If you google “get an 800 on SAT writing,” you’ll probably come up with a couple dozen hits that make it seem as if getting a perfect score is merely a matter of learning a few simple rules.
Now, if you have an outstanding ear and a solid basic knowledge of grammar, that could indeed be the case. But given that the average score for the Writing section (487) is actually lower than the average score for either Reading (497) or Math (513), that’s clearly not the norm.
To be sure, the SAT does test a limited number of concepts (somewhere between 10 and 20, depending on how you count) over and over again, in very predictable ways. Within those 10-20 rules, however, there are many variations, and it’s always possible for rules to be tested or combined in slightly new ways. As I wrote about recently, rules that initially seem simple and straightforward can have very challenging applications.
Many of the medium-hard sentences that show up on the SAT are not exactly Dick and Jane. They frequently mention topics, individuals, and places that most students aren’t particularly familiar with. It can be hard to worry about subject-verb agreement when you’re trying to puzzle through sentences about Zhu Yuanzhang or the stone circles of Brodgar and Steness (to cite two examples from a recent test).
Given that, I’ve decided to compile a different sort of list. It is not a list of rules tested on the multiple choice grammar portion of the SAT. You can find those in my complete list of SAT grammar rules. Rather, it is a list of skills that you must have in order to apply those rules effectively. Although I’ve put it together with the current SAT in mind, it is also applicable to the ACT and will be applicable to the new SAT as well.
1) Identifying subjects
If you take a sentence like “John kicked the ball,” it’s pretty safe you can identify “John” as the subject.
But what about this?
Finding definitive proof that carnivorous dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus Rex could swim has proved challenging for many scientists.
Whether carnivorous dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus Rex could swim is a question that has proved challenging for many scientists.
If you had trouble with those sentences, you might want to check out “What parts of speech can be subjects?”
Some sentences that contain multiple clauses may also have more than one subject, e.g. “The Tyrannosaurs Rex was one of the most fearsome prehistoric carnivores, but the question of its ability to swim has not yet been resolved.”
The subject of the first clause is “The Tyrannosaurus Rex,” while the subject of the second clause is “the question.” The ability to identify multiple subjects is essential because verbs can have subjects anywhere in a sentence, not just at the beginning. If you can’t match verbs to their subjects, you can’t figure out when there’s a disagreement.
2) Distinguishing between number and tense
Number = singular or plural?
Tense = when (past, present, or future)?
Consider the following sentence: The relationship between goby fish and striped shrimp are truly symbiotic, for neither can exist without the other.
When asked to correct it, many students will simply change “are” to “were.” Not only does that not fix sentence, it misses the entire point of what’s being asked. You can get away with this on error-IDs, but on fixing sentences . Same for ACT English and the new SAT.
The relationship between sharks and remora fish are truly symbiotic, for neither can exist without the other.
(D) have been
(E) would be
3) Recognizing singular vs. plural verbs
-Singular verbs end in -s (e.g. he talks); plural verbs do not end in -s (e.g. they talk).
Many people associate -s with plural forms because, of course, plural nouns end in -s. Making the switch to verbs can be confusing.
4) Knowing the conjugated forms of “to be”
“Being” is an extremely irregular verb; it’s conjugated forms (is/are, was/were) have nothing to do with the infinitive. It also happens to be the most common verb in the English language and is therefore one of the most commonly tested verbs on the SAT.
You can often quickly fix sentences that contain “being” by replacing it with a conjugated form of “to be” — but only if you know what those conjugated forms are. Otherwise, you’re stuck slogging through the answer choices.
Consider this version of the question from above:
The relationship between sharks and remora fish being truly symbiotic, for neither can exist without the other.
(D) have been
(E) would be
If you know that “is” and “are” are the conjugated forms of “being,” you can immediately identify (B) or (C) as the answer.
5) Recognizing verbs that are not “action” words
Most people can identify “run,” “play,” and “walk” as verbs without a problem because they so clearly refer to actions.
Verbs like “seem,” “appear,” and “have,” and “stay,” however, do not involve actions in the traditional sense.
Again, if you can’t consistently recognize when an underlined word is a verb, you won’t even a starting point to check for errors.
If you have serious trouble recognizing verbs, you can use this shortcut: a verb is a word you can put “to” in front of. So “whistle” can be a verb because you can say “to whistle,” but “container” cannot be a verb because you cannot say “to container.” Of course, some words can be used as verbs as well as other parts of speech (“the whistle,” “to whistle”), but at least that gives you some guidance.
6) Recognizing prepositions and prepositional phrases
I’ve lost count of the number of sources I’ve seen that simply advise students to “cross out the stuff between the subject and the verb.” While well-intentioned, this advice is woefully incomplete. Aside from the fact that you must be able to identify subjects and verbs before you cross anything out between them, the “stuff” often involves two very specific structures: non-essential (clauses set off by commas that can be crossed out a sentence without affecting its essential meaning) and prepositional phrases (e.g. “The forests of central Mexico provides an ideal habitat for Monarch butterflies”).
In addition to being placed between subjects and verbs, prepositional phrases also usually appear at the beginnings of sentences in which normal subject-verb order is flipped to distract from disagreements (e.g. “Along the banks of the river lies a small cabin and a large field”). If you can’t spot this tipoff, you might not figure out what these questions are testing.
Non-essential clauses are pretty easy to learn to recognize (you just look for the two commas), but in order to recognize prepositional phrases, you must be able to recognize prepositions (“location” and “time” words such as to, from, for, with, by, of, from, in on, about, and before).
Moreover, you must be able to recognize them so securely and consistently that you can remember, under pressure, to cross them out of very long and complicated sentences in order to check for disagreement.
This can be easier said than done. Prepositions are “little” words, and there are also lots of little words that seem like they could be prepositions but aren’t (this, the, that, up). There are also “time” words that can function both as preposition and as other parts of speech depending on the circumstances (before, after, until), causing further confusion.
7) Knowing the definitions of transition words
This is primarily a fixing paragraphs problem, but it can pop up on other parts of the Writing section as well. If you don’t know the literal meanings of less common transitions (“consequently,” “nevertheless,” “moreover”) and what sorts of relationships they’re used to indicate, chances are you’ll have difficulty eliminating wrong answers and recognizing right ones. If you don’t know what these words mean, you might also start relying on how they sound (weird), and that’s usually a recipe for disaster.