This is a Grammar Guide for the SAT. It is largely taken from silverturtle’s excellent grammar guide on the College Confidential forums. There is just too much detail so I tried to trim where I could.
The main thing is to do some tests to see where your weaknesses are and double up on those. Learn to identify standard errors and the writing section should get much easier.
Erica Meltzer’s Grammar Guide¶
The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar, 2nd Ed by Erica Meltzer is very popular because she covers all the things you need to know for SAT grammar. Many students just don’t know what specific things to study since grammar is so broad, so her guide is a good resource. Nonetheless, there’s a lot of content below that’s relevant to the exam and it’s all free! We’d recommend you go through this grammar guide, especially the common errors section, and see how you do. Erica’s guide could be a good addition but isn’t strictly necessary.
The Noun: any entity, often defined as a person, place, thing, or idea. Nouns come in various forms, some of which have overlap:
Common noun: a nonspecific entity; is not capitalized, except when beginning a sentence. Examples: dog, computer, printer, ground, person, painter, stupidity. Proper noun: a specific entity; must be capitalized. Examples: Bob, Microsoft, United States, Texas.
Singular noun: a single entity; may be proper or common. Examples: house, President, shirt, beauty.
Plural noun: multiple entities; may be proper or common. Examples: houses, Presidents, shirts.
Collective noun: a single noun that refers a group of entities. Examples: jury, team, family. Depending on the context and intended meaning, collective nouns may be either singular or plural; I will discuss this more later.
Count noun: noun that can be pluralized. Examples: world, army, book, pencil.
Noncount noun: noun that cannot be pluralized; also called mass noun. Examples: clutter, rice, furniture. Some words can be count or noncount nouns, depending on the sense that the word is being used in. One example of such a word is will: in one sense (that relating to determination), the word is a noncount noun; in another sense (that relating to a legal document), the word can be pluralized.
Concrete noun: a noun referring to an entity that can be perceived with one of the five senses. Examples: pen, air, bed, Fred, wall.
Abstract noun: a noun referring to an entity that cannot be perceived with one of the five senses. Examples: beauty, intelligence, determination, depression. Abstract nouns are usually noncount nouns.
Any word taking the place of a noun. A large number of SAT WR errors relate to pronouns.
First-person pronouns: Refer in whole or part to the speaker or writer; I, me, myself, mine, my, we, us, ourselves, ours, and ourare the first-person personal pronouns.
Second-person pronouns: Refer in whole or part to the reader or listener; you, yourself, yours, and your are the second-person personal pronouns.
Third-person pronouns: Refer to neither the speaker or writer nor the reader or listener; he, him, himself, his, she, her, herself, hers, her, it, itself, its, one, one’s, they, them, themselves, theirs, and their are the third-person personal pronouns.
Subjective case: A pronoun in the subjective case (also called the nominative case) is the subject of a verb. These pronouns “do” something or “are” something. The subjective pronouns are I, you, he, she, it, we, they, and who. (who is usually a relative pronoun, which I will discuss later.)
Objective case: A pronoun in the objective case (also called the accusative case) is the object of a verb or preposition. These pronouns are me, you, him, her, it, us, them, and whom.
Possessive case: A pronoun in the possessive case (also called the genitive case) modifies a noun. The possessive pronouns are mine, yours, his, hers, its, our, theirs, and whose.
Nouns also take all three forms, but in English there is no distinction in how we write or speak nouns that are in the nominative or objective cases. For example, one can say that Bob ate the city, or that the city ate Bob. In the first clause Bob is in the subjective case; in the second clause Bob is in the objective case, as it is the direct object of ate.
A word that modifies a noun or pronoun. Examples: green, nice, mean, amazing. Luckily, there is much less to mention about adjectives than about pronouns.
A specific diction error: fewer versus less: This error is unlikely to show up on any given SAT, but it comes up so frequently in everyday speech that it is worth mentioning. In general, we associate the adjective fewer with count nouns and number, and the adjective less with noncount nouns and amount.
A word that modifies an adjective, a verb, or another adverb. Examples: quickly, fast, happily.
A word that links words and phrases. Examples: on, in under, around, between, upon, past, until, at.
