Students are often puzzled by the very concept of a Writing and Language test — one of four sections on the SAT. How can a multiple-choice test assess your ability to write? After all, what you or I might consider a great (and often grammatically correct) sentence might be written differently by a friend or teacher.
The answer plays to your advantage! To be fair to all writers, the test avoids obscure technicalities and focuses on six basic, universal grammar rules. Learn these forward and backward and you can demystify this portion of the test!
The most commonly tested rule involves transitions, or the direction of ideas in the passage. Transitions may appear:
- at the beginning of the sentence to mark a new thought
- in the middle of a sentence to connect ideas
- as the entire topic sentence of a paragraph.
Consider the relationship between the ideas surrounding the text and use Process of Elimination (POE) to find the most consistent transition.
Verbs express action and must be:
- in agreement with their subjects
- in the proper tense
- described by adverbs
- in the same format as other verbs in the sentence.
When choosing your answer, ensure there is consistency with the text surrounding the verb.
Pronouns take the place of proper nouns. They must:
- agree with the nouns they replace
- be in the proper case
- unambiguously refer to only one specific noun.
In other words, pronouns must be consistent with the nonunderlined portion and be used precisely.
Periods and semicolons (;) are used to separate two complete thoughts. Commas are used for incomplete thoughts and should be used only when needed. Colons (:) are used to introduce an idea or a list. The information that precedes a colon must be a complete sentence. Consider the ideas surrounding a punctuation question carefully.
Apostrophes are used for only two reasons: to show possession (“Sara's cat") or for contractions (“you're"). If the apostrophe is on a noun (one that's not a pronoun), determine whether the next thing in the sentence is being possessed. If the apostrophe is on a pronoun, it's always a contraction, so expand it out.
Many English words look or sound similar to one another, but take on entirely different meanings depending on minor differences. Apostrophes, for instance, can change things. A few examples of frequently tested errors you should look out for are:
- They're means they are. Their is a possessive pronoun. There is used to indicate location.
- You're means you are. Your is a possessive pronoun.
- It's means it is. Its is a possessive pronoun.
Mastering these will set you on the right track, but if you're familiar with the SAT, you'll know it has some tricks up its sleeve. So take practice tests to help spot the trickier questions and get used to tackling them! Proper test prep is all about figuring out what works best for you and learning how to capitalize on that come test day. For more tips and strategies you can use on every section of the test, check out our book Cracking the SAT.
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