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 willing to read both forwards and backwards
One of the most important things to understand about SAT Writing/ACT English is that errors are context-based. As a result, the underlined portion of the sentence 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.
This skill is 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.
The exact elevation of Mt. Everest’s summit has long been a matter of controversy. In July, the warmest time of the year, temperatures average only about ?2°F on the summit; in January, the coldest month, summit temperatures average ?33 °F and can drop as low as ?76 °F. Storms can come up suddenly, and temperatures can plummet unexpectedly. The peak of Everest is so high that it reaches the lower limit of the jet stream, and it can be buffeted by sustained winds of more than 100 miles per hour. Precipitation falls as snow during the summer monsoon, and the risk of frostbite is extremely high.
Which of the following is the most effective introduction to the paragraph?
A. NO CHANGE
B. The climate of Mt. Everest is extremely hostile to climbers throughout the year.
C. Glacial action is the primary force behind the erosion of Mt. Everest and surrounding peaks.
D. The valleys below Everest are inhabited by Tibetan-speaking peoples.
In order to determine the answer, you must temporarily ignore the first sentence and instead focus on the rest of the paragraph — you cannot know what the topic sentence should be about until you know what sort of information it introduces. In this case, the paragraph discusses the extremely cold temperatures and dangerous weather conditions present on Mt. Everest. That corresponds to the phrase “hostile climate” in (B). Although the other answers refer to Mt. Everest, they are all off-topic.
5) Recognizing non-essential clauses
Simply put, a non-essential clause is a clause that can be eliminated from a sentence without affecting its essential structure or meaning. These clauses can be set off with either commas, dashes, or parentheses, but the same type of punctuation must be used at the beginning and end of the clause.
Correct: 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.
Correct: 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.
Correct: 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.
Incorrect answers to questions testing non-essential clauses often omit one or both of the punctuation marks surrounding the clause. They may also “mix and match” — for example, use a dash to end a non-essential clause begun by a comma, or vice versa.
To identify what type of punctuation should be used and where it should be placed, you must be able to identify where the non-essential clause logically begins and ends.
A mathematician, inventor, and philosopher, Charles Babbage, considered by some to be a “father of the computer” is credited with inventing the first mechanical computer.
A. NO CHANGE
B. computer is credited,
C. computer – is credited
D. computer, is credited
To answer this question, you must be able to recognize that the clause considered by some to be a “father of the computer” can be removed from the sentence without affecting its basic structure or meaning (A mathematician, inventor, and philosopher, Charles Babbage…is credited with inventing the first mechanical computer).
6) Distinguishing between number and tense
Number = singular or plural
Tense = 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.
Note that to answer subject-verb agreement questions, you also need to be able to distinguish between singular and 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.
7) Recognizing formal vs. informal writing (register)
Questions testing diction, or word choice, appear frequently on both the SAT and the ACT. In some cases you must choose the word or phrase with the most appropriate meaning, while in others you must choose the word or phrase with the most appropriate tone or register — that is, the proper degree of formality or informality.
Passages are almost always written in a straightforward, moderately serious tone. Correct answers to register questions are consistent with the tone, whereas incorrect answers are typically too casual or slangy. They may also be excessively formal, but this is less common.
As a result of variations in snow height, light refraction, and gravity deviation, the exact elevation of Mt. Everest’s summit has long been a topic of debate. Beginning in the 1950s, numerous attempts were made to measure the summit’s true height.
A. NO CHANGE
B. a thing that people fight about.
C. a matter of great disputation.
D. the cause of a bunch of arguments.
In the above question, (B) and (D) are both awkward and overly casual, employing “vague,” highly informal words such as thing and bunch, whereas disputation in (C) is excessively formal. (A) is correct because it is consistent with the straightforward, middle-of-the-road tone found in the rest of the passage.
Nouns are the most common type of subjects. They include people, places, and things and can be concrete (book, chair, house) or abstract (belief, notion, theory).
Example: Bats are able to hang upside down for long periods because they possess specialized tendons in their feet.
Pronouns are words that replace nouns. Common pronouns include she, he, it, one, you, this, that, and there.
Less common pronouns include what, how, whether, and that, all of which are singular. They are typically used as part of a much longer complete subject (underlined in the second example below).
Example: They are able to hang upside down for long periods because they possess specialized tendons in their feet.
Example: How bats hang upside down for long periods was a mystery until it was discovered that they possess specialized tendons in their feet.
Gerunds are formed by adding -ING to the ends of verbs (e.g. read – reading; talk – talking). Although gerunds look like verbs, they act like nouns. They are always singular and take singular verbs.
Example: Hanging upside down for long periods is a skill that both bats and sloths possess.
The infinitive is the “to” form of a verb. Infinitives are always singular when they are used as subjects. They are most commonly used to create the parallel structure “To do x is to do y.”
