Checking for Standard Usage and Mechanics

Practice these guidelines to minimize writing errors:

• Write correct sentences

• Use correct verbs

• Use adjectives and adverbs correctly

• Choose correct pronouns

• Correct punctuation and capitalization


Time won”t permit you to analyze meticulously every sentence in your SAT essay. But if you habitually scrutinize the sentences in your practice essays and in other work you do for school, you”ll soon purge from your writing such errors as fragments (incomplete sentences), run-ons, which consist of two or more improperly joined sentences, and comma splices, formed when a comma separates two complete sentences.

To avoid these common errors, always look for the noun or pronoun that functions as the grammatical subject of the sentence and for the verb that it goes with. Every sentence states its subject except one that gives commands or makes requests (Make it snappy! Sit! Please hurry up.), in which case the subject is understood to be the addressee—you, the dog, a slowpoke…whomever.

For more details and practice in writing correct sentences, turn to Part V.


Of all the parts of speech, verbs are the most apt to be used incorrectly. As you edit your SAT essay, therefore, ask yourself the following three questions:

1. Do all nouns and pronouns agree in number with their verbs?

2. Is every verb in the correct tense?

3. Is every verb in the correct form?

Learn to answer these questions accurately by studying the following sections of Part V: subject–verb agreement; proper use of verb tenses; and correct form of verbs.


Errors sometimes occur when an adjective is used where an adverb is required. The reverse—using an adverb in place of an adjective—occurs less often. Check your essay for the proper use of adjectives and adverbs.

For details and practice in adjective/adverb use, turn to Part V.


Skim your essay for pronoun errors, which turn up most often when pronouns are paired, as in he and I and me and them. If you can”t depend on your sense of what sounds right and wrong, keep in mind that most common pronouns fall into two groups:

Group 1: I, he, she, they, we, you, who
Group 2: me, him, her, them, us, you, whom

The pronouns in the first group are nominative case pronouns (sometimes called subjective case pronouns) and are used in grammatical subjects and predicate nominatives. The second group—objective case pronouns—are used everywhere else. Because pairs must come from the same case, problems arise when pronouns from different cases show up in the same phrase, as “Him and I went to the movies.” Any time you need a pair of pronouns, and you know that one of them is correct, pick the other from the same group. If you don”t know either pronoun, here”s a handy rule of thumb to follow: Substitute I or me for one of them. If I seems to fit, choose pronouns from Group 1; if me fits better, use Group 2.

For more details and a practice exercise in choosing the case of pronouns, turn to Part V.

As you review your essay, check the reference of all pronouns. That is, be sure also that every pronoun refers clearly to its antecedent—usually a noun or another pronoun. Confusion comes when no clear tie exists, especially when a pronoun seems to refer to more than one antecedent:

The librarian told Sarah that it was her responsibility to shelve the books.

Because the pronoun her may refer to either the librarian or to Sarah, the sentence needs revision:

The librarian told Sarah that one of her responsibilities as a library clerk was to shelve books.

Also watch for implied references, which often involve the pronouns it, they, and you, but even more frequently, the relative pronouns which, that, and this.

Finally, don”t use pronouns to refer to possessives, as in:

In Eminem”s latest hit, he stumbles over several words.

The pronoun he obviously refers to Eminem, but the word Eminem doesn”t appear in the sentence. Because the possessive noun Eminem”s is not a grammatical equivalent to Eminem, the revised sentence should be:

In his latest hit, Eminem stumbles over several words.

For more details and an exercise in pronoun reference, turn to Part V.

Stay alert also for shifts in pronoun person within individual sentences, within paragraphs, and within the whole essay. Keep in mind that a sentence or a passage cast in the second person (you), for example, should usually remain so from start to finish. Likewise, a sentence or passage written in the first or third person should stay that way throughout.

For more details and an exercise in pronoun person, turn to Part V.

Finally, take a look at the agreement between all the pronouns and their antecedents. Do they agree in gender, number, and person? Problems frequently occur with words like everyone, anyone, and nobody—singular words that should usually be followed by singular pronouns. Sometimes such words are meant as plurals, however, and should be followed by plural pronouns.

For more details and an exercise in pronoun-antecedent agreement, turn to Part V.


Because error-free essays tend to earn higher scores, it pays to review your essay for proper punctuation and use of capital letters.

Correct Punctuation

A few basic rules cover 90 percent of everyday punctuation. The hardest thing about the rules is knowing where and when to apply them.

Apostrophes. Apostrophes are used in only three places:

1. In contractions such as won”t, it”s, could”ve, and where”s. Apostrophes mark places where letters have been omitted.

2. In plurals of letters, signs, or numbers, as in A”s and B”s, the 1960”s, and 10”s and 20”s, although many experts simplify matters by writing 1960s, Ps and Qs, and so forth.

