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||SAT Grammar and Sentence Error Questions
Success in the Sentence Error questions on the SAT depends strongly on your
grasp of the English grammar. While it can take a long time to get a good grasp
of English grammar, there is no point in going through a whole lot of 'Wren and
Martin' types of grammar books.
For the SAT, it is sufficient to know a few basic rules and principles of the
Let us look at the 'Sentence' to start with:
A sentence is an assemblage of words so arranged as to convey a determinate
sense or meaning, in other words, to express a complete thought or idea.
No matter how short, it must contain one finite verb and a subject or agent to
direct the action of the verb.
"Birds fly;" "Fish swim;" "Men walk;"--are sentences.
A sentence always contains two parts, something spoken about and something
said about it. The word or words indicating what is spoken about form what is
called the _subject_ and the word or words indicating what is said about it form
what is called the _predicate_.
In the sentences given, _birds_, _fish_ and _men_ are the subjects, while _fly_,
_swim_ and _walk_ are the predicates.
There are three kinds of sentences, _simple_, _compound_ and _complex_.
The _simple sentence_ expresses a single thought and consists of one subject
and one predicate, as, "Man is mortal."
A _compound sentence_ consists of two or more simple sentences of equal
importance the parts of which are either expressed or understood, as, "The
men work in the fields and the women work in the household," or "The men work
in the fields and the women in the household" or "The men and women work in
the fields and in the household."
A _complex sentence_ consists of two or more simple sentences so combined
that one depends on the other to complete its meaning; as; "When he returns, I
shall go on my vacation." Here the words, "when he returns" are dependent on
the rest of the sentence for their meaning.
A _clause_ is a separate part of a complex sentence, as "when he returns" in
the last example.
A _phrase_ consists of two or more words without a finite verb.
Without a finite verb we cannot affirm anything or convey an idea, therefore we
can have no sentence.
Infinitives and participles which are the infinite parts of the verb cannot be
predicates. "I looking up the street" is not a sentence, for it is not a complete
action expressed. When we hear such an expression as "A dog running along
the street," we wait for something more to be added, something more affirmed
about the dog, whether he bit or barked or fell dead or was run over.
Thus in every sentence there must be a finite verb to limit the subject.
When the verb is transitive, that is, when the action cannot happen without
affecting something, the thing affected is called the _object_.
Thus in "Cain killed Abel" the action of the killing affected Abel. In "The cat has
caught a mouse," mouse is the object of the catching.
ARRANGEMENT OF WORDS IN A SENTENCE
Of course in simple sentences the natural order of arrangement is
subject--verb--object. In many cases no other form is possible. Thus in the
sentence "The cat has caught a mouse," we cannot reverse it and say "The
mouse has caught a cat" without destroying the meaning, and in any other form
of arrangement, such as "A mouse, the cat has caught," we feel that while it is
intelligible, it is a poor way of expressing the fact and one which jars upon us
more or less.
In longer sentences, however, when there are more words than what are barely
necessary for subject, verb and object, we have greater freedom of
arrangement and can so place the words as to give the best effect. The proper
placing of words depends upon perspicuity and precision. These two combined
give _style_ to the structure.
Most people are familiar with Gray's line in the immortal _Elegy_--"The
ploughman homeward plods his weary way." This line can be paraphrased to
read 18 different ways. Here are a few variations:
Homeward the ploughman plods his weary way.
The ploughman plods his weary way homeward.
Plods homeward the ploughman his weary way.
His weary way the ploughman homeward plods.
Homeward his weary way plods the ploughman.
Plods the ploughman his weary way homeward.
His weary way the ploughman plods homeward.
His weary way homeward the ploughman plods.
The ploughman plods homeward his weary way.
The ploughman his weary way plods homeward.
and so on. It is doubtful if any of the other forms are superior to the one used by
the poet. Of course his arrangement was made to comply with the rhythm and
rhyme of the verse. Most of the variations depend upon the emphasis we wish
to place upon the different words.
In arranging the words in an ordinary sentence we should not lose sight of the
fact that the beginning and end are the important places for catching the
attention of the reader. Words in these places have greater emphasis than
In Gray's line the general meaning conveyed is that a weary ploughman is
plodding his way homeward, but according to the arrangement a very slight
difference is effected in the idea. Some of the variations make us think more of
the ploughman, others more of the plodding, and still others more of the
As the beginning and end of a sentence are the most important places, it
naturally follows that small or insignificant words should be kept from these
positions. Of the two places the end one is the more important, therefore, it
really calls for the most important word in the sentence.
