How to work through Error-Identification questions, part 1

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.

2) Pronouns

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.

3) Lists

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.

Treat Critical Reading more like Math

Because of the nature of my job, I tend to get a lot of students with very significant imbalances between their math and verbal scores. Most people scoring a 760 in Math without much prep just don’t bother with math tutors, although the same people sometimes find themselves stuck in the 600s or even the 500s in Reading and Writing. What I look at the (full) tests of students like these, however, what often strikes me the most is the difference between the sheer amount of stuff they’ve written in the Math sections vs. the CR sections.

Even just glancing at the math, I can see that they’ve really worked those problems out. In fact, it probably wouldn’t occur to them to do otherwise. There are equations scribbled all over the place. Maybe not for every question, but often enough for it to be clear that they haven’t been approaching the SAT like some kind of glorified guessing game but rather solving the problems. They might use their knowledge of a particular rule to eliminate answers quickly, but at no point have they simply decided to abandon working things out in favor of making a guess they hope will be right.

The same, alas, cannot be said for the Reading. Sure, they’ve probably underlined and circled some things in the passages, maybe written the main point and perhaps the tone, but the spaces next to the questions are totally and completely blank. Even if they’ve made an attempt to reason their way through the problem, they haven’t bothered to write down all the steps. More likely, though, it hasn’t really occurred to them that they *can* approach CR in more or less the same way they would approach Math What seems like an obvious way to work through a math problem seems far less obvious when applied to reading — especially since they’ve never been asked to think about reading in quite that way before.

What really gets me, though, is that even after I demonstrate — in some cases, multiple times — how to work through a CR question step by step like a math problem, writing down each part of the process and moving systematically through the choices when the answer isn’t initially obvious, they still refuse to even attempt to replicate the process on their own. (Actually, after I demonstrate the first time, they usually give me a look that says approximately, “Oh s–t! That looks like a lot of work. No way, there has to be an easier way to do it.” Um, no, there isn’t.) It doesn’t matter how many times I tell them that this was how I got an 800, and that if they’re really serious about wanting one as well, they need to make themselves go through the entire process. They still want the magical shortcut that’ll get them a perfect score without having to work quite so hard. Guess what, folks: it doesn’t exist. The closest thing to a fail-safe technique I have for getting an 800 on CR is this, take or leave it.

So having said that, I want to work through what is quite possibly the hardest CR question I know of — one that absolutely demands to be worked out like an equation and that pretty much every student I’ve ever had, no matter how high they ultimately scored, screwed up on. (True confession: I actually had to look at the answer the first time I saw it. It was only when I went back that I was able to work out the reasoning behind it). It’s from the College Board Test 4, section 6, question 20, p. 592.

In case you’re wondering, yes, I would actually write all of my reasoning down. Note that I constantly, quasi-obsessively reiterate both what the question is asking and the point of the paragraph. It may seem excessive, but it’s necessary. It’s the only way to leave no room for error.

Paragraph 2

Things that live by night live outside the realm of “normal” time. Chauvinistic about our human need to wake by day and sleep by night, we come to associate night dwellers with people up to no good, people who have the jump on the rest of us and are defying nature, defying their circadian rhythms. Also night is when we dream, and so reality is warped. After all, we do not see very well at night, we do not need to. But that makes us nearly defenseless after dark. Although we are accustomed to mastering our world by day , in the night we become vulnerable as prey. Thinking of bats as masters of the night threatens the safety we daily take for granted. Though we are at the top of our food chain, if we had to live alone in the rain forest, say, and protect ourselves against roaming predators, we would live partly in terror, as our ancestors did. Our sense of safety depends on predictability, so anything living outside the usual rules we suspect to be an outlaw – a ghoul.

Which of the following assertions detracts LEAST from the author’s argument in the second paragraph (lines 25-42)?

(A) Many people work at night and sleep during the day
(B) Owls, which hunt at night, do not arouse our fear
(C) Most dangerous predators hunt during the day
(D) Some cultures associate bats with positive qualities
(E) Some dream imagery has its source in the dreamer’s personal life


1. Since the question is phrased in a somewhat convoluted manner, we need to make sure that we are absolutely clear about what is actually being asked before we do anything else. The question is asking us which option detracts LEAST.

