SAT Identifying Sentence Errors: the Ultimate Strategy

Did you know that there are only 18 Identifying Sentence Errors on the SAT Writing section? They count for the largest percentage of your Writing score out of the Writing question-types, and if you rock the grammar skills you already have, and practice a few hundred ISE’s, you’ll easily get most of these questions correct!

Step 1 –Identify the part of speech. What part of speech is underlined? Is it a verb, preposition, adjective, adverb, pronoun, etc? The SAT loves to test the same errors over and over, and we know that each part of speech comes with some predictable errors.
Is the underlined section a Verb? Double-check that it agrees with its subject in number and plurality and that the verb tense is logical with the timeline of the sentence.

Is the underlined section a Pronoun? Make sure it has a clear Antecedent, and that the Pronoun agrees with the antecedent in number. Make sure as well that the personal pronouns (“who” and “whom”, for example) are only being used to refer to people, not things.

Is the underlined section a Preposition? The preposition could be part of an Idiom – does the preposition make sense with the word that immediately precedes it?

For example, we can’t say “afraid from,” only “afraid of.” Is the transition appropriate? Make a flashcard of the most common Idioms and learn them like you would vocabulary words. Idioms alone account for approximately 10% of your SAT Writing score!

Is the underlined section an Adverb or Adjective? Adjectives can only describe nouns, while adverbs can describe verbs, adjectives and other adverbs. Is there a word that is modifying a verb that needs an –ly suffix?

Step 2 – Check for Parallelism errors. Once you’ve examined each of the underlined portions, identified the parts of speech, and double-checked for the most-likely errors associated with that part of speech, re-read the sentence as a whole and look for any Parallelism. Items in a list (separated by commas), comparisons, and (in general) multiple verbs must be in the same format! For comparisons, remember that only “like” things can be compared to each other: people to people and things to things.

Step 3 – Still no error? Choose (E). Remember to trust yourself. After you’ve worked through each underlined part of speech and checked for Parallelism in the sentence as a whole, you still may not be able to find an error. Don’t worry — 5-8 of the ISE’s on Test Day will have “No Error”. That is approximately one-third of all ISE’s!

As you prep for your SAT, if you find yourself choosing (E) too often, it’s likely you’ll need to spend more time studying the most common types of grammatical SAT errors: idioms, run-on sentences, fragments, parallelism, subject-verb agreement, etc. If you find yourself hardly ever correctly choosing (E), then you need to relax and trust yourself. Don’t look for errors that aren’t there!

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The Most-Tested Grammar Rules on the SAT

For the SAT Writing section, the key to better scores is to familiarize yourself with the tested grammatical rules. Rather than read an entire book on English grammar, check out this list of the Top 10 grammar rules tested on the SAT!

1. Idioms. Idioms are expressions native to the English language. There are two part Idioms such as “neither…nor” and” between…and” as well as prepositional idioms like “interested IN” and “afraid OF.”

2. Run-ons & Fragments. These are two kinds of incomplete sentences. To be a complete sentence, a subject and a predicate verb is required. If either is lacking, the sentence is called a fragment. A run-on contains too much information, usually because two independent clauses (two complete thoughts) are being improperly combined.

3. Subject-Verb. The SAT loves to give long sentences where the main subject and the verb are separated by many words or clauses. You must identify the subject of each sentence and make sure the verb matches it in number. Generally, a plural noun takes a singular verb and a singular subject takes a plural verb.

4. Pronouns. The most common error associated with pronouns is pronoun-antecedent agreement. The antecedent is the word the pronoun is replacing. A pronoun must have a clear antecedent in the sentence; the lack of an antecedent is itself an error. The antecedent may often be present, but will disagree with the pronoun in number.

5. Parallelism. Parallelism is tested on the SAT in a series of phrases or items in a list. In parallel construction, the phrases or items must be in the same form. This can be tested with a number of parts of speech: nouns, verbs, prepositions, etc.

6. Modification. Modifiers are words and phrases that describe nouns. Adjectives, adverbs and modifying clauses will be incorrectly placed, or in the wrong form. Adverbs can only modify verbs, while adjectives modify nouns. Be on the lookout for suspicious adverb-noun and adjective-verb pairings. Also be aware that many sentences will begin with a modifying phrase and a comma. The subject after the comma must be the person or thing doing the action of the modifying phrase.

7. Comparisons. The SAT likes to compare similar things. People can only be compared to people, and things can only be compared to things. It also tests the comparative/superlative forms. Use better and more when comparing two things. Use best and most when comparing three or more things.

8. Wordiness. Wordiness means just what it sounds like, too many words! As long as there are no new grammar errors introduced, the shortest answer choice is often correct. Redundancy is a type of wordiness where the same thing is said twice. For example, the SAT would never call someone “intelligent and smart.” Keep it simple and to the point, and don’t repeat yourself!

9. Passive Voice. Passive Voice puts the object of the sentence first. Make sure to keep the subject (the person or thing doing the action) before the verb.

10. Diction. This is rarely tested on the SAT, so you are likely to only see 1-2 questions with this concept. Diction means “word choice.” The SAT may try to fool you by using a word that sounds similar to the intended word, but does not make sense in context (for example, replacing “imperious” with “impervious”). It’s important not to rush on the SAT.

Use this as a checklist to begin your studies. You’ll find articles for most of these tested areas right here on the GMAT Rockstar blog! As you study, focus on labeling each question with the “tested-concept” behind it. It’s not about getting every question correct individually, but learning to recognize the concepts. The questions will always change, but these concepts are guaranteed to show up on test day.