The SAT Prep Black Book
SAT Writing Multiple Choice
Hidden Test Design Patterns of Identifying Sentence Errors on the SAT
Just like every other question on the SAT, the Identifying Sentence Errors questions have patterns that will make it easier to find the right answer. Here they are:
Hidden Pattern 1: The Intervening Phrase
Very often on these questions, you’ll see that a descriptive phrase comes between a noun and its verb. Instead of agreeing with the correct word, the verb might incorrectly agree with something in the descriptive phrase. A lot of students miss these questions because the verb does agree with the noun that’s closest to it—the issue is that it doesn’t matter how close together two words are in a sentence. Never forget that a verb has to agree with the thing that’s actually doing the action.
Consider the following sentence, for example:
This list of names takes a long time to read.
The intervening phrase here is “of names,” and the word “takes” agrees with “list,” so that the core part of the sentence would be “This list takes.” The phrase “of names” is just a way to describe the list. So it would be wrong to say it this way:
*This list of names take a long time to read.
Because then you’d be making “take” agree with “names,” as though the core of the sentence were something like “names take.”
Here’s another sentence where the intervening phrase is longer:
Our neighbor from across the street with the loud dogs who spend all night barking wants to know if we can watch her house while she’s away.
The core of this sentence is “neighbor wants,” but the phrase “from across the street with the loud dogs who spend all night barking” is inserted between the words “neighbor” and “wants.” It would have been wrong to write the sentence this way:
*Our neighbor from across the street with the loud dogs who spend all night barking want to know if we can watch her house while she’s away.
So when you read a sentence on the SAT Writing section, ignore these intervening phrases and focus on the core relationship in the sentence to make sure the appropriate words agree with one another. We’ll see several examples of this in a few pages when we look at solutions to real Blue Book questions.
(I realize this might be considered a grammatical rule—in fact, I even talk about it in the Writing Toolbox in the appendix. But it’s so important, and it comes up so often on these questions, that I thought it was worth mentioning separately here.)
Hidden Pattern 2: Singular vs Plural
By far, the largest broad issue that comes up on the Writing section is the distinction between the singular and plural forms of different kinds of words. This can come up in a lot of ways, and you should learn to keep a sharp eye out for all of them. The example I gave in Hidden Pattern 1 involved the singular and plural forms of a verb, but you might also see the singular word “it” used incorrectly to refer to a plural noun. You might even see an incorrect sentence that says something like, “My brother and my sister both want to be a dentist,” when the correct version would be “My brother and my sister both want to be dentists,” since two people can’t become a single dentist.
So keep your eyes open for these singular/plural mismatches. They’re all over the Writing section, and they can show up in a variety of ways.
Hidden Pattern 3: The Last Few Sentences Will Be Convoluted
The last few questions in the Identifying Sentence Errors section will involve the same kinds of issues that appear in the other Identifying Sentence Errors questions, but the word-order of these last few sentences is often pretty odd. So it’s important to pay careful attention to the relationships among nouns, adjectives, verbs, and the other parts of speech, to make sure that you’re not missing anything just because the words are in a bizarre order. When you’re checking out a sentence to see if a word or phrase is in the proper form, remember that you have to look both before and after the underlined phrase, because subjects might appear after verbs, or antecedents might appear after pronouns, and so on. (This is true for every sentence on the SAT Writing section, but it comes up most often on questions 25 - 29 of the big Writing sub-section.)