The first 20 questions in the writing section of the PSAT/NMSQT hand you a fairly long sentence that resembles what you might read in a textbook or write in an essay or research paper. A portion of the sentence — or, rarely, the whole thing — is underlined. You have to select the best version of the underlined material from five possibilities.

Choice (A) is always the original wording, and the other four choices change the original in different ways. However, nothing in the non-underlined portion of the sentence ever changes. Therefore, whatever you choose must fit with the rest of the sentence. If you swap out the underlined portion and insert your answer choice, the sentence has to make sense as a whole.

Here’s your approach to sentence-improvement questions:

  • Read every word of the original sentence. Because nothing in the non-underlined portion of the sentence may be changed, your answer must work when the whole sentence is considered.

  • If you find a grammar mistake in the original, turn to the answer choices immediately. Find every answer that corrects the error, and cross off the others. Check whether anything still in the running contains a different grammar error. If so, toss that answer, too. Now look at whatever is left. One choice is probably smoother and more concise than another. That’s your answer.

  • If no obvious error appears, determine what varies in the answer choices. If you see one choice with “would have said” and one with “had said,” zero in on the verbs. Where you see variation, you may find a clue to the problem in the sentence.

Anything is fair game for sentence-improvement questions, but a few grammar and style issues are frequent flyers. Here’s what to look for:

  • Verb tense: Grammarians talk about sequence of tenses — how one action is placed earlier in the past than another, for example. The answer choices for sentence-improvement questions often vary only in verb tense, a good reason to check that issue carefully.

  • Complete sentences: Sometimes the “sentence” is really a fragment, and sometimes two sentences are joined improperly, creating a run-on sentence. You have to locate an answer that creates a complete, properly punctuated sentence.

  • Extra words: Frequently, the original sentence expresses an idea in ten words when six will suffice (be enough). Be on the alert for wordiness and repetition.

  • Nonstandard expressions: Words or expressions that make your English teachers frown (irregardless, John and myself, being that, and others) often show up in sentence improvements. Look for an answer choice that takes them out.

  • Agreement: In Grammarland, singular goes with singular and plural with plural. This rule applies to subject-verb pairs, pronouns and the words they refer to, and nouns (logical consistency, so you don’t end up saying something like, “Mary and Helen are a doctor”).

  • Passive voice: “Martin broke the window” is better than “a window was broken by Martin.” Of course, sometimes you need passive verbs, but if you’re down to two choices and active voice is possible, go for that answer.

Practice questions are a chance to train your eyes, so you can spot the best answer quickly. Try Questions 1 through 4:

  1. The clerk, encouraged by his supervisor’s praise and frightened by the recent lag in sales, the result of a poor economy.

    (A) praise and frightened by
    (B) praise, was frightened by
    (C) praise, frightening him by
    (D) praise that frightened him with
    (E) praise; he was frightened by
  2. Knowing the bell would soon ring, their essays were completed by the students as quickly as possible.

    (A) their essays were completed by the students as quickly as possible
    (B) their essays were completed as quickly as possible by the students
    (C) the students completed their essays as quickly as possible
    (D) as quick as possible, the students completed their essays
    (E) the students completed his or her essays as quickly as possible
  3. According to ancient Greek myths, Antigone defied the king, and her life was lost as a result.

    (A) king, and her life was lost
    (B) king, which was how her life was lost
    (C) king, but her life was lost
    (D) king and lost her life
    (E) king, she lost her life
  4. Because he draws from life, Charles often sketches people in the park.

    (A) Because he draws from life,
    (B) Being as he draws from life,
    (C) Being that he draws from life
    (D) As it is true that he draws from life
    (E) The fact that he draws from life is the reason that

Now check your answers:

  1. B. praise, was frightened by

    The original isn’t a complete sentence because no verb matches the subject, “clerk.” In Choice (B), the verb “was” pairs up with “clerk,” and the sentence is complete. No other choice creates a complete sentence except Choice (E), which adds an unnecessary pronoun, “he.”

  2. C. the students completed their essays as quickly as possible

    In the original sentence, the description “knowing the bell would soon ring” describes “their essays.” However, the essays don’t know the bell is going to ring; the students do. Choices (C), (D), and (E) make “students” the subject of the sentence. But Choice (D) incorrectly changes the adverb “quickly” to an adjective, “quick.”

    And Choice (E) is wrong because the plural noun “students” must be paired with the plural pronoun “their,” not with the singular “his or her.”

  3. D. king and lost her life

    The original sentence is grammatically correct, but it shifts from an active verb (“defied”) to a passive verb (“was lost”). Choice (D) expresses the same information more concisely and smoothly, staying in active voice.

  4. A. Because he draws from life,

    The original sentence, Choice (A), is effective and grammatically correct. The other answer choices have problems. Choices (B) and (C) begin with nonstandard expressions, “being as” and “being that.” Choices (D) and (E) are wordy.

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