How to Handle Grammar and Punctuation on the New SAT

By Geraldine Woods, Ron Woldoff

Even if you’ve always wanted to tear a grammar book into tiny little pieces, you can still do well on grammar and punctuation questions on the SAT. The new SAT concentrates on the most important principles (rules) of Standard English — the way educated people speak and write. You see a word or phrase underlined and have to determine whether a change is needed. (The same format shows up in style questions.)

Here are some guidelines for grammar and punctuation questions in SAT Writing and Language passages:

  • Keep an eye open for incorrect punctuation. Always check apostrophes and commas. Apostrophes may show up in possessive pronouns, such as theirs (where they don’t belong), or they may be missing in contractions, such as dont and wont (where they’re needed). Many passages and answer choices contain comma splices, two complete sentences incorrectly combined with a comma rather than a semicolon or a conjunctionand, but, because, and similar words. You may see, for example, a “sentence” like this one: “George robbed a bank, consequently, he went to jail.” The comma after bank should be replaced by a period.

  • Be sure every sentence is complete. Comma splices (see the preceding bullet point) and fragments (half sentences such as “Although it is raining and the picnic is canceled”) are incorrect in Standard English. Look for an alternative that inserts a semicolon (;) or a conjunction (and, because, and similar words).

  • Don’t worry about spelling and capitalization mistakes. The SAT doesn’t test spelling, and very infrequently takes on capitalization. Assume that capital letters are in the right spots unless a glaring mistake jumps out at you.

  • Watch out for verbs. Verb tense is a big deal on the SAT, as is subject-verb agreement (choosing a singular or plural verb to match a singular or plural subject). When you check the subject-verb pair, ignore interrupters — descriptions, for example, that show up between a subject and its matching verb. For example, you may come across a sentence like this one: “The toddler, along with seven friends and their nannies, have gone to the playground.” In this sentence the verb have should be replaced by has, as the subject of the sentence is toddler.

  • Pay attention to pronouns. The SAT-writers often mix singular and plural forms incorrectly, such as matching the singular noun person with the plural pronoun they. Also check pronoun case — be sure that an object pronoun such as him functions as an object in the sentence, a subject pronoun such as he is a subject, and so forth. Take a look at this example: “Mary asked that we keep the discussion between you and I.” In this sentence, the pronoun I is incorrect because you need an object pronoun, me, after the preposition between.

  • Notice parallel structure. In English-teacher terminology, parallel structure means that everything doing the same job in the sentence must have the same grammatical identity. For example, you can enjoy surfing, skiing, and hiking, but not surfing, skiing, and to hike. Check for parallelism in lists and comparisons. Also pay attention to parallelism when ideas are combined with either/or, neither/nor, not only/but also, both/and, as/as, and similar conjunction pairs. Whatever these pairs join must be parallel.

  • Check the placement of descriptions. No matter how long or short, a description must be close to the word it describes. Every description must be clearly attached to one word, and only one word. No ambiguity (having more than one interpretation) is allowed.

If you locate a grammar or punctuation mistake, be sure that your answer choice doesn’t contain a different error. You must be able to plug in the new version and end up with a proper sentence.

Ready to practice? Try this sample question, excerpted from a science passage.

Sample Passage

Samples taken every quarter mile along the river show the extent of the problem. The water five miles downstream not only was polluted but also laden with debris, including tires, chunks of wood, and plastic trash bags.

  1. How should the underlined words be changed, if at all?


    (B) was not only polluted but also laden with debris

    (C) not only polluted but also debris was laden there

    (D) not only polluted but also laden with debris

The paired conjunction not only/but also should trigger an immediate check for parallelism. After not only, you have a verb, was. After but also, you don’t have a verb. Choice (D) removes the verb, but now you’re left with a “sentence” lacking a verb — not a sentence at all! Choice (B) moves the verb. Now not only and its partner but also join parallel elements — two descriptions, polluted and laden.