The trickiest SAT/ACT transition questions

The trickiest SAT/ACT transition questions

When transition questions are discussed in regard to SAT Writing/ACT English, they tend to be covered in two main forms. 


The first way involves a transition placed after a comma in the middle of a sentence. 

Version #1: The Spanish conquest of the Aztecs in 1519 brought the fragrant vanilla flower—and its companion, cacao—to Europe. Vanilla was cultivated in botanical gardens in France and England, but growers were unable to collect its glorious seeds.  

Here, the transition but is placed halfway through a sentence and used to connect the two halves of that sentence. 


The second way involves transitions between sentences (or occasionally two parts of a sentence separated by a semicolon).

Version #2: The Spanish conquest of the Aztecs in 1519 brought the fragrant vanilla flower—and its companion, cacao—to Europe. Vanilla was cultivated in botanical gardens in France and England. However, (or: England; however,) growers were unable to collect its glorious seeds.

In the sentence above, the transition however is used at the beginning of a sentence to indicate the contrasting relationship between that sentence and the previous sentence. 

So far pretty straightforward, right? 


There is, however, another way in which the second version of the sentence can be written. 

Version #3: The Spanish conquest of the Aztecs in 1519 brought the fragrant vanilla flower—and its companion, cacao—to Europe. Vanilla was cultivated in botanical gardens in France and England. Growers were unable, however, to collect its glorious seeds.

Although this version of the sentence places the transition halfway through the last sentence, it is actually identical in meaning to version #2. The transition has simply been moved from the beginning of the sentence to the middle. Its purpose is still to convey the relationship between the last sentence and the previous sentence; it does not connect the two halves of the sentence in which it appears.

When many test-takers see this type of question, however, they do not realize that they need to look back at the previous sentence to determine the relationship. As a result, they either plug in each answer choice into the sentence and then become confused when they are unable to determine the answer or, worse, sit and stare at the question. 


So how do you tell when an underlined transition in the middle of a sentence is being used to connect two halves of a sentence, or to connect one sentence to the previous sentence? 

The shortcut is to look at the commas around the transition. 

Transitions that come after a single comma are connecting two halves of a sentence. 

In contrast, transitions that are surround by two commas — one before, one after — are connecting a sentence to the previous sentence


And if you’d like the technical explanation, here goes:

Transitions that follow a comma only are called coordinating conjunctions, also known as FANBOYS conjunctions (For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So). These conjunctions serve to join two independent clauses (complete sentences) into a compound sentence, as in version #1 above. In formal English, these conjunctions should not be used to begin a sentence — that is, they should not follow a period or semicolon.

Transitions used to begin sentences are known as conjunctive adverbs. Common examples include howeverthereforefurthermore, indeed, and similarly. The purpose of these transitions is to indicate the relationship between one sentence and the previous sentence.

Usually, these transitions appear at the beginning of a sentence or clause — that is, after a period or semicolon. Sometimes, however, writers move them to the middle of a sentence for the sake of stylistic variety, as in version #3. In such cases, these transitions are used non-essentially — that is, they are placed in between two commas.

To reiterate: only the placement of the transition changes, not the purpose. To determine whether the transition is correct, you must look back at the previous sentence and determine its relationship (continue, contrast, cause-and-effect) with the sentence in which the underlined transition appears. 


Now let’s look at a test-style example:

Despite their iconic look and their important role in Dutch history, wooden clogs are now mostly

made for tourists rather than for everyday wear. The 300,000 pair of shoes made every

year are, however, sold mostly to foreign buyers.

B) ironically 
C) in fact 
D) meanwhile

The fact that the underlined transition is surrounded by commas indicates that it is necessary to look at the previous sentence to determine the relationship. 

What does the previous sentence tell us? That clogs are mostly made for tourists. 

What does the sentence in which the transition appears indicates? That most of the clogs made each year are sold to foreign buyers (i.e. tourists). 

Are those similar ideas or different ideas? Similar. 

So the correct transition must convey a similar relationship. The only option that fits is C), in fact, because that phrase is used to emphasize a preceding statement. 

“SAT Vocabulary: A New Approach” is now available on Amazon!

“SAT Vocabulary: A New Approach” is now available on Amazon!

I’m happy to announce that SAT Vocabulary: A New Approach, my joint SAT vocabulary project with Larry Krieger, is now up and available on Amazon.

Based on a thorough analysis of released redesigned SATs, the book is concise but comprehensive guide to key vocabulary for both the Writing and Language test and the Reading test. We’ve also included a bonus chapter covering the Essay. 

To be clear: this book is almost certainly not what most people think of when they hear the term “SAT vocabulary book” — that is, long lists of words and definitions. All of the vocabulary on the new SAT is tested in context, and some of it is tested in very indirect ways. As a result, we’ve included numerous exercises focused on applying vocabulary in rSAT-style contexts.

