If you google “perfect score on SAT writing” (or “perfect score on ACT English”) you’ll probably come up with a couple dozen hits that make it seem as if accomplishing that feat 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. And to be sure, the SAT and ACT both 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. And rules that initially seem simple and straightforward can have very challenging applications.
Passages 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 that refer to multi-syllabic chemical compounds.
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 and the English portion of the ACT. You can find those in my complete list of SAT and ACT grammar rules. Rather, it is a list of skills that you must have in order to apply those rules effectively.
1) Recognizing prepositions and prepositional phrases
Prepositions are “location” and “time” words such as to, of, by, for, from, with, and about.
Prepositional phrases are phrases that begin with prepositions and include nouns, pronouns, and adjectives, e.g. on the shelf, by the author, with my father.
Both the SAT and ACT test a couple of errors involving prepositional phrases.
Most frequently, they test the “no comma before or after a preposition” rule — if you can recognize prepositions, this rule is extremely easy to apply. If you can’t, you have to puzzle things out by ear.
Prepositional phrases are also used to distract from subject-verb agreements, e.g. The forests of central Mexico provides an ideal habitat for Monarch butterflies.
In addition to knowing what prepositional phrases are, you must be able to recognize them so securely and consistently that you can remember, under pressure, to cross them out of potentially long and complicated sentences in order to check for disagreements.
2) Knowing the definitions of transition words
This is a big one. You probably don’t have any trouble with however and therefore, but what about less common transitions such as consequently, moreover, and nevertheless?
If you don’t know the literal meanings of these words as well as what sorts of relationships they’re used to indicate, you’ll have difficulty eliminating wrong answers and recognizing right ones. You might also start relying on how they sound (weird), and that’s usually a recipe for disaster.
3) Recognizing comma splices involving pronouns
A comma splice is formed when a comma rather than a period or semicolon is placed between two complete sentences. When this error involve two clearly separate sentences, it is generally easy to recognize; however, one very common problem arises when the second sentence begins with a pronoun (he, she, it, they, one) rather than a noun. Because the second sentence does not make sense out of context, many people falsely believe it cannot be a sentence.
Incorrect: The forests of central Mexico are warm and filled with a wide variety of plant life, they provide an ideal habitat for Monarch butterflies.
Correct: The forests of central Mexico are warm and filled with a wide variety of plant life. They provide an ideal habitat for Monarch butterflies.
Correct: The forests of central Mexico are warm and filled with a wide variety of plant life; they provide an ideal habitat for Monarch butterflies.
4) Being wiling to read both forwards and backwards
One of the most important things to understand about SAT Writing/ACT English is that errors are always context-based. What this means in practice is that the underlined portion of the sentence alone may not give you the information you need to answer a given question. Rather, the necessary information may be located elsewhere in the sentence or paragraph.
For example, consider the following:
The peak known as El Capitan, which is considered by the majority of expert climbers to
be the epicenter of the rock climbing world — is a vertical expanse stretching higher than the
world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
A. NO CHANGE
B. rock climbing world is
C. rock climbing world, is
D. rock climbing world, and it is
To answer this question, you must not only be able to recognize that it is testing your ability to recognize non-essential clauses as well as how they are punctuated, but also be willing to back up and look at the beginning of the sentence. The comma after El Capitan marks the beginning of the non-essential clause and indicates that a comma must be used to mark the end of the non-essential clause as well.
This skill is also key for answering rhetoric questions that ask you to add, delete, or revise information. If you are asked about a topic sentence, for example, you must jump ahead and read the body of the paragraph in order to determine what topic the first sentence of the paragraph should introduce.
5) 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 identifying the subjects of 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.
6) Distinguishing between number and tense
Number = singular or plural?
Tense = when (past, present, or future)?
Consider the following sentence:
Incorrect: 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. And that becomes a problem when you encounter questions like this:
The relationship between sharks and remora fish are truly symbiotic, for neither can exist without the other.
C. have been
If you don’t clue into the fact that the verb must agree with the subject, the singular noun relationship, you have no real way of deciding between the answers.
7) 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, particularly when sentences are long and complicated, and subjects are separated from verbs. If you have a tendency to forget, write this rule down on the front of your test.