What Ashley Olsen Taught Me about SAT Writing Grammar

In SAT Writing by Peter PengLeave a Comment

When I was 13–the legal age when I could go on the Internet, open an email account, and really surf the Web–I discovered the world of online chat rooms. I especially loved Yahoo Chat. I could connect with people I never would have had a chance to meet.

As a huge bookworm who spent all his free time at the library devouring Christopher Pike vampire stories (shame on Twilight! These were the original vampire tales) and the Goosebump series by R.L. Stine, I was painfully shy. I retreated into these fantasy lands and didn’t know how to talk to anyone, much less girls.

Remember, I was 13…right around the time when puberty hits and hormones start raging. I had the biggest crush on a beautiful blonde girl from my class, Laura (no, I’m not telling you her last name!) But I had no idea how to interact with her in real life, so instead, I went online and struck up conversation with random people.

My second home was the virtual “Writer’s Lounge” where girls as equally geeky as I professed their love of books. I would ask everyone A/S/L (age/sex/location)? And one day, I met a girl, Ashley Olsen.

Here she is:

Oh wait, that’s the celebrity twin of Mary-Kate Olsen. But this girl online had the same name and was in fact a few months older! So my friend was the original Ashley Olsen.

We got to talking and would send each other drafts of our novels-in-the-making. She would write about high school romance, and I’d show her stories of rebellious teens harboring dark secrets.

We became best of pen pals, looking forward to each other’s emails and messages. There was no texting or cell phones back then, so I would eagerly sit in front of the library computer terminals each day.

So what’s all this got to do with you? Well, I learned an important lesson from her that I’m going to share with you now. It’s something that’s going to help you tremendously with a certain type of SAT Writing question.

Have you ever wondered if a particular phrase is actually wrong or if it just sounds strange? How do you tell? Do you trust yourself enough to just “hear it”? I always tell my students that using their natural ears is the absolute worst way of tackling the writing section.

What sounds weird to you may sound perfectly fine to a well-read, learned adult. (Btw, if “learned adult” sounds strange to you, it just means “educated adult.” Sometimes, familiar words are used in unfamiliar ways.) What if the underlined phrase is just something you’ve never heard before?

See, I had an intense debate with Ashley once about grammar. I had offered feedback on one of her stories and told her this sentence was wrong: “Many a night, I found myself wandering the school hallways, lost like a soul who’d forgotten her way home.”

I had never heard of the phrase “many a” before. It just sounded odd. I insisted she needed to change it to “many nights.”

Of course, I was dead wrong. But because *I* had never seen this structure before, I felt I was right. It wasn’t until years later when I started noticing journalists and published authors using the phrase that I finally accepted my mistake. What seemed strange and wrong to me was, in reality, correct.

That leads me to the lesson today: if it sounds strange, but you don’t know a quick easy way to fix it, it’s probably fine.

And even if you do have a simple fix, if that alteration is not part of the limited set of rules tested, you’re falling for another trap: imposing your personal style. Just because you prefer to phrase things a certain way doesn’t mean the SAT phrasing is necessarily wrong. Both your way and the SAT way may be correct.

Know this: the errors on the SAT Writing are simple. What makes this section tricky is that the mistakes are well disguised in a jungle of unnecessary fluff — what I call “intruders.” The change is simple once you see the error, but finding the flaw in the first place is hard. It’s difficult to wade through the garbage and find the mistake.

But the errors are generally straightforward. Change the word from singular to plural, or vice versa. Fix an ambiguous pronoun. Put the subject directly after the modifier. Make things parallel. Stuff like that.

For example, “The boy run home.” Obviously, the sentence should say the boy RUNS home. This is a simple subject-verb agreement error. It’s a simple fix, so what sounded strange really was wrong.

Or, “Ms. Gomez and Ms. Lee both agreed her son was quite rambunctious.” Whose son is this? It’s not clear, so “her” is an ambiguous pronoun. Just change “her” to either “Ms. Gomez’s” or “Ms. Lee’s.” Again, simple fix.

But what if you get a sentence like this: “The toys had been created for children long since gone.” If you haven’t heard of the phrase “long since gone” before, then you might wonder if it’s actually wrong or not.

You might question yourself…well, it sounds weird to me. I don’t really understand what it means. I guess I better mark it because everything else in the sentence sounds fine, and my teacher told me it’s never “No Error” (which is the craziest piece of advice, btw. The correct answer is often “No Error” on the SAT).

You just committed grammar sin! You used your natural ear, which is only slightly better than wildly guessing. What sounds fine in everyday speech is often grammatically wrong. What sounds awkward may actually be fine. The SAT loves to play this game because Collegeboard knows people don’t speak with perfect grammar. We get accustomed to bad sentence structure.

For argument’s sake, let’s assume the “long since gone” phrase is wrong. How would you fix it? Is there an easy solution? It seems like this would require a massive rewording to make things sound better. If you don’t know how to fix it or your fix requires a huge rewording, then stop! There is a 99% chance the phrase is correct the way it is. You just haven’t read enough to encounter it before.

Another example:

“Just as my older sister headed out East for college, so I went to New England for school.”

Does the “so” feel off to you? Is there a simple fix that involves changing just one or two words? I can’t think of any. You could try changing “so” to “but” or “and,” but those don’t sound right either.

The sentence is fine. This is a paired idiom; the word “as” must be paired with “so” when you’re trying to say something was done “in the same manner as” something else. Sometimes, they’ll even say even out the “just” or say “so too.” By the way, the statements following the “as” and “so” must be parallel too.


One more example:

“Donny was at once irritating because of his arrogance and delightful because of his creative talents.”

Do you even know what “at once” means? If not, then the phrase might sound strange to you. But what’s the simple fix? Changing “and” to “but” don’t work.


Last example:

“Fraternal twins are two distinct, if related people.”

You might be tempted to change “if” to “but” or “yet.” You’d be right in doing so, but there’s nothing wrong with “if.” Used like this, the word “if” simply means “but.”

“The boy was intelligent, if arrogant.”


Obviously today’s tip is very generalized. I don’t personally know you or what sounds strange to you, but this tip is a good rule of thumb.

If something sounds strange and you’re not fixing it by:

  • changing singular/plural form
  • changing tense (past, perfect, etc.)
  • clarifying who or what the pronoun is referring to
  • putting the subject (noun being described) right after the modifier (Dangling Modifier Rule: If you start a sentence with a descriptive phrase, which is called a modifier, that doesn’t mention who/what you’re describing, then you must put your subject immediately after the comma)
  • making the comparison logical by comparing two things of the same category (Illogical Comparison Rule: You must compare things of the same category. You can’t compare an author to a book. You have to compare an author to another author).
  • making -er into -est, or vice versa (like changing “better” –> “best”)
  • deleting a word or two
  • changing a conjunction (like from “and” to “but”)
  • or making some other ridiculously simple tweak…(so no massive rewording)

then the phrase is probably correct! Leave it alone. Mark “No Error” or look for mistakes elsewhere that do have simple fixes.

I’m slowly working on a list of all the grammar rules on the SAT. Basically, if your fix is not on this list, then you shouldn’t have made the change.


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