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How to Attack the Writing
Component Part 3: Multiple
What to Expect on Test Day
• 3 different types of multiple choice questions to test 3 different
writing skills
• Determine mistake (if any) has been made in the sentences or paragraphs in
• 2 of 3 types, also need to determine the best way to correct those mistakes
Identifying Sentence Errors Questions and
How to Avoid Common Mistakes
• The word usage means the customary or standard way in which
words are used.
• Identifying Sentence Errors cover four main areas of written English:
Basic Grammar
Sentence Structure
Idiomatic Expressions
Choice of Words (diction)
Target Strategy for Identifying Sentence
• 1. Read the sentence, listen for any errors.
• 2. Identify the error.
• 3. If you cannot identify the error, eliminate the choices that don’t contain
errors. Choose from the remaining answer choices.
• Example:
Although (A) the number of firms declaring bankruptcy keep (B) growing, the
mayor claims that (C) the city is thriving (D). No error (E)
• Did you hear the error? If so, your work is done. Fill in the appropriate
oval, and move on. If you didn’t hear the error on the first read, go back,
read each underlined part, and start eliminating underlined parts that are
Avoid Common Mistakes for
Identifying Sentence Errors
16 Common errors to be on the lookout for
1. When the Subject Follows the Verb
• Subject-Verb Agreement:
• Rule: Singular subjects call for singular verbs. Plural subjects call for plural
• Example:
• Despite and intensive campaign to encourage conservation, there is many
Americans who have not accepted recycling as a way of life.
• “There is” is a common sentence construction of this sentence error.
• This sentence demonstrates one of the most common of all subject-verb agreement
errors found on the Writing section.
• Generally occurs one or twice on each test.
• Words such as there or here cannot be subjects or sentences.
• The subject is Americans, which is plural
2. When the Subject and Verb are Separated
• The SAT has another way to complicate a subject-verb agreement.
• Inserting additional information about the subject before the verb
• Example:
• The local congressman, a reliable representative of both community and
statewide interests, are among the most respected persons in the public
• What is the subject of the sentence?
• Nouns: congressman, representatives, community, and interests.
• Congressman
• If you thought it was someone else, put parentheses where the pair of commas are. You
can do without this information and still have a complete sentence.
Another Example:
• The collection of paintings entitled “Clammy Clam Clams” are one of
the most widely traveled exhibits in recent years.
• Nouns: collection, painting, Clammy Clam Clams
• Subject= collection
• Paintings is part of the prepositional phrase so it can’t be the subject
• Subject is singular so the verb should be is not are
Tip: Always Find the Subject
• When you see an underlined verb, automatically look for its subject.
• Draw parentheses around any prepositional phrases and modifiers
that stand between subject and verb.
• Only the conjunction and can form a plural verb.
• The word pairs neither…nor and either… or take singular verbs, if each
side of the pair is singular.
3. When the Subject Seems Plural (But Isn’t)
• Sometimes the sentence includes what seems to be, but in fact is not,
a plural subject. Here’s an example:
• Neither ambient techno nor trance were a part of mainstream listening habits
in the United States ten years ago.
• This sentence is tough because it has two singular subjects (ambient
techno and trance), but with neither and nor in the mix, they don’t
add up to a plural subject. The verb should be was.
• Note: If the nouns in a neither…nor or either…or sentence are plural
on their own, then the verb should be plural. The SAT doesn’t usually
bother with these. It’s too easy!
Verb Tense
• Make it a habit to examine all verbs in every sentence and remember
the following rules:
• Rule: Tenses must be as simple as possible (most often, present, past and
future) and make sense in context.
• Rule: Verbs must be complete, with to be predicate helpers (am thinking).
• Rule: If a sentence has more than one complete verb in it, be consistent.
Don’t change tense unless it makes sense to.
4. Wrong Tenses
• Here’s a sentence with a verb in the wrong tense:
• Over the last century, the building of passenger airliners had grown into a
multibillion-dollar industry.
• In a one-verb sentence like this one, time-descriptive phrases help you
determine what the time frame of the sentence is.
• The action being described is a process that began during the last halfcentury and that is continuing to the present day.
• Any action starting in the past and continuing today is expressed by a verb
in the present perfect tense. The present perfect form of this verb is has
grown. Using the verb had makes it seem that passenger airlines aren’t
being made anymore.
• Pay attention to the time cues in the sentence.
4 Continued…
• Another type of sentence might have two verbs and an unnecessary or
confusing shift in tense. Example:
• Many superb tennis players turn professional at an alarmingly early age, but because
of their lack of physical stamina, suffered early in their careers.
• When there are two verbs in a sentence, first study the time relation
between the verbs, and determine whether it is logical as presented.
• In this sentence, the verb in the first clause of this sentence is turn, a
present tense verb. The action is not occurring at any specified occasion
but in the general present.
