SAT 2016

CHAPTER 4

THE SAT WRITING AND LANGUAGE TEST: THE TEN ESSENTIAL RULES

1.   Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

2.   Strengthen the Core

3.   Organize the Ideas in Your Paragraphs

4.   Use Parallel Structure

5.   Use Modifiers Effectively

6.   Make Your Comparisons Clear and Precise

7.   Make Sure Your Pronouns Are Clear and Precise

8.   Make Your Verbs Clear and Precise

9.   Make the Rest of Your Sentence Clear and Precise

10.   Know How to Punctuate

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The SAT Writing and Language Test

What is the SAT Writing and Language test?

The SAT includes a 35-minute Writing and Language test designed to assess your

proficiency in revising and editing a range of texts in a variety of content areas, both academic and career related, for expression of ideas and for conformity to the conventions of Standard Written English grammar, usage and punctuation.

The Writing and Language test consists of four passages, each 400–450 words long, in the categories of careers, social studies, humanities, and science. (For an example of the Writing and Language test, look at Section 2 of the Diagnostic Test in Chapter 2.) You are to analyze underlined portions of each passage and to determine whether they need to be revised according to the standards of

•   parallel structure

•   verb, modifier, and pronoun agreement

•   standard idiom

•   logical comparisons

•   word choice

•   verb tense, mood, and voice

•   logical transitions

•   coordination of ideas

•   punctuation

You are also asked more general editorial questions, such as

•   whether a certain sentence adds to or detracts from the cohesiveness of a paragraph

•   where a new sentence should be placed for maximum effectiveness

•   whether a particular passage or paragraph has the effect the author intends

How is it used?

Colleges use your SAT Writing and Language test score as a measure of your ability to write clearly and effectively. Good writing skills are essential to success in the liberal arts and sciences. The Writing and Language test score represents one-half of your Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Score. The other half of this score comes from the Reading test.

Sound intimidating? It’s not.

There are really only 10 rules to learn in order to ace the SAT Writing and Language test, and the 33 lessons in this chapter will give you the knowledge and practice you need to master all of them.

Rule 1: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

Lesson 1: Know the seven things to NOT worry about

1.  Don’t worry about split infinitives

Which is correct?

A.   Here are seven things to not worry about.

B.   Here are seven things not to worry about.

Sentence A includes a split infinitive: the infinitive to worry has an adverb (not) wedged inside it. Although the SAT probably won’t test your skill for “unsplitting” infinitives, you should still do it as a matter of politeness to the grammar scolds, for whom they are the verbal equivalent of chewing aluminum foil. You can usually just shift the adverb over a little bit, as in sentence B, and make everyone happy.

But sometimes it’s not so easy to unsplit infinitives without destroying the tone or meaning of the sentence. For instance, try unsplitting the infinitive in The company plans to more than double its revenue next year. Or, better yet, just don’t worry about it, since it won’t be on the SAT.

2.  Don’t worry (too much) about who vs. whom

Which is correct?

A.   To who should I give your condolences?

B.   To whom should I give your condolences?

The who/whom distinction is the same as the he/him and they/them distinction: the first pronoun in each pair has the subjective case (Lesson 21), and so is used as the subject of a verb, and the second has the objective case, and so is used as the object of a verb or preposition. Since the pronoun in the sentence above is the object of the preposition to, sentence B is correct.

Notice, however, that the pronoun you can be used as either a subject or an object. It represents a “merger” between the subjective thou and the objective thee from Elizabethan English. (Remember Shakespeare?) Likewise, whom seems to be in the process of merging with who. For instance, even Standard English allows a sentence like Who are you talking to? rather than insisting on the rather uptight-sounding To whom are you talking?

The bottom line? Chances are, your SAT won’t ask you to choose between who and whom. But if it does, just remember that the who/whom distinction is the same as the they/them and he/him distinctions. And if you’re still stuck, just go with who.

3.  Don’t worry about that vs. which

Which is correct?

