THE SAT WRITING AND LANGUAGE TEST: THE TEN ESSENTIAL RULES
Rule 9: Make the Rest of Your Sentence Clear and Precise
Lesson 26: Avoid redundancy
Which is correct?
A. With only seconds remaining left to go in the game, Michael grabbed the ball and sped quickly down the court.
B. With only seconds to go in the game, Michael grabbed the ball and sped down the court.
Notice that sentence A does not convey any idea that is not also conveyed in sentence B. Therefore, the three words that have been removed are redundant. Sentence B is better because it obeys the Law of Parsimony.
The Law of Parsimony
All else being equal, shorter is better.
Only one of remaining, left, or to go is necessary, because they all have the same meaning. Also, since sped means moved quickly, the adverb quickly is redundant.
Lesson 27: Avoid diction errors
Which sentence is best?
A. The news about the court’s ruling extended quickly throughout the Internet.
B. The news about the court’s ruling scattered quickly throughout the Internet.
C. The news about the court’s ruling propagated quickly throughout the Internet.
D. The news about the court’s ruling expanded quickly throughout the Internet.
None of these sentences is grammatically wrong, but sentence A sounds odd. The word extended is not quite right for this context. From the Latin tendere which means “to stretch,” extend applies to things, like baseball games or necks, that are made to go beyond their typical lengths. Butnews, unlike a baseball game or a neck, does not have a “typical length,” so trying to apply the verb extend to it is a diction error: the inappropriate use of a word.
Sentence B sounds a bit better, but scatter applies to a bunch of individual things, like seeds or mice, that are suddenly moving away from their group. Since this news is a single fact, not many individual items in a bunch, scattered doesn’t quite work, either.
Sentence C uses propagated, which means spread or promoted, as an idea or theory. Since news spreads very much as an idea or theory does, the verb is being used appropriately.
Sentence D uses expanded, which, like extended, typically refers to something growing beyond its typical size or limit. Since news doesn’t have a typical size or limit, expanded is not quite the right word.
Which sentence is correct?
E. We interviewed about thirty perspective candidates for the job.
F. We interviewed about thirty prospective candidates for the job.
The diction error in sentence E is a “sound-alike” error. The word perspective is a noun meaning “point of view,” but the sentence clearly calls for an adjective describing the candidates. Prospective is an adjective meaning “expected to play a particular role or to achieve a particular goal in the future,” which is certainly appropriate in describing a job candidate.
accept (v) = to agree to take <accept an offer>
except (prep) = not including <every day except Sunday>
except (v) = exclude <present company excepted>
adapt (v) = to make suitable for a particular purpose <adapted to a new use>
adopt (v) = to choose as one’s own <adopt a child>
adept (adj) = highly skilled <an adept player>
affect (v) = to influence <it affected me deeply>
effect (n) = result or consequence <had a good effect>
allude (v) = to make a subtle or indirect reference (to) <he alluded to their first meeting>
elude (v) = to escape from; to avoid <elude capture>
allusion (n) = a subtle reference <an allusion to Othello>
illusion (n) = misconception or misperception <optical illusion>
ambivalent (adj) = having conflicting feelings (about) <I feel ambivalent about going to the party>
ambiguous (adj) = unclear or having more than one interpretation <an ambiguous signal>
cite (v) = to credit as a source of information <cite an article>; to commend for meritorious action <cited for bravery>
site (n) = location where a particular activity occurs <the site of the battle>
sight (v) = to see at a specific location <she was sighted in the crowd>
compliment (n) = a praising personal comment <compliments are always appreciated>
complement (n) = something that completes or makes a whole <Brie is a fine complement to this wine>
council (n) = a committee <the executive council>
counsel (v) = to give advice <he counseled me wisely>
discrete (adj) = distinct <dozens of discrete parts>
discreet (adj) = prudently modest in revealing information <please be discreet about our meeting>
elicit (v) = to bring out or to call forth <the joke elicited uncomfortable laughter>
illicit (adj) = unlawful <illicit activities>
