The 10 Grammatical Concepts You Need to Know to Ace the SAT Writing Sections (MC)

By | April 21, 2008

The big lie of the SAT Reasoning Test is that the Writing Sections test a student’s writing proficiency. Even the 25-minute written essay is not as subjective as you may think. However, I’m not going to get into the Essay today (I’ll go over that in another post). Instead, this post will focus on the main chunk of the SAT Writing Sections, the multiple-choice questions.

Even if you suck at writing, you can still achieve a very high score on the SAT Writing Sections with minimal preparation. That’s because the majority of the Writing Sections test for grammatical errors you learned very early on in school; I’m talking about rudimentary grammar here.

Although it may seem as though the SAT can test an endless variety of questions based on a vast array of topics, in reality the test-developers limit themselves to a few, very specific question types. This is especially true of the Writing Section of the SAT. Almost all questions in the Writing Section can be categorized into 10 fundamental grammatical errors. Furthermore, question within these categories often repeat the same formatting. The following is a list of the grammatical concepts tested on the SAT Writing Sections.

The 10 Fundamental Question Types on the SAT Writing Sections:

I. Subject-Verb Agreement

1. When Subject and Verb Are Separated

2. When the Subject SEEMS plural

3. When the Subject SEEMS singular

4. When the Subject Follows the Verb

II. Pronoun Errors

1. Wrong Number

2. Wrong Case (in Compound Noun Phrases)

3. Person Shift

4. Ambiguous Reference

III. Faulty Parallelism

IV. Faulty Comparison/Illogical Comparisons

V. Misuse of Adjective or Adverb

VI. Improper Idiomatic Expression

1. Infinitive vs. Gerund

2. Wrong Preposition after Verb

VII. Wrong Word

VIII. Wrong Tense

1. Basic Tense Shifts

2. Use of Past vs. Past Participle

IX. Irregular verbs

X. Double Negative

I’ll be going over each of these common SAT Writing question types and their variations, along with detailed strategies on how to conquer them over the next few days. But today, I’ll start with the first one:

I. Subject-Verb Agreement

Believe it or not, this is the single-most overlooked error on SAT Writing Sections. In fact, when I first took the SAT II Writing Test, the one question I answered incorrectly was a subject-verb agreement error question. Obviously it wasn’t because I didn’t understand the concept. Instead, I fell for some of the traps that the test makers use to disguise this error-type. So read my strategies carefully, so you don’t fall into the same traps.

Subject Verb Errors come in 3 Varieties:

1. When the subject and verb are separated – Actually, I lied. This shouldn’t be a category of its own because the subject and verb will always be separated for subject verb errors. But it’s important enough to note because this is one of the disguises that makes these errors so easy to overlook.

2. When the subject seems plural – In this variation, the subject will usually involve a collective noun (e.g. a team, a class, an organization, etc.) where the subject will represent a group of people making it appear to be plural, but will actually be a singular subject. Take a look at the following example:

The team (A) of researchers, technicians, and interns (B) have (C)worked hard during the (D) three-month project. (E) No Error

Did you spot the error? It’s pretty easy when I separate this sentence for you from all the other different Error Types, eh? As you probably noticed, the correct answer is (B.). The actual simple subject in this sentence is “the team,” a singular collective noun, so the verb have should be in the singular form has.

An easy way not to fall into the trap of overlooking this error is to cross out the portion of the subject that follows the preposition – in this case of.

The team (A) (of researchers, technicians, and interns) (B) have (C) worked hard during the (D) three-month project. (E) No Error

This should make it clearer that the simple subject of the sentence is simply team.

2. When the subject seems singular – This is the opposite variation of the last error. Sentences that test for this error will usually have to separate subjects (often both singular) that are conjoined by and making the overall subject plural. Take a look at the following example:

The new library on campus (A) dedicated to the former university president and the student recreation center (B.) built on the old lot (C) was funded (D) by private endowment. (E) No Error

In this example, there are two subjects, each individually a singular noun – the library and the student recreation center – that are joined together by and, so the verb was should actually be in the plural form were.

3. The final type of Subject-Verb Agreement error occurs when the subject follows the verb. In most standard sentences, including the examples above, the subject comes early in the sentence followed later by the verb. However, on every SAT, there will be at least one sentence that test for subject-verb agreement in which the verb comes first. In these cases, you have to identify that the verb matches the subject that comes later in the sentence. Take a look at the following example:

The band (A) has been played on the radio for years, (B) but only recently (C) has the less polished tracks from their first album (D) become known. (E) No error

You’ll notice here that that the correct answer is (C) has because the singular verb has does not correctly match the corresponding subject tracks that comes later in the sentence. The correct form of the verb should be the plural have.

Important Tips!

There are two things to note about subject-verb agreement errors:

1.) It’s almost always the verb that is incorrect, not the subject. If you look back at the examples above, you’ll notice that the subject that corresponds with the verb usually isn’t even a choice, and therefore by default, you can only chose the verb as the correct answer.

2.) Subject-Verb Agreement errors almost always involve the most basic verbs. The questions will almost always test for the usage or is vs. are; was vs. were; or has vs. have. You would think that this would make this question type even easier with this being the case. However, the fact that these questions involve the most basic verbs only makes it more likely that you would overlook this error. To make sure you don’t fall into the trap, every time a Error Improvement question on the SAT Writing sections has is, are, was, were, has, or have as a choice, double check to make sure it they match the subject.

That wraps it up for this first error type. Make sure you check up on this blog over the next few days as I go over each of the different question types on the Writing Sections.

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Topics: Error Identification Questions, SAT Writing | 9 Comments »

9 Responses to “The 10 Grammatical Concepts You Need to Know to Ace the SAT Writing Sections (MC)”


  1. D Says:
    April 27th, 2008 at 2:12 pm

    I just want to say thank you, and please keep this up!! Only 6 more days until the SAT for me, and if you can get a couple more in, that would be great =].

  2. SATNinja Says:
    April 27th, 2008 at 5:24 pm

    Hey D, thanks for the comment. I’m glad you appreciate work I’ve done. I’ll try my best to get as many posts out before the May test. If there’s any topic in particular that you’d like me to cover, let me know. G’luck on you test!

  3. Jay Says:
    May 2nd, 2008 at 9:49 pm

    I also would like to thank you for your work. This is really great stuff and it’s written in a language I can actually understand. Definitely keep this up =)

  4. Jell Says:
    June 4th, 2008 at 11:37 pm

    Definitely godsend 🙂

  5. Ant Says:
    October 3rd, 2008 at 5:24 am

    Wow, this was very helpful, thanks…… if only you went over improper idiomatic expressions and irregular verbs…

  6. Eunwhui Says:
    February 27th, 2010 at 12:46 pm

    thank you so muchhh! this is really helpful

  7. MM Says:
    March 6th, 2011 at 8:41 pm

    Wow, thanks u rlly should keep this up..i have to increase my SAT score in this section somehow…by the way I think you should start a math section

  8. ASH Says:
    January 24th, 2014 at 6:44 pm

    Great Great Work you should definitely look into tutoring if you rant already

  9. Rita Says:
    October 9th, 2014 at 11:44 am

    Thank you for this comprehensive list. I am teaching an SAT class, and this list is awesome!!!

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