SAT 2016



Rule 3: Organize the Ideas in Your Paragraphs

Lesson 5: Present your ideas cohesively and with a consistent tone

What’s wrong with this paragraph?

The politics of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” have obscured both the dangers and the benefits of this new technology. Opponents suggest that the high-pressure fluid used to fracture deep rock formations may contain carcinogens that may seep into groundwater, and that fracking induces earthquakes. Supporters point out that this activity is taking place well below even the deepest aquifers and is well sealed off from human water supplies. The technical term for earthquakes is seismic activity, and the fractures are pretty small, really: only about 1 millimeter or less.

The paragraph starts off well, with a clear topic sentence about the politics of fracking. It then gives a quick summary of the two positions on the topic. With the last sentence, however, the paragraph begins to lose its focus and tone: the phrase pretty small, really is too conversational for the tone of this paragraph, and the ideas in the last sentence are not tied logically to the ongoing discussion. Here’s a revision that more effectively links to the previous sentence:

They also point out that the seismic activity induced by fracking is minimal: the vast majority of the fractures it induces are less than 1 millimeter wide.

Every effective prose paragraph should

•   be focused on a topic sentence that develops the central idea of the passage

•   explain or illustrate any significant claims

•   avoid irrelevant commentary

•   maintain a consistent and appropriate tone

Lesson 6: Coordinate your clauses effectively and avoid commas splices

Which is better?

A.   Despite being a best-selling author, Brian Greene is a professor of physics, he is also cofounder of the World Science Festival, and this event draws nearly half a million people each year.

B.   Cofounded by best-selling author and professor of physics Brian Greene, the World Science Festival draws nearly half a million people each year.

It’s not too hard to see that sentence B seems clearer and more logical than sentence A, but why? The answer is coordination. Both sentences contain the same four ideas, but sentence B coordinates those ideas more effectively. Sentence A contains three independent clauses:

… Brian Greene is a professor of physics …

… [Brian Greene] is also cofounder of the World Science Festival …

… [the World Science Festival] draws nearly half a million people each year …

So the reader is left confused: what is the central idea of this sentence? Brian Greene’s professorship? His festival? The popularity of the festival? Even worse, the preposition Despite doesn’t make sense, since being a best-selling author doesn’t interfere in any obvious way with being a physics professor.

Sentence B, in contrast, packages these ideas to make them easier to digest. The first two ideas are subordinated in a participial phrase, and the third idea is emphasized as the independent clause.

In a well-coordinated sentence,

•   the central idea is expressed in the main independent clause

•   secondary ideas are expressed in subordinate clauses or modifying phrases

•   ideas are linked with logically appropriate conjunctionsprepositions, and adverbs

Notice also that the second comma in sentence A is a comma splice, joining two independent clauses. That’s a no-no.

Avoid comma splices. A comma splice is the error of joining two independent clauses with only a comma:


Independent clauses can be joined in one sentence in one of three acceptable ways:


Semicolons are used to join two ideas when the second supports or extends the first. Colons are used to join two ideas when the second explains or specifies the first. The first sentence indicates that T.J.’s guitar didn’t help the mood; the second indicates that T.J.’s guitar didn’t hurtthe mood; the third indicates that T.J.’s guitar explained the mood.

Exercise 3: Coordinating Clauses

Join each set of sentences into a single well-coordinated sentence.

1.  H. K. Schaffer’s latest movie has received widespread critical acclaim. She directed the movie. It is the third movie that she has directed. She is the daughter of famous screenwriter George Schaffer. Her latest movie is a comedy entitled The Return.

2.  Scientists have made an important discovery. The scientists who made the discovery are a team from universities and research institutions from all over the world. The discovery concerns a region of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. The scientists have discovered that this region governs impulse control in humans. Studying this region of the brain can help scientists learn more about criminal behavior.

Rewrite the following sentences so that the clauses coordinate logically and concisely.

3.  Electric cars may not be as environmentally friendly as they are widely regarded, so the electricity they use actually comes from fossil fuels; that electricity is produced in power plants that often burn coal or other fossil fuels and that burning often produces enormous amounts of greenhouse emissions.