eminent (adj) = prominent and distinguished <an eminent historian>
imminent (adj) = about to happen <imminent doom>
flaunt (v) = to show (something) off <if you’ve got it, flaunt it>
flout (v) = to show disregard for <flout the rules>
gambit (n) = a careful strategy or an opening move <a bold gambit>
gamut (n) = the complete range <run the gamut>
imply (v) = to suggest or hint at <a handshake implies agreement>
infer (v) = to draw a conclusion from evidence <we can infer hostile intent>
morale (n) (mor-AL) = shared enthusiasm for and dedication to a goal <the team’s morale was high>
moral (n) (MOR-al) = lesson or principle about good behavior <the story had a nice moral>
phase (n) = stage in a process <third phase of the project>
faze (n) = to disturb (someone’s) composure <fazed by the interruption>
precede (v) = to come before <thunder is always preceded by lightning>
proceed (v) (pro-CEED) = to go on, usually after a pause (pro- forward) <proceed with the task>
proceeds (n) (PRO-ceeds) = funds received from a venture <proceeds from the raffle>
principal (n) = head of a school <principal Skinner is well liked>; the initial investment in an interest-bearing account <many investments risk a loss of principal>
principle (n) = guiding rule <the principle of the matter>
reticent (adj) = reserved or reluctant to talk freely <she has been reticent in therapy>
reluctant (adj) = disinclined to do something <reluctant to reveal personal information>
Exercise 12: Diction Problems
Choose the best word in the sentences below.
1. Even the most trivial news seems to (affect/effect) the stock price immediately.
2. Even the most aggressive pesticides could not (delete/remove/eradicate/abolish) the beetles.
3. The (moral/morale) of the troops was at an all-time low during the Christmas season.
4. That scarf really (compliments/complements) your outfit.
5. Many well-trained oenologists can (separate/distinguish/acknowledge/certify) the tastes of dozens of different grapes.
6. The article emphasized the low voter turnout in order to (imply/infer) that the senator may not have been elected by a true majority.
7. The justices can debate a case for weeks before a formal ruling is (appointed/specified/chosen/predetermined/given/designated).
8. It may be years before we understand how pollution from the new power plant might (affect/effect) the regional environment.
9. The negotiations became very (apprehensive/tense/neurotic/fretful/anxious) when the topic of old tribal conflicts was broached.
10. Heather was the (principal/principle) author of the study that was recently published in a prominent scientific magazine.
11. Although enormously popular among filmgoers, the movie was soundly (disparaged/confronted/molested/eradicated/charged/impaired) by critics.
12. The words and images in advertisements are carefully chosen to subtly (propel/compel/extort/oppress/oblige) consumers into buying things they may not want.
13. Try as they might, the hikers could not find the (antidote/anecdote) to the snake venom.
14. The acid solution was so potent that we had to (dilute/delude) it with water before we could use it safely.
15. Annie’s project (excelled/overshadowed/outstripped/exceeded/preceded) all of our expectations.
16. Originally built for a small tractor, the engine had to be (correlated/attuned/converted/reoriented/improved) for use as a boat motor.
17. As someone committed to fairness in education, she could not accept the (iniquity/inequity) of the admissions policy.
18. Although most of the manuscripts were signed by their authors, some were written (anonymously/unanimously).
19. It was hard for the comic to (elicit/illicit) even the slightest laugh from the crowd.
20. We needed to (adapt/adopt/adept) the play to make it appropriate for younger audiences.
21. Darryl’s self-esteem (enlarged/blossomed/multiplied/escalated/proliferated) once she found a peer group that shared her interests.
22. She thought she should be (discreet/discrete) about their relationship.
23. The (council/counsel) will decide how to finance the new city park.
24. Rather than obeying the coach, Richard always tries to (flaunt/flout) the team rules.
25. His knowledge of sports runs the (gamut/gambit) from table tennis to arena football.
26. The jury should not (infer/imply) guilt from the defendant’s refusal to answer these questions.
27. The builders had to (truncate/curtail/lower/belittle/subside) their work during the evening hours after the neighbors filed a complaint.
