SAT 2016



Rule 2: Strengthen the Core

Lesson 2: Identify your clauses, modifiers, and conjunctions

The first and most important step in analyzing sentences is identifying clauses.

Every sentence contains at least one clause, which consists of a subject and a predicate. The subject is the noun or pronoun that is “doing” the verb, and the predicate consists of a verb and its complements (such as direct objects, indirect objects, verb modifiers, or predicate adjectives).

The subject-verb unit of any clause conveys the core idea of that clause. For instance, if we take the sentence

As the sun slowly set, the desperation of the sailors revealed itself in their sullen glances.

and isolate just the subject and verb, we still retain the core idea:

The desperation revealed itself.

Consider these two sentences:

A.   Go!

B.   Although generally regarded as the most daunting course in the undergraduate science curriculum, Introduction to Organic Chemistry not only provides a necessary foundation in the principles of physical chemistry, but also introduces students to important experimental methods at the heart of today’s most promising areas of medical research.

Sentence A is the shortest in the English language. It has everything necessary to convey a complete thought: a verb (go) and its subject (the implied subject you). Since it is in the imperative mood (Lesson 30), the subject is assumed to be the person being addressed and does not need to be stated.

So here’s how we can analyze sentence A:

[You] [go]!

[Implied subject] [verb]!

Sentences can also elaborate the main clause with modifiers or link clauses with conjunctions.

Sentence B is a bit more complicated. The main clause includes a compound predicate, so it combines two statements with the same subject into one sentence:

Introduction to Organic Chemistry … provides a necessary foundation in the principles of physical chemistry …

Introduction to Organic Chemistry … introduces students to important experimental methods at the heart today’s most promising areas of medical research.

These two clauses are linked by a conjunction phrase (not only … but also), and are preceded by a subordinating conjunction (Although) followed by a modifying (participial) phrase (generally regarded as the most daunting course in the undergraduate science curriculum). We’ll talk more about conjunctions in Lessons 6 and 10 and about participial phrases in Lesson 12.

So here’s how you should analyze sentence B:

[Although] [generally regarded as the most daunting course in the undergraduate science curriculum], [Introduction to Organic Chemistry] [not only] [provides a necessary foundation in the principles of physical chemistry], [but also] [introduces students to important experimental methods at the heart today’s most promising areas of medical research.]

[Subordinating conjunction] [participial phrase], [subject], [conjunction part 1] [predicate 1] [conjunction part 2] [predicate 2].

If this analysis seems confusing now, don’t worry. We’ll explain all of these terms in the lessons to come. For now, focus on identifying clauses (the words in bold in the sentence above) because they are the core of any sentence. Distinguishing clauses from the rest of the sentence is the first step to becoming a stronger reader and writer.

Lesson 3: Trim every sentence to analyze its core

Consider this sentence:

My chief concern with this budget, which has otherwise been well considered, are the drastic cuts in school funds.

How does it sound? It may sound a little bit off, but why, and how do we improve it? This is where trimming comes in.

Diagnosing and improving sentences requires mastering the skill of trimming: reducing the sentence to its core, or its essential elements, then analyzing that core.

This is based on a very important rule of grammar: every sentence must “work” even when its prepositional phrases, interrupters, and other modifiers are eliminated. That is, it still must convey a grammatically complete idea.

Step 1: Cross out all nonessential prepositional phrases.

preposition is any word that can be used to complete any sentence like these:

The squirrel ran _____the tree. (e.g. uptoaroundfrominbyoninto, etc.)

I went to the party _____ a brain surgeon. (e.g., aswithfor, etc.)

Democracy is government _____ the people. (e.g., forofby, etc.)

prepositional phrase is the preposition plus the noun phrase that follows it, such as from sea to shining sea, in the beginning, and for the money.

Our sentence has two nonessential prepositional phrases that we can eliminate:

My chief concern with this budget, which has otherwise been well considered, are the drastic cuts in school funds.

Step 2: Cross out all interrupting modifiers.

Interrupting modifiers are generally easy to spot because they come between commas or dashes. The sentence should always hold together even when the interrupting modifiers are removed:

My chief concern with this budget, which has otherwise been well considered, are the drastic cuts in school funds.

Step 3: Cross out any other nonessential modifiers.

Once you learn to identify participial phrases (Lesson 12), appositives (Lesson 13), and more mundane modifiers like adjectives and adverbs (Lesson 14), you can trim them from all of your sentences, as well, with one exception: predicate adjectives, such as tired in the sentence Karen was tired, without which the sentence doesn’t convey an idea. In our sentence, chief and drastic can go:

My chief concern with this budget, which has otherwise been well considered, are the drastic cuts in school funds.

So now we have the core:

My concern are the cuts.

Obviously, the subject and verb disagree (Lesson 4): concern is a singular subject, but are is a plural verb. So you may just want to change the verb: My concern is the cuts. But that’s no good either, because now the sentence has a number shift (Lesson 11): the singular concern is equated with the plural cuts.

These problems point to an even deeper problem: the most essential part of the sentence, the verb, is very weak. Forms of the verb to be, like isarewas, and were, are among the weakest verbs in English.

To improve your writing, first focus on strengthening and clarifying your verbs.

