How to Eliminate All Grammar Doubt

In ACT English, SAT Writing by Peter PengLeave a Comment

For humans, speech is an innate ability. It’s really quite amazing how a baby learns to speak. No one teaches an infant, at least not in the way of specific grammar and syntax rules (yet isn’t it strange that the latter is exactly how we learn foreign languages in high school?). A baby just naturally picks language up by being around it, listening without any particular agenda to speech.

But beyond a certain phase in our brain development, we lose that natural ability to pick up languages easily. By then, our “natural ear” has more or less settled. That’s a BIG problem when it comes to SAT or ACT grammar though.

What sounds “good” might actually be wrong, and what sounds “weird” might actually be right. Or maybe what sounds fine is actually fine, and what sounds horrible is actually awkward. But therein lies the confusion. How do we know? How do we decide?

This ambiguity (vocab word alert: ambiguity means uncertainty or vagueness) is precisely what makes the ACT English or SAT Writing section so tricky. That’s why I always tell my students that using their “natural ear” is the worst approach possible on the grammar section. We’ve become accustomed to hearing things a certain way for so long (whether it’s actually grammatically appropriate or not) that any other way just sounds wrong to us.

For example, check this sentence out: “Everyone in the class raised their hands.”

Probably sounds fine, right? Yet, it’s dead wrong.

It should say, “Everyone in the class raised his or her hand” because “everyone” is actually singular, not plural. You wouldn’t say, “Everyone ARE going home,” would you? You’d say, “Everyone IS going home.” Since “is” is a singular verb, we know we must use a singular pronoun (e.g. he or she) as well. Note: Some grammarians disagree with this rule, but for the SAT/ACT, stick with what I’m telling you now.

Many of my students never really shake off their sense of doubt about their answers, even after they’ve learned all the requisite grammar rules. Despite seeing their scores skyrocket in the grammar sections, these students keep feeling like their improvement is due to sheer luck. I assure them it’s not, but they keep asking how can they be sure?

What do you do if you’re ever doubtful about a particular answer choice in SAT Writing/ACT English?

If you’ve ever followed my ideology, you’ll know that I’m all about systems and processes. Leaving things up to chance is NOT acceptable. Blind, aimless practice, no matter how diligent, is not the way to go. Instead, we must follow a step-by-step system or process every time in order not to overlook anything important. If we deviate even once, then we’re throwing away easy opportunities to get questions right. The worst are careless mistakes because these are questions you KNOW you should have gotten right, but yet, you didn’t.

It tears me up when my students come back after a test and realize they got multiple questions wrong not because they didn’t know the rule or understand the concept. They got them wrong because they didn’t spot the error naturally, with their “natural ear.” They didn’t follow a checklist process that would ensure they would have caught these easy grammatical errors.

So here’s the checklist you should follow to eliminate all doubt about grammar questions:

1. Name the specific grammar rule(s) being broken by ALL the other choices.

2. Read ALL the possible choices. Don’t stop at first choice that looks right.

3. Physically write the actual CHANGES to Error ID questions on the SAT.

4. Realize that idiom errors deal with prepositions. Personal preference is wrong.

5. Meaning matters. Logical meaning trumps grammar, but the grammar must still be right.

6. Re-read the WHOLE sentence after you THINK you’ve picked the right choice.

7. Compare only TWO choices at a time only.

Let’s go through each one in depth, with various examples.


1. Name the specific grammar rule(s) being broken by ALL the other choices.

Don’t just look for right answer. I’m not saying you have to do this on EVERY question because you might run out of time, but on questions you’re not 100% sure about, figure out what’s wrong with the other choices. That’s why it’s important to know the grammar rule names, such as parallelism, illogical comparison, dangling modifiers, etc.

While the test never asks you to categorize the error, if you can’t name the error, then you probably don’t understand why a choice is wrong beyond “it sounds awful.” And remember, sounding awful is NEVER a good reason to cross off a choice because what sounds wrong to your natural ear might actually be right. Instead, rely on identifying grammar rules, rather than hearing things out.

If two or more choices sound acceptable, don’t sit there twiddling your thumbs, debating which one is better. I guarantee you that you will end up picking your personal preference and justify that answer based on no solid reason at all. If you notice multiple choices sound roughly equal, then that should be a big red flag that BOTH are probably wrong. You probably misread something, so re-read the ALL the choices again carefully.


