The Most Commonly Tested Error on The SAT Writing Sections

By | April 26, 2008

Continuing with Writing Section Error Identification questions, today I’ll be discussing how to conquer Pronoun Errors. One thing you should note about Pronoun Errors are that they are the most common question-types tested on the Writing Sections, so pay close attention.

First the basics. What is a Pronoun? Pronouns are simply general nouns that are used in place of more specific nouns. For example I may use the pronoun she when in place of a more specific noun Angela, or I may use the pronoun it in place of a more specific noun such as book, or hour, or any other thing. Listed below are the Pronouns that are regularly tested for proper usage on the SAT.

Pronoun Chart

I’ll be referring to this chart throughout this post. While you don’t need to memorize this chart to answer Pronoun Questions correctly, it’ll help you to understand the various Pronoun Errors tested on the SAT.

Pronoun Errors Come in Four Varieties on the SAT:

1. Wrong Number (singular vs. plural) Errors – When dealing with pronouns, the term number refers to whether the pronoun is singular or plural. If you look at the chart above, you’ll notice that within each case (i.e. nominative case, objective case, and possessive case) there are both singular and plural versions for each person (i.e. 1st Person, 2nd Person, 3rd Person). Wrong Number Error Questions are simply testing if you know when to use a singular or plural pronoun as necessary. To determine if a pronoun is in the proper number, you simple have to find its antecedent (that is, the person or thing that the pronoun refers to) and make sure they match; singular pronouns should refer to singular antecedents and plural pronouns should refer to plural antecedents.

Wow, that sounds way more complicated than it needs to be. The following example problem should clear things up:

Harvard’s lacrosse team performed (A) well throughout the 1990s (B) because (C) they were able (D) to recruit high quality athletes from various preparatory schools across the country. (E) No Error

The correct answer here is (C) they were because the plural pronoun they incorrectly refers to its singular antecedent team. The correct pronoun to use here would be the singular pronoun it – but that alone sounds a bit awkward. Perhaps replacing that phrase altogether with “its coaching staff” would improve the sentence even more.

2. Wrong Case Errors – The term case here refers to whether the pronoun is in the nominative, objective, or possessive case. A pronouns case depends on how the pronoun is used in the sentence. The nominative case (which is also referred to as the subjective case) should be used when the pronoun takes the role of a subject, the objective case should be used when the pronoun takes the role of an object, and the possessive case should be used when the pronoun takes the possessive form. Simple enough, right?

Wrong Case Pronoun Errors occur when a sentence has , say, an objective pronoun such as me, when it should be in the nominative case I, for example. Notice that the person and number are the same, but it’s only the pronoun case that’s used incorrectly. The pronoun case can be interchanged incorrectly from among any of the cases. Again, that explanation makes it sound way more complicated than it actually is, so why don’t we look at an example:

(A) Determined that we sleep eight hours a night, (B) my mother made (C) my brother and I turn all our lights out (D) at ten o’clock every night. (E) No Error

The correct answer here is (C) my brother and I because the nominative pronoun I should be in the objective case form me.

Two important tips should be noted about Pronoun Case Errors: Firstly, Pronoun Case errors show up on the SAT almost always as the second noun in a compound noun phrase. What this means is that the pronoun will show up with another noun usually joined by and. In the example problem above, the entire compound noun phrase is my brother and I. This is a very typical example of how this error shows up on the SAT. So the point to take here is that whenever you see a compound noun phrase with a pronoun, always check to make sure the pronoun is in the correct case.

A secondly, when you’re unsure in these cases if the pronoun is in the proper case, simply ignore the other noun in the phrase. This will make it a lot more obvious if the pronoun is in the correct case or not. If I were to use the same problem above as an example, I would do the following:

(A) Determined that we sleep eight hours a night, (B) my mother made (C) my brother and I turn all our lights out (D) at ten o’clock every night. (E) No Error

Now when you read through the sentence the phrase “my mother made I turn out the lights” sound very awkward, as it should since the pronoun is in the wrong case.

3. Pronoun Shift Errors – The term shift refers to an incorrect change in person within a sentence. As a general rule on the SAT Writing Sections, the person should remain the same throughout the sentence. The most frequent Pronoun Shift Errors occur on the SAT involving the third person term one and the second person pronoun you. Note that when the term one is used to refer to a hypothetical person, it’s the equivalent of the third person pronouns he or she. Take a look at the following example:

(A) If one wishes (B) to play piano (C) like a virtuoso, you (B) must begin by mastering basics like chords and scales.

Notice in this sentence both one and you are used almost interchangeably. The answer is clearly (A) If one wishes. The person should remain consistent throughout the sentence.

4. Ambiguous Reference Errors – Ambiguous Reference simply means that it is unclear what a pronoun is referring to. Sentences with Ambiguous Reference Pronoun Errors will have a pronoun that could refer to two different antecedents in the sentence; the sentence will have two different things or people in the same number and person making it unclear which one the pronoun is referring to. For example, if I were to say, “James and John went to the mall, and he bought a shirt,” who does the pronoun he refer to? Since he is a Singular 3rd Person Pronoun, it could refer to either James or John, making the reference unclear. Of course, it won’t be that obvious on the actual SAT. A typical problem may look like the following example:

(A) Many writers rely (B) heavily on their editors (C) when publishing a book because (D) they are determined to present the best final product possible. (E) No Error

The correct answer here would be (D) they are because it’s unclear in the sentence whether the pronoun they refers to the writers or the editors because both of them are Plural 3rd Person subjects.


As a general rule, because pronoun errors show up so often on the SAT Writing Sections, any time you come across a pronoun, make sure that it’s being used properly. You’ll be surprised how often the pronouns are misused not only on the SAT, but in your everyday lives.

For more information and practice with SAT Writing Pronoun Errors, Get the Sparknotes Guide to the New SAT and PSAT.

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Topics: Error Identification Questions, SAT Writing, Uncategorized | 6 Comments »

6 Responses to “The Most Commonly Tested Error on The SAT Writing Sections”

  1. molly Says:
    August 4th, 2008 at 5:54 am

    wow, thank you! i’m going over my old practice tests and its astonishing how many of the pronoun ones i missed.

  2. Iman Says:
    October 28th, 2009 at 8:40 am

    I’s really beneficial, thanx

  3. Eunwhui Says:
    February 27th, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    again, thank you so much for the tips!

  4. How to Ace the SAT Writing Sections, Even if you Suck at Writing | SAT Ninja: SAT Test Prep Expert Says:
    May 18th, 2010 at 3:27 pm

    […] II. Pronoun Errors […]

  5. ASH Says:
    January 25th, 2014 at 7:24 am

    V. Misuse of Adjective or Adverb pleaseeee

  6. Isco Alercon Says:
    May 3rd, 2015 at 12:34 am

    This was very beneficial. Shall be one that I would recommend.


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