4.  Although regular exercise is good for your muscles, it is also good for your heart, so it is good for your brain too by keeping it well oxygenated and the increased oxygenation helps it work more efficiently.

5.  We are motivated by our principles; our principles change all the time, though: our experiences and our priorities evolve as we grow.

Lesson 7: Give your reader helpful transitions, especially between paragraphs

Consider this transition between paragraphs:

… and so we should be respectful of other people, even those with whom we disagree, while always striving to eliminate inequities and abuses of power.

To Kill a Mockingbird was written by Harper Lee and published in 1960. It portrays the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama …

The end of the first paragraph makes a bold claim: that we should strive to eliminate inequities and abuses of power. But the next paragraph abruptly shifts to mundane facts about the publication of a particular book. Although readers who are familiar with To Kill a Mockingbird might have an idea why this author is mentioning it, the author does not provide any helpful transitions to guide the reader into the new paragraph and indicate how the new paragraph connects with previous one. Consider this revision:

… and so we should be respectful of other people, even those with whom we disagree, while always striving to eliminate inequities and abuses of power.

In To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Harper Lee depicts a fictional town, Maycomb, Alabama, that is tainted by such inequities and abuses …

Now we understand the reference better because the author has provided a helpful paragraph transition. The phrase such inequities and abuses demonstrates clearly that the events in To Kill a Mockingbird will illustrate the importance of fighting inequities and abuse, and therefore exemplify the thesis from the previous paragraph.

Provide your readers with helpful paragraph transitions to clarify the links between topic ideas. Keep in mind the common transitional words and phrases below.

To extend an idea


To illustrate or specify an idea


To make a comparison or contrast


To show consequence


To provide explanation or reason


Lesson 8: Make your cross-references clear

Consider these sentences from our “fracking” essay:

… The opponents of fracking are correct to ask questions about the safety and sustainability of this process. Could it poison the local water supply with carcinogens? Can we spare the vast amount of injection water it requires? Can we safely recycle its wastewater? Could it be introducing more methane into the water supply than would naturally be present? Could it be causing potentially dangerous seismic activity? But this also must be followed by careful, scientific, and impartial investigation, not mere fear-mongering.

Each of the five questioning sentences contains the pronoun it, which makes a “cross-reference” to a noun in the first sentence, namely, fracking (or, equivalently, process). The last sentence also includes a cross-referencing pronoun, this. But to what does it refer? It doesn’t seem to be referring to fracking anymore; that wouldn’t make sense. Nor does it make sense to refer to the other singular nouns in previous sentences, like methanewater supply, or seismic activity. So the reader may be left a bit confused. Here, we need to revise to clarify the cross-reference:

But this questioning must be followed by careful, scientific, and impartial investigation, not mere fear-mongering.

When referring to concepts introduced in previous sentences, using pronouns will often help you be concise, but make sure your cross-references are clear. Sometimes clarity may require you to replace the “cross-referencing” pronouns with more precise nouns.

Exercise 4: Effective Transitions and Cross-References

Rewrite the second sentence in each pair, providing an effective transition and clarifying any cross-references.

1.  … Modern biologists have tried for decades to explore the relationship between ancient humans and Neanderthals, but analyzing DNA from prehistoric hominids has until recently proven very difficult.

The “clean room” at the Max Planck Institute in Germany is like those used in the manufacturing of computer chips or space telescopes, solving the issue by preventing contamination from dust particles so that biologists can extract and examine minute bits of DNA from 400,000-year-old hominid bones.

2.  … As satisfying as it may be to punish wrongdoers, the real impetus behind tough sentencing laws is the belief that they actually deter crime.

The treatment so many prisoners receive in state and federal penitentiaries, including humiliation and loss of autonomy, only exacerbates any short- or long-term psychological issues that make them susceptible to antisocial and criminal impulses, according to evidence.

3.  … It’s easy to understand, in a society as complex, diverse, and bureaucratic as ours, how some citizens could develop a deep distrust of governmental institutions.

The willingness to equate all governmental institutions with tyranny is an enormously dangerous one that can only impede human moral, economic, and cultural progress.