 2. Read ALL the possible choices. Don’t stop at first choice that looks right.

Don’t stop at first one that you think sounds good because there might be a better one (or a more concise or straightforward one). Just because you’re pretty positive on one of the choices doesn’t mean you’re actually right.

Check this example out:

The services of architect I.M. Pei are always very much in demand considering that his buildings combine both beauty and an affordable price.

At first glance, the sentence seems fine. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with it. So you might be tempted to just pick this answer. But hold your horses! Check out the other choices:

A) considering that his buildings combine both beauty and an affordable price
Choice A is always no change for sentence improvement questions

B) considering that his buildings combine both beauty and affordability
Hmm, isn’t “affordability” a better, more concise way than to say “an affordable price”? Already, this looks like a better choice than A, even though there was nothing wrong with A, per se.

C) because his buildings combine beauty and affordability
Wow, an even shorter choice! This choice deletes the word “both” because “combine” already implies that two or more things are being merged. “Because his buildings” seems like a more straightforward way of saying “considering that his buildings” too. I like this one better than A and B, even though there’s nothing wrong with either A or B.

D) because his buildings will combine not only beauty but also an affordable price
Again, nothing wrong here, but this choice is just more wordy than choice C. On the SAT, if there’s nothing wrong with multiple choices, pick the more concise, straightforward choice (there’s only one exception to this, which I won’t get into here).

E) being that his buildings combine both beauty and affordability
Not horrible either, but on the SAT, I call the words “being” and “having” bad words. The SAT tends to use these two words to create awkward sounding sentences. Why say “being that his buildings” when we can more simply say “because his buildings”?

So choice C is the best answer, but if you stopped reading after the first one or two choices that sounded acceptable, you would have never realized there is an even better choice down the line.


Here’s another thing:

You must read through all choices because you might suddenly realize you overlooked a grammar rule in your initial pick when a subsequent choice reveals a possible issue you haven’t considered before. Too often, the test writers have carefully crafted a choice that sounds good but is actually slightly wrong.

Check this out:

The revolt against Victorianism was perhaps even more marked in poetry than either fiction or drama.

At first blush, you might think that sounds okay (if not, then congrats, your grammar is excellent). But if we keep reading, the answer choices themselves can actually clue you into possible rules you might have overlooked.

A) either fiction or drama
Choice A is no change. Hmm…maybe okay upon first read, although we’ll soon see that it’s not.

B) either fiction or in drama
Ohh snap! Notice the “in.” If you didn’t think about including that word before, now your mind is reminded to think about the proper placement for “in,” or even if that extra word is needed. Hint: it is, but not in the spot Choice B places it.

C) either in fiction or drama
Wrong location for “in” again.

D) in either fiction or drama
Correct choice! If you read the WHOLE sentence, you’ll see that it says marked IN poetry than IN either fiction or drama. When you use “than” to make a comparison, the two sides must be parallel (or identical in structure). That’s why we need to include “in” on both sides of the “than.”

E) in either fiction or in drama
Close, but no. There are two “in”s in this case. Only the first one is correct because it corrects the parallelism error in the original sentence. The second “in” introduces a new parallelism error. When you use “either,” it has to match with “or.” We have that here: either fiction or in drama. But the words immediately after either/or have to be parallel to each other too. So after “either,” we only see “fiction,” not “in fiction.” That’s why we can’t add an extra “in” after the “or.”

So reading through all the choice will help you spot rules you might potentially overlook.


Finally, you may spot an error and expect it to be fixed a certain way, but the choices provide alternative fixes that are equally correct. You may not have considered these alternative possibilities, so you may too hastily cross them out. Don’t do this—read and carefully consider ALL choices.

Here’s an example of this situation:

Returning to Dayville after ten years, the small town seemed much livelier to Margo than it had been when she was growing up there.

You should immediately notice that this sentence starts with a dangling modifier (a descriptive phrase that doesn’t include the person/thing being described). The rule says you must include the person/thing being referred to immediately after the modifier phrase, after the comma.

The small town definitely didn’t return to Dayville after ten years because the town is Dayville. So right away, you might be thinking the correct answer needs to put Margo right after the comma. That’s one good way of looking at it, but check out the possible choices below—none of them fix the error in that expected way.

