Every time I hear someone advise SAT-takers to “just try to hear the error” on Error-ID questions, I get the overwhelming urge to smack them. This kind of thinking overlooks one exceedingly important fact: many Error-ID sentences are precisely constructed so that you won’t hear the error!
Sure, you can use your ear on a lot of the essay questions and on some of the medium ones, but on the hard ones… you’ll get trampled on. If you want a score above the 500s, you have to actually know what you’re looking for (unless, of course, you’re a 99th percentile outlier, in which case you probably don’t have to be reading this).
If you don’t immediately pick up on an error, you must work from the underlined words and phrases themselves. Particular types of underlined words often suggest particular types of errors, and if everything does indeed check out, you can pick option E with something resembling confidence.
While I’m not going to go through the entire list of everything that could possibly be wrong with Error-ID questions (you can find that list here, along with examples), I am going to cover only the most frequently occurring errors. So here goes. In order of what you should check:
1) Underlined Verbs
An underlined verb can have two possible errors: subject-verb agreement and tense.
If a verb is in the present tense, start by checking the subject. Make sure you cross out any potential distractions such as non-essential clauses and prepositional phrases, and make sure you identify the entire subject. If you don’t take the time to do this, you risk missing the fact that you’re dealing with a compound subject (two singular nouns joined by and).
If the agreement is ok, see if the tense works. Although there could theoretically be a lot of different errors involving tense, there really aren’t most of the time. The main thing to remember is that verb tenses and forms should remain consistent (or parallel) throughout a sentence unless there’s good reason for them to change.
The inclusion of a date or time period often indicates a tense question, so if you see one, check tenses first. Remember: any finished event that occurred in the past (e.g. the Civil War) must be talked about in the simple past (“it happened,” not “it has happened”).
Gerunds and infinitives (e.g. “to go” and “going”) get switched, and “would” and “will” get switched, so if one of those is underlined, plug in the other one and see if it works better.
Next to verb errors, pronoun errors are most likely to occur. If a pronoun is underlined, check to make sure that it “matches” the noun it refers to.
Singular pronouns (like “it” or “its”) must refer to singular nouns, and plural pronouns (“they” or “their”) must go with plural nouns.
If the word “it” appears, check it first because it’s most likely wrong.
“One” goes with “one”
“You” goes with “you”
Any singular person goes with “he or she,” never “they”
Keep in mind that about 1/3 of all grammar questions deal with either verbs or pronouns, so if there’s no problem with either of these things, there’s already a decent chance the answer will be E.
If a collective noun (jury, team, agency, city, school, country, etc.) appear, chances are that’s what the question is testing: collective nouns are singular, so check both subject-verb and pronoun agreement.
All of the items in a list must be the same: noun, noun noun; verb, verb, verb, etc. If a sentence includes a list, there’s a good chance there’s an error in it.
3) Adjective and Adverbs
Adjectives and adverbs are switched only with one another. If an adjective is underlined, stick in the adverb (e.g. if “calm” is underlined, stick in “calmly”). Adverbs themselves are almost never wrong.
4) Faulty Comparison
Compare people to people and things to things (e.g. The novels of Jane Austen are more widely read than those of Charlotte Bronte, NOT: The novels of Jane Austen are more widely read thanCharlotte Bronte)
Always be on the lookout for expressions such as “more less/less than” that indicate things that are being compared, especially toward the ends of sections.
Also look out for a mention of artists and authors. They tend to be included in faulty comparisons.
5) Word Pairs
“Either…or,” “Neither…nor,” “As…as” and “Not only…but also” are the most common words pairs on Error-IDs. They tend to only be included when there’s something wrong with them, at least on easy-medium questions.
6) Prepositions and Idioms
This is the one place you do have to trust your ear. If a preposition sounds wrong to you (e.g. “She is familiar in the paintings of Marc Chagall), it probably is.
7) More vs. Most
If the word “more” is underlined, see how many things are being compared. If it’s two, you’re fine; if it’s more than two, you need “most.” (e.g. “Between the dog and the cat, the dog is more outgoing but the cat is more independent” BUT “the cat is the most independent of all domestic animals.”)
8) Noun Agreement
Plural subject = plural noun
Look for the phrase “as a + profession” (writer, director, entomologist…)
Steven Spielberg and James Cameron are recognized as the directors (not: the director) most responsible for producing hit action movies.
So no, this isn’t everything that could possibly show up, but if you don’t see one of these errors, don’t twist yourself into knots looking for something that probably isn’t there.