That means that the four incorrect answers will detract from (go against) the argument and the correct answer will not detract from the argument.

It does not, however, mean that the correct option will SUPPORT the argument. Just because an idea does not explicitly go against an argument does not mean that it supports it; there might just be no relationship.

So we are simply looking for something that does not contradict the argument.

2. The next step is to determine what the argument actually is. While the question gives us a lot of lines to read, they can be pretty much summed up AND WRITTEN DOWN as follows:

-Humans sleep @ night and think it’s normal, get scared by stuff that’s awake @ night b/c = abnormal.

-Bats don’t sleep @ night, THUS: B/c bats assoc. w/dark = scary.

Notice that I’ve crammed down the paragraph into just the essential, disregarding the details entirely.

3. Before we look at the answers, we need to consider very clearly what we are looking for. The question asks us to find the answer that does NOT explicitly contradict the idea that bats & stuff @ night = scary. It might not support that idea, but it won’t go against it either. So now we consider the answers.

(A) Many people work at night and sleep during the day

If many people work at night and sleep during the day, they go against typical patterns. But that happens all the time and people don’t get scared. So that DOES detract from the idea that night is only for scary stuff, and we can eliminate the answer.

(B) Owls, which hunt at night, do not arouse our fear

Again, owls go against normal human patterns but NOT scary. So that also detracts from the idea that night = scary stuff. It can be eliminated.

(C) Most dangerous predators hunt during the day

But scary stuff is supposed to happen @ night, not during the day. So that detracts from the idea that scary stuff just comes out @ night. It can be eliminated.

(D) Some cultures associate bats with positive qualities

This is dealing with the other main point in the paragraph: bats = scary. But if bats are really so scary for everyone, then they shouldn’t be associated w/positive qualities. So this DOES detract from the idea that bats = scary. It can be eliminated as well.

(E) Some dream imagery has its source in the dreamer’s personal life

Since we’ve reasoned through the other options and have determined that they cannot be correct, this must be right. But before we pick it, we’re going to double check it against the original question to make sure that it works. This is part of the whole “not leaving yourself any room for error” thing, and if you want to certain, you can’t leave this step out.

We know that the right answer will not detract from the idea that bats/night = scary, and this option has nothing whatsoever to do with that idea. And if it has nothing to do with that idea, it can detract from it. It does, however, support the idea that bats/night = scary; it just does NOT detract from it. So it’s right.

Most of my students groan when I explain the logic to them; it seems so ridiculously convoluted. And such an outrageous amount of work. But there is no other way to figure it out. Even if some people can get the answer very fast, they’re still going through the entire process — they’re just doing it at warp speed.

Now to be fair, this question is very extreme. Most don’t have anywhere near this level of complexity. The problem is that there are always a couple of outliers that have something close to it, and those are the questions that separate the 800s from the mid-700s. I’ll admit that working like this does not initially feel natural. It can be time consuming (although in reality no more time consuming than staring blankly at the answers), but it’s also the sort of thing that gets faster the more you practice it. You have to be able to do it before you can do do it fast. Even if you screw it up the first few (or twenty) times you try to do it, practicing the approach is what counts. You’re dealing with the SAT in terms of what it’s actually testing — your ability to reason your way logically through complex material — and that’ll get you a lot further than looking at it just about any other way.

Don’t ever read just half of a sentence

The SAT makes people do some strange things. I think it’s safe to say that in everyday life, most people don’t pick up a book, open to a random page, start reading in the middle of a sentence, and then wonder why they don’t fully understand what’s going on. Barring some sort of bizarre circumstances, it just doesn’t happen. But it happens constantly on the SAT.

Now, I fully admit there are some aspects of SAT Reading that are different from the types of reading most test-takers have been asked to thus far, but contrary to conventional test-prep wisdom, SAT Reading is not completely detached from the normal act of reading. That means that you need to read words and phrases within the larger context of the sentences where they appear. Always.

I realize that this is one of those pieces of advice that might sound pretty obvious, but please just hear me out. One of the biggest mistakes that I see my students consistently make when they answer Critical Reading questions is to focus only on the word/phrase/line references given and ignore the surrounding information — which is what they actually need to read in order to answer the question correctly. Not backing up and starting from a sentence or two above is bad enough, but actually starting in the middle of the sentence has the potential to cause a lot of problems.