Returning to Dayville after ten years, the small town seemed much livelier to Margo than it had been when she was growing up there.

A) Returning to Dayville after ten years, the small town seemed much livelier to Margo
Choice A for sentence improvement questions is always NO CHANGE.

B) Having returned to Dayville after ten years, it seemed a much livelier town to Margo
The sentence still doesn’t start with Margo after the comma; still a dangling modifier.

C) After Margo returned to Dayville in ten years, the small town seems much livelier
The sentence mentions Margo in the beginning of the sentence, so the subject is present now, which means the dangling modifier is no longer an issue; however, “in ten years” doesn’t make sense because that indicates the future when we know she “returned” in the past.

D) Margo returned to Dayville after ten years, the small town was seemingly much livelier
Almost correct, but this is a comma splice, which is an error of trying to merge two full sentences with nothing but a comma. You can’t combine two full sentences (aka independent clauses) with a comma alone.

E) When Margo returned to Dayville after ten years, the small town seemed much livelier to her
Correct choice. Notice that this doesn’t fix the original sentence in the way we anticipated. It introduces the subject, Margo, upfront, rather than start the sentence with “Returning to Dayville after ten years, Margo…”

Here’s another example of the anticipated fix turning out not to be the correct answer:

Though heavily dependent on the government for business and information while universities supply the space research center with talent, as a corporation it remains independent of both.

Immediately, I notice this is a dangling modifier error. Something is “heavily dependent on the government for business and information,” so that thing (the subject of the sentence) must follow the modifier phrase. I expect to see a comma after “business and information,” followed by thing that is dependent on the government.

A quick scan of the answer choices reveals D and E do exactly that.

D) information, universities supply the space research center with talent, but it is a corporation

E) information, universities supply the space research center with talent, while it remains a corporation

Because these two choices matched my expectations for a fix, I may be tempted to limit my analysis to only these two choices. This is a fatal trap! Many students anticipate this fix to the dangling modifier error here, but they are so stubbornly attached to that specific fix that they become blinded to the possibility of an entirely different, but equally valid fix.

Both D and E are wrong because what is “it”? Logically, it should have referred to the “universities,” but are universities really corporations? That’s debatable. Furthermore, the sentence says a corporation (singular), not corporations (plural). Also, “it” is singular, which doesn’t match with the plural “universities.” So much fail in these two choices, but if you were locked into following your anticipated fix, you might very well pick one of these two choices.

The correct answer, choice C, takes an unexpected turn:

C) information and on universities for talent, the space research center is a corporation

I didn’t expect the sentence to say something (the space research center) was dependent on TWO things—both the government for some stuff (business and info) and the universities for other stuff (talent). Yet, this possibility is totally valid and grammatically correct! Logically, the sentence makes more sense than D and E too because the space research center is a singular corporation that is independent of both the government and the universities. If the phrase “independent of both” sounds weird to you, it just means that the research center is a separate organization from the government and the universities. Independent = apart from.

Sometimes, you have to be flexible and look for fixes that are not aligned with your original thinking, even if your anticipated edit is not wrong (it’s just not a given choice).


3. Physically write the actual CHANGES to Error ID questions on the SAT.

The Error IDs are typically the hardest grammar questions because they present sentences with four parts underlined, indicating potential errors. You must identify which part is wrong, or if there’s simply no error. This is harder than reading through five possible revisions of a sentence and using your “natural ear” to hear which choice sounds better. Error IDs give you no alternatives, so you have to know your rules well.

But the secret is that fixing these grammar errors on the SAT requires only small changes: changing from plural to singular (or vice versa), changing verb tenses, fixing a preposition (idiom error), adjusting for dangling modifiers, etc.

I want you to physically cross out the erroneous underlined portion and write the change you would make to that choice. Doing this forces your brain to think WHY that choice is wrong, rather than just thinking it sounds weird. Remember, weird may actually turn out to be correct…you may just not have seen that type of sentence construction before. For more on this, check out what Ashley Olsen taught me about weird vs. wrong.

If the change you want to make is a massive rewording of the sentence, then in all likelihood, that choice is NOT the correct answer. The SAT is looking for simple fixes.