28. Rather than eliminate the department all at once, they decided to (faze/phase) it out gradually.
29. Barking dogs can often signal (imminent/eminent) danger.
30. After our vacation, we decided to (proceed/precede) with the plan.
31. Recent diplomatic efforts have focused on (defusing/declining/dwindling/degrading/discounting) the conflict by promoting nonconfrontational dialogue of all sorts.
32. I always felt (reticent/reluctant) to talk in class.
33. The democratically elected government has been forcefully (shifted/substituted/exchanged/supplanted) by a military cabal.
34. The police officer was (cited/sighted) for her efforts in the hostage rescue.
Eliminate any redundant words or phrases in the paragraph below.
35. When we look back to past history, we see that whenever a new innovation is introduced for the first time, people rarely accept the whole entire concept, at least not right away. If and when something threatens the ways of the past, people don’t easily accept this new concept. Societies necessarily need stability because consistency and predictability make people feel comfortable and minimize conflict. Even when technology gives us a more efficient method, we often continue on with our older, less efficient ways. For instance, it’s not uncommon to see people using e-mail for quick communications while at the same time they could have just texted to accomplish the same thing. If we take a moment to pause and consider for a second, it doesn’t take much to see we can see that we can communicate more efficiently by text. And there are even some traditionalists who like the old way of doing things and will write letters on paper, which requires killing trees!
Lesson 28: Avoid errors in idiom
What is the difference between these two sentences?
A. If you want to make friends, you should go on in the party.
B. If you want to make friends, you should go in on the party.
These sentences use different semantic idioms, and so give very different advice. When you tell someone to go on in, you are giving him or her casual permission to enter, so sentence A says that casually inserting yourself into a social situation can make you more likeable. When you ask someone to go in on something, you are asking him or her to contribute money to the effort, so sentence B says that the folks throwing the party would like you more if you kicked in a few bucks. A semantic idiom is a common phrase with an established meaning, like push through, on fire, see the light, or go in on, that differs from its literal meaning.
Errors in idiom are usually “wrong preposition” errors. In some idiomatic phrases, the choice of preposition is essential to the meaning: for instance, breaking up, breaking down, breaking in, and breaking out are all very different activities. In other idiomatic phrases, such as thestandard parallel constructions described in Lesson 10, the preposition is simply a matter of convention. For instance, the sentence Thai food is very different than Cantonese food contains an error in syntactical idiom. The preposition than should only be used with comparative adjectives, as in smaller than, faster than, and harder than. But different is not a comparative adjective and instead takes the preposition from. We should say Thai food is very different from Cantonese food.
Which is correct?
C. Effective therapy depends both on consistent adherence to the protocol as well as regular recalibration of the medication dosage.
D. Effective therapy depends both on consistent adherence to the protocol and regular recalibration of the medication dosage.
E. Effective therapy depends on both consistent adherence to the protocol and regular recalibration of the medication dosage.
Sentence C uses the word both, which can either be followed by a simple plural noun (both legs, both kinds) or a prepositional phrase (both of them) or be part of a standard parallel construction, both X and Y, which we saw in Lesson 10. A standard parallel construction is a syntactical idiom, that is, a rigid way of phrasing relationships between ideas. Notice that the phrasing in sentence C—both X as well as Y—is nonidiomatic. The phrasing in D is idiomatic but nonparallel (Lesson 9): X is a prepositional phrase but Y is a noun phrase. Sentence E is both idiomatic and parallel, and is the best choice.
When writing formally, remember to ESP: eliminate superfluous prepositions. We often use “extra” prepositions in informal speech, such as the redundant prepositions in climb up, fall down, and fight against. Notice how eliminating the unnecessary prepositions in these sentences makes them sound more “proper”:
Her superior skill and strength helped her to dominate
over her opponents.
