Even though the English language is complex, SAT Writing tests a specific set of grammar rules. Furthermore, it tests these rules the same way, over and over again.
In this guide, a comprehensive list of SAT grammar rules you need to know to ace the SAT Writing section has been compiled. If you master all these rules and practice them with realistic SAT questions, you’ll have a huge advantage on the SAT Writing section.
A modifier is a word or phrase that describes /modifies something. There are two kinds of modifier problems tested on the SAT: dangling modifiers and misplaced modifiers.
A dangling modifier is a modifier that begins a sentence, has a comma after it, and has the noun it describes NOT placed after the comma. In the first example below, for example, the modifier is “coating the sidewalk,” and it describes the snow. Since “we” is the first word after the comma, not “snow,” “coating the sidewalk” is a dangling modifier. Modifiers are underlined, while nouns being modified are in bold.
Error: Coating the sidewalk, we trudged through the heavy snow.
Corrected: We trudged through the heavy snow coating the sidewalk.
Error: Long and tangled, it was difficult to comb the child’s hair.
Corrected: Long and tangled, the child’s hair was difficult to comb.
Error: Exhausted and weak, the soldiers’ uniforms were covered in frost.
Corrected: Exhausted and weak, the soldiers were covered in frost.
A misplaced modifier is a modifier that’s not close enough to the thing it describes, so it looks like it’s describing the wrong thing. More technically, the rule deals with modifiers that point to the wrong noun in the sentence.
For example: Leaking oil, the mechanic fixed the car.
Clearly, it’s the car, not the mechanic, that has the oil leak. When a sentence has a subordinated lead-in like this, the student should make sure that the first noun after the comma points back to the action being described. The sentence should read: Leaking oil, the car was fixed by the mechanic.
To put this concept into play with SAT-style questions, consider the following examples and choose the best way to improve the sentence:
- Working overtime, the industrial facility was populated by hundreds of technicians.
- The industrial facility, working overtime, had hundreds of busy technicians.
- Technicians, busy at the industrial facility, would be working overtime.
- The busy technicians at the industrial facility were the ones who worked overtime
- Working overtime, busy technicians populated the industrial facility.
In the first two, it should be the workers, not the facility, doing the work. The third answer is unnecessarily conditional – and fourth has the gratuitous phrase “were the ones.” Only the final option has the correct noun – busy technicians – following the introductory lead-in.
In the first example below, for example, the modifier “on the sale rack” seems to be describing how the jacket fits the rack, which isn’t right. To correct it, we move the modifier closer to the noun it describes.
Error: The jacket was too small on the sale rack.
Corrected: The jacket on the sale rack was too small.
Error: Ray wore his one collared shirt to the job interview, which was stained with mustard.
Corrected: Ray wore his one collared shirt, which was stained with mustard, to the job interview.
Error: She handed out brownies to children wrapped in foil.
Corrected: She handed out brownies wrapped in foil to children.
Parallel construction is when we present a list of things all in the same way. For example, if two things in a list are adverbs, the third should also be an adverb. If two things in a list are “to [verb],” then the other should also be in the form “to [verb].” To fix it, we just phrase all of the items in the list the same way.
Thus, look for lists. Items in a list should always be in the same form. Comparisons should also be in the same form (i.e. compare nouns with other nouns, not nouns with verbs).
Error: The couple bought the concert tickets, arrived at the theater, and went about finding their seats.
Corrected: The couple bought the concert tickets, arrived at the theater, and found their seats.
Error: The deer moved carefully, quietly and in a way that was slow.
Corrected: The deer moved carefully, quietly and slowly.
Error: Peeling hazelnuts requires skill, patience and the ability to persevere.
Corrected: Peeling hazelnuts requires skill, patience, and perseverance.
Error: At the mall, Alicia likes to eat at the food court, visit her favorite stores, and meeting up with her friends.
Corrected: At the mall, Alicia likes to eat at the food court, visit her favorite stores, and meet up with her friends.
Sentence Fragments & Run-on Sentences
Sentences are made up of groups of words that are called clauses. There are two types of clauses: independent (can be a complete sentence) and dependent (must be attached to an independent clause in order to be a complete sentence).
An independent clause has a subject-verb pair and does not start with a word or phrase that makes the clause dependent, such as “when” or “because” (as in example 3 below).
In the examples below, the subjects are underlined and the verbs are in bold.
A Sentence Fragment is a sentence made of anything less than an independent clause. To fix it, we add an independent clause.
Fragment: Such as electrical, chemical, and industrial engineering.
Corrected: There are many STEM careers, such as electrical, chemical, and industrial engineering.