This sentence is clearly indicating disapproval, so a more personal subject like I and a strong verb of disapproval like object would strengthen the sentence:

Although the budget is otherwise well considered, I object to its drastic cuts in school funds.

Notice that this revision not only corrects the grammatical problems, but it also makes the sentence stronger, clearer, and more concise.

Exercise 1: Trimming and Strengthening Sentences

Trim each of the following sentences and correct any verb problems.

1.  The team of advisors, arriving slightly ahead of schedule, were met at the airport by the Assistant Prime Minister.

2.  The flock of birds darting over the roiling lake look like an opalescent whirlwind.

3.  Carmen, not to mention her unsympathetic sisters, were unaffected by David’s pleas.

4.  Juggling the demands of school, family, and work often seem too much for a young mother to bear.

5.  Others on the committee, like chairman Sanders, is concerned about the lack of attention given to school safety.

6.  Every one of my friends, including the boys, has supported my decision.

7.  The fact that human institutions have been responsible for so many atrocities have forced some historians to adopt a cynical perspective on human nature.

Trim each sentence. Then revise it to make it clear and concise, changing the subject and verb, if necessary.

8.  The progression of a society, or at least that popularly regarded as advancements, are a result of gradual modifications, not sudden drastic overhaul.

Trimmed: _________________________

Revised: __________________________


9.  The development of the new country’s government and social institutions were affected in a negative regard by the lack of cohesiveness within the revolutionary army.

Trimmed: _________________________

Revised: __________________________


10.  This report is intended for presenting arguments in opposition to what I took to be the less than optimal response of the administration to the most recent crises in the Middle East.

Trimmed: _________________________

Revised: __________________________


Lesson 4: Make sure your verbs agree with their subjects

Which is correct?

A.   Data gathered through polling is not as reliable as data gathered objectively.

B.   Data gathered through polling are not as reliable as data gathered objectively.

If we trim sentence A, we get

Data gathered through polling is not as reliable as data gathered objectively.

The subject, data, is plural, so the verb should be are. Sentence B is correct.

A few Latin plurals are frequently mistaken for singulars. Don’t make that mistake.


Which is correct?

C.   Behind every successful work of art lies countless hours of toil and trial.

D.   Behind every successful work of art lie countless hours of toil and trial.

If we trim sentence C, we get

Behind every successful work of art lies countless hours of toil and trial.

Here, the subject and verb are inverted: the subject hours comes after the verb lies. When we “un-invert” the clause, the subject-verb disagreement is obvious: hours lies should be changed to hours lie. Therefore, sentence D is correct.

An inverted clause, where the verb comes before the subject, usually begins with the dummy subject there, as in There is or There are, or is preceded by a prepositional phrase.

Every inverted clause can be “un-inverted” by removing any dummy subject and rearranging the phrases. Un-inverting these sentences will help you to spot any subject-verb disagreements.


Which is correct?

E.   One or two of my classmates has a strong chance of winning an award.

F.   One or two of my classmates have a strong chance of winning an award.

If we trim sentence E, we get

One or two of my classmates has a strong chance of winning an award.

Is the subject, One or two, singular or plural? In these ambiguous situations, it helps to remember the law of proximity: the essential noun (that is, not one in a prepositional phrase) that is closer to the verb gets priority. Here, since two is closer to the verb, the subject is regarded as plural. Therefore, sentence F is correct.

If a subject takes the form a or b, it is assumed to take the number of b.

Exercise 2: Subject-Verb Agreement

Choose the correct verb form.

1.  The flock of geese (was/were) startled by the shotgun blast.

2.  The data on my computer (was/were) lost when the hard drive failed.

3.  Neither of the twins (is/are) allergic to penicillin.

4.  Much of what I hear in those lectures (go/goes) in one ear and out the other.

5.  Amy, like her friends Jamie and Jen, (wants/want) to go to Mount Holyoke College.

6.  Among the lilies and wildflowers (were/was) one solitary rose.

7.  Either the chairperson or her assistants (is/are) going to have to make the decision.

8.  There (is/are) hardly even a speck of dirt left on the carpet.

9.  In every teaspoon of soil (are/is) over two million tiny microorganisms.

10.  There (is/are), in my opinion, far too few primary physicians working in this district.

11.  Beyond that hill (is/are) hundreds of bison.

12.  Never before (have/has) there been such voices heard on the public airwaves.

13.  Every player on both teams (was/were) at the press conference after the game.

14.  There (has/have) been a theater and a toy store in the mall ever since it opened.

15.  There (is/are) a great many production problems to iron out before show time.

16.  The proceeds from the sale of every auctioned item (goes/go) to charity.

17.  There (is/are) more than three years remaining on her contract.

18.  Neither of the girls (was/were) frightened by the small animals that scurried past their tent.

19.  This technology, developed by the military for field communications, (have/has) become essential to private industry as well.

20.  Every player on both teams (was/were) concerned about the goalie’s injury.

21.  The company’s sponsorship of mentorship programs (has/have) garnered many accolades from other philanthropic organizations.

22.  Neither the children nor their parents (utter/utters) a word when Mrs. Denny tells her stories.

23.  How important (is/are) strength training and cardiovascular training to your daily fitness regimen?