Example: To hang upside down for a long period of time is to experience the world as a bat or sloth does.
Shortcut: semicolon + and/but = wrong
If you see an answer choice on either the SAT or the ACT that places a semicolon before the word and or but, cross out that answer immediately and move on.
Why? Because a semicolon is grammatically identical to a period, and you shouldn’t start a sentence with and or but.
The slightly longer explanation: In real life, semicolon usage is a little more flexible, and the choice to use when can sometimes be more a matter of clarity/style than one of grammar. It is generally considered acceptable to place a semicolon before and or but in order to break up a very long sentence, especially when there are already multiple commas/clauses.
Pamela Meyer, a certified fraud examiner, author, and entrepreneur, became interested in the science of deception at at business school workshop during which a professor detailed his findings on behaviors associated with lying; and she subsequently worked with a team of researchers to survey and analyze existing research on deception from academics, experts, law enforcement, the military, espionage and psychology.
In the above sentence, either a comma or a semicolon could be used before and. In this case, however, the sentence is so long and contains so many different parts that the semicolon is a logical choice to create stronger break between the parts.
Why not just use a period? Well, because a semicolon implies a stronger connection between the clauses than a period would; it keeps the sentence going rather than marking a full break between thoughts. Again, this is a matter of style, not grammar.
The SAT and the ACT, however, are not interested in these details. Rather, their goal is to check whether you understand the most common version of the rule. Anything beyond that would simply be too ambiguous.
Note: Because this post has become so popular, I’ve made it available in PDF format. Click here to download.
I’ve recently received a handful of questions asking for clarification about rule governing the use of commas with names and titles. Of all the comma rules tested on the SAT® and ACT®, this is probably the subtlest.
The good news is that questions testing this rule don’t show up very often; the bad news is that if you don’t know the rule, these questions can be very tricky to answer.
The other piece of good news, however, is that when names/titles appear in the middle of a sentence (that is, not as the first or last words), these questions can almost always be correctly answered using a simple shortcut. And if you just want to know the rule for everyday use, the shortcut is effective in the real world as well.
I think we can probably all agree here that whatever the strengths of the ACT English section may be, formatting is most definitely not one of them. When there are five or six spaces — or even half a page — between lines, it’s almost impossible not to sometimes lose track of where paragraphs begin and end. Since I started tutoring the ACT in 2008, I’ve spent who knows how much time explaining just where the sentence is supposed to be inserted, or which paragraph a little numbered box is actually referring to. Sooner or later, almost every ACT student of mine has missed a question simply because they couldn’t figure what they were supposed to fix where.
Beyond the most obvious instances of formatting-related mistakes, though, I’ve noticed some subtler errors. One problem that seems to come up again and again involves…page turns. When I work through the same tests with enough people, I inevitably start to notice that almost everyone gets certain questions wrong, usually for the same reasons.
A couple of tests that I regularly use have questions that bridge two pages — that is, the sentence that a question asks about begins at the bottom of one page and ends at the top of the next page. Sometimes, it’s a very long sentence, which means it’s easy to lose track of.
And very often, my students answer those questions incorrectly because they’ve only read the information on the page containing the underlined portion or numbered box.They either didn’t want to make the effort to back up a page and read from the beginning of the sentence (relatively rare) or, more frequently, were so focused on the underlined portion of the sentence that they didn’t realize it actually began on the previous page.
Ironically, focusing on the question so hard caused them to overlook the larger context and miss the very information that they needed to answer the question. Had the entire sentence been located on a single page, they would likely have read from the start of it; but because it was split up, they simply didn’t notice that they weren’t reading from the beginning.
The moral of the story? Always, always back up and read from the beginning of the sentence, actively identifying where that place is. The capitalized letter at the beginning of a word is a giveaway, and no, I’m not being sarcastic. Sometimes you have to be that literal.
Recently, I’ve started seeing the same problem with paragraphs and rhetoric questions, specifically adding/delete sentences questions. In order to determine whether information should be added or deleted — that is, whether it’s relevant to a paragraph — it is first necessary to know what that paragraph is about. What part of the paragraph tells you most directly what it’s going to be about? Often, the first (topic) sentence or couple of sentences.
When the first sentence is on the previous page, however, it’s suddenly a lot less intuitive to read that spot. And when lines are separated by multiple spaces, making only a few lines of text appear much longer, it is possible to not even realize that a paragraph begins on the previous page. Again, the best way to guard against this problem is to back up and consciously search for the indented line that always signal the beginning of a paragraph, keeping in mind that it may be on the previous page.
Working this way might seem like an inordinate amount of effort — one more little detail to think about, on top of everything else — but it can actually save you time and energy in the long run. Instead of trying to puzzle out an answer that you don’t have sufficient information to determine, flipping back a page and getting the full picture can actually make finding the answer much more straightforward.