Fragment: Saving her team at a time when they needed her.
Corrected: The goalie was saving her team at a time when they needed her.
Fragment: Because the one I have now isn’t working out too well.
Corrected: I need a new roommate, because the one I have now isn’t working out too well.
Thus, fragment is a sentence fragment does not form even one independent clause. It’s essentially an incomplete thought. This usually happens when a sentence lacks a subject or a verb. A fragment can be fixed by adding the missing element or by joining it to a larger sentence. Here’s an example:
Fragment: Alicia shopping.
Corrected Version: Alicia went shopping.
Run-On Sentences: An independent clause is a sentence that expresses a complete thought and has its own subject and predicate. When a sentence has more than one independent clause improperly combined, we call that a “run-on.” A run-on can be fixed by making each independent clause its own sentence (by adding a period), by combining them with a semicolon, by making one clause dependent, or by joining the clauses with a coordinating conjunction (such as “and,” “but,” and “or”). Here’s an example of a run-on:
Run-on: Alicia went shopping, she bought a dress.
Corrected Version: Alicia went shopping; she bought a dress.
In other words, a run-on Sentence is made of multiple independent clauses joined by only a comma or no punctuation at all. It can be fixed with a comma and conjunction (example 1 below), a joining word (and or because) (example 2 below), or a semicolon (example 3 below).
Run-on sentence: My favorite Mediterranean spread is hummus it is very garlicky.
Corrected: My favorite Mediterranean spread is hummus, as it is very garlicky.
Run-on sentence: I rushed out to the shop, I had no milk left.
Corrected: I rushed out to the shop, because I had no milk left.
Run-on sentence: Mary likes dogs she has a beagle.
Corrected: Mary likes dogs; she has a beagle.
This rule is in some sense the easiest; nonetheless, students often fail to recognize the ploy, lulled to sleep by the defective punctuation.
For example: San Francisco is a small city with a large population, this results in a great deal of traffic congestion.
This is really two sentences joined at the hip that need to be surgically separated, using a semicolon or employing different phrasing. Here are two common ways to correct the problem:
- Use a semicolon – San Francisco is a small city with a large population; this results in a great deal of traffic congestion.
- Subordinate one part of the sentence to the other – San Francisco is a small city with a large population, resulting in a great deal of traffic congestion.
A pronoun is a noun that can stand in for another noun. For example, the pronoun “she” can stand in for “the woman” or “Queen Elizabeth.” But, unlike nouns, pronouns change their form if they’re used in different ways. These are the ways that pronouns are tested on the SAT.
Subject vs. Object Pronouns
Nouns, in relation to verbs, can be subjects or objects. Subjects “do” verbs and objects have verbs “done” to them: a dog (the subject noun) chases (the verb) its tail (the object noun).
Regular nouns like dog or tail do not change depending on whether they are subjects or objects, but most pronouns do. For example, in the phrase “she likes him,” the woman is the subject, so the pronoun is she; in the phrase “he likes her,” the woman is the object, so the pronoun is her.
|Subject Pronouns||Object Pronouns||Possessive Pronouns|
|mine/ my/yours/ your/hishers/ herits
Remember that subject pronouns never follow prepositions. A fundamental rule that gets shredded in the vernacular but which must be carefully adhered to on the SAT grammar test is that subject pronouns (I, we) NEVER follow prepositions. Instead use “me” or “us.”
How often have you heard people say “for you and I,” “between you and I,” “with you and I,” “about you and I,” etc. etc.? On the street, you may get away with this faux pas – but not on the SAT. The correct expression is: “for you and ME,” “between you and ME,” “with you and ME,” “about you and ME,” and so on. Or, along the same lines – “between you and us,” “for you and us,” and so on.
(Note: Prepositions are the little guys that guide the reader up, over, around, and through, above and below, of, on, by, for and to. It’s a word that shows time, space or logical relationships between words. ex. above, across, after, against, among, around, at, before, beside, between, of)
Error: Me and my parents ate dinner.
Corrected: My parents and I ate dinner.
Error: The tourists asked my friends and I for directions.
Corrected: The tourists asked my friends and me for directions.
Error: The Girl Scouts sold cookies to my sister and I.
Corrected: The Girl Scouts sold cookies to my sister and me.
Note above that all of the examples pair the faulty pronoun with another noun. This is almost always how the harder pronoun questions test this skill.
That vs. Who
This concept is simple: who is the pronoun for a person or people, and that is the pronoun for everything else.
Error: The coach is the person that is in charge of the team’s schedule.
Corrected: The coach is the person who is in charge of the team’s schedule.
