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. 

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
SAT Essay tip: find alternatives to the word “say”

SAT Essay tip: find alternatives to the word “say”

If you look at the SAT Essay scoring rubric, you’ll find in order to earn a top score of 4 in “Writing,” an essay must demonstrate “a highly effective use and command of language,” and “a consistent use of precise word choice.”

Those are lovely-sounding directives, but they’re also extremely vague. It’s hard to dispute that these are characteristics of good analytical writing, but what do they actually mean, and how can you put them into practice?It’s easy enough to memorize grammatical rules, but style is something that can’t be taught…right? 

I think that very often, skill in writing is conceived of in very black-and-white terms: it’s either something people are born with a knack for, or it’s something that can’t be learned. Obviously, yes, writing comes more easily to some people than to others, but to assume that effective analytical writing — which almost no one is naturally good at — is something that just magically happens, is to overlook the fact that like any other complex activity, it is made up of specific, concrete skills that can be practiced individually. 

In terms of the SAT Essay, I’d like to look at one simple, specific way to make your writing more varied and thus more likely to obtain a high score.

Because the Essay assignment requires that you spend a fair amount of time describing an author’s argument, and that you quote repeatedly from the passage provided, it is very easy to fall into the trap of introducing each reference to the passage the same way: namely, by using the verb say

Don’t get me wrong — say is a great all-purpose word, but if you write something like, “In the introduction, the author says xyz….” and then two sentences later, “The author also says xyz…” and then a couple of sentences after that, “In addition, the author says…” Well, that’s going to get old pretty darn fast. And in an assignment that’s less-than-thrilling by nature, you don’t want to bore your reader any more than necessary. 

One way to liven things up a bit is therefore to use a variety of different verbs to introduce what the author, well, says. To be clear, these do not need to be “fancy” words; they just need to present an idea or quote smoothly, and in a way that doesn’t involve repeating the same thing over and over again. 

For example: 

-The author states…
-The author indicates…
-The author asserts… 
-The author recounts…
-The author explains…
-The author reveals…
-The author implies…
-The author suggests…

You get the picture.

Each time you cite from the passage or summarize a portion of it, pick a different option to introduce the quote or summary. If you can use 5-7 alternatives over the course of your essay, you will leave an overall impression of greater variety and sophistication than would otherwise be the case. And because your reader will spend no more than a couple of minutes scoring your essay, that sort of general impression can count for quite a lot. 


Why a vocab app isn’t enough if you want to ace GRE verbal

A couple of times in the past few months, I’ve had chance conversations with people who were either preparing for the GRE or had recently taken it. 

Inevitably, the subject turned to preparation for the verbal section, and both times, the GRE-taker in question lit up when they mentioned using an app to study vocabulary. As one of them enthused, “it’s like a game! You get to compete against other users and everything.” 

I admit that my familiarity with GRE vocab apps is limited, but when I had the first of these conversations, my immediate inclination was to double-check that the student knew that the GRE had changed a few years back — that the vocabulary section was no longer based on straight-up synonym and antonym questions but was rather focused on testing words in the context of sentences and short passages. 

Remarkably, the student — who struck me as very bright — seemed entirely unaware of that fact. 

I’m not sure just how common that situation is, but I’m writing this post regardless. Based on my experience with the old SAT, I suspect that even if GRE students know that vocabulary is tested in a way that no longer involves just knowing straightforward definitions, they’re not really sure what that means on a practical level, or what they can do to prepare. As a result, they pore over vocabulary lists (or apps), not fully realizing that being prepared for the GRE is more than just a matter of knowing lots of difficult words. 

As a matter of fact, it is possible to know lots of dictionary definitions of words and still find the GRE vocabulary section very challenging.

It is also possible to have difficulty with questions testing relatively straightforward words. ETS excels at writing questions that mess with your mind ever so slightly, questions that make you think: This should be simple — these are easy words. Why can’t I figure out what’s going on here? 