Never commence a sentence with _And_, _But_, _Since_, _Because_, and
other similar weak words and never end it with prepositions, small, weak
adverbs or pronouns.
The parts of a sentence which are most closely connected with one another in
meaning should be closely connected in order also. By ignoring this principle
many sentences are made, if not nonsensical, really ridiculous and ludicrous.
For instance: "Ten dollars reward is offered for information of any person
injuring this property by order of the owner."
"This monument was erected to the memory of John Jones, who was shot by
his affectionate brother."
In the construction of all sentences the grammatical rules must be inviolably
observed. The laws of concord, that is, the agreement of certain words, must be
(1) The verb agrees with its subject in person and number. "I have," "Thou hast,"
(the pronoun _thou_ is here used to illustrate the verb form, though it is almost
obsolete), "He has," show the variation of the verb to agree with the subject. A
singular subject calls for a singular verb, a plural subject demands a verb in the
plural; as, "The boy writes," "The boys write."
The agreement of a verb and its subject is often destroyed by confusing (1)
collective and common nouns; (2) foreign and English nouns; (3) compound and
simple subjects; (4) real and apparent subjects.
(1) A collective noun is a number of individuals or things regarded as a whole;
as, _class regiment_. When the individuals or things are prominently brought
forward, use a plural verb; as The class _were_ distinguished for ability. When
the idea of the whole as a unit is under consideration employ a singular verb; as
The regiment _was_ in camp. (2) It is sometimes hard for the ordinary individual
to distinguish the plural from the singular in foreign nouns, therefore, he should
be careful in the selection of the verb. He should look up the word and be
guided accordingly. "He was an _alumnus_ of Harvard." "They were _alumni_
of Harvard." (3) When a sentence with one verb has two or more subjects
denoting different things, connected by _and_, the verb should be plural; as,
"Snow and rain _are_disagreeable." When the subjects denote the same thing
and are connected by _or_ the verb should be singular; as, "The man or the
woman is to blame." (4) When the same verb has more than one subject of
different persons or numbers, it agrees with the most prominent in thought; as,
"He, and not you, _is_ wrong." "Whether he or I _am_ to be blamed."
(2) Never use the past participle for the past tense nor _vice versa_.
This mistake is a very common one. At every turn we hear "He done it" for "He
did it." "The jar was broke" instead of broken. "He would have went" for "He
would have gone," etc.
(3) The use of the verbs _shall_ and _will_ is a rock upon which even the best
speakers come to wreck. They are interchanged recklessly. Their significance
changes according as they are used with the first, second or third person. With
the first person _shall_ is used in direct statement to express a simple future
action; as, "I shall go to the city to-morrow." With the second and third persons
_shall_ is used to express a determination; as, "You _shall_ go to the city
to-morrow," "He _shall_ go to the city to-morrow."
With the first person _will_ is used in direct statement to express determination,
as, "I will go to the city to-morrow." With the second and third persons _will_ is
used to express simple future action; as, "You_will_ go to the city to-morrow,"
"He _will_ go to the city to-morrow."
A very old rule regarding the uses of _shall_ and _will_ is thus expressed in
In the first person simply _shall_ foretells,
In _will_ a threat or else a promise dwells.
_Shall_ in the second and third does threat,
_Will_ simply then foretells the future feat.
(4) Take special care to distinguish between the nominative and objective
case. The pronouns are the only words which retain the ancient distinctive case
ending for the objective. Remember that the objective case follows transitive
verbs and prepositions. Don't say "The boy who I sent to see you," but "The boy
whom I sent to see you." _Whom_ is here the object of the transitive verb sent.
Don't say "She bowed to him and I" but "She bowed to him and me" since me
is the objective case following the preposition _to_ understood. "Between you
and I" is a very common expression. It should be "Between you and me" since
_between_ is a preposition calling for the objective case.
(5) Be careful in the use of the relative pronouns _who_, _which_ and _that_.
Who refers only to persons; which only to things; as, "The boy who was
drowned," "The umbrella which I lost." The relative _that_ may refer to both
persons and things; as, "The man _that_ I saw." "The hat _that_ I bought."
(6) Don't use the superlative degree of the adjective for the comparative; as "He
is the richest of the two" for "He is the richer of the two."
Other mistakes often made in this connection are (1) Using the double
comparative and superlative; as, "These apples are much _more_ preferable."
