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Articles / Preparing for College / 4 Nuances of SAT Writing and Language

March 6, 2019

4 Nuances of SAT Writing and Language

4 Nuances of SAT Writing and Language
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One of the best things to do as part of your SAT prep is to become familiar with what you'll face in each section. When it comes to SAT Writing and Language, there's more being tested than verb errors, pronoun usage and misused punctuation. Another concept you'll be expected to tackle involves the nuances in the English language.

Not sure what that entails? Not a problem! I've compiled a list of a few to look for if a question isn't asking about anything that strikes you as immediately incorrect.


Idioms are specific arrangements of words that convey a certain meaning. For example, the phrase responsible for is an idiom. You wouldn't say responsible of instead, would you? No! To make sense, those words must appear together.

Some idioms that we often see tested on the SAT include:

- Define…as -- Some would define an idiom as a group of words the usage of which cannot be deduced from them individually.

- Dispute over -- The men had a dispute over

- Distinguish…from -- I can't distinguish Adam from Seth

As a rule of thumb, if you see a preposition underlined, check if it's used idiomatically. Unfortunately, there are no greater “rules" about the correct idiom (you either know it or you don't), so if you don't know the idiom, use process of elimination to get rid of any choice that doesn't make sense, guess one of the remaining choices and move on!


These questions target errors in word choice, which means they're not hard to spot. You'll see single words with similar meanings and your job is to choose the word that gives the most precise meaning of the sentence.

If given a passage about two chefs in a cooking competition, you might see a sentence like this:

He was given one hour to create multiple dishes.

What about this is not precise? Well, I said the passage is about two chefs, not just one. Therefore, the pronoun at the beginning of the sentence is not precise because it doesn't tell you which chef it's referring to or if it's referring to both. A more precise correction would be:

Each was given one hour to create multiple dishes.

Another common way the SAT tests precision is with words that have similar meanings. The SAT would say that this topic has an influence on your score (that's precise), rather than a weight or clout (imprecise).

Frequently Confused Words

It's pretty self-explanatory, but this concept tests words that are frequently used in the wrong context. They're often homonyms that people misspell when writing them out.

Than (comparison) and then (time)

Affect (verb) and effect (noun)


The SAT doesn't like flowery language or unnecessary content. Because of that, the test makers are going to test your ability to whittle down a sentence to get to its exact meaning.

When communicating meaning, concision is key. A tip I give students is that, as long as the grammar and punctuation are good to go, the best answer will almost always be the shortest.

Say you see the following sentence on the SAT:

These outhouses typically involved a foundation of stone, brick, or wood at ground level that covered a hole dug downward about six feet into the earth.

Look for redundancies first. Notice that the hole is both six feet “downward" and “into the earth." Does the sentence need both for you to understand its meaning? No! So, while there may be other corrections to make as well, look for the answer choice that removes one and you've narrowed down your choices.

More than anything, nailing this portion of the SAT comes down to looking for more than just the punctuation or verb errors you'd expect to see on an English test. Practice answering these questions as well as any others from this section of the SAT in our book Reading & Writing Workout for the SAT so you're ready to go on test day.

Written by

Rob Franek

Rob Franek

College Admissions and Test Prep Expert

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