The SAT Prep Black Book
SAT Writing Multiple Choice
Hidden Test Design Patterns of Improving Sentences On The SAT
Combining an awareness of SAT grammar with an understanding of the following patterns will allow you to answer all the Improving Sentences questions that you’ll ever see on a real SAT. (Of course, you’ll have to read questions and their answer choices carefully in order to apply those ideas.)
In some cases, more than one answer choice will satisfy one of the patterns below. If that happens, the answer choice that satisfies the most patterns will be the right one. We’ll see a lot of examples of how this works when we look at some solutions to Blue Book questions in a few pages.
Hidden Pattern 1: Shorter is Better, All Else Being Equal
The correct answer choice for SAT Improving Sentences questions is very often the shortest answer choice. (This is probably because the best way to fix the kinds of stylistic errors that appear on these questions is usually to cut things out.)
When the correct answer choice is NOT the shortest one, it’s very often the longest one. This is because the other common way to fix the kinds of errors that appear in this section is to add words and phrases.
This is NOT the same thing as saying that you should always pick the shortest or longest answer. That would be an idiotic thing for me to say. All I’m saying is that the correct answer is very often the shortest or longest answer choice. Knowing this helps us start to take apart the Improving Sentences questions, because it calls our attention to the fact that the best solutions to these questions often involve cutting as much as possible from, or adding as much as possible to, the given sentence.
This pattern is very powerful, and it’s important for us not to forget it. In fact, if the shortest answer choice is grammatically correct (according to the SAT’s idea of correct grammar), then it’s always the right answer.
By the way, when I refer to the shortest answer choice I’m talking about the choice that takes up the least linear space on the page, not necessarily about the choice that has the fewest words. In other words, I’m talking about the answer choice that would be shortest if you measured all the choices with a ruler.
Hidden Pattern 2: It’s Better To Have Fewer “-ed” and “-ing” Words, All Else Being Equal
One of the College Board’s favorite ways to make an answer choice stylistically undesirable is to introduce participles or gerunds where they don’t need to exist. So we’ll often find that the answer choice with the fewest of those types of words is the correct one.
Those words are easy to identify in English because they tend to end in “-ed” or “-ing.”
Be especially careful around the words “being” and “having,” as those are often found in incorrect answer choices. (Of course, it’s possible for an answer choice to be correct while having either of those words in it, so I’m not saying you should automatically eliminate any answer choice that has them. I’m just saying that, in general, those words tend to indicate that a choice is incorrect.)
Hidden Pattern 3: It’s Better To Have Fewer Short Words, All Else Being Equal
In order to make its wrong answers longer and more awkward, the College Board often has to insert things like prepositions, conjunctions, relative pronouns, regular pronouns, helping verbs, and so on. You could spend a lot of time learning about all of these grammatical categories if you wanted . . . or you could just exploit the happy coincidence that, in English, these words are typically less than 5 letters long.
The correct answers, then, will tend to have the fewest words that are less than 5 letters long—the fewest words like “of,” “as,” that,” “and,” “to,” “it,” “have,” “by,” and so on.
Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that the correct answer will never contain any of these words. I’m saying that if you have one answer choice with only 3 words like this, and all the other choices have 5 short words, then, all else being equal, we’d expect the choice with only 3 short words to be the right answer.
Hidden Pattern 4: Wrong Answers Tend To Imitate Elements Of Right Answers
We’ll often find that phrases from the correct answer to a question are repeated in some of the incorrect answers, because the College Board wants to trick you. This means that you can often get an idea of which elements of an answer choice are likely to be correct by seeing which ones are repeated more throughout the answer choices. As an example, imagine a questions where 3 of the 5 answer choices begin with the word “but,” and 3 out of the 5 end with the word “always.” All other things being equal, we would expect the correct answer choice to begin with the word “but” and to end with the word “always.”
You may remember that the answer choices in certain SAT Math questions feature similar patterns, and for similar reasons. Just like in the Math section, it’s important to remember that I’m NOT saying that an answer choice will ALWAYS be correct if it includes all the most popular phrases from the other choices. I’m just saying that this happens very often, and it’s something we should be aware of as we work on Improving Sentences questions.