SAT Writing and Language: Major Topics Tested and How to Tackle Them
So you’re looking to improve your SAT verbal score? You probably already know that the verbal portion of the SAT is scored out of 800 possible points and includes Section 1 and 2 of the SAT, which are Reading and Writing and Language, respectively. The Reading section is difficult to get better at, as strengthening your reading comprehension is a long-term engagement, but the Writing and Language section offers students looking to pick up quick extra points on the SAT a great opportunity. This article aims to provide students with a list of the most important grammar and editing topics on the SAT Writing and Language section. Look over it the morning of the test, and remember these error categories are you take the SAT!
The SAT loves to test apostrophes. Essentially, they’re used to make things possessive. You can have either singular possessive, as when one noun possesses another noun—the dog’s house, for example.
You can also have plural possessive, when multiple nouns possess a noun or nouns, as in the dogs’ houses.
There are two noteworthy exceptions to this rule:
it’s = it is
its = possessive
who’s = who is
whose = possessive
Subject-verb agreement is a massively popular SAT grammar concept, and although it seems basic, the SAT is good at testing it in a tricky manner.
Here’s an example of a subject-verb agreement error: I are bored. You would never say that, would you? That’s because “are” isn’t the right verb for the word “I.”
That error seems obvious, of course.
Can you catch the error here?
Along the hiking trail runs a lovely oak forest and several little ponds.
The sentence should say “run” instead of “runs,” because the nouns doing the running are the forest AND the ponds, which is plural and therefore requires a plural verb.
Essentially, you want to make sure that when you choose a verb for a noun, you’re matching the noun’s number and tense.
Verb tense and form
It’s important to know the different verb tenses the SAT tests you on.
Present tense is for things happening now, as in I see the map.
Past tense is for things that are over and happened in the past, as in I went to the store.
Present perfect is have or has plus the past participle and indicates an action began in the past but is ongoing, as in I have seen many films throughout my life.
Past perfect is had plus the past participle and is used to show the first chronological event in a sequence, as in I had wanted to study film, but then I decided to study biology.
Future tense is for things that will occur: Tomorrow, I will eat breakfast.
When choosing the tense for a verb, pay attention to other verbs to gain a sense of what tense the verb should be.
In general, it’s good to maintain established patterns, both for verb tense and for sentence structure. On the SAT, choose a choice that allows for I went to the store, bought milk, and drove home, rather than I went to the store, will buy milk, and am driving home.
Dangling modifiers are easy to spot when you learn what they are.
Here’s an example of one:
Walking down the road, the sun was bright.
Notice the introductory –ing phrase and the comma? The word after the comma here is “the sun,” which implies the sun was walking down the road. You want to edit the sentence to read, Walking down the road, I saw the bright sun or something to that effect. The point is that the person or thing doing the introductory phrase needs to come right after the comma!
Pronouns are words that replace nouns. They need to point clearly and unambiguously to a noun nearby and must match that noun’s number and gender.
The boy did his homework.
The girl did her homework.
A person does his or her homework.
They do their homework.
One does one’s homework.
We do our homework.
And so on. When selecting a pronoun, make sure that you trace it back to its referent (the word it’s pointing to) and verify it matches in number and gender.
Pronoun case (Including Who vs. Whom)
Tom and he or Tom and him? That’s pronoun case.
There are two cases: subject and object pronouns.
Subject pronouns replace subjects (i.e. they DO the verbs).
Who are you?
Object pronouns do NOT do the verb; rather, they receive action or go with a preposition, as in:
Give that to me.
Give that to her.
Give that to us.
Give that to him.
To whom should I give it?
Notice that who vs. whom is essentially a pronoun case topic!
Who does the verb; whom receives action.
Transitions are never about grammar and are instead about meaning and logic. You must memorize the list of transitions (and their three broad categories, which are Continuer, Contradictor, and Cause/Effect). Then read the sentence before and read the sentence after the proposed transition word. What’s the relationship?
If you’re adding on, use a continuer, such as and, also, or furthermore.
If you’re contrasting, use a contradictor, such as however, but, or yet.
If you’re showing causality, use a cause/effect word such as thus, therefore, or since.
Non-essential clauses are just what they sound like: clauses that aren’t essential to the grammatical integrity of the sentence.
Texas, which is big, is a state.
In the above sentence, the phrase “which is big” is the non-essential clause. Notice that non-essential clauses get two commas, two dashes, or two parentheses.
Non-essential clauses are often with “w-words” such as “which, who, where,” and so on.
Essential clauses, on the other hand, include the word “that.”
Which = comma
That = no comma
Never link two complete sentences with a comma. Doing so is called a comma splice.
The dog barked, it ran away. = wrong
The dog barked; it ran away. = right
The dog barked, and it ran away. = right
The dog barked. It ran away. = right
Therefore, ; = comma + conjunction = .
Notice this teaches you how to use a semicolon! You MUST have a complete sentence before and after the semicolon.
For the colon, on the other hand, what you need is NOT a list, but rather a complete sentence BEFORE the colon. Afterward, you can have a list, a phrase, a word, a sentence, whatever you please.
You may notice that many questions on the SAT are not about grammar at all but are rather about meaning. Questions that ask you to add, delete, or revise sentences or phrases fall under this category.
Your goal is to ensure that each sentence is linked to the next. When deciding to add/delete/revise, ask yourself: What is it? Is it specific? Is it relevant? Is the information being relayed in the appropriate order? Is it making a connection or breaking a connection?
Spend careful time on these questions.
Every now and then you’ll run across a word choice question on the SAT, which is essentially a vocab question. It’s important to build your vocabulary, so be sure you do that as you read throughout your studies. If you don’t know the meaning of a word, you can either a) look for context clues or B) break it down and see if any of its prefixes, suffixes, or roots are familiar to you from other words.
A really easy topic to master on the SAT is this: SHORTER IS BETTER. Don’t choose a choice filled with unnecessary or repetitious words. Be concise.
Sometimes you’ll be asked to choose the choice that best fits the tone of the piece. In general, you’ll want to choose the tone in the middle, something that’s neither too casual (“We saw a lot of really cool stuff”) or too formal (“We perceived a multitude of awe-inspiring vistas”). Choose something like, “We saw many fascinating sights.”
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