions, but your job is still only to find the things that are clearly grammatically wrong as far as the SAT is concerned.

SAT Identifying Sentence Errors Rule 2: No Deletions Except In Rare Cases Of Redundancy

Sometimes you may be tempted to mark an answer choice because you think it should be deleted entirely.

You can’t just delete phrases because you don’t like them, though. You can only choose to delete an entire underlined phrase when the phrase is redundant. There aren’t usually a lot of questions that test redundancy—in the entire second edition of the College Board Blue Book, there’s only a handful of questions that test it. One of them is question 29 on page 535, which is discussed later in this book.

Let me repeat that, because it’s important: you can’t just mark an answer choice on this part of the test because you think it sounds weird. You can only mark it if you think it’s breaking an actual rule of SAT grammar.

SAT Identifying Sentence Errors Rule 3: “He,” “She,” “It,” And “They” Must Always Be Replaceable Within A Sentence

If the College Board uses the words “he,” “she,” “it,” or “they” (or any form of those words, like “its” or “them”), then there MUST be a noun somewhere else in the sentence that indicates what that pronoun is referring to.

This rule might sound like it’s not that important, but students often choose wrong answers when they forget about it, because this rule actually means that many common English expressions would be wrong on the SAT.

Whenever you see the word “it,” there must be a phrase somewhere in the sentence that could be plugged in exactly in place of the word “it” in order to make the sentence work. For instance, this sentence would be fine:

This book says it was printed in 1934.

In that sentence, the phrase “this book” could be plugged in exactly where the word “it” is, and the sentence would still make perfect sense:

This book says this book was printed in 1934.

Similarly, if you have the word “they” in a sentence, there must be a plural phrase somewhere in the sentence that could be plugged in where the word “they” is. So this would be okay:

The dogs whimpered because they were hungry.

This works on the SAT because we could plug “the dogs” in where “they” is:

The dogs whimpered because the dogs were hungry.

But, as I mentioned earlier, the following sentence would NOT be okay on the SAT, even though it’s a normal English sentence:

*They said it would rain today.

There are no words or phrases in this sentence that could be plugged in directly for the words “they” and “it,” so the College Board would call this a grammatically incorrect sentence.

Make sure you keep this rule in mind, because test-takers forget it all the time. If you see the word “they” or the word “it” underlined, you have to make sure there’s a phrase somewhere in the sentence that can be plugged in exactly for that word. If there’s not, then the College Board will say the usage is incorrect.

SAT Identifying Sentence Errors Rule 4: Verb Tenses Can Only Be Wrong If They’re Formed Wrong, Or If They’re Impossible

It’s possible for the tense of a verb to be grammatically incorrect on the SAT Writing section, but only in two situations.

oThe verb is conjugated incorrectly.

oThe verb creates an impossible situation when combined with other verbs in the sentence.

Let’s talk about incorrect conjugations first. Basically, you have to be on the lookout for sentences like this:

*My neighbor forgived me for being so loud.

In that case, the irregular verb “forgive” should have been used in its proper past-tense form, which is “forgave.”

The other way a verb can be incorrect is when it creates an impossible situation in the context of other verbs in the same sentence.

Here’s what I mean by that. Each of these sentences has an acceptable verb tense by itself, because there are no other verbs in the sentence that could possibly interfere:

The tree fell over.

Lightning will strike the tree.

But this next sentence would be incorrect on the SAT Writing section, because it combines two verbs with two different tenses in an impossible way:

*The tree fell over when lightning will strike it.

The problem here is that the word “when” indicates that the two events in the sentence happened at the same time, but the word “fall” is in the past and the phrase “will strike” is in the future. Two events can’t happen at the same time if one of them was in the past and one of them will be in the future.

So unless a sentence contains a poorly formed conjugation or some kind of impossibility, then the verb tense in the sentence can’t be wrong.

SAT Identifying Sentence Errors Rule 5: You Can Only Compare Similar Things, And Only In Similar Phrases

The multiple-choice questions on the SAT Writing section will only allow you to make comparisons between things of the same kind, and the ideas being compared need to be stated in similar ways.

Let’s start by talking about the first half of that rule: the idea that the SAT only lets us make comparisons between similar concepts.

For example, we’re not allowed to choose a sentence like this on the SAT:

*My house is bigger than John.

Even though this is a perfectly grammatical and logical sentence (because a house is typically bigger than a person), it would be incorrect on the multiple-choice portion of the SAT Writing section because it compares two things of different types. On this part of the test, we’d be allowed to compare a house to another house, or we could compare a person to a person, but we can’t compare a house to a person. So either of these sentences would be okay:

I am bigger than John.