Error: The elephant is the animal who asks for the most treats.
Corrected: The elephant is the animal that asks for the most treats.
Error: The corporation is who owns this land.
Corrected: The corporation is what owns this land.
Person: 1st, 2nd, and 3rd
When we use pronouns more than once in a sentence, we have to use the same person, or perspective, throughout. For reference, 1st person is I or me, 2nd person is you, and 3rd person is he or she.
Error: If a person wants to succeed in corporate life, you have to know the rules of the game.
Corrected: If a person wants to succeed in corporate life, she has to know the rules of the game.
Error: Everyone should make their own decision.
Corrected: Everyone should make his own decision.
Error: Every student must study hard if they want good grades.
Corrected: Every student must study hard if she wants good grades.
Note, in the second example, that the error is the commonly-used “their” to mean a singular noun (everyone). These singular nouns that seem plural (such as nobody, anyone, and each person), as well as “their” instead of the singular “he” or “his,” are often tested in the hardest pronoun questions.
There would be vague and unnecessary pronouns that litter the grammar landscape. Check out these:
- When Kate and Carol went for a winter walk, she forgot to bring her umbrella.
- It was so expensive that no one wanted it.
- In New York, they like bagels.
In the first example, who forgot her umbrella, Kate or Carol? In the second example, what was so expensive? A painting? A house? Be specific. A yacht! In the second example, keep this mantra in mind: It’s not it! Define your terms. And finally, in New York, who likes bagels? Construction workers, NYPD, Radio City Rockettes? Use a picture word, something the reader can see, not a fuzzy indefinite pronoun.
Wherever there is a pronoun, it should be obvious what the pronoun is “standing in” for.
Error: Ethel told Lucy that her pie was wonderful.
Corrected: Ethel told Lucy that Lucy’s pie was wonderful.
Error: The files arranged by the temporary workers were out of order, so we sent them back to the main office.
Corrected: The files arranged by the temporary workers were out of order, so we sent the files back to the main office.
Error: Once Nora and Elise go to live with their husbands, they have to convert to their ways of living.
Corrected: Once Nora and Elise go to live with their husbands, the husbands have to convert to their wives’ ways of living.
Verb Forms: Tense and Agreement
There are 2 main issues with verbs tested on the SAT: verb tense and subject-verb agreement. The subject is the noun that “does” the verb (below, the subject of the sentences is they.)
Some basic verb tenses, for each time period are listed below:
- Simple Present: They sing.
- Present Perfect: They have sung.
- Simple Past: They sang.
- Past Perfect: They had sung.
- Future: They will sing.
- Future Perfect: They will have sung.
All of these tenses are created out of three forms of “to sing”: sing (present), sang (past), and sung (past participle). As you can see, some of the correct verb forms are created by adding forms of the words “have” and “do.” The idea is to keep verbs in a single sentence within the same time period.
Error: The boy insisted that he has paid for the candy bars.
Corrected: The boy insisted (past) that he had paid (past perfect) for the candy bars.
Error: The doctor suggested bed rest for the patient, who suffers from a bad cold.
Corrected: The doctor suggested (past) bed rest for the patient, who suffered (past) from a bad cold.
Error: I told him that he can drop by any time and I will be happy to help him.
Corrected: I told (past) him that he could (past) drop by any time and I would (past) be happy to help him.
Nouns and verbs are both parts of speech with number: they are written differently if they refer to just one thing or multiple things. One dog runs fast, for example, but two dogs run fast.
Number agreement just means that the noun and the verb have the same number (singular or plural) i.e. singular subjects must be matched with singular verbs and plural subjects with plural verbs. The College Board tries to trick students by interposing prepositional phrases between the subject and verb – sort of like stuffing Styrofoam peanuts into a FedEx gift box. To get to the gift, you have to first throw out the extraneous packaging.
For example: The harmful effects of insulin resistance on the metabolic system is well known.
Notice how the unnecessary prepositional phrases of insulin resistance and on the metabolic system subvert the true relationship between the subject and verb. The subject (harmful effects) is plural, so the verb (is) must also be plural. The sentence should read: The harmful effects of insulin resistance on the metabolic system are well known.
To put this concept into play with SAT-style questions, consider the following examples and choose the best way to improve the sentence:
- Each of the 5,000 spectators are cheering wildly at the game.
- The spectators cheering wildly at the game are among the 5,000.
- At the game, each of the 5,000 spectators in attendance are cheering wildly.
- Each of the 5,000 spectators at the game is cheering wildly.