A commonly cited rule with respect to prepositions is that they cannot appear at the end of a sentence. This is, however, not actually true in most cases. Now, there are some times when it is wrong to do so, as in:
Where is he at?
But this is due to the fact that at is unnecessary, as where already indicates location; it is not directly due to the preposition’s being at the end of the sentence. In fact, there are some times when moving the preposition from the end of the sentence is incorrect:
I ran up the restaurant tab. Up what did you run?
Why is that second sentence wrong? Because run up is a phrasal verb; it consists of the verb run and the particle (a cool name for the preposition of a phrasal verb), which is up in this case. The components of a phrasal verb cannot be separated. Some other phrasal verbs: make up, run into, and show up.
(Make sure that there is no prepositional redundancy if someone did try to move a preposition from the end of a sentence, as inthe person to whom I talked to.)
The SAT will occasionally test idiomatic phrasal verbs. Some of these can be problematic to even well-prepared test-takers who are native English speakers. There are too many to really memorize, but you can Google around for some common phrases and learn to detect them.
A word that expresses being or action. Examples: eat, give, increase, slip. There is a lot to talk about with verbs. Subject-verb agreement is a very common source of errors. Here are a few rules:
Amounts are singular; numbers are plural.
The simple subject of a sentence is never in a prepositional phrase.
Collective nouns are flexible.
When we think of the idea represented by the collective noun as a set of distinct entities, we treat the noun as plural, with respect to both pronoun agreement and verb agreement. Consider:
The jury has decided its verdict. vs. The jury are fighting among themselves.
Be careful with compound subjects.
If and is used to connect the nouns in a compound subject, the subject is almost always plural, as in:
Bob and I are leaving now.
The singular exception (get it?) occurs when the subject is a compound noun that is representing one idea, as in:Macaroni and cheese is good.
If or is used to connect the nouns in a compound subject, we must consider only the noun closest to the verb, as in:Bob or he is a rabbit.
Don’t be tripped up by inverted verb structures.
Occasionally, a verb’s subject will follow it. There are three common types of circumstances under which this inversion occurs. An inverted verb structure is often indicated by the expletive pronouns there and here. Make sure that the verb agrees with the true subject, which comes later in the sentence.
Learn the rules for correlative conjunctions.
These are the primary correlative conjunctions as well as the only ones that are relevant to subject-verb agreement:
both [noun] and [noun] either [noun] or [noun] neither [noun] nor [noun]
For the correlative conjunction involving both, the verb is always plural. For the correlative conjunctions involving either and neither, the verb agrees with the closer noun (in both number and person).
Learn the rules for indefinite pronouns.
When used as indefinite pronouns, each, either, neither, much, anyone, someone, somebody, anybody, anything, andsomething are always singular. Intervening prepositional phrases are completely irrelevant — there are no exceptions.
There are three primary grammatical moods:
Generally, the indicative mood is used to pose a question or make a statement. It is the most common mood. Examples of the indicative mood:He is tall.
The imperative mood is used to make commands. The subject of a verb in the imperative mood is usually you, which can be and often is omitted. Example of the imperative mood:Clean the sink.
The subjunctive mood is used to express a wish or desire. Example:I requested that he be present at the hearing.
There are lots of tenses and rules for them. You can find descriptions elsewhere but they are generally intuitive. Here are some SAT “gotchas” for the tenses:
- lay vs. lie
to lay is a transitive verb i.e. it takes an object (“I want to lay this down”). to lie is intransitive and doesn’t take an object (“I want to lie down”).
- Avoid the passive voice
- When the grammatical subject of a verb is logically performing the action of the verb, the verb is in the active voice, as in:
- I have talked to Bob.
The passive voice would be “Bob was talked to by me.” Prefer the active voice.
It is okay for sentences to shift tenses, but they must be correct. SAT errors often have the wrong tense so be on the lookout.
Below is a list of notable errors.
Shifting person and number
On the SAT a sentence must not change person. Consider the following sentence:
If one wants to avoid losing their leg, you must not bite yourself excessively.
one is in the third person (it refers generically to a single person who is not the speaker or listener), whereas you is in the second person. This is incorrect; one of these must be changed to eliminate the discontinuity. (This sentence contains another pronoun error discussed later) Consider another example:
If students want to do well on their tests, one would be wise to answer the questions correctly.