My house is bigger than John’s house.

This means that you always need to be alert when two things are compared, so you can make sure they’re two things of the same type.

Now let’s talk about the second half of this rule, which is the idea that the things being compared need to be phrased in similar ways (many students refer to this as “parallelism”).

So, for instance, this would be an incorrect sentence on the SAT:

*There are more people living in Germany than Hawaii.

The College Board wouldn’t like that because “Germany” has the word “in” before it, but “Hawaii” doesn’t. So this would be one way to fix that problem:

There are more people living in Germany than in Hawaii.

By the way, you can often recognize that these issues might be relevant to a sentence when you see words like “more,” “less,” “than,” or “as” in the sentence, or words that end in -er, like this:

I am bigger than John.

I am as big as John.

SAT Identifying Sentence Errors Rule 6: The SAT Tests Prepositional Idioms, But Rarely

The word “idiom” is used incorrectly by a lot of SAT tutors and websites to explain solutions to multiple-choice questions on the SAT Writing section. In fact, the College Board itself even misuses the word on its website to describe phrases that aren’t idioms.

Let me explain, because knowing what an idiom actually is will come in handy if you decide to go online for help with this part of the test (which is something I don’t recommend, but people do it anyway). Technically, an idiom is a phrase that doesn’t follow the broad rules of a language. It’s a phrase that you can only know and understand if you’ve encountered it before. But if you look at the College Board’s own explanations for SAT Writing questions on its SAT Question Of The Day web site, you’ll see that the College Board uses the word “idiomatic” to refer to almost any phrase it deems correct, even when that phrase follows rules that other phrases also follow. Which is just one more reason not to pay too much attention to the College Board’s explanations of SAT questions.

The reason I mention this is that the SAT does occasionally test your knowledge of idioms that involve prepositions. On average, you’ll see these kinds of questions a couple of times per test.

A prepositional idiom is a phrase that includes a particular preposition for no reason other than the fact that native speakers always use that phrase with that particular preposition. (A preposition is a short word like “in,” “on,” “to,” or “from.” For a full explanation of what a preposition is, see the Writing Toolbox in the appendix.)

For instance, it’s appropriate to say, “I listen to music,” but not to say “I listen towards music” or “I listen at music.” The preposition “to” is okay in that phrase, but the prepositions “towards” and “at” are not. We would call this phrase an idiom because there’s no general rule about the words “towards,” “to,” and “listen” that would have told us beforehand that “listen to” is okay but “listen towards” is not.

Contrast this situation with a rule-governed process like a verb conjugation. When we conjugate a verb, we know that there are broad rules that are applied to different classes of verbs to generate verb forms with predictable endings. The College Board (along with other sources) sometimes refers to a correctly conjugated regular verb as “idiomatic,” but such situations don’t involve idioms at all; they involve rules. Keep this in mind if you decide to read the College Board’s explanations for some SAT Writing questions, or you might accidentally end up thinking that almost every question involves an unpredictable idiom.

But let’s get back to our prepositional idioms like “listen to.” A few times per test, the College Board may include a Writing question with an underlined preposition, and the underlined preposition may be inappropriate because it doesn’t fit with an idiom that the College Board thinks you should know.

So you should be aware that these types of mistakes can appear on the test as errors that you need to correct. The rough part for us test-takers is that there are thousands and thousands of prepositional idioms, so you can’t really try to memorize them all—and even if you wanted to, I have no idea where you would find a complete list of them.

But the good news is that you don’t have to worry about the prepositions on every single question, because there can only be one error per question, and in many cases you’ll realize there’s some other error in the sentence that has nothing to do with any prepositions. You only need to pay attention to underlined prepositions if you can’t find any other errors in a sentence.

In that case, if a preposition feels a little weird to you, then you may want to mark it as the error for the sentence. As you practice, keep track of how accurate your instincts are with these prepositional idioms. Some people are very good at noticing them, and some aren’t. If you’re not, then you may want to err on the side of choosing (E) or omitting questions when you’re not sure if a preposition is incorrect.

As I mentioned before, there won’t be more than a few questions like this, at most, on any given test. So the damage from these questions will be limited, even if you never answer a single one correctly. But that only makes it all the more important that you focus on every question and make sure you don’t make any “careless” mistakes on other questions.

SAT Identifying Sentence Errors Rule 7: No Substitute For “And”

The College Board never lets you substitute a phrase like “in addition to” or “as well as” for the word “and.” So if you’re looking at an answer choice that says something like “I like pizza, hot dogs, as well as sushi,” that choice is wrong on the SAT, because the SAT wants you to use the word “and” instead of “as well as.”