SAT Tip: Identifying Sentence Errors

Photograph by Lola Allum

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

Did you know that only 18 sentence-error questions are in the SAT Writing section? Of all the question types in this section, they count for the largest percentage of your writing score. If you rock the grammar skills you already have, and practice a few hundred sentence-error questions, you’ll easily get most of these correct.

Step 1—Identify the part of speech. What part of speech is underlined? Is it a verb, preposition, adjective, adverb, or pronoun? The SAT loves to test the same errors over and over, and we know that each part of speech comes with some predictable errors.

Is the underlined section a verb? Double-check that it agrees with its subject in number and plurality and that the verb tense is logical with the timeline of the sentence.

Is the underlined section a pronoun? Make sure it has a clear antecedent (the thing the pronoun refers to) and that the pronoun agrees with the antecedent in number. Make sure, as well, that the personal pronouns (“who” and “whom,” for example) are used to refer only to people, not things.

Is the underlined section a preposition? The preposition could be part of an idiom. Does the preposition make sense with the word that immediately precedes it? For example, we can’t say “afraid from,” only “afraid of.” Is the transition appropriate? Make a flashcard of the most common idioms and learn them as you would vocabulary words. Idioms alone account for approximately 10 percent of your SAT Writing score.

Is the underlined section an adverb or adjective? Adjectives can describe only nouns, while adverbs can describe verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. Is there a word modifying a verb that needs an –ly suffix?

Step 2—Check for parallelism errors. Once you’ve examined each of the underlined portions, identified the parts of speech, and double-checked for the most likely errors associated with that part of speech, reread the sentence as a whole and look for any parallelism. Items in a list (separated by commas), comparisons, and (in general) multiple verbs must be in the same format. For comparisons, remember that only “like” things can be compared with each other: people to people and things to things.

Step 3—Still no error? Choose (E). Remember to trust yourself. After you’ve worked through each underlined part of speech and checked for parallelism in the sentence as a whole, you may still not be able to find an error. Don’t worry: Three to five sentence error questions you encounter on test day (nearly a third) will have no error, making (E) the correct answer.

As you prep for your SAT, if you find yourself choosing (E) too often, it’s likely you’ll need to spend more time studying the most common types of grammatical SAT errors: idioms, run-on sentences, fragments, parallelism, subject-verb agreement, etc. If you find yourself hardly ever correctly choosing (E), then you need to relax and trust yourself. Don’t look for errors that aren’t there.

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