Error Recognition Problems on the PSAT/NMSQT

Section 5 of the PSAT/NMSQT always includes 14 error-recognition problems. Each question is a fairly long sentence, with four portions underlined and labeled A, B, C, or D. Choice (E), no error, appears after each sentence.

You have to find the section of the sentence that must be changed in order to correct a mistake in grammar, punctuation, or standard English expression. If you can’t locate an error, your answer is Choice (E). Here’s an example:

The proctor, who was both bored and she was preoccupied by the parking ticket she received on the way to school, never noticed Hannah. No error.

This sentence has a parallelism problem. A sentence is parallel if elements performing the same function have the same grammatical identity. Conjunction pairs such as “both/and” and “either/or” must join parallel elements, but in this sentence, “both” links “bored,” an adjective, to “she was preoccupied,” a complete thought containing a subject and a verb.

In case you’re a fan of grammar terminology, “she was preoccupied” is a clause. Choice (B) is the answer because that’s where the mistake is.

You can correct some sentences in more than one way. For example, to correct a misplaced description you can move the description or the word described. In such a situation, only one of the possible spots for correction is underlined.

Tackling error-recognition problems is easy if you follow these steps:

  • Read the whole sentence. Even if you think the mistake is in the very first word in the sentence, keep reading. Although the directions tell you confidently that “no sentence contains more than one error,” you may see two problems in one sentence.

    No matter how hard a writer works to ensure only one possible mistake, sometimes a second creeps in. In that situation, you may discover that one error is minor — a scraped knee — and one is major — a broken leg. Go for the broken leg and leave the scraped knee alone.

  • Check each underlined section, in order. Don’t forget about punctuation; a punctuation error, very often a misplaced comma, may be tucked into a five-word section.

  • Select your answer. The toughest answer to identify, by the way, is Choice (E). For some reason test-takers really want to find a mistake and too often mistrust the “no error” option. Sometimes, though, the sentence is correct, and Choice (E) is the answer.

Keep an eye out for these mistakes, which appear often in error-recognition questions:

  • Pronoun problems: Check for “he/him” and other case mix-ups, a “-self” pronoun (myself, himself, ourselves, and so on) where one shouldn’t be, and possessive pronouns. Also be sure that the pronoun agrees with the word it represents — singular with singular, plural with plural. Be sure that the pronoun isn’t vague (“she” in a sentence discussing two females, for example).

  • Parallelism: Look for nonparallel elements in lists or compounds (pairs or triplets).

  • Punctuation: You may find a comma where a semicolon is required or an unnecessary or missing comma. Don’t worry about other punctuation marks; they’re unlikely to be an issue on the PSAT/NMSQT.

  • Verb tense: Take note of every verb. Be sure each expresses the correct time frame, based on the content of the sentence.

  • Unnecessary shifts: If you’re talking about “a person,” don’t shift to “you” or “they.” Don’t change verb tense without a reason.

  • Nonstandard expressions: Words and expressions that people use in everyday language aren’t always correct when you’re in test territory. Look for such expressions as “set yourself down,” “can’t hardly,” and so forth.

  • Illogical or improper comparisons: Look for doubles (“more prettier” instead of “prettier”) and illogical content (“Washington was more popular than any president,” a statement implying that Washington wasn’t a president).

Give Questions 1 through 5 your best shot.

  1. Beeping his horn, the truck driver warned Ellen and I to move out of the intersection. No error.

  2. The brightly painted rocking chair was neither purchased nor was it noticed in the busiest shop in the antiques district. No error.

  3. Careful by nature, John had revised his estimate for heating and air-conditioning at least five times before he had felt ready to present his proposal to the construction manager. No error.

  4. Everyone in that school is required to attend physical education classes at least four times a week because you benefit from an active life. No error.

  5. Between you and I, the smell coming from that corner of the room is offensive, and the janitor should be fired. No error.

Now check your answers:

  1. C.

    The pronoun “I” is for subjects only, but in this sentence, it’s functioning as an object of the verb “warned.” The proper expression is “Ellen and me,” Choice (C), because “me” is the appropriate pronoun for objects.

  2. C.

    This sentence contains a pair of conjunctions, “neither/nor.” Whatever these conjunctions join must be parallel. That is, whatever follows these words must have the same grammatical identity. In this sentence, though, “neither” is followed by “purchased,” and “nor” is followed by a subject-verb combo, “was it noticed.”

    One of these elements has to change. “Purchased” isn’t underlined, so your answer is Choice (C). How would the correct sentence sound? Something like this: “The brightly painted rocking chair was neither purchased nor noticed in the busiest shop in the antiques district.”

  3. D.

    The helping verb “had” places an action earlier in the past than another action. The revisions precede the moment when John “felt ready,” not “had felt ready.” Choice (D) is your answer.

  4. D.

    The sentence begins by talking about people (“everyone”) and then shifts by talking to people, represented by the pronoun “you.” Because you have no good reason for the shift, the “you benefit” should be “everyone benefits” or something similar, so Choice (D) is correct.

  5. A.

    The preposition “between” takes an object pronoun (“me”), not a subject pronoun (“I”). Yes, you probably hear “between you and I” all the time. The test-writers also hear that expression; that’s why they put it on the test fairly often.

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