"The most universal motive to business is gain." (2) Comparing objects which
belong to dissimilar classes; as "There is no nicer _life_ than a _teacher_." (3)
Including objects in class to which they do not belong; as, "The fairest of her
daughters, Eve." (4) Excluding an object from a class to which it does belong;
as, "Caesar was braver than any ancient
(7) Don't use an adjective for an adverb or an adverb for an adjective.
Don't say, "He acted nice towards me" but "He acted nicely toward me," and
instead of saying "She looked _beautifully_" say "She looked _beautiful_."
(8) Place the adverb as near as possible to the word it modifies. Instead of
saying, "He walked to the door quickly," say "He walked quickly to the
(9) Not alone be careful to distinguish between the nominative and objective
cases of the pronouns, but try to avoid ambiguity in their use.
The amusing effect of disregarding the reference of pronouns is well illustrated
by Burton in the following story of Billy Williams, a comic actor who thus narrates
his experience in riding a horse owned by Hamblin, the manager:
"So down I goes to the stable with Tom Flynn, and told the man to put the
saddle on him."
"On Tom Flynn?"
"No, on the horse. So after talking with Tom Flynn awhile I mounted him."
"What! mounted Tom Flynn?"
"No, the horse; and then I shook hands with him and rode off."
"Shook hands with the horse, Billy?"
"No, with Tom Flynn; and then I rode off up the Bowery, and who should I meet
but Tom Hamblin; so I got off and told the boy to hold him by the head."
"What! hold Hamblin by the head?"
"No, the horse; and then we went and had a drink together."
"What! you and the horse?"
"No, _me_ and Hamblin; and after that I mounted him again and went out
"What! mounted Hamblin again?"
"No, the horse; and when I got to Burnham, who should be there but Tom
Flynn,--he'd taken another horse and rode out ahead of me; so I told the hostler
to tie him up."
"Tie Tom Flynn up?"
"No, the horse; and we had a drink there."
"What! you and the horse?"
"No, me and Tom Flynn."
Finding his auditors by this time in a _horse_ laugh, Billy wound up with: "Now,
look here,--every time I say horse, you say Hamblin, and every time I say
Hamblin you say horse: I'll be hanged if I tell you any more about it."
There are two great classes of sentences according to the general principles
upon which they are founded. These are termed the _loose_ and the _periodic_.
In the _loose_ sentence the main idea is put first, and then follow several facts
in connection with it. Defoe is an author particularly noted for this kind of
sentence. He starts out with a leading declaration to which he adds several
attendant connections. For instance in the opening of the story of _Robinson
Crusoe_ we read: "I was born in the year 1632 in the city of York, of a good
family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who
settled first at Hull; he got a good estate by merchandise, and leaving off his
trade lived afterward at York, from whence he had married my mother, whose
relations were named Robinson, a very good family in the country and from I
was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but by the usual corruption of words in
England, we are now called, nay, we call ourselves, and write our name Crusoe,
and so my companions always called me."
In the periodic sentence the main idea comes last and is preceded by a series
of relative introductions. This kind of sentence is often introduced by such words
as _that_, _if_, _since_, _because_. The following is an example:
"That through his own folly and lack of circumspection he should have been
reduced to such circumstances as to be forced to become a beggar on the
streets, soliciting alms from those who had formerly been the recipients of his
bounty, was a sore humiliation."
On account of its name many are liable to think the _loose_ sentence an
undesirable form in good composition, but this should not be taken for granted.
In many cases it is preferable to the periodic form.
As a general rule in speaking, as opposed to writing, the _loose_ form is to be
preferred, inasmuch as when the periodic is employed in discourse the
listeners are apt to forget the introductory clauses before the final issue is
Both kinds are freely used in composition, but in speaking, the _loose_, which
makes the direct statement at the beginning, should predominate.
As to the length of sentences much depends on the nature of the composition.
However the general rule may be laid down that short sentences are preferable
to long ones. The tendency of the best writers of the present day is towards
short, snappy, pithy sentences which rivet the attention of the reader. They
adopt as their motto _multum in parvo_ (much in little) and endeavor to pack a
great deal in small space. Of course the extreme of brevity is to be avoided.