We’ve also gone out of our way to include a chapter on transitional words and phrases — not exactly standard fodder for most vocabulary lists. Although teachers (and parents, and sometimes tutors) tend to take for granted that high school students know how to use these words, in our experience plenty of students aren’t quite sure just what words like subsequently and nevertheless actually mean. 

Larry and I will of course be updating the book as more exams become available, but the College Board has released sufficient material at this point that we’re confident it accurately reflects the content of the new exam.

Click here for a preview. 


Everything you need to know to ace the APUSH essays

Larry Krieger has set up an APUSH Crash Course page on Facebook, and it’s a really impressive (not to mention free) resource. 

In addition to posting full-length sample essays with paragraph-by-paragraph explanations of how to present key points, he’s made a number of videos walking students through the test as a whole, the long essay, and of course everyone’s favorite: the DBQ.

He even explains what you need to include to obtain specific scores. 

Larry is truly the APUSH guru. He knows the test inside and out, and I strongly suggest that anyone taking the exam check out the page. Even if you’re already in good shape, you’ll probably pick up a few tips.

The AP English Comp terms you do and don’t need to know, condensed

The AP English Comp terms you do and don’t need to know, condensed

I realized after posting yesterday that I had buried the most practical information in the middle of what became a much longer-than-intended meditation/diatribe, so I’m re-posting the key information here in condensed form.

To sum up: since 2014, the AP English Language and Composition exam has not included questions directly testing knowledge of rhetorical figure. So you know those questions that ask you to identify whether a particular set of lines includes a metaphor, an oxymoron, antithesis, etc.? They’re gone.

Most of the major test-prep publishers (Kaplan, Princeton Review, Barron’s, McGraw Hill) have not caught onto this, however, and so they are still including these old-style questions in their AP English Comp books. To reiterate: if you go to the bookstore and buy a guide published by one of these companies, it will contain misleading information about the content of the test. 

(For those of you who haven’t been following my last couple of posts, I am in the process of reworking the original version of The Critical Reader into an AP Comp book; a beta version covering the multiple-choice reading should be available in the next couple of weeks. Had I known how problematic the material currently available is, I would have done this a lot sooner; however, I literally just discovered this two days ago, which is why I’m posting about it now.) 

Now, some multiple-choice questions may still allude to certain common rhetorical figures, but most of these questions will ask about the purpose or function of these figures. In practice, you can answer most of these questions regardless of whether you can identify the particular rhetorical figure or not.

Nevertheless, there a still a handful of rhetorical strategies that get asked about in other ways, and in certain cases, you may need to be able to recognize — or will at least find it extremely helpful to be able to recognize — some of them.

The focus, however, is on relatively common terms; the more exotic terms that were directly tested in the past have been eliminated (see list at the end). 

The terms you should still make sure to know are as follows:

Repetition – pretty self-explanatory, but involves repeating a word or phrase multiple times.

Simile – comparison formed using like or as (e.g. She was like a bird) 

Metaphor – comparison in which something is described as something else (e.g. She was a bird).

Analogy – comparison used for the purpose of clarification (in terms of the AP test, you only need to know that this is a type of comparison).

Allusion – Reference. Note that if the phrase obscure allusions appears in an answer choice, that answer will almost certainly be wrong. Passages do not contain any information that is truly obscure; if they do, it will be accompanied by a footnote.

Assertion – argument or claim

Counterargument/Counterexample – Example that weakens an author’s point and supports an opposing one.

(Personal) anecdote – brief story (personal anecdote signaled by the word I)

Hypothesis – educated guess 

Digression – off topic discussion; usually associated with incorrect answers because passages need to get to the point in about 85 lines; there literally isn’t room to go off on tangents.

Irony – Using a word to signify the opposite of its normal definition. 

Passive voice – construction in which the subject and object are flipped. Instead of saying that x did y, a passive construction indicates that y was done by x. Associated with an impersonal tone.

Concession – Acknowledgment of the validity of an opposing viewpoint. 

Paradox – apparent contradiction 

Synthesis – combination of different elements into a unified whole 

Juxtaposition – the placement of two opposing ideas next to one another to emphasize the contrast between them.

Diatribe – rant

And just to be thorough, here are some terms you do not need to know, at least not for the multiple-choice section (you are of course free to use them in the rhetorical analysis essay).

  • Anadiplosis
  • Anaphora
  • Antithesis
  • Apostrophe 
  • Assonance 
  • Asyndeton
  • Chiasmus
  • Euphemism
  • Hyperbole
  • Litotes 
  • Metonymy
  • Onomatopeia 
  • Oxymoron
  • Parataxis 
  • Synecdoche
  • Zeugma