3. In possessive nouns such as the student”s class and women”s room and in indefinite pronouns such as anybody”s guess. When the noun is plural and ends in s, put the apostrophe after the s, as in leaves” color and horses” stable. Some possessive forms use both an apostrophe and of, as in a friend of the family”s; some others that specify time, space, value, or quantity also require apostrophes, as in an hour”s time, a dollar”s worth, at my wit”s end.

Commas. Commas divide sentences into parts, clarify meaning, and prevent confusion.

1. Use a comma to signal a pause, as in:

No pause:

After brushing his teeth gleamed.


After brushing, his teeth gleamed.

Commas are needed after some introductory words and in forms of address:

Well, you can open it whenever it”s convenient.
The letter will be waiting for you at home, Jimmy.

2. Commas set off words that interrupt the flow of a sentence, as in:

Carolyn, regrettably, was omitted from the roster.
Jennie, on the other hand, was included.

Commas separate information not essential to the meaning of the sentence:

The lost hikers, who had come from New Jersey, found shelter in a cave.
The three bikers, whose map of the course was out of date, arrived two hours later.

Commas set off appositives:

Samantha, the defense counsel, entered the courtroom.
The judge, Mr. Peterson, presided at the trial.

3. Commas separate the clauses of a compound sentence:

The competition is stiff, but it won”t keep Miriam from winning.
Pete had better call my mother, or I”ll be in big trouble.

4. Commas separate items in a series:

Rosie”s car needs new tires, a battery, a muffler, and an oil change.
It was a wonder that Marv could sit through the long, boring, infantile, and ridiculous lecture.

Some writers prefer to skip the comma before the last item in a series, but just in case clarity may suffer, it can”t hurt to put it in.

5. Commas separate parts of addresses, dates, and place names:

Who lives at 627 West 115th Street, New York, NY?
Richard was born on May 27, 1996, the same day as Irene.
Dave has lived in Madison, Wisconsin; Seattle, Washington; and Eugene, Oregon.

Note that, because each item in the last example already contains a comma, semicolons help to avoid confusion.

6. Commas separate quotations from attributions in dialogue.

John said, “Close the window.”
“I want it open,” protested Ben.

Semicolons. Semicolons may be used between closely related sentences, in effect, shortening the pause that would naturally occur between two separate sentences:

Mother was worried; her daughters never stay out this late.
The momentum was building; she couldn”t be stopped now.

A caution: Because semicolons function like periods, use them only between independent clauses or in a series in which one or more items contains a comma, as in:

On his trek, Norwood met Allen, a carpenter from Maine; Dr. Jones, a pediatrician from St. Louis; Jonathan, an airline pilot; and me, of course.

Quotation Marks. Quotation marks usually surround direct quotations, as in:

Rita said to Bob, “I”m nuts about you.”

Quotation marks also enclose the titles of poems, stories, chapter headings, essays, magazine articles, and other short works. Don”t use them for longer works. Novels, plays, films, and magazine titles should be underlined in handwritten essays and italicized when they appear in print.

Avoid calling attention to clichés, trite expressions, or slang terms by using quotation marks. Rewrite instead, using fresh, original language.

Finally, quotation marks may enclose words that express the silent thoughts of a character, as in:

Carlos glanced at his watch. “I”m going to be late,” he thought.

Periods and commas are placed inside close-quotation marks. Question marks and exclamation points go outside the quotation mark unless they are part of the quote itself.

“When will the seminar start?” asked Regis.
Do you understand the meaning of the concept “The end justifies the means”?

Practice in Using Punctuation


Directions: Check your mastery of possessives by writing the correct possessive form of the italicized word in the space provided. Some items may be correct.

1. Pauls reason was personal.

2. The future of Americas foreign policy is being debated.

3. Teams from all over the county have gathered at the stadium.

4. Luis isn”t at all interested in womens issues.

5. The girls locker room is downstairs, but the boys is upstairs.

6. We are invited to the Andersons house for New Years Eve.

7. All of the Rosses are going out to eat.

8. Have you seen Morris iPod, which he left here yesterday?

9. Both of the computers keyboards need repair.

10. He”ll be back in two months time.


Directions: In the following sentences, insert or remove commas and semicolons as necessary. Some sentences may be correct.