The last choice is correct. To analyze this correctly, ignore the prepositional phrase in the sentence (“of the 5,000 spectators”) and focus exclusively on the subject, which, in this case, is “Each.” Since “Each” is singular, the verb must also be singular. This technique for parsing sentences is both extremely powerful and easy, once you get the hang of it.
Error: The writing in those paragraphs are absolutely horrible.
Corrected: The writing (singular) in those paragraphs is (singular) absolutely horrible.
Error: There was a doctor and a crew of nurses in the emergency room with me during my surgery.
Corrected: There were (plural) a doctor and a crew of nurses (plural) in the emergency room with me during my surgery.
Error: Mr. Peterson is trying to do yard work but a swarm of bees keep distracting him.
Corrected: Mr. Peterson is trying to do yard work but a swarm (singular) of bees keeps (singular) distracting him.
Take a look at the following examples and see if you can spot the comparison mismatch.
- The novels of Ernest Hemingway are shorter than William Faulkner.
- The skyscrapers in New York are bigger than San Francisco.
- Buying soda in six packs is usually cheaper than single bottles.
The first example compares novels to people. The second compares skyscrapers to cities. The third compares buying to bottles. All three need to be made longer in order to be grammatically correct. For example:
- The novels of Ernest Hemingway are shorter than the novels of William Faulkner.
- The skyscrapers in New York are bigger than those in San Francisco.
- Buying soda in six packs is usually cheaper than buying single bottles.
These examples are all longer than their incorrect counterparts, but the extra words add precision and clarity. In short, there has to be parallel structure when comparing.
Also, comparisons between two things are formed by the construction “x is more/less [adjective]/[adjective]-er than y.“ For example, Bill is more friendly than Louis.
Comparisons between three or more things, however, are formed by the construction “x is the most [adjective]/[adjective]-est of the [things].” For example, Lucy was the most adept student in the class or The cheetah is the fastest land animal.
The SAT tests this skill also by mismatching the types of comparison:
Error: Between butterflies and spiders, butterflies are the most admired by humans.
Corrected: Between butterflies and spiders, butterflies are more admired by humans.
Error: Cheetahs are the faster of all land mammals.
Corrected: Cheetahs are the fastest of all land mammals.
Error: Nationalists think theirs is the better nation of all.
Corrected: Nationalists think theirs is the best nation of all.
Conciseness vs. Redundancy
In English, especially American English, brevity is the heart and soul of popular expression. Think Ernest Hemingway rather than William Faulkner. Short, cryptic slogans like “Just do it” and “No pain, no gain” are part of the cultural landscape because of the direct way they convey information. This principle holds true for SAT grammar. The most direct form of expression is the best form of expression. Take a look at the following sentences and determine which one says the most with the fewest number of words:
- The best way to get an exact answer to the question would be to use a calculator.
- Using a calculator would be the best way to get an exact answer to the question.
- A calculator would be the best possible way to answer the question exactly.
- The best way to get an exact answer is to use a calculator.
Clearly, the last version is the most economical expression and therefore the best choice.
There is, however, one important exception to this rule. Parallel structure is the only thing that beats “Shortest Point.”
There are times when saying something twice is needed: for emphasis, to review a difficult topic, or to explain something more clearly. None of these apply on the SAT. The two ways this skill is tested on the SAT is through wordy sentences and redundant sentences. They’re related, but different.
Error: To travel around Berlin, we have the option of choosing many different transport systems; among them are the U-Bahn, or the underground rail system similar to New York’s Subway, and the tram, which is another form of transport that involves railways that have tracks on the streets.
Corrected: To travel around Berlin, we might take the U-Bahn, or subway; we could also take the tram.
Error: High-quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing learning process.
Corrected: Good schools enable people to learn more.
Error: With reference to the fact that the company is deficient in manufacturing and production space, the contract may in all probability be awarded to some other enterprise.
Corrected: The company may not be awarded the contract because it lacks production facilities.
Error: Many uneducated citizens who have never attended school continue to vote for better schools.
Corrected: Many uneducated citizens continue to vote for better schools.
Error: The eye of a storm is a region of mostly calm weather found at the center of a tropical cyclone.
Corrected: The eye is a region of mostly calm weather found at the center of a tropical cyclone.
Error: The teenage woman who wanted to audition was talented, but only sixteen years old.
Corrected: The woman who wanted to audition was talented, but only sixteen years old.
In other words, sentences must be as concise as possible without losing any meaning. If you are stuck between two choices that are both grammatically correct and express the same idea, go with the one that uses fewer words and avoids being overly wordy or redundant.
Redundant Sentence: The journey to the top of Mt. Everest was difficult because of the coldness of it.