Sentences can be too short, too jerky, too brittle to withstand the test of
criticism. The long sentence has its place and a very important one. It is
indispensable in argument and often is very necessary to description and also
in introducing general principles which require elaboration. In employing the
long sentence the inexperienced writer should not strain after the heavy,
ponderous type. Johnson and Carlyle used such a type, but remember, an
ordinary mortal cannot wield the sledge hammer of a giant. Johnson and Carlyle
were intellectual giants and few can hope to stand on the same literary
pedestal. The tyro in composition should never seek after the heavy style. The
best of all authors in the English language for style is Addison. Macaulay says:
"If you wish a style learned, but not pedantic, elegant but not ostentatious,
simple yet refined, you must give your days and nights to the volumes of Joseph
Addison." The simplicity, apart from the beauty of Addison's writings causes us
to reiterate the literary command--"Never use a big word when a little one will
convey the same or a similar meaning."
Macaulay himself is an elegant stylist to imitate. He is like a clear brook kissed
by the noon-day sun in the shining bed of which you can see and count the
beautiful white pebbles. Goldsmith is another writer whose simplicity of style
The beginner should study these writers, make their works his _vade mecum_,
they have stood the test of time and there has been no improvement upon them
yet, nor is there likely to be, for their writing is as perfect as it is possible to be
in the English language.
Apart from their grammatical construction there can be no fixed rules for the
formation of sentences. The best plan is to follow the best authors and these
masters of language will guide you safely along the way.
The paragraph may be defined as a group of sentences that are closely related
in thought and which serve one common purpose. Not only do they preserve the
sequence of the different parts into which a composition is divided, but they
give a certain spice to the matter like raisins in a plum pudding. A solid page of
printed matter is distasteful to the reader; it taxes the eye and tends towards the
weariness of monotony, but when it is broken up into sections it loses much of
its heaviness and the consequent lightness gives it charm, as it were, to capture
Paragraphs are like stepping-stones on the bed of a shallow river, which enable
the foot passenger to skip with ease from one to the other until he gets across;
but if the stones are placed too far apart in attempting to span the distance one
is liable to miss the mark and fall in the water and flounder about until he is
again able to get a foothold. 'Tis the same with written language, the reader by
means of paragraphs can easily pass from one portion of connected thought to
another and keep up his interest in the subject until he gets to the end.
Throughout the paragraph there must be some connection in regard to the
matter under consideration,--a sentence dependency. For instance, in the same
paragraph we must not speak of a house on fire and a runaway horse unless
there is some connection between the two. We must not write consecutively:
"The fire raged with fierce intensity, consuming the greater part of the large
building in a short time." "The horse took fright and wildly dashed down the
street scattering pedestrians in all directions." These two sentences have no
connection and therefore should occupy separate and distinct places. But when
we say--"The fire raged with fierce intensity consuming the greater part of the
large building in a short time and the horse taking fright at the flames dashed
wildly down the street scattering pedestrians in all directions,"--there is a natural
sequence, viz., the horse taking fright as a consequence of the flames and
hence the two expressions are combined in one paragraph.
As in the case of words in sentences, the most important places in a paragraph
are the beginning and the end. Accordingly the first sentence and the last
should by virtue of their structure and nervous force, compel the reader's
attention. It is usually advisable to make the first sentence short; the last
sentence may be long or short, but in either case should be forcible. The object
of the first sentence is to state a point _clearly_; the last sentence should
It is a custom of good writers to make the conclusion of the paragraph a
restatement or counterpart or application of the opening.
In most cases a paragraph may be regarded as the elaboration of the principal
sentence. The leading thought or idea can be taken as a nucleus and around it
constructed the different parts of the paragraph. Anyone can make a context for
every simple sentence by asking himself questions in reference to the
sentence. Thus--"The foreman gave the order"-- suggests at once several
questions; "What was the order?" "to whom did he give it?" "why did he give
it?" "what was the result?" etc. These questions when answered will depend
upon the leading one and be an elaboration of it into a complete paragraph.
If we examine any good paragraph we shall find it made up of a number of
items, each of which helps to illustrate, confirm or enforce the general thought or
purpose of the paragraph. Also the transition from each item to the next is easy,
natural and obvious; the items seem to come of themselves. If, on the other
hand, we detect in a paragraph one or more items which have no direct
bearing, or if we are unable to proceed readily from item to item, especially if
we are obliged to rearrange the items before we can perceive their full
significance, then we are justified in pronouncing the paragraph construction
No specific rules can be given as to the construction of paragraphs. The best
advice is,--Study closely the paragraph structure of the best writers, for it is only
through imitation, conscious or unconscious of the best models, that one can
master the art.
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