The toefl and sat tests- the Key to Academic Success

Improving Sentence Errors

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Improving Sentence Errors: As I suggest in my facts section, there will be 25 of these questions.  Essentially, the SAT test maker takes a quite a lengthy sentence and underlines either a portion of the sentence or the entire sentence and asks you to rearrange the portion into a version that conforms to traditional conventions of grammar.  The answer choices contain areas of grammar that students need to know in order to omit them as possibilities- and they need to omit them quickly!  Catching on to patterns help them to achieve this.  For instance, if they can quickly spot choices in the passive or recognize wordiness, then they may omit these quickly.  The correct answer choice is always the cleanest, straightforward version. 

Identifying Sentence Errors:  When compared to improving sentence errors, most students find these questions easier since the task is simply to spot the error rather than think critically about fixing the error.  In this sense, they should not take the full 42 seconds for each question.  The SAT test maker underlines four small sections for their consideration.  The thorn in this side, however, is the “No Error” choice that occurs at the end of the sentence.  Consider the following bullet points to help you through these questions:

    • On this section students do not have to worry about degrees of wordiness.  Instead, this type of question calls on their mechanical ability. 

    • Recurrent errors are: subject-verb agreement errors, pronoun errors, sentence structure errors, and common misuses of language. 

    • Any time a verb is underlined students should ask themselves two quick questions: (a) Does the verb tell the right time and (b) does the verb agree with the subject of the sentence? 

    • Any time a pronoun is underlined, there are four possible errors: case, person, agreement, reference.  I outlined these in the Big Seven.  Given this, students need to quickly determine if the pronoun is used correctly on these levels.  

    • Students should study a glossary of usage since at least 3 questions containing usage errors occur such as the difference between the verbs “lie” and “lay,” “fewer” and “less,” etc.  This may help students to gain points on these questions, but it’s difficult to control the variables here since the test maker has so many misuses of language to pull from its hat

    • If a conjunction is underlined, whether it is subordinating or coordinating, students should consider if there is a fragment or whether the conjunction is the correct conjunction to use given the idea at hand. Often students misuse conjunctions, always using “and” when they were looking to build a contrast. 

    • 3, and at the most 4, “No Error” questions among the 18.  If you surpass this, say with 6 or 7 “No Error” answer choices, then something went wrong.

    • Typically, the SAT exam begins with easy questions.  For example, perhaps an adjective such as “smooth” needs to be used as an adverb “smoothly.”  Look for these easy questions and expect them to arise at the start of the test.  Often the more difficult choices are at the end, and this makes sense since the test maker wants to fluster you before the final segment of the exam. 

    • If students struggle to find errors, it may be a “No Error” question.  They just need to keep note of how many “No Error” answer choices they have chosen. 

Improving Paragraphs: This section is the smallest section on the SAT exam, consisting of 6 questions.  To do well on this section, there are some areas of composition and grammar that students should keep in mind: correct subordination of ideas, correct coordination of ideas, correct use of transition, unity of paragraphs, coherence of paragraphs. Consider the following bullet points to score accurately:

    • Generally, there will be one to two questions that ask students to combine ideas effectively.  This skill entails that they either know how to subordinate an idea or coordinate an idea.  Be especially mindful of cause and effect ideas. 

    • There is a strong possibility that the test maker will ask you to contemplate how a new idea might fit into a paragraph.  Students should be mindful of the sentence before.   It may be strategically set up for a sentence to contrast it.  If so, they should look for a contrasting sentence in the answer choices and make sure the sentence is unified with the other ideas and that it is coherent or placed in the correct sequence. 

    • With transitions, students should look for transitions that accentuate the development of the idea, being aware of contrasts, especially- the SAT test maker really likes to see if you are paying attention to the momentum of the paragraph.  Paragraphs follow a direction- incorrect answer choices ruin this direction; they go against the grain! 

Pacing: Within the first section, you have 34 questions to complete in 25 minutes.  Without a doubt, the fastest section needs to be the identifying sentence errors.  Students should consider the following pointers to improve their pacing:

    • Quickness is a result of knowing grammar.  To gain speed, students need to know what they are looking for

    • Have the discipline to move on.  Every question is worth the same amount of points, so if one question presents a difficulty, they should leave it.  If they have time to come back to it, then fine, but they are not to burn their time and thus, put themselves into a time crunch.  Psychologically, time crunches can kill their momentum and prevent them from answering successive questions correctly though they might be easy.

    • If students do find themselves crunched for time on this section, they should complete the identifying sentence errors first, so that they have more timefor the improving sentence questions.  Above all, they should never do the improving paragraph section first.  It’s a time killer section since there is a lot of reading and flip-flopping from question to passage and vice versa.

    • Another way to improve time on improving sentence errors is to cancel out the first answer choice immediately after we suspect something is fishy with the question. 

Final Thoughts to test-takers:

    • Within improving sentence errors, really look out for the word “being.”  It has such an excessive use in high school writing that I have found many, if not most, of the answer choices that contain the word are wrong. 

    • If stuck between two SAT questions and you really cannot make out a difference, you have done enough work to take a guess, so choose the simpler of the two. 

    • Do not omit a question unless you cannot eliminate any answer choices.  If you want to play a conservative game, have at least two answer choices omitted before you take the gamble of guessing. 

    • By no means get hung up on any one question.  Keep moving.

    • As soon as you notice the passive voice, it is typically wrong.

    • Remember that even talented players may have a bad game if their head is not in it.  Keep yourself mentally protected from frustration by letting some questions go. 

Recommended Sources:

  1. PBT TOEFL, Barron’s

  2. Barron’s SAT

  3. Advanced English dictionary- Merriam-Webster Dictionary,

  4. A Dictionary of Contemporary American Vocabulary for the TOEFL, SAT, GMAT and GRE tests

  5. Advanced Grammar in Use, Martin Hewings, Cambridge University Press

  6. English Grammar in Use, Raymond Murphy








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