Many of our neighbors helped
out with the renovation of the old firehouse.
You don’t want to miss
out on all the fun.
Their attempt to extract
out the harmful chemicals was unsuccessful.
Exercise 13: Errors in Idiom
Choose the correct preposition, or “none” if none is required.
1. I prefer the soft light of an incandescent bulb (to/over/more than/none) the harsh light of some fluorescent bulbs.
2. We all agreed (on/with/about/none) a plan to go skiing rather than hiking.
3. The defendant would not agree (to/on/with/about) the plea bargain.
4. We found dozens of old photographs hidden (in/none) between the pages.
5. Good study habits are necessary (to/for/in/none) academic success.
6. The new house color is not very different (from/than/to/none) the old one.
7. Margot was angry (with/about/at/none) Brian for not telling her that he was leaving.
8. They were both angry (about/at/with/none) the boys’ behavior.
9. A lawyer should review the contract to see that it complies (with/in/about/to/none) the laws of your state.
10. The interview provided insight (about/into/for/none) the creative process of great directors.
11. We were very angry (about/with/at/against/none) him for ignoring our phone calls.
12. We all agreed (with/on/to/about/none) the high quality of the food.
13. Her tests include questions that seem very different (than/from/of/none) those that we see in the homework.
14. When she arrived on campus, she felt truly independent (of/from/none) her parents for the first time.
15. We were very angry (about/at/with/none) the exorbitant price of gasoline at the corner gas station.
16. It was hard not to agree (to/about/with/none) her offer of a free evening of babysitting.
17. I arrived at the meeting too late to raise my objection (against/to/of/none) the proposal.
18. If we don’t act soon, we may miss (out on/none) the opportunity to lock in the lowest rates.
Lesson 29: Know how to use the active and passive voices
Which is better?
A. I broke the paddle.
B. The paddle was broken by me.
Sentence A and sentence B make the same statement, but in different voices: sentence A uses the active voice and sentence B uses the passive voice. In the active voice, the subject is the “actor” of the action, but in the passive voice, it is not.
For most declarative statements in which the actor is known, the active voice (e.g., I kicked the ball) is clearer and more direct than the passive voice (e.g., The ball was kicked by me).
Which is better?
C. Henry ate all of his steak, but his vegetables were uneaten.
D. Henry ate all of his steak but none of his vegetables.
In sentence C, the first clause is active, but the second is passive. This is not only a violation of the Law of Parallelism (Lesson 9), but also a subtle evasion: who failed to eat the vegetables? Sentence D is more parallel, clear, and direct.
Overusing the passive voice not only makes your sentences wordier, but also often indicates evasiveness, because the passive voice does not require the actor. For instance, a statement like I made a mistake cannot be construed as an evasion of responsibility when phrased in the active voice. However, the passive voice form A mistake was made by me, when “trimmed” (Lesson 3) becomes A mistake was made, which is clearly evasive.
Which is better?
E. Although we enjoyed the hike to the peak, on the way down mosquitoes bit us, a thunderstorm drenched us, and countless thorns scratched us.
F. Although we enjoyed the hike to the peak, on the way down we were bitten by mosquitoes, drenched by a thunderstorm, and scratched by countless thorns.
In sentence E, all three clauses at the end of the sentence are parallel and active, yet the sentence sounds strange. In sentence F introducing the passive voice improves the sentence by creating another level of parallelism, because now all four clauses have the same subject: we enjoyed … we were bitten … [we were] drenched … [we were] scratched.
Sometimes parallel structure requires using the passive voice.
Lesson 30: Understand your moods
Which is correct?
A. If I was more patient, I would become a good violinist.
B. If I were more patient, I can become a good violinist.
C. If I were more patient, I could become a good violinist.
These sentences are conditionals, which take the form “If X, then Y” or simply “If X, Y” where X is a clause called the hypothesis and Y is a clause called the conclusion. The hypothesis takes different forms depending on whether it is occasional, unlikely, or counterfactual. The hypothesis here is unlikely or wishful and the conclusion indicates a possibility, so, as our discussion below will clarify, only sentence C has the correct form.