A.   Second Federal is the only bank in town which does not finance commercial mortgages.

B.   Second Federal is the only bank in town that does not finance commercial mortgages.

Technically, sentence B is correct because the phrase that does not finance commercial mortgages is a “restrictive clause,” that is, it modifies the noun bank by attaching a defining characteristic to it. If a modifying clause is “restrictive” (that is, it conveys defining information about the noun), it should use that. Alternately, if the clause is “nonrestrictive” (that is, it conveys incidental or nondefining information about the noun), it should use which. Helpful tip: nonrestrictive modifying clauses are almost always preceded by a comma, as in The speech, which lasted only three minutes, secured her reputation as a master orator.

Bottom line: the SAT will probably not expect you to distinguish restrictive from nonrestrictive clauses, so don’t stress out about that versus which on the SAT.

4.  Don’t worry about starting sentences with Because, And, or But

Which is correct?

A.   Because we don’t know when Jennie will arrive, we can’t make dinner reservations yet.

B.   We can’t make dinner reservations yet because we don’t know when Jennie will arrive.

Ms. Bumthistle (everyone’s fifth grade English teacher) probably told you that it’s a cardinal sin to start a sentence with BecauseAnd, or But. But it’s not nice to lie to children. In fact, either sentence above is fine. The SAT frequently includes perfectly good sentences that start withBecause. But if you want to avoid annoying the Ms. Bumthistles of the world, avoid the practice in your own writing if it’s not too much trouble.

5.  Don’t worry about disappearing thats

Which is correct?

A.   I really love the sweater you gave me.

B.   I really love the sweater that you gave me.

Both of the sentences above are acceptable in Standard Written English. So, if that isn’t necessary, why would we ever include it? Because it takes some of the burden away from sweater, which is an object in the first clause (I really love the sweater) as well as an object of the second clause (You gave me [the sweater]). By including that, we separate the two ideas more clearly. But since very few people are confused by the dual role of sweater in the first sentence, that is not strictly necessary.

Bottom line: don’t worry about a missing that, as long as the resulting sentence still makes sense.

6.  Don’t worry about “parallel ellipsis”

Which is correct?

A.   The Republicans reacted to the speech with sustained applause; the Democrats, however, reacted to it with studied silence.

B.   The Republicans reacted to the speech with sustained applause; the Democrats, studied silence.

Both of the sentences above are grammatically correct. Sentence B, however, is more concise because it takes advantage of “parallel ellipsis.” Ellipsis simply means the omission of words that are implied by context. In this case, the parallel structure of the two clauses allows the reader to “fill in” the missing words.

When you read a sentence like B, you might think that the missing words are a grammatical mistake. But if the context clearly implies the missing words, you can leave them out.

You might notice that, in sentence B, the comma plays an unusual role. Usually, commas are used to separate items in a list, to separate modifying phrases from clauses, or (with conjunctions) to separate clauses. Here, however, the comma is analogous to the apostrophe in can’t: just as the apostrophe holds the place of the missing letters from cannot, so the comma in sentence B holds the place of the missing words (however, reacted to it with) from sentence A. Without that comma to suggest the ellipsis, the sentence would sound very strange indeed.

7.  Don’t worry (too much) about good versus well or bad versus badly

Which is correct?

A.   Peter performed good.

B.   Peter performed well.

Here, performed is an action verb. Any word that modifies the manner of an action verb is an adverb. Since good cannot function as an adverb in Standard English, only choice B is correct.

Which is correct?

C.   I don’t feel good.

D.   I don’t feel well.

Here, feel is a linking verb rather than an action verb: that is, it links the subject to an essential adjective, as in The sky is blue. So does this mean that C is right and D is wrong? No—they are both grammatically and semantically correct, since well can also act as an adjective, meaning “in good health.” The two sentences are essentially equivalent to I am not [feeling] good and I am not well.

Which is correct?

E.   I feel bad for you.

F.   I feel badly for you.

Here, despite what your know-it-all friends might say, E is correct and F is wrong, since badly can only function as an adverb. Saying I feel bad for you is like saying I feel sorry for you. You wouldn’t say I feel sorrily for you, would you?

It’s important to know the difference between adjectives and adverbs (Lesson 14), and between action verbs and linking verbs.

But the SAT is probably not going to ask you about good versus well or bad versus badly.