Both students and one are in the third person; but the former is plural, and the latter is singular. This is incorrect. Consider another variation on this error:
If students want to do well on their test, they would be wise to answer the questions correctly.
It is highly unlikely that multiple students would be taking a single test, so test must be pluralized to eliminate the number shift. Upon learning this idea, however, students tend to overgeneralize by assuming that all plural possessive pronouns must be followed by plural nouns. This is, indeed, generally the case, but do not forget that noncount nouns cannot be pluralized. The following pair of sentences (using the word will, which can be either count or noncount) is, therefore, correct:
Driven by their great will, all of the frogs continued until they reached their destination. Nonetheless pragmatic, though, the frogs made sure that their wills were in order before they embarked on their quest.
Noting the additional error that occurred in the first example sentence reveals an important concept that is frequently tested on the SAT: that they, them, and their are always plural. This contrasts with the typical habits of most people, and even contradicts the recommendations of many grammarians; so it is worth stressing. The most common singular substitutes for they and them are he or she and him or her, respectively. These alternatives are, unfortunately, quite clunky, though. Another solution is to pluralize the subject of the sentence. Consider these variations in the following corrections of the first example sentence:
If one wants to avoid losing his or her leg, he or she must not bite himself or herself excessively. If people want to avoid losing their legs, they must not bite themselves excessively.
Note that, in the second sentence, care was taken to pluralize leg in order to comply with the previously stated rule about avoiding number shifts.
Case errors in comparisons
In everyday speech we often use the incorrect case in comparisons. Specifically, we tend to use the objective case instead of the subjective case. This error stems from our tendency to omit the verb in the second part of the comparison. Now, this habit itself is not ungrammatical; but it does lead to the aforementioned case error, which is ungrammatical. Consider the following sentence, which would not likely even raise an eyebrow if used in normal speech:
You are a better runner than me.
You is being used in the subjective case here (although we cannot tell this by just looking at the word, as you is one of those pronouns that do not visibly inflect between the subjective and objective cases); it is the subject of the verb are. me, which is in the objective case, is being compared to the subjective you. This discontinuity must be fixed by changing me to I. This may sound somewhat awkward, but this feeling should go away if you actually say the otherwise implicit verb, as in:
You are a better runner than I am.
This error appears frequently on the SAT.
Case errors with relative pronouns
Who and whoever are subjective relative pronouns. Whom and whomever are objective relative pronouns. The relative pronouns that, which, and whichever can be in either the subjective or objective case. The rules for determining which case is being used apply similarly to relative pronouns: if the pronoun is the subject of a verb, it is in the subjective case; otherwise, it is in the objective case. Because who visibly inflects between the cases, I will present two sentences using that word and its variation to example when each case is appropriate:
I caught the turkey whom I knew. I want to catch the turkey who knows me.
In the first sentence I is the subject of the verb knew, and whom (which is referring to turkey) is the object of that verb. Ordinarily, the object of a verb will appear after it. It is important to note, though, that relative pronouns are usually exceptions to this. In the second sentence who (which is also referring to turkey) is the subject of the verb knows, and me is the object of that verb.
(It’s also worth noting that the relative pronoun which does not work with people and that who only works with people and personified turkeys.)
Errors with making the possessive case
In order to make a singular noun possessive, we generally add an apostrophe and then an s. In order to make a plural noun possessive, we generally add merely an apostrophe if the word already ended in an s. These basic guidelines are exampled below:
dog –> dog’s pencil –> pencil’s George –> George’s dogs –> dogs’ pencil –> pencils’ the Georges –> the Georges’
If, however, the plural noun does not end in an s (as is the case with, for example, women), you must add an apostrophe and an s.
Another issue arises when we are forming the possessive with a compound noun (i.e., a noun phrase). When each of the nouns within the noun phrase is possessing at least one of whatever the noun that is being modified is, we use the possessive case for each of the compound noun’s nouns, as in:
Ironically, Bob’s and Fred’s cars broke down at the same time.