Corrected Version: The journey to the top of Mt. Everest was difficult because of the cold.
Idioms are expressions that mean something different from the actual words they use, such as “rain cats and dogs” or “kick the bucket.” But in English we also have short phrases made of words that always go together, and these are also tested on the SAT.
Error: Maria stumbled in her old rocking horse in the garage.
Corrected: Maria stumbled upon her old rocking horse in the garage.
Error: Loud guard dogs keep burglars in bay.
Corrected: Loud guard dogs keep burglars at bay.
Error: Arturo and I happened for meet at the library.
Corrected: Arturo and I happened to meet at the library.
The SAT particularly loves one type of idiom: verbal phrases, which are verb + preposition pairs, ex: preoccupation with. They always want to know if you know which is the correct preposition, as in the incorrect sentences below.
Error: The show was followed on an encore.
Corrected: The show was followed by an encore.
Error: She is responsible of returning her library books.
Corrected: She is responsible for returning her library books.
Error: One should refrain for texting while driving.
Corrected: One should refrain from texting while driving.
Adjective vs. Adverb
Adjectives (good, bad, nice) describe nouns, while adverbs (well, badly, nicely) describe verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. We just need to know which is correct in a given context.
Error: The cat smells badly. (This means that the cat has a bad sense of smell.)
Corrected: The cat smells bad. (This means that the cat needs a bath.)
Error: She sings beautiful.
Corrected: She sings beautifully.
Error: The dog barked loud.
Corrected: The dog barked loudly.
Proper transitions must be used to convey correct relation between the sentences.
Common types and examples of transitions are listed in the following chart:
|Contrast Transitions||Cause-and-Effect Transitions||Continuation Transitions|
on the other hand
|as a resultbecause
|Providing an examplefor example
Showing a parallel relationship
Voice problems are another thing. Passive voice is obsolete and it is so in SAT as well. Always avoid passive voice and stick to the active. If you use passive voice, sentences become longer and you might end up making grammatical mistakes. The shorter the sentence, the sweeter and the better.
Also, be watchful of the sentences with “being”. In the real world, as opposed to the artificial world of the SAT, it’s OK to use being in sentences that are well constructed. For example: Being of sound mind and body, my father lived to the age of 80. However, on the Writing and Language section of the SAT, “being” is usually the wrong choice. To drive this point home, take a look at the following sentences:
- Jacob has remained in political office for several terms because of being the most popular candidate.
- Being the most popular candidate, Jacob has remained in political office for several terms.
- Jacob has remained in political office for several terms, being the most popular candidate.
- Jacob, the most popular candidate, has remained in political office for several terms.
Now ask yourself this question: Which of these sentences is the most straightforward and direct? The correct answer is the last one – because it gets its point across simply and directly. On the SAT grammar section, sentences can almost alwaysbe improved by eliminating the word “being.” Put another way: Shorter is almost always better (unless it changes the intended meaning).
Avoid phrases which use two negatives words instead of one. A few typical incorrect phrases are:
Error: can’t scarcely/ scarcely no Corrected: scarcely any
Error: can’t hardly/ hardly no Corrected: hardly any
Error: can’t barely/ barely no Corrected: barely any
Some other important points to be remembered
Punctuation: You don’t need to name the pieces of punctuation per se, but on the SAT you will need to know that commas and dashes are used to set aside nonessential information or modifying clauses and that semicolons can separate two independent clauses. Spend a little time reviewing usage rules for commas, apostrophes, colons, semicolons, dashes, periods, question marks, and exclamation points.
Two-Part Idioms: In English, certain words must go together to be grammatically correct. “Between … and,” “not only …. but also,” and “neither … nor” are three of the most common pairs. There is no complete list of idioms, but you will usually be able to spot them because something will “sound” funny in the sentence. Trust your ear. If something sounds incorrect, it probably is.
Collective Nouns: Common structure: “A” or “The” followed by a noun. These take singular verbs and pronouns.
Ex: The team is winning its game.
Other common collective nouns – group, company, family, management, audience,
Collective Adjectives: Common structure: “A” or “The” followed by an adjective. These take plural verbs and pronouns.
Ex: The elderly are enjoying the Silver Lake Cruise.
Other common collective adjectives – rich, poor, long-suffering
Prepositional Phrase: A preposition followed by a phrase (group of words)
ex. a bunch of roses, it’s beween you and me, around every corner
Prepositional Phases and Agreement: Ignoring prepositional phrases can help with determining subject-verb agreement
ex. The coffee, as well as milk and pastries, is on its way over to you.
The coffee is…