SAT Tip: Most-Tested Grammar Concepts

Photograph by Getty Images

This tip on improving your SAT score was provided by Vivian Kerr at Veritas Prep.

On the SAT Writing section, grammar is tested in Improving Sentences, Identifying Sentence Errors, and Improving Paragraphs questions. The good news: As long as you know what is incorrect, you won’t necessarily have to always know how to fix it. What follows are some of the most common errors that appear in writing questions and how to fix them.

Run-On Sentences: An independent clause is a sentence that expresses a complete thought and has its own subject and predicate. When a sentence has more than one independent clause improperly combined, we call that a “run-on.” A run-on can be fixed by making each independent clause its own sentence (by adding a period), by combining them with a semicolon, by making one clause dependent, or by joining the clauses with a coordinating conjunction (such as “and,” “but,” and “or”). Here’s an example of a run-on:

Run-on: Alicia went shopping, she bought a dress.

Corrected Version: Alicia went shopping; she bought a dress.

Fragments: A sentence fragment does not form even one independent clause. It’s essentially an incomplete thought. This usually happens when a sentence lacks a subject or a verb. A fragment can be fixed by adding the missing element or by joining it to a larger sentence. Here’s an example:

Fragment: Alicia shopping.

Corrected Version: Alicia went shopping.

Punctuation: You don’t need to name the pieces of punctuation per se, but on the SAT you will need to know that commas and dashes are used to set aside nonessential information or modifying clauses and that semicolons can separate two independent clauses. Spend a little time reviewing usage rules for commas, apostrophes, colons, semicolons, dashes, periods, question marks, and exclamation points.

Verbs: English grammar has six basic verb tenses: past, present, future, present perfect, past perfect, and future perfect. Make sure every SAT sentence uses the correct tense in the context of the time frame discussed. Events that happen in the past should use past tense. Events that happen in the present should use the present tense. Verbs must also agree with their subjects in number.

Incorrect Tense: Last week, Stephen drives over to his best friend’s house.

Corrected Version: Last week, Stephen drove over to his best friend’s house.

Since the event in the sentence happened “last week,” we need the past tense version of the verb “to drive.”

Comparative/Superlative: Use the comparative form (less, more) when comparing two items. Use the superlative form (most, least) when comparing three or more items.

Example: Of all the hiking trails in Griffith Park, the Mt. Hollywood trail is (more/most) challenging.

Since it’s implied that the park contains more than two hiking trails, we’d use the superlative form “most.”

Pronouns: Pronouns must agree with their antecedents (the word referred to) in person and number. We use the subject form (she, he, they, etc.) when the pronoun is doing the action of the verb or after a linking verb such as “to be.” Use the object form (her, him, them, etc.) when a pronoun is the object of a verb, verb form, or preposition.

Parallelism: Look for lists. Items in a list should always be in the same form. Comparisons should also be in the same form (i.e. compare nouns with other nouns, not nouns with verbs).

Incorrect Example: At the mall, Alicia likes to eat at the food court, visit her favorite stores, and meeting up with her friends.

Corrected Version: At the mall, Alicia likes to eat at the food court, visit her favorite stores, and meet up with her friends.

Two-Part Idioms: In English, certain words must go together to be grammatically correct. “Between … and,” “not only …. but also,” and “neither … nor” are three of the most common pairs. There is no complete list of idioms, but you will usually be able to spot them because something will “sound” funny in the sentence. Trust your ear. If something sounds incorrect, it probably is.

Wordiness and Redundancy: On the SAT, shorter is usually better. You want sentences to be as concise as possible without losing any meaning. If you are stuck between two choices that are both grammatically correct and express the same idea, go with the one that uses fewer words and avoids being overly wordy or redundant.

Redundant Sentence: The journey to the top of Mt. Everest was difficult because of the coldness of it.

Corrected Version: The journey to the top of Mt. Everest was difficult because of the cold.

Make sure to look for these commonly-tested grammar errors so you can ace the SAT Writing sections on Test Day.

Vivian Kerr has been teaching and tutoring in the Los Angeles area since 2005. She graduated from the University of Southern California, studied in London, and has worked for several test-prep giants tutoring, writing content, and blogging about all things SAT, ACT, GRE, and GMAT.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.