An analysis of the infamous “New Zealand” writing question

I’m aware that there’s a debate raging on College Confidential over the following question from the October SAT, and I’d like to weigh in:

Although New Zealand (had fostered) music for decades, it was not until the 1980s (when) musicians began (to reach) an international audience. (No Error)

First, the sentence should correctly read as follows:

Although New Zealand had fostered music for decades, it was not until the 1980s THAT musicians began to reach an international audience.

Before I start in on why “when” is wrong, I’d like to go through the other options being debated:

1) had fostered

In this case, the past perfect is correct because it describes an event in the past (fostering music) that clearly occurred before a second event (musicians began to reach an international audience). Now, the present perfect (has fostered) could also work, implying that New Zealand is *still* fostering music, but there’s nothing in the sentence that demands it rather than the past perfect. Remember: if two options are both grammatically acceptable, neither can be considered wrong. Style and personal preference don’t count.

2) to reach

To reach = infinitive. Infinitives get flipped with gerunds. “Began reaching” is also fine, but it isn’t inherently better than “to reach” (if anything, it’s a bit more awkward). Same issue: two acceptable options, both fine.

(Btw, I have no idea what the last option was — I’m going by the version of the question that was sent to me and that I found on CC.)

Ok, here goes for why “when” is wrong. It’s actually a question of standard usage more than anything else. The fixed construction is “it was not until x that y occurred” (the other variation of the phrase would be the inverted verb structure “not until x did y occur”).

What ETS has done to confuse everyone, however, is to insert a decoy relative pronoun, “when,” which looks and sounds as if it could be correct because it’s placed immediately after a date (1980s) — and everyone knows that “when” is supposed to refer to dates.

The problem is, however, is that the fixed construction “It was not until x that y occurred” trumps everything. It’s like a word pair (e.g. “not only…but also”): you just can’t separate the two parts (at least not in SAT land). That’s what’s actually being tested, even if it looks like something else.

(Side note: ETS often uses “when” to create incorrect logical relationships. It frequently replaces a stronger, clearer conjunction such as “however” or “because.”)

Now, to add a further level of complication, there is a situation in which “when” could be legitimately placed after the date, namely if a non-essential clause were to be inserted. For example:

Although New Zealand had fostered music for decades, it was not until the 1980s, when new forms of media technology became widespread, that musicians began to reach an international audience.

But note that this version still includes “that!”

To be fair, it’s a very hard question, as well as an unpredictable one by SAT standards, but there’s absolutely nothing unfair or subjective about it. Standard English usage requires “that,” not when, be used with “it was not until.” If someone were to write that sentence in a paper and use “when” rather than “that,” it would still be wrong. As a matter of fact, it’s the kind of error that college professors see in students’ writing all the time. And that’s exactly why it was on the test.

Critical Reading is not the place for thinking or feeling

One of the most telling exchanges I can have with a student typically goes something like this:

Me: So what’s the author saying in lines 34-37?

Student: Umm…. So I feel like the author is trying to say…

Me: Ok, but the question isn’t asking about what you feel like the author is saying. Look back at the passage and tell me exactly what the author is saying. As in word for word.

At which point the student typically glances back at the lines, pulls out a random phrase or two, and then gives me a look that clearly says “So what?”

I’m sorry if I’m destroying anyone’s illusions here, but feeling (and to some extent thinking, at least in the sense of “I think”) have absolutely no role in helping you to determine the answer to Critical Reading questions. The second you utter the words, “I feel like the author, passage, etc.” is trying to say xyz,” you’ve failed to make the very crucial distinction between restating — a neutral action that simply uses different words to recapture the idea that an author is attempting to convey — and interpreting, which by definition involves an element of subjectivity and personal bias that very likely extends somewhat beyond what the text is literally saying.

I feel like I’ve said it a million times, but I could probably stand to say it again, so here goes: the SAT is not a test of interpretation or “analysis,” at least not as most American high school students have been taught to understand those words. It is a test of the ability to deal with a text on its own terms — to understand clearly and precisely what a text is saying (and what the test-makers are asking), and then to make draw reasonable conclusions about its structure and intended meaning based exclusively on that understanding. Unless you can get an accurate gist of what the text is saying, chances are that any conclusion you draw about it will probably not be 100% supported. Since reading this way represents somewhat of a paradigm shift for most people (indeed, most people say “I think” or “I feel” so automatically that they don’t even realize they’re doing it), it can be helpful to have specific tools that help you practice reading more literally.

One of them is as follows: When you encounter a question that refers to only a short segment of the passage (say two or three lines), go back and read it out loud — slowly. Practice saying, “the author is saying… and then read the text word by word. Make sure you do not utter the words, “I think/feel like author means xyz,” and then try to remember just quite what it was that the author said. If you say “I think” or “I feel”, you have to start over.

Now, this is not a technique to be used when you’re actually taking the test. It’s a practice tool only, designed to raise your concentration and make you read more precisely. But forcing yourself to get rid of the ingrained, almost instinctive assumption that you can somehow figure out the answer by ignoring the author and going by own particular impressions can completely revolutionize the way you approach the test.