Expert Tips to Master the 5 Most Common SAT Grammar Mistakes

The SAT Writing section is soon to be defunct — but if you’re taking the exam before March 2016, it will help tremendously to know how to recognize the most common grammar mistakes you may face.

And even those of you who are lucky enough to avoid this section can benefit from familiarizing yourself with these rules. After all, you’ll be expected to pen plenty of grammatical essays once you get to college!

The 5 Most Common Errors

In addition to the essay, the Writing portion of the SAT asks students to spot and correct grammatical errors on a series of multiple-choice questions. This may sound daunting, but what’s helpful to remember is that the SAT is extremely consistent from one test to the next. Each Writing section tends to cover just a few types of mistakes, so learning what the most common errors are and how to fix them isn’t as big a hurdle as you might believe.

1. Subject-Verb Agreement

One type of mistake that appears repeatedly has to do with subject-verb agreement. To tackle this sort of question, first make sure you know how to find the subject of a sentence. Essentially, the subject is the actor, the person or thing performing an action (which is the verb.) For example, in the first sentence of this article,

The SAT Writing section is soon to be defunct.

the subject is “[t]he SAT Writing section.” Subjects don’t always come at the beginning of the sentence, though, as in this example:

More important than the test is participation.

Here, the subject is “participation.” In subject-verb agreement errors, the challenge is to make sure that singular subjects go with singular verbs, and plural go with plural. For example, a sentence like

The SAT Writing section are soon to be defunct.

has a subject-verb agreement error. “The SAT Writing test” is one thing — a singular subject — so it doesn’t match with “are,” a plural verb; instead, “is” should take its place. Things get trickier, though, with something called collective nouns — that is, words that describe groups but are treated as singular. Some common examples of collective nouns include flock, herd, class, and audience. Though these words refer to multiple people, animals, or things, they are treated as one group and must go with singular verbs, as in:

The audience quiets down as the play begins.

You can familiarize yourself with collective nouns to avoid getting tripped up on these questions.

2. Pronoun Errors

Pronouns act as placeholders for nouns. For example, he is a placeholder — that is, a pronoun — for “boy” and she is a pronoun for “mother.” Other pronouns include it, us, and them. When you’re looking for pronoun errors, first identify the noun that the pronoun refers to and make sure they match. Here’s a slightly tricky one:

The bank said they couldn’t provide a loan for the house.

This sentence contains a mistake: Since a bank is an institution — a thing — and not a person or people, the pronoun should not be “they,” but rather “it.” Pay attention because this kind of mismatch appears often on the Writing section.

Another pronoun error relates to consistency throughout a sentence, as in this example:

I must remember to always learn from our mistakes.

Switching pronouns from “I” to “our” is the problem; if the sentence is referring to only one individual, the pronoun referring to that individual has to reflect that singular status. In this case, "my" should be used instead of "our" because the pronoun refers to the singular subject "I."

It’s also helpful to understand the difference between subject and object pronouns. Remember that a sentence’s subject is what is performing the action; the object receives that action. In this sentence:

She threw the ball to him.

“She” is the subject, and “him” is the object. Subject pronouns include I, he, she, you, they, we, and who; object pronouns are me, him, her, you, them, us, and whom. Memorizing these pronouns and understanding the difference between subject and object will enable you to identify when a particular one is used incorrectly. For example:

Us students are always falling asleep in class.

The pronoun “us” is a mistake in this sentence; rather, it should be replaced by “we,” since “we students” is the subject — the ones performing the action of falling asleep.

One exception to this rule is when a pronoun follows a preposition, such as “for,” “at,” “between,” and “against.” In these cases, the rule is that the pronoun following the preposition is an object pronoun, as in:

Between you and me, studying grammar puts me to sleep.

3. Parallelism

Parallelism is the concept that when a sentence includes a list of some kind, all items in the list must be in the same form. This sentence, for instance, has a parallelism problem:

She likes to read, running, and playing guitar.

“To read” is in a different verb tense from “running” and “playing.” To make these items parallel, you have to change “to read” into “reading.” Parallelism errors can pop up with words in other forms too, like adjectives, nouns, and adverbs, as well as in constructions that aren’t necessarily straightforward lists, such as:

She’s not only intelligent, but also plays sports well.

“Intelligent” is an adjective, but “plays sports well” is a verb phrase. To fix this, you can change the sentence to “She’s not only intelligent but also athletic.” Phrases following “not only…but also” have to match in form, as do other sentence constructions like “neither … nor” and “either … or.”

4. Sentence Fragments and Run-ons

To identify a sentence fragment or a run-on, you must be able to distinguish between independent and dependent clauses. An independent clause is a sentence that can stand on its own; it can be quite lengthy or very short, as in “He sings.” A dependent clause cannot stand on its own; it needs something more to be considered a complete sentence. “Even though he can’t carry a tune” is a dependent clause because it needs support; it depends on other words to finish its meaning.

A fragment is a sentence that needs to be tethered in some way, and there are multiple solutions to fix this mistake. Some fragments need additional verbs or nouns, and some can be combined with a previous sentence using either punctuation or a conjunction, as in this example:

He travels to other countries often. Including France and Germany.

The first sentence is independent, but the second is not. Rather, it is a fragment and must be joined to the preceding sentence with a comma.

He travels to other countries often, including France and Germany.

Run-ons, by contrast, have errors that are based on a misuse of punctuation. One type of run-on you may encounter on the SAT uses a comma incorrectly, as in:

I can’t believe the teacher said that, I’ve never heard such an outrageous statement.

This sentence combines two independent clauses that are separate thoughts, and joins them with a comma. Because each of the clauses could stand on its own, they must either be separated with a period or joined with a semicolon.

I can't believe the teacher said that; I've never heard such an outrageous statement.

Run-ons might also be missing a conjunction that demonstrates a relationship or contrast between two ideas, such as:

I was honored to be nominated for the award, I couldn’t accept because my friend was more deserving.

This sentence could be fixed by placing a conjunction like “Although” or “While” at the beginning, or a “but” after the comma.

While I was honored to be nominated for the award, I couldn't accept because my friend was more deserving.

5. Modifiers

To modify is to change, and modifiers change, or give additional information about, a word or phrase. In the sentence:

Running down the hallway, I collided with the principal.

“[r]unning down the hallway” is the modifying phrase, because it provides more information about what “I” was doing. But if the sentence read,

I collided with the principal running down the hallway.

we have a problem because it now sounds as if it might have been the principal who was running down the hallway. This modifier is said to be misplaced.

A modifier can also dangle when it’s not attached to its subject. For example, in this sentence:

Running down the hallway, my principal came into view.

it’s not clear who or what is being modified by the phrase “[r]unning down the hallway.” The “I” — the subject — is missing. Who’s running down the hallway? The sentence doesn’t say.

Though there are other types of grammar mistakes you’ll encounter on the SAT Writing section, these five appear quite frequently. Being able to identify and correct them will cover much of what is being assessed in this part of the exam — and will benefit you with all the writing you’ll be doing in college, as well.

To read more about the new SAT, check out Noodle Expert Dan Edmonds’ article 6 Reasons Not to Take the New SAT.

And if you’re looking for an SAT or writing tutor, visit Alanna Schubach’s profile or search for tutors near you.