SAT Writing & Language: Grammar

The Strategies

The SAT Writing and Language Test is a passage-based test. There are four multi-paragraph passages and 44 questions to go with them. The makers of the SAT break this test down into two main sections: Usage and Mechanics and Rhetorical Skills.

Usage and Mechanics cover questions about punctuation, grammar and usage, and sentence structure. In the past, these questions have made up about 60% of the questions on the test.

The second main category is Rhetorical Skills. Questions in this section will ask about strategy, organization, and style. These types of questions constitute about 40% of the questions on the test.

This book is written to teach you tons of awesome grammar tricks, strategies, tactics, and more. However, it is not written as a complete overview of English grammar rules.

Insread, this book aims to make you proficient enough to master rule regarding commas and semicolons, tenses, pronoun usage, the difference between “effect” and “affect,” etc., so you can ace the SAT Writing and Language Test.

No matter how good you are at English, there will always be a few rules here and there that you likely don’t know. Fortunately, they’re all very easy to learn.

As you work through your practice sections, be sure to mark every problem that you get wrong and look at the answer explanations. If you see a new grammar rule you don’t know, make a flashcard out of it on the AP Guru app.

The sooner you start documenting the grammar rules you aren’t familiar with and studying them, the more proficient you’ll become. There’s simply no substitute for practice.

Context Is Everything

The SAT Writing and Language Test is where real strategy comes into play. If you want to get a great score, the most important habit to build is the habit of reading through the entire passage up to the point of the problem. In other words, you should never just skip to an underlined portion of the text without reading what came before it.

Read through the whole thing. Every word. And collect context for each sentence before you answer questions.

To give you an idea of how important this is, let’s use the following example. Go right to the question and read just the part that is underlined. See if you can answer the question based only on this information

Example 1
Ants’ search for food can require travelling as far as one hundred meters away from their nests (the rough equivalent of a human walking 15 miles). Yet no matter how winding a path ants might have taken to find food, they are able to navigate back to their starting point with remarkable precision. To test their scientific hypothesis, a team of research biologists studied ants in the Tunisian desert.

Which choice most clearly introduces the research question central to the essay?
To discover how certain animals navigate their way over long distances,
To determine how ants accomplish this navigational task,
To answer this question,

Solution: Without read anything leading up to this problem, it’s impossible to answer. All the answers are grammatically correct, so based on grammar alone, there’s no possible way to select an answer. But, if you read the first paragraph three of the answer choices make no sense and you can eliminate them quickly.

So, let’s read the first paragraph. Now look at answer choice A. What hypothesis? No hypothesis was introduced in the preceding sentences, so this has to be wrong. D also does not make sense. What question? The passage does not mention a question. So that’s wrong.

The passage isn’t talking about LONG distances - it’s talking about WINDING PATHS. It’s not about “certain animals” going a “long distance” - it’s that ANTS have to navigate along WINDING PATHS. B is wrong, and only C remains.    

But you’ll never know that unless you’ve read EVERYTHING leading up to it! Without a full understanding of a passage, its order, its content, and its main idea, how can you know what’s relevant or irrelevant, which paragraphs or sentences should go where, etc.? You’ll have no idea. But this rule is even MORE important when it comes to GRAMMAR-based questions.

Every single element of grammar is dependent on context.

Pronouns depend upon nouns. Tenses depend upon a story’s timeframe. Everything in grammar exists in context.

Is the phrase “I had already eaten” correct?

It is impossible to say without context. In this sentence, it’s totally fine: I had already eaten by the time you got to the diner.

In this sentence, it’s completely wrong: I had eaten pie tomorrow afternoon.

Yes - these are obvious examples, but the point is this: even within a single sentence, the same phrase or word can be totally right or totally wrong depending upon context.    

Do NOT try to answer grammar questions without getting as much information as you can. Furthermore, never answer a grammar question without reading the entire sentence that it’s a part of. You must consider the passage as a whole.

Speaking of context, there’s an extremely simple but important rule to remember: if something isn’t underlined, then it’s correct. Sections that aren’t underlined  are therefore your rocks – the solid ground on which you can gain context for the rest of the passage.  

Elimination Is Also Everything

It’s very important to get into the habit of eliminating wrong answers rather than “picking a right one.” Often students work to find “the best answer.” However, the job is not to pick the “best answer” but to eliminate the three worst answers.

As a quick exercise, try to prove why the following sentence is grammatically correct: “I found a turtle hanging out underneath my bed, but it turned out that he didn’t want to be my friend.”

The sentence is totally fine but proving why it’s grammatically correct means you must show that it is free from errors.

