SAT Tip: Know Your Idioms

SAT Tip: Know Your Idioms
To ace the SAT Writing section, it helps to know your idiomatic words and phrases (Photograph by Martin Shields)
Photograph by Martin Shields

This tip on improving your SAT score was provided by Shaan Patel at Veritas Prep.

Test takers often overlook improper idiom usage on SAT Writing multiple-choice questions. Idiom errors are especially difficult to spot if English isn’t your first language. There is no list of idioms that you can memorize in order to be prepared for every possible idiom error that could possibly show up on the SAT.

So what is an idiom? An idiom is a set expression of commonly associated words in everyday English. Let’s take the following example:

The high school underachiever did not seem capable to get into a good undergraduate business school.

Were you able to spot the idiom error in this sentence? The phrase “capable to” is idiomatically incorrect. The correct phrase should be “capable of.” This is simply the idiomatically correct way to write this expression. Therefore, the sentence should read:

The high school underachiever did not seem capable of getting into a good undergraduate business school.

If you are unsure if an idiom is correct on the SAT, use the idiom in a different context. For example, ask yourself whether you would say “John is capable to doing well on the SAT” or “John is capable of doing well on the SAT.”

Idiom errors in SAT Writing questions are not easy to spot. The SAT tends to use lengthy sentences, but idiom errors usually involve words that are only two or three characters in length, such as “to,” “of,” and “for.” So it’s easy for students to overlook these errors.

The following SAT example demonstrates how knowing your idioms can help solve questions on the SAT Writing section. For this type of question, the goal is to correct the grammatical mistake (if there is one) in the underlined portion.

Being more diligent and thorough compared with the other employees, John was awarded the title of “Employee of the Month.”

(A) Being more diligent and thorough compared with

(B) Both more diligent and thorough compared to

(C) More diligent and thorough than

(D) By being more diligent and thorough compared with

(E) More diligent as well as thorough, unlike

By scrutinizing the underlined portion of the sentence, we should realize that something just isn’t right about the phrase “compared with.” Let’s try using “compared” in another context to decide what idiom it should be paired with.

Bloomberg Businessweek is a better business magazine compared ____ all other business magazines.

It’s likely that you would fill in the blank here with “to.” Therefore, “compared with” (as stated in the original sentence) is an idiomatically incorrect phrase. So eliminate answer choices (A) and (D) for using the phrase “compared with.” And eliminate (E) because the phrase “as well as” can be better expressed by simply stating “and.” We can also cross out (B) because “both” is unnecessary.

Select answer choice (C) because it is the only option that avoids any idiom errors or redundancies. Make sure you know your idioms in order to ace the SAT Writing section!

Shaan Patel is the Director of SAT programs at Veritas Prep, the author of McGraw-Hill’s best-selling book SAT 2400 in Just 7 Steps, and the owner of a perfect SAT score.

For more SAT advice from Veritas Prep watch “One Man’s Strategy for SAT Perfection”

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