Bringing Down the Hammer on SAT Grammar

Not a grammar guru? You don’t need to be one to do well on the SAT!

Grammar may seem random and untamable, but it’s actually a lot like math—a closed system with specific rules (if you’ve ever taken Latin, you have a good sense of the structured ways in which various parts of speech function and relate to each other).

Great, so then grammar is just about memorizing tons of annoying rules? Nope! You read, hear, and speak English every single day, so you already have a pretty good internal sense of these rules, even if you’ve never shaken hands with a gerund or gone foraging for misplaced modifiers. The tricky part is that you’re used to hearing incorrect grammar all the time—and SAT grammar questions are designed to take advantage of this fact—but if you can clear out the garbage and focus on the core of the sentence, your natural grammar instincts will kick in and save you.

Example #1:

A large group of birds are sitting on the balcony.

Anything sound wrong to you? Probably not. (If so, prizes for you!) But a lot of the “garbage” in SAT grammar questions is in prepositional phrases. You remember prepositions? Those little words that indicate where or when something is happening, such as at the school, down the street, before midnight, into the woods, etc. Cross out these kinds of phrases, as they’re just there to confuse you.

So let’s simplify the original sentence:

A large group of birds are sitting on the balcony.

Or, more cleanly:

A large group are sitting.

Anything sound wrong to you now? Hopefully! Once you eliminate the prepositional phrases, it’s a lot easier to hear that the subject group, a singular noun doesn’t work with are, a plural verb; your natural grammar instinct tells you that the simplified sentence should read A large group is sitting. (A group may have many people, but it’s still just one, singular group). And adding of birds back in doesn’t change the underlying grammar: A large group of birds is sitting. Notice how much easier it is for your instinct to kick in when you clear away the distractions in the sentence.

Example #2:

The teacher gave him and I a project to finish.

Anything sound fishy? If not, it’s because people say this kind of thing all the time. But if you break the sentence down into simpler parts, you might notice something:

The teacher gave him a project to finish.

Sounds fine, right? But how about:

The teacher gave I a project to finish.

No chance you’d ever say that! And you know the pronoun I is wrong (and how to fix it) without having to cite any complex grammar rule: The teacher gave me a project to finish. As in Example #1, adding back in the words him and doesn’t change the underlying grammar: The teacher gave him and me a project to finish. And, as above, notice how easy it is to hear the error once you’ve simplified the sentence.

These examples represent just two of the common SAT grammar error types (specifically, subject-verb agreement in #1 and pronoun case in #2). Not every error is going to be quite so easy to locate just by crossing off prepositional phrases and/or trying a pronoun by itself, and there are some rules you’ll want to study to help you catch more subtle errors. But your overarching approach to prepping for SAT grammar should be about SIMPLIFYING—making it easier for yourself to hear the kinds of errors the SAT likes to test you on.

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