And the only way to do that is to compare it to a sentence that is not incorrect. Comparing answer choices enables us to find the wrong answers.

Comparison Is Your Best Friend

By comparing answer choices, obsessing over their weaknesses, being hyper-cynical, looking at their differences, and eliminating the worst differences, you’re being truly efficient. You’re using logical reasoning and arguing against the bad answer choices, rather than arguing for them.

Example 2
The house, heated from the sun when it was out and shining, was the first of its kind.
totally heated just from the sunlight and the warmth
using the sun’s heat to heat the house,
heated only by the sun,

All of these answers are seemingly decent. None of them, on their own, are particularly horrific. But when you compare them to each other, the right answer becomes extremely obvious.

Look at A and B. “Heated from the sun when it was out and shining” is wrong, because “it” could be referring to the HOUSE or to the SUN – this sentence is grammatically unclear. B sounds a little silly, but doesn’t break any monstrous rules. So, we can eliminate A and move on to B.

Now compare B and C. B still sounds odd, but C is horrible! “The house, using the sun’s heat to heat the house?” You’re repeating the subject twice in one sentence, and you’re repeating the noun “heat” and using it as a verb. C is out.

Now we take B and compare it to the last man standing, D. “The house, heated only by the sun, was the first of its kind.” It’s clean, it’s short, it’s beautiful! It breaks no rules.

And now, looking back at B, we realize that “that warmth” is totally awkward. What warmth? You’d say, “the sun and ITS warmth,” not “that warmth.” It’s an obvious flaw, and hence we can kill it! D is your  answer. It’s the LEAST WRONG, by comparison.

Notice something else: by using comparison and elimination, you “pick up steam” - in other words, by picking up one error, you can use that error to eliminate more answers instantly down the line!

As you work through the answers, you realize that they’re all way too long, repetitive, and unclear. Then, by the time you get to D, it’s so free of errors that B looks like a joke! The correct answer is D.

At first, this might seem like it takes a bit of time. But when you get used to flying through passages and eliminating rather than picking, you’ll be a lot faster! Suddenly, you won’t be having long, drawn-out arguments with yourself about what is “good” or what is “better” - you’ll be mercilessly slaying answers based on pure, objective FACTS.

Before we launch into grammar rules, here are two more extremely important strategies:

1. Don’t Go Back: Pull the Trigger

If you want to finish the Writing and Language Test on time, you can’t dwell. You can’t spend five minutes on one problem and still expect to get a good score – you’ll never finish! If you’re spending more than 60 seconds trying to eliminate answers, and you still can’t figure it out, just pick something and move on.      

Do not let one hard question hurt your chances on all the others. This is what happens when you dwell!

Also, do not “go back” and try to re-figure later. You’ll have lost context, and your first instincts are almost always right. Once you’ve tried the problem once, YOU ARE DONE.

Get in and out quickly, and NEVER go back!

2. Reflecting on Errors

Albert Einstein famously said “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Most students get something wrong, check the right answer, and go “Eh, I should’ve gotten that right,” or “Whatever, that was a hard one anyway.” That’s the wrong approach. All too often, students keep making the same mistakes over and over, but they never do anything to improve.

You should always ask yourself, “What was it that I was missing that led to my mistake? In other words, if I had known X, I would have gotten this correct. What is X?”

Every mistake should lead to a plan of action so that when you complete that plan of action, you don’t make the same mistake again.

For example, it could be knowledge based: “I got this one wrong because I wasn’t aware of the ways the SAT tests subject-verb agreement. Ok, that’s something I need to learn.” OR “I got this one wrong because I thought this word was a verb. Why is this word not a verb? Anything tricky about it? Oh, it ends in “ing.” Do words that end in “ing” (like running) count as verbs?”

“Let me look that up and review my parts of speech so that I can distinguish between nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.”

Now you might feel that this sort of internal dialogue is silly, but this is exactly how top scorers think. They’re adamant about figuring out why they got something wrong and how to correct themselves.

So, the overall strategy on the SAT Writing and Language Test is this:

  • Read through the entire sentence for which the problem asks you to consider BEFORE you answer questions.
  • Get the full context behind the sentence before you look at the answer choices
  • For all problems, do NOT pick the “right” answer. Your job is to eliminate three wrong answers
  • For grammar problems, remember it’s impossible to prove something grammatically correct. Whichever choice doesn’t contain an error, leave it alone.
  • Never spend more than 60 seconds on a problem, under any circumstances. No matter how close you might be, or how challenging the problem might be, move on.
  • NEVER leave a problem blank. Even if you have only the faintest idea, pick something. It’s foolish not to.