1. While Bill was riding his bike got a flat tire.

2. The mail carrier did not leave the package for Valerie was not at home.

3. After doing his homework Mikey as you might expect talked on his cell phone for an hour.

4. His work criticized many commonly held beliefs however and it was strictly censored.

5. The car, that ran into mine at the intersection, was an SUV.

6. Dad went to the airport to pick up Dave Ellie went to the train station to meet Debbie.

7. The people who live by the water must be prepared for occasional flooding.

8. The boat, was seventy-five feet long and eighteen feet wide, its mast was about eighty feet tall.

9. To anyone interested in flying planes hold endless fascination.

10. Jeff and Steve left alone for the weekend invited all their friends to a party.

11. I need street maps of Boston; and Portland, Maine.

12. Some of the theories dealt with the political social and religious ideas of the time.

13. Students, who want to try out for the chorus, have been asked to report to room 330.

14. Doug for example is both a scholar and an athlete.

15. Monica refused to go, unless Phil went with her.

16. The hero of the book John Coffey rode his bike across the United States.

17. After all she did for him what she could.

18. Starting in Minnesota the Mississippi runs all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

19. Harold Watkins who comes from Chicago won a full tuition scholarship to Duke.

20. Although the characters are stereotypes they were interesting to read about.

21. Yo-Yo Ma the famous cellist will perform a recital on Saturday night.

22. This test covers Spanish literature culture and history; and it lasts for three hours.

23. Michelle is pretty tall and dark but her older sister Norma is pretty short and light.

24. Sean the twin brother of Ian was struck by a falling tree limb.

25. The window washer dropped by last evening but he didn”t bring his squeegee.


Capitalization isn”t totally standardized, but it”s not a free-for-all either. You won”t go wrong following these guidelines:

1. Capitalize the first words of sentences, direct quotations, and lines of poetry (most of the time). This includes sentences that follow colons, as in:

He had all the symptoms of love: He could think of nothing but Cheryl all day long.

2. Capitalize proper nouns and adjectives derived from proper nouns: Victoria, Victorian; Shakespeare, Shakespearean; France, French dressing (but not french fries, which has become a generic term).

3. Capitalize place names: North America, Lake Moosilauke, Yosemite National Park, Gobi Desert, Mount Rushmore, Panama Canal, the Arctic Ocean, Times Square, Route 66. Don”t capitalize north, east, south, and west unless you are referring to a particular region of the country, as in:

They went camping in the West.

Nor should you capitalize the common noun that is not part of the actual place name: the canal across Panama, the city of Moline, and the plains of the Midwest.

4. Capitalize languages, races, nationalities, and religions: the Hungarian language, Inuit, Argentinian, Hispanic, Muslim.

5. Capitalize organizations, institutions, and brand names: United Nations, Pittsburgh Pirates, Library of Congress, Automobile Club of America, Amtrak, Southwest Airlines, the Internet, Toyota. Don”t, however, capitalize the common noun associated with the brand name, as in Crest toothpaste or Starbuck”s coffee.

6. Capitalize titles of persons that indicate rank, office, profession, when they are used with the person”s name: Congressman Kelly, Doctor Dolittle, Coach McConnell, Judge Judy, Lieutenant Lawlor. Also, the titles of high officials when they are used in place of the official”s name, as in the Secretary General, the Prime Minister, the Secretary of the Treasury. Don”t capitalize titles when referring generically to the position: the superintendent of schools, the assistant librarian, the clerk of the highway department.

7. Capitalize family relationships, but only when they are used with a person”s name: Uncle Wesley, Grandma Jones, Cousin Dave.

8. Capitalize titles of books, plays, stories, articles, poems, songs, and other creative works: The Grapes of Wrath, Hamlet, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” “Box of Rain.” Note that articles, conjunctions, and prepositions of less than five letters are not capitalized unless they appear as the last or the first words in the title.

9. Capitalize references to the Deity and religious tracts: God, the Gospel, the Torah, the Koran, the Lord, the Prophet. Also capitalize pronouns referring to Him or Her.

10. Capitalize historical names, events, documents, and periods: Battle of Gettysburg, Alien and Sedition Acts, War of 1812, Bill of Rights, Middle Ages.

11. Capitalize days of the week, months, holidays: Monday, May, Mothers” Day. The seasons are not capitalized unless given an identity such as Old Man Winter.

12. Capitalize the names of specific courses and schools: History 101, Forensic Science, Brookvale High School, Columbia College. While course names are capitalized, subjects are not. Therefore, you study history in American History 101 and learn forensics in Forensic Science. Similarly, you attend high school at Brookvale High School and go to college at Columbia.

Practice in Applying Capitalization

Directions: Add capital letters where they are needed in the following sentences.

1. on labor day bennington county”s fire department plans to hold a turkey shoot on the field at miller”s pond.

2. the judge gave district attorney lipman a book entitled the rules of evidence and instructed her to read it before she ever dared set foot in the court of appeals of the ninth circuit again.

3. the secretary of state greeted the president of austria at the ronald reagan airport in washington, d.c.

4. the shackleton expedition nearly met its doom on georgia island in antarctica.

5. for christmas he got a black & decker table saw from the sears store next to the old bedford courthouse.

6. according to georgetown”s high school principal, eugene griffiths, georgetown high school attracts students from the whole west coast. at georgetown students may major in drawing and painting, design, graphics, or sculpture. mr. griffiths said, “i attended a similar high school in new england just after the vietnam war.”

7. we expect to celebrate new year”s eve again this year by ordering a movie of an old broadway musical from netflix and settling down in front of the dvd player with some pepsi and a box of oreos.

8. after traveling all the way to the pacific, the corps of discovery rode down the missouri river going east on their way back to st. louis.

9. This irish linen tablecloth was bought at k-mart in the emeryville mall off powell street.

10. yellowstone national park is located in the northwestern corner of the state of wyoming.