• The verb suffered is in the simple past, but it should remain in the general
present, even though the phrase early in their careers may suggest a past
5. Incorrect Use of Past Participles and
Incomplete Verbs
• A typical error tested on the Writing section is confusion between the
simple past tense and the past participle forms of verbs.
• The error is to put the past participle form where the simplest past tense
should be. Example:
• Several passersby seen the bank robber leaving the scene of the crime.
• The verb form seen is the past participle and should be used only with
a helping verb, such as have or be. This sentence requires the
simplest past form saw.
• Like verbs, all pronouns in a Writing section multiple-choice sentence
should be examined carefully.
• Personal Pronouns stand for persons or things
• Demonstrative Pronouns identify or point to nouns (that, this, those, these,
such, etc.)
• Relative Pronouns are used to join clauses to create complex sentences and
to give additional information about the main clause (that, who, whom,
whose, where, when, etc.)
• Indefinite Pronouns function as nouns and do not stand for any specific
nouns (all, each, every, somebody, everybody, none, etc.)
Pronouns Continued…
• Remember the following rules:
• A pronoun must agree in number and gender with the noun it replaces (called
an antecedent).
• A pronoun must be in the proper case (subjective, objective, possessive).
• The antecedent must be clear. If it could refer to more than one thing or
person, or if there is not antecedent, you have found an SAT error.
6. Pronoun in the Wrong Number
• You’ll be tested on your ability to tell whether a noun and the
pronoun that refers to that noun agree in number.
• A singular noun should be used to refer to a singular nouns; a plural
pronoun should be sued with a plural noun.
• In the following examples, the pronoun does not match the noun to
which it refers in number:
• The typical college student has difficulty adjusting to academic standards
much higher than those to their school.
• The pronoun their should refer to a plural noun, but in this sentence,
it refers back to student, a singular noun. Therefore, the pronoun
should be the singular form his or hers, not the plural form their.
7. Wrong Case
• Errors involving word case tend to appear on the SAT. Remember that
pronouns must be in their proper case:
• Subjective pronouns: I, you, he, she, it, we, they
• Objective pronouns: me, you, him, her, it, us, them
• Possessive pronouns: my, your, his, her, its, our, their
• Here’s an example:
• For my sister and I, the trip to Paris was the fulfillment of a lifelong wish we had
scarcely dared to express.
• Take out the words my sister and, and the error of the pronoun case
becomes obvious- you wouldn’t say for I. Because this pronoun is the
object of the preposition for, it should be in the objective case; for my
sister and me.
8. Pronoun Shift
• Pronoun Shift is a switch in pronoun person or number within a given
• Example:
• One cannot sleep soundly if you exercise vigorously before retiring to bed.
• The subject in the first clause is one, and the subject in the second
clause is you. These two pronouns refer to the same performer of
two actions, so they should be consistent in person and number.
• The sentence should not shift to the second person you form.
9. Pronoun with Ambiguous Reference
• There are two ways the Writing section might test your ability to
recognize an ambiguous pronoun reference.
• First, a sentence may be given in which it is impossible to determine
what noun the pronoun refers to.
• The United States entered into warmer relations with China after its
compliance with recent weapons agreements.
• To which country does the pronoun its refer? Grammatically and
logically, either country could be the antecedent of the pronoun.
With the limited information provided by this sentence alone, you
simply can’t determine which country the pronoun stands for.
9 Continued…
• Second, pronoun reference can also be ambiguous if the pronoun’s
antecedent is not explicitly stated in the sentence.
• After the derailment last month, they are inspecting trains for safety more often than
every before.
• The question to ask about this sentence is who is they? There is no group
of people identified in this sentence to whom the pronoun could refer.
• You can logically infer that they refers to agents of a railroad safety
commission, but because these inspectors are not explicitly mentioned in
the sentence, the personal pronoun cannot be clear.
• Be sure to locate the antecedent of any pronoun in Identifying Sentence
Errors sentences.
• An idiom, also called an idiomatic expression, is a term that refers to a
wide range of commonly accepted combinations of words.
• Rule: Listen for the wrong verb combination (infinitive vs. gerund).
• Rule: Watch for an odd sounding preposition after a verb.
10. Confusion of Infinitive and Gerund
• Some questions test your sense of idiomatic use of English.
• Idiomatic use means combinations of words that sound right or words
that sound right in particular contexts.
• Example: There is generally at least one Identify Sentence Errors
question in which the infinitive is used where a gerund would be
appropriate, or vice versa, as in the following example:
• Team officials heralded Cap Day as an attempt at attracting a larger turnout of
• This sentence is not idiomatic. There’s no grammar rule that explains
why it’s wrong to an an attempt at attracting. But if you have a good
sense of idiom, your ear tells you it should be an attempt to attract.
11. Wrong Preposition after Verb
• The Writing section also tests your recognition of prepositions that
idiomatically combine with certain verbs.