If the noun that is being modified is possessed jointly by the nouns in the compound noun, use the possessive on only the noun closest to the noun that is being modified, as in:
My mother and father’s mansion should satisfactorily suit my housing requirements.
Case errors with compound subjects and objects
Contrary to what many people’s speech may suggest, each noun in a compound subject or compound object must be inflected to the same case as the other nouns’ case in that phrase. Consider these ungrammatical sentences:
Him and Bob went to the store together. -> He and Bob went to the store together.
Sally, Joe, and her are about to start a new pasta club. -> Sally, Joe, and she are about to start a new pasta club.
I do desire that you apprise my pet and I. -> I do desire that you apprise my pet and me
In the third sentence pet and me is the compound object of the verb apprise.
Ambiguous reference errors
More than merely appearing in the sentence, a pronoun’s referent must be clear. Consider the following sentences:
The parents told their children that they would be leaving soon. The parents told their child that they would be leaving soon.
The first sentence is unacceptable because they could grammatically and logically refer to either parents or children. However, the second sentence is acceptable. The plural they cannot refer to the singular child; it must, therefore, refer to the only plural noun in the sentence: parents. (This does get a bit hazier, though, if the writer of the second sentence was trying to refer to both parents and child. Rest assured, though: most ambiguous reference errors on the SAT will be apparent if you are looking for them.)
There’s one exception. Dummy pronouns (more formally called expletive pronounsor pleonastic pronouns) are the singular exception to the rule that all pronouns must have endophoric references on the SAT. Why? Well, dummy pronouns do not actually refer to anything. Consider the following sentences:
It is important to note that one plus one does not equal five. What time is it?
None of these pronouns have a referent, and that’s fine. Just remember this: if a pronoun is trying to refer to something (i.e., it is not one of those rare dummy pronouns), you need to be able to find that referent in the sentence; otherwise, the pronoun is being used erroneously.
Errors with adjectives in comparisons
There are three terms relevant to this error: positive, comparative, and superlative. The positive form of an adjective is its base form (e.g., cold). In order to form the comparative form, we usually use the suffix -er or the adverb more (e.g., colder). In forming the superlative form, we generally add the suffix -est or the adverb most (e.g.,coldest).
The comparative form is used when we are comparing two things, as in:
Between me and my brother, he is weaker. Which of your two cars do you like better?
The superlative form is used when we are comparing three or more things, as in:
Among me and my brothers, I am weakest. Which of your eleven cars do you like best?
Errors in placement of adverbs
The general rule that adverbs must be as close as possible to what they are modifying. Consider:
When I went to Mars last week, I only ate one meal the entire time!
This leaves me wondering: what did you do to the rest of the meals? To reduce this ambiguity, we need to move the adverb next to one meal:
When I went to Mars last week, I ate only one meal the entire time!
Comparative and superlative adverb errors
Care must be taken in forming the comparative and superlative forms of adverbs. Generally, if the adverbial form of word ends in -ly, we must form the comparative and superlative forms with more and most, respectively. For example, instead of asking someone to “work slower,” we should ask him or her to “work more slowly.” Make sure to avoid redundancy, though: if the adverb already indicates the comparative or superlative, do not use more or most. For example, more better is incorrect.
Case error with prepositional phrase
Whenever a noun is the object of a prepositional phrase, it must be in the objective case. Consider these ungrammatical sentences:
I went to the well with she and Bob. Between you and I, I never really liked my enemies.
The objective case for each pronoun should be used:
I went to the well with her and Bob. Between you and me, I never really liked my enemies.
Mismodification with phrases
Looking for mis-modifiers is crucial on the SAT’s Identifying Errors and Improving Sentences questions. When using participial phrases and prepositional phrases that have a participle in them, one must take special care to ensure that the subject of the clause that the phrase is attached to is what is intended to be modified. The phrase usually comes before the clause, but it can intervene or come after. This is wrong:
Looking back, he should not have done that.
The right version is:
Looking back, I see that he should not have done that.
This wraps up our version of the Grammar Guide. Next is a recap of what we’ve learned for the SAT.