Breaking Down Sentences on the SAT

As you stare at the particularly confounding and convoluted sentence pattern you feel your mind start to wander.  You know the rules that you must apply, you know the subject and verb must agree, and you are a pro at identifying unidentified pronouns, but the sentence is just too confusing to dissect and examine for these errors.  It’s alright friend; the key to unblocking your brain is to block off the sentence into its component parts. The key is getting rid of prepositional and descriptive phrases to look at the heart of the sentence.

Let’s look at an example:

“At its core, the exploration was not, in itself, unproductive or unwarranted, but in order to understand the true nature of the problem, to explore the fundamental issue of cellular degradation, they needed to be conducted with a more in depth understanding of senescence at a cellular level. No Error

Man oh man: this sentence is a doozy! As well as dealing with a fairly complicated subject mater, it also is also filled with modifiers and descriptors that make the sentence very difficult to read.  To begin with, let us take a closer look at what a prepositional phrase is and what it does.

A prepositional phrase is a descriptive phrase that begins with a preposition and acts as a descriptor, usually an adjective or an adverb, in the sentence. The important thing to remember is that prepositional phrases, like introductory or non-essential descriptive phrases, can be removed from the sentence without the sentence losing one of its essential parts.  Generally, any error with agreement, subject verb agreement especially, becomes very clear when you remove prepositional and descriptive phrases.  Let’s try this out with the sentence above.

At its core (Introductory descriptive phrase and prepositional phrase) The exploration was not, in itself (non essential descriptive phrase and prepositional phrase), unproductive or unwarranted, but  in order to understand the true nature of the problem, to explore the fundamental issue of cellular degradation (introductory descriptive phrases) they needed to be conducted with a more in depth understanding of senescence at a cellular level. (prepositional phrases)

So we are left with:

The exploration was not unproductive or unwarranted, but they needed to be conducted.

In the modified sentence, the error should be much more clearly evident. “They needed” (which is the only underlined section still standing) should be changed to “it needed” so that the pronoun “it” matches the noun “exploration”.  In general, eliminating prepositional phrases provides you with a simplified version of the sentence with only its essential parts, namely, the subject, verb, and sometimes the object.  After breaking a sentence down to its essentials, it is much simpler to identify problems with the fundamental structure of the sentence and without being confused by the distractions of descriptive and prepositional phrases.

The final caveat to this technique is that once you have looked at the fundamental structure and determined that there are no errors, it is important to go back through and check for misplaced modifiers and pronouns that are either unidentified or incorrect.  Because we are eliminating most modifiers, it’s important to check to make sure these modifying phrases are located right next to the noun they are modifying and to look in prepositional phrases for any pronouns that are problematic.

Happy error hunting friends!

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David Greenslade is a Veritas Prep SAT instructor based in New York. His passion for education began while tutoring students in underrepresented areas during his time at the University of North Carolina. After receiving a degree in Biology, he studied language in China and then moved to New York where he teaches SAT prep and participates in improv comedy.