• Example:
• City Council members frequently meet until the early morning hours in order
to work in their stalemates.
• It is not always wrong to write work in. You might use it to speak
about the field one works in or the place one works in. But this
combination does not correspond to the meaning of this sentence.
The writer means to say work through or work out- that is, overcomethe stalemates.
• Diction is a cousin of idiom in that it often sounds wrong and the right
word is dictated by accepted use or meaning.
• It covers a range of issues such as sit vs. set, lie vs. lay, and rise vs.
raise, as well as expressions of quantity and often confused words.
• Confused Verb Rule: Sit, lie, and rise, the “I” verbs, have no objects. Set, lay,
and raise, the no “I” verbs, are action verbs with objects.
• Quantity Rule: Use amount words when referring to an uncountable noun.
Use number words to refer to a countable one.
• Similar Sounding Words Rule: Be on the lookout for often confused words.
They sound very similar, but don’t mean the same thing.
12. Wrong Word in Context
• Some verbs are often used interchangeably and incorrectly, especially
in spoken English. The correct use should be as follows:
“I” Verbs:
I sit down.
I lie down.
The sun rises.
No “I” Verbs:
I set the table.
I lay the book on the
I raise my hand.
12. Continued…
• Here are two sentences that misuse these verbs:
• Wrong: I am working so hard that my grade point average raises every semester.
• Right: I am working so hard that my grade point average rises every semester.
• Wrong: I set with my neighbors on the front porch until dark.
• Right: I sit with my neighbors on the front porch until dark.
• Quantity issues: How much coffee have you had? How much sugar did you
put in your tea? It depends if you can count the units or not. You can’t
count coffee, but you can count the cups. The same is true for sugar, sand,
information, time and more.
• Many cups of coffee, but much coffee
• A few teaspoons of sugar, but too little sugar
12. Continued…
• Often confused words: The list is nearly endless; thus, they are hard
to catch as you work your way through the test.
• Examples:
• Imply: to suggest, implicate: to accuse or charge (with a crime)
• Accept: receive willingly (verb); except: not including (preposition)
• Affect: create a result (verb); effect: the result (noun)
• There are three areas to think about here (and thus three different
• What is being compared
• Parallel (similar) phrasing
• Number of items in the comparison
• Remember the following rules:
• Rule: Compare similar things and use similar wording.
• Rule: Use comparative (better) for comparing two things; use superlative
(best) for comparing more than two.
13. Faulty Comparison
• Most faulty comparisons happen when two things that logically cannot be
compared are compared.
• A comparison can be faulty either logically or grammatically.
• Example:
• A Nobel Peace Prize winner and author of several respected novels, Elie Wiesel’s
name is still less well known than last year’s Heisman Trophy winner.
• In every sentence, you should first identify what things or actions are being
• In this sentence, Elie Wiesel’sname is compared to last year’s Heisman
Trophy winner. This comparison is faulty because a person’s name is
compared to another person.
14. Number Agreement Problems
• The Writing section also tests number agreement between the singular or plural noun
and the phrase or word describing it.
• For instance, a noun may be plural while a phrase describing the noun belongs with a
singular noun.
• That sounds complicated, but fortunately, you don’t need to be able to explain the
grammar involved; you just need to be able to spot this type of mistake.
• Example:
• The advertisement in the newspaper requested that only persons with a high school diploma
apply for the position.
• Nouns in a sentence must have logical number relations. The noun in question, the
subject of the second clause of this sentence, is persons, a plural noun. However, the
noun diploma is singular. Because the phrase with a high school diploma is singular, it
seems to say that persons share one diploma, when in fact each person has his own
diploma. The phrase should read with high school diplomas.
15. Misuse of Adjective or Adverb:
• Remember the following rules regarding the misuse of adjectives and adverbs:
• Rule: An adjective can only describe a noun or a pronoun.
• Rule: An adverb modifies everything else and answers the question How?
• These questions test your ability to recognize misuses of one-word modifiers.
Keep in mind that adjectives modify nouns and adverbs modify verbs, adjective,
and other adverbs.
• Example:
• The applicants for low-interest loans hoped to buy decent built houses for their families.
• The word decent is an adjective. However, this modifier describes an adjective,
explaining how the houses were built. A word that modifies an adjective like built
is an adverb. So the word needed in this sentence is the adverb decently.
16. Double Negative
• When dealing with double negatives, remember the following rule:
• Rule: Don’t use two negatives in a sentence unless the intention is to have
one cancel out the other.
• On the Identifying Sentence Error portion of the SAT, a double negative is
wrong. Double negatives can be correct in certain circumstances, but they
won’t be in the Writing sections.
• Example:
• James easily passed the biology exam without hardly studying his lab notes.
• Without is a negative, as is any word that indicated absence of lack. Hardly
is a less familiar negative; it also denotes a scarcity of something, but
perhaps not a total absence. With these two negatives, the sentence is