If you can’t even think of a way to change the sentence, that’s a huge clue that that particular choice is NOT wrong, so don’t pick it!

Here’s an Error ID question that illustrates my point (SAT instructs you to pick the underlined phrase that’s wrong):

As the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas à Becket assumed an independence that was intolerable to the king, who had long been his friend. No error

The phrase “had long been” strikes many students as odd. They are tempted to pick this choice because it just sounds wrong to their ears. But wait! What would we change that phrase to? Students often tell me they want to rewrite the last part of the sentence as “who had been his friend for a long time.” That would be fine, except we’re not allowed to do such a massive reconstruction. Parts that are NOT underline cannot be changed. We must assume they are correct. There’s no option to add any extra words after “his friend.”

So I tell these kids to think of another way to reword the sentence without messing with parts outside of the underlined portions. When my students can’t think of anything, I tell them that’s why that phrase isn’t wrong. It may sound weird, but it’s actually a perfectly fine phrase. To strong readers, that phrase wouldn’t have sounded weird in the first place, but getting to that mature reading stage does require being well-read and exposed to multiple instances of such sentence constructions.

Here’s what I mean by physically crossing out the bad part and writing in your fix:

The quality of multivitamin tablets is determined by how long its their potency can be protected by the manufacturer’s coating material. No error

Potency means power or effectiveness, so the potency belongs to the multivitamin tablets (plural), not the quality. Therefore, we have to change “its” (singular) to its plural form, theirs.

Furthermore, it doesn’t even make logical sense to say quality has potency because quality is potency! We consider the tablets to have great quality if they are potent.


 4. Realize that idiom errors deal with prepositions. Personal preference is wrong.

I hate idiom errors on the SAT. That’s because it’s impossible to explain to students why a certain idiomatic phrase is right or wrong—and that’s the point. There is no rule. Idioms are simply the way a language has evolved, and with enough usage, these idioms have become grammatically accepted. Idioms are the only time using your “natural ear” is appropriate and necessary.

Sometimes, students think a particular underline phrase sounds weird, and they even have a specific edit in mind. The problem is, many times, such an edit is unnecessary; that part of the sentence wasn’t wrong the way it originally was. But because it sounded weird to the student, he wanted to change it to his particular preference. Big rule: if something isn’t grammatically wrong, you can’t change it to another way, even if you feel your way sounds better (and is also grammatically fine).

But how do you know if the change you want to make is your personal preference or an actual idiom error? You know because idiom errors deal with changing/deleting/adding prepositions (e.g. in, to, of, by, about, etc.). If your proposed change has nothing to do with fixing a preposition, then you’re not catching an idiom error. It very well be another grammar error, but it’s not an idiom error. If it’s another error, be sure you know what rule that is and be able to name it. There’s only a limited number of rules the SAT tests, so if it’s not on that list, you’re just following your personal preference again.

An example:

John Edgar Wideman is regarded to be one of the most talented writers of the late twentieth century and is often compared to such literary giants as Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright. No error

The first underline is our answer because it should say “regarded as,” not “regarded to be.” Both “as” and “to” are prepositions, so notice the fix is a simple preposition change, which makes this an idiom error, rather than something that just sounds weird. In fact, “regarded to be” might sound fine to you—that’s why idiom errors are so tricky. We’ve become so accustomed to hearing things the wrong way, that it begins to sound right (when it’s totally not).

Why is “regarded to be” wrong? Who knows…it just is, and that’s the name of the game for idioms. You have to be well-read enough to spot these, so just do your best to “hear” these. It’s not worth the effort to memorize long idiom lists because there are literally thousands of possible idioms that the SAT can test. But if you happen to stumble across an idiom error that you didn’t know, keep a running list for yourself. But mainly focus on mastering the other grammar issues that actually have black and white rules first.

Now, you might think “compared to” should be changed to “compared with.” There’s nothing wrong with “compared with” here, but the thing is, there’s nothing wrong with “compared to” either. So if it’s not wrong, you can’t change it, even if you prefer the change. Personal preference is NOT a reason to call something a grammatical error.

Regarded to be = grammatically wrong
Regarded as = correct
Compared to = correct
Compared with = correct

Some grammarians might argue that “compared to” emphasizes similarities, while “compared with” implies differences, but the SAT doesn’t test such debatable issues. The SAT only tests rules that are universally agreed upon.

