The SAT Writing section contains multiple-choice questions that test your knowledge of about two dozen common grammatical mistakes, including oft made errors in verb tense, pronoun reference, and more. But which errors come up most often on the exam?
Based on an analysis of the ten exams in The Official SAT Study Guide, just over one-fifth of multiple-choice Writing questions test one of these three errors.
1. Faulty Parallelism
The most common error occurs when parts of a sentence joined by a conjunction have dissimilar forms. See whether you can spot the mistake in this example of an Identifying Sentence Errors question:
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The environmental group is askingA all boat owners to dispense fuel into approved containers, throw awayB all litter generatedC on the boat andD to eliminate unnecessary idling. No errorE
The sentence presents a list of three verb phrases:
- to dispense fuel only into approved containers
- throw away all litter generated on the boat
- to eliminate unnecessary idling
The first and third phrases are infinitives, but the second—answer choice (B)—is not, since it doesn’t begin with “to”. Thus, (B) disrupts the list’s otherwise parallel structure.
2. Lack of Subject-Verb Agreement
The second most common error occurs when the subject and verb of a sentence do not agree. There are many ways to disguise this type of error, so the College Board can easily sneak it into a variety of sentences. Consider this example of an Improving Sentences question:
The scent of apples and cinnamon sticks permeate the cider mill, causing most visitors to purchase snacks while on the tour.
- sticks permeate the cider mill, causing
- sticks permeates the cider mill, causing
- stick permeate the cider mill, causing
- sticks permeate the cider mill, the cause of
- sticks permeate the cider mill, being the cause of
The subject appears to be the plural noun phrase “apples and cinnamon sticks,” since it sits right next to the main verb “permeate,” which is also plural. However, the subject is the singular noun phrase “the scent of apples and cinnammon sticks,” so the verb needs to be permeates. Strip the sentence down and look again:
The scent of apples and cinnamon sticks permeate the cider mill, causing most visitors to purchase snacks while on the tour. [Incorrect]
Here’s how the sentence should look:
The scent of apples and cinnamon sticks permeates throughout the cider mill, causing most visitors to purchase snacks while on the tour. [Correct]
The correct answer is (B).
3. Dangling and Misplaced Modifiers
Coming in a close third are modifier mistakes. You’ll find one in this second Improving Sentences example:
Using the Fujita Scale, a tornado’s intensity can be rated on a scale of zero to six in order to predict possible damage and warn people in its path.
- a tornado’s intensity can be rated
- a tornado’s intensity is to be rated
- the rating of a tornado’s intensity
- the rating of a tornado’s intensity can be done
- scientists can rate a tornado’s intensity
Who is using the Fujita Scale? As the sentence stands, the “intensity” is using the scale. But intensity can’t rate itself from zero to six. Rather, scientists or researchers or storm chasers must assign the rating. So, since the sentence fails to identify who is actually using the scale, the modifier “Using the Fujita Scale” is left dangling. To correct the sentence, add the noun that the modifier refers/attaches to:
Using the Fujita Scale, scientists can rate a tornado’s intensity on a scale of zero to six in order to predict possible damage and warn people in its path. [Correct]
Only choice (E) provides a proper noun referent.
Although a variety of errors will appear in SAT Writing multiple-choice questions, the above three will likely come up most often. Be sure to study them well!
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