Grammar Magic: The Singular/Plural Subject Fake-Out

Wanna see a trick?

By the end of this post, your SAT Writing score is going to raise at least 10 points. Is it magic? Sort of. THE MAGIC OF GRAMMAR!

Here’s the thing: The SAT doesn’t have too many tricks up its sleeve. So being able to recognize a few key traps can considerably bump up your score. Today, we’re going to discuss one of the trickiest of SAT grammar tricks: The singular/plural subject fake-out.

You see a sentence that goes something like this:

A class of students have been waiting.
A group of horses were traveling.
A band of thieves are coming.

Aha! you say to yourself. What beautiful sentences! Plural subjects matched with plural verbs! How nice! Students have. Horses were. Thieves are. You bubble in “No Error” and go on your merry way.

Except you’re totally wrong.

A CLASS of students HAVE been waiting.
A GROUP of horses WERE traveling.
A BAND of thieves ARE coming.

A class have? A group were? A band are?

No way.

Many students misidentify the subject in complex sentences. The subject is the word that comes BEFORE the preposition. A class of students might be many students, but it’s one CLASS. There are several awesome animals in a group of horses, but it’s still one GROUP. The approaching thieves might outnumber us, but they’re still one scary BAND.

So, let’s fix our sample sentences.

A class of students HAS been waiting.
A group of horses WAS traveling.
A band of thieves IS coming.

These might strike you as sounding “wrong”, but we promise, they’re right.

It works in the other direction as well:

Pieces of glass.
Books of poetry.
Collections of art.

The subjects? Pieces, books, collections. NOT glass, poetry, or art.

Think of it this way. If I told you that the the mother of Tom made a sandwich, you’d understand that Tom’s mother (singular) made a sandwich. If I said that the dog of Shannon ate a handkerchief, you’d know that Shannon’s dog is going to have a stomachache later.

Yet somehow we seem to forget this concept on the SAT. When I ask students to identify the subject in the phrase “details of a recipe”, they frequently say “recipe”. When I ask whether the subject in a sentence beginning “the number of acres” is singular or plural, they confidently say “plural”.

Because the SAT writers know that it’s confusing, they throw at LEAST two of these subject-verb agreement problems into the writing section. Get ‘em right? Abracadabra! That’s at least 10 points, right there.

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