This is what’s going on: when the GRE was overhauled in 2012, one of the main goals was to make the test less about memorization and more about the type of reading that actually gets done in graduate school. The result was a shift in focus from the sort of über-challenging vocabulary that used to feature prominently on the exam to the sort of challenging but not overly esoteric words routinely found in mainstream publications such as The Economist.

Now, here’s the ironic part. When the SAT was overhauled in 2015/2016, it was changed in part because critics argued that the so-called “obscure” vocabulary that exam tested was disconnected from real-life reading. What ETS effectively did, however, was to take the set of words commonly tested on the SAT and move them over to the GRE. So what was once considered “obscure” vocabulary on the SAT magically became “relevant” vocabulary on the GRE. 

That’s another way of saying that the GRE isn’t interested in terribly interested in assessing whether you’ve memorized the dictionary; provided you have a relatively solid vocabulary, you probably don’t need to spend hours and hours studying hundreds of esoteric words. That’s just not what the test is about anymore.

So while some GRE vocabulary questions do require you to know the definitions of relatively sophisticated words, others are almost like miniature logic puzzles. The emphasis is on whether you can figure out what the sentence or passage is actually saying, and what general type of word makes sense in context. Whether the answer would conventionally be considered an “easy” word or a “hard” word is effectively irrelevant.   

To answer these questions, you must be able to infer relationships between sentence and clauses, sometimes with only subtle clues; sift through complex syntax and idiomatic phrasing; work backwards within questions, starting with a more-straightforward second or third blank and then moving back to a less clear first blank; and suppress your initial assumption about the type of word that belongs in a particular blank until you’ve obtained a fuller understanding of what a sentence or passage is saying. 

In addition, Sentence Equivalences present their own particular form of trickery: determining the correct answer is not simply a matter of knowing whether each individual word makes sense in context. Rather, you must be able to determine which pair of words create the same meaning when plugged in — words that may or may not be synonyms. 

Even if you know all of the words perfectly, it’s very easy to get confused and start second-guessing yourself. This can happen just as easily when the words are simple as it can when the words are hard. Actually, I would argue that it’s more likely to happen when the words are simple!

To be fair, if you have a liberal arts degree (or a B.S. from a program with substantial requirements in the social sciences and humanities), and are extremely comfortable navigating complex academic prose, the context-based aspect of GRE vocabulary probably won’t be too much of an impediment to a high verbal score.

But that said, the pitfalls described in the previous paragraphs are very real, and studying vocabulary alone won’t prepare you for them. Furthermore, things that seem a little tricky when you’re sitting at home in your living room can be positively mind-bending when you’re under pressure in an actual testing situation. 

If you don’t have a lot of experience reading academic non-fiction, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, then a vocabulary app — even a really great one —  is unlikely to offer you comprehensive preparation for the GRE. It may be necessary, but it will almost certainly be insufficient. 

So what can you do?

At the very least, you need to get yourself an Official GRE Guide and an Official GRE Verbal Guide. These are the only two books that contain questions written by ETS, and they are therefore indispensable for obtaining an accurate idea of what you’ll encounter on the real exam. Any additional books, mine included, should be used to supplement those guides. 

If you are extremely weak on vocabulary and need to build some fundamentals, I would even go so far as to recommend that you purchase a copy of the old SAT Official Guide and work through the sentence completions there first. Most of the questions are considerably easier than GRE questions (although there is some overlap at the high end), but they are also ETS-produced and draw from a similar pool of words.

And if you have a lot of time to prep for the exam, set aside 15-30 minutes or so a day to read the type of material you’ll find on the GRE. Explore the many links on Arts & Letters Daily or, if you have access to JSTOR, look through the many journal options, start by picking a topic you’re interested in, and find some articles related to it. (Try to pick things written in a relatively straightforward manner, though; GRE writing, while sometimes dense, is not overly laden with academic jargon.) 

As you get more comfortable reading, try to branch out into areas you know less about. If most of your classes have been in the humanities, for example, make sure to read scientific articles and vice-versa. Write down and look up every word, phrase, and idiom whose meaning you’re not 100% certain of. Anything that isn’t exceptionally technical, you’re likely to encounter again.