For example (passage excerpt):

…Now that I am passionately involved with thinking critically about Black people and representation, I can confess that those walls of photographs empowered me, and that I feel their absence in my life. Right now I long for those walls, those curatorial spaces in the home that express our will to make and display images.


In line 26, “absence” refers metaphorically to a lack of a

(A) constraining force
(B) cluttered space
(C) negative influence
(D) sustaining tradition
(E) joyful occasion

By SAT standards, the question is right in the middle of the road difficulty-wise. In fact, it’s a level 3. The reason that people tend to get into trouble with questions like it, however, is as follows: the question refers specifically to the word “absence,” then tells us that the word appears in line 26 — a piece of information that leads most people to begin reading at the word “absence” in line 26, then continue down to the rest of the paragraph (and often, when they can’t find the answer, to the paragraph below it).

In other words, they start reading halfway through the sentence, but they’re so focused on the word “absence” that it never even occurs to them that they might be missing something important. And once they hit the phrase “curatorial spaces,” they so hung up on the fact that they don’t quite understand what it means that it never occurs to them that they might be missing something a lot more straightforward.

The problem is that the answer is found in the first part of the sentence: the photographs were absent, and they empowered the narrator. Empowered = sustaining (more or less), hence (D). (The beginning of the passage also makes quite clear that those photographs were an important tradition in her family.) But if you don’t read the beginning of the sentence, you miss the context and end up going in the completely wrong direction. In addition, the word “absence” usually has negative connotations, which means that in the absence of context, you’re a lot more likely to pick (A), (B), or (C). If you go back and see that the photographs were “empowering,” however,” you won’t fall into that trap.

Why marking line references can be a huge waste of time

I find that it can sometimes help to think of the SAT as the standardized-testing equivalent of a parlor trick, a sleight of hand if you will. Questions that appear at first glance to be exceedingly complicated can often be solved quickly and simply, and answers that would initially seem to be located in a particular place may be located somewhere else entirely. One of the places where this gap is most striking involves the line references that accompany most Critical Reading questions.

On one hand, it’s rather generous of ETS to at least be willing to tell you where to look — unlike, for example, the writers of the ACT, who basically leave you to fend for yourself in terms of figuring out where information is located. On the other hand, however, line references are not always quite the gift that they appear to be. As a matter of fact, in some cases they can be downright misleading. In order to understand why, it helps to understand just what the SAT is and is not doing when a specific line reference appears.

Take, for example, the following question:

The author’s attitude toward the “subfield” (line 65) is best characterized as one of:

(A) approval
(B) curiosity
(C) uncertainty
(D) surprise
(E) dismay

A question that is phrased this way is giving us exactly one piece of information: that the word “subfield” appears in line 65. The question is not, however, telling us that the information necessary to answer the question — information that will reveal the author’s attitude about the subfield — is in line 65. Now, the answer will most likely be in the general vicinity of line 65, but we don’t know where. It might come before, but it also might come after. In other words, it may be in line 63. Or 61. Or 68. It might even be in line 59 or line 70.

This is because the question is not asking us about the subfield itself. It is only concerned with the subfield insofar as it relates to the author’s opinion of it. Establishing the author’s tone is what counts; without it, there is no effective way to answer the question.

What this means, practically speaking, is that if you’ve spent your time carefully marking line 65 and the answer comes five lines earlier, you’re out of luck. Especially if you start at a particular line and keep on reading without considering that the answer might precede the line in question.

I’m not suggesting that marking line references is completely worthless, just that it shouldn’t be overestimated as a strategy. Yes, it can very effective in terms of making you focus on the text, but used alone, it does have its limits. When people get 800s using it, they pull in other skills subconsciously as well. It’s fine to tell yourself to read carefully around a particular area, but if you’re just reading carefully without really knowing what you’re reading carefully for, you might end up wasting a huge amount of time.

Yes, many questions can be answered by looking only at the lines cited in the questions, but many others cannot. On the SAT, it’s the big picture — the relationship between detail and context — that generally counts. And assiduously marking line references just for the sake of marking line references will not give you that relationship; you still have to take the time to figure it out on your own.

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.