If the hypothesis is occasional or likely, then it takes the indicative mood; that is, it is stated as a fact. For instance, theorems in mathematics and logic and statements about common consequences take this form:
If two sides of a triangle are congruent, then the two base angles are also congruent.
If I eat too much, I will have a hard time sleeping.
If you turn the switch, the light will go on.
If the hypothesis is present counterfactual, that is, it is unlikely or wishful, then it takes the present subjunctive mood. (Notice that a present subjunctive hypothesis, if it does not use the verb to be, can take the same form as the simple past tense.)
If I had a million dollars, I would buy a new house.
If Kate could tolerate the noise, she would come to the club with us.
If I were taller, I would play in the NBA.
If the hypothesis is past counterfactual, that is, it contradicts a state or event in the past, then it takes the past subjunctive mood. (Notice that a counterfactual hypothesis takes the same form as the past consequential, and the counterfactual conclusion takes the consequential aspect(Lesson 23).)
If I had caught the ball, we would have won the game.
If I had been more studious in college, I could have graduated cum laude.
Counterfactuals can also include indirect commands, wishes, expressions of doubt, hypothetical consequences, and suggestions, all of which take the subjunctive mood.
A mood is a verb category that indicates whether a clause is a factual statement (indicative mood, as in I went to the park), a direct command (imperative mood, as in Go to the park!), a question (interrogative mood, as in Did you go to the park?), or a counterfactual (subjunctive mood, as in I should have gone to the park).
Verbs that are in the subjunctive mood often require a subjunctive auxiliary, otherwise known as a “verb modal.”
The verb to be can sometimes take its subjective form without an auxiliary:
Which is correct?
A. If we would have left earlier, we would not have been caught the storm.
B. If we had left earlier, we would not have been caught the storm.
Again, sentence A is a conditional with a counterfactual hypothesis, indicating that a nonfactual condition would have a particular result. However, the auxiliary would indicates a conditional conclusion, not a conditional hypothesis. The counterfactual hypothesis takes the same form as thepast consequential (Lesson 23), had left, as in sentence B.
Exercise 14: Mood and Voice
Circle the correct verb form in each of the following sentences.
1. If our wide receiver (was/were) a little faster, he would get more open in the secondary.
2. As a matter of fact, Theo (was/would have been) only six years old when the Civil War (had begun/began).
3. Denny would be more successful if only he (promoted/would promote) himself more aggressively.
4. The brochure suggested that we (are/be/would be) at the camp first thing in the morning.
5. I wish that my horse (were/was) not so lethargic this morning.
6. If the goalie (would have/had) lifted his glove even slightly, the puck (would have gotten/would get) through.
7. He acted as though the concert hall (was/were) filled with screaming fans.
8. I wish that summer camp (was/were) two weeks longer.
9. If the class (would have/had) voted against it, we would not have purchased the new gerbil cage.
10. We doubted that Joanna (will/would/might) get the part, since she was sick during her audition.
11. If I (were/was/had been) in Paris, I would probably be spending most of my time at the Louvre.
12. If I (might have/would have/had) known that the food was so good here, I (would have come/would come/came) sooner.
13. The coach demanded that we (would be/be/should be/were) in bed by eleven o’clock.
14. Yvonne acted as if she (was/were) the only customer in the restaurant.
15. Gina wished that she (had/would have/will have) chosen the red dress instead of the pink one.
16. The professor spoke to us as if he (was/were) an ancient Athenian general.
17. I (would have wanted/wanted) to (have seen/see) the countryside, but I was sick in bed for the entire vacation.
18. Had I found his wallet, I (would have/had/will have) returned it to him immediately.
19. If only the doctor (had/would have) told me to cut back on eating red meat, I (would have/should have) complied.