Another idiom example:

The survey showed that most shoppers who drive prefer the mall more than downtown stores simply because finding parking is less difficult at the mall. No error

The correct idiom is “prefer…to,” not “prefer…more than.” So the second underline is our answer. You can’t say, “I prefer malls more than downtown stores.” It’s debatable if you can say, “I prefer malls over downtown stores.” In any case, “prefer…more than” is always wrong though.

You may argue that someone could say, “Dogs prefer petting more than you thought.” Okay, true, that’s a fine sentence. However, there’s an implicit, invisible comparison happening here. The sentence really means, “Dogs prefer petting TO [something else] more than you thought.” So it still uses the “prefer…to” construction, even though it was invisible.

The “more than” part is not actually pairing up with the “prefer” part. The “more than” here means that dogs prefer petting to an extent greater than what we previously thought. Dogs have always preferred petting to the invisible other action, but their preference for petting is more than we thought before.

Here’s an example of a potential change that isn’t an idiom:

In those cities in which public transportation is adequate, fewer traffic problems occur and pedestrians are rarely involved in accidents. No error

Many of my students want to change the first underline to just “cities” and delete the word “those.” They feel that the word “those” is unnecessary, and they’re right. However, including the word “those” isn’t wrong either, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Don’t allow your personal preference for deleting the word “those” influence your choice. Their proposed change has nothing to do with a preposition, so we know this isn’t an idiom error.

Students try to cite “idiom error” as a catch-all category for anything they think sounds weird, but this is silly. Idioms deal with prepositions only. The answer here is “no error.”

Now obviously idioms aren’t the only errors, so then students try to argue that they are deleting the word “those” because that word breaks another grammar rule. So I ask them which one? They can’t name one because it doesn’t exist. If it’s not on the short list of tested rules, then it’s just your personal preference.


 5. Meaning matters. Logical meaning trumps grammar, but the grammar must still be right.

Just because a sentence is grammatically fine, if it doesn’t make any logical sense, then the sentence is still wrong. You need to mark it as wrong. The whole point of grammar was to devise a system of conventions to make our communication more clear. So if all the grammar rules are adhered to perfectly, yet the sentence still remains ambiguous or makes no sense, then grammar has failed. It did not serve its intended purpose of making communication clear.

Make sure the sentence is both grammatically correct AND logically sound, otherwise, there’s an error in that sentence.

In his 1957 Syntactic Structures book, Noam Chomsky famously provides this example: “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.”

The sentence is grammatically correct, but semantically nonsensical. Like, seriously, what the heck is he even trying to say? I have no idea, yet the sentence follows all the conventions of proper grammar. In this case, we’d have to mark this sentence as wrong on the SAT.


6. Re-read the WHOLE sentence after you THINK you’ve picked the right choice.

You must make sure it is a complete sentence and makes sense. Too often, things will sound fine up to the point where you stop reading. The SAT specifically designs questions this way…to sound fine if you only read up to the underlined portion. But if you actually continue reading the whole sentence, there might be additional changes you didn’t anticipate that will suddenly make the sentence wrong. Just because a choice fixes the original error you saw doesn’t mean they didn’t introduce a NEW error. I’ve seen it happen.


7. Compare only TWO choices at a time only.

Most people do better on the sentence improvement questions on the SAT than the error ID ones because the sentence improvement questions allow students to hear alternative choices, which helps them determine the best choice. However, these alternatives can get overwhelming. When people try to simultaneously compare three, four, or even all five choices, it’s hard to keep all the errors straight.

Instead, focus on comparing only two choices at a time. Just like when you go to the eye doctor, he doesn’t give you five possible lenses and ask which one is best. Instead, he goes, “Lens A or B?” Then you say, “B,” to which he responds, “B or C?” It’s like a sports tournament bracket. Two teams compete, and the winner advances to face the next contender. One by one, you kill off the bad choices.

Focusing on only two choices will prevent your mind from growing frantic. Remember, sometimes a few choices will all have no error, in which case you definitely need to only look at two choices at a time in order to determine the BEST choice (shorter and more straightforward is generally better).

So use this list for EVERY grammar question to erase all doubt about your choices. Worst case, trust your first instinct.

Now go out there and ace this thing!

Leave a Reply