Once again you find yourself staring at an “Identifying Sentence Error” problem. You are prepared! You have in your arsenal all the common errors that occur on the SAT. You know to avoid the common indicators of awkward phrasing and you can identify a subject and verb disagreement with both eyes closed and two hands and a foot tied behind your back.
Yet here you are, staring at a problem without a notion of whether an error is present. Your mind begins to wander to thoughts of who will send the next open letter out to Miley Cyrus and how to convince your parents your studying should entitle you to borrow the car for the weekend. FOCUS! You can do this. There is a way to know for sure if there is an error, and all it requires is a little sleuthing!
Step 1. Look at each underlined word or section to see what parts of the sentence are present.
You are a detective, and each underlined portion is a potential clue. Know what you are looking at. Is there a noun? Is it the subject? If it is, check it with the verb to make sure that they match. Remember, the error is always in an underlined area so if the tense or number of an underlined word doesn’t match with something in the rest of the sentence, you have found your error!
Look for prepositions. Are they attached to words that may require a different choice of accompanying preposition (e.g. “As many people agree, the newest computer models seem downright futuristic compared as older models.”)? Is the underlined portion an introductory descriptive element (an introductory piece of information that is set aside by a comma)? There are rarely errors in introductions or in prepositional phrases, but if there are, they are likely incorrect transitions, idiomatic problems, or awkward phrasings.
Look for ANY PRONOUNS! Pronouns are often misused so check every one that is underlined to make sure it is referring to the correct kind of noun and that it is clear what its referent is. If you know what is present in the underlined portion, then you know the errors that could be present. If everything checks out, move on! Don’t tear your hair out looking for an error that isn’t there!
Step 2. Isolate necessary elemens of the sentence.
Prepositional phrases, descriptive phrases, and introductory elements are not necessary for the sentence to function, so you can disregard these and only focus on the subjects, verbs and objects to make sure they match in number, tense, and usage. You can also isolate verb-preposition combos to make sure that they are being used correctly. Try making a new sentence with the combo to make sure the combo works by itself (i.e. could I say “I’m stronger compared as my brother?” No). Isolation is key to making sure the sentence is structurally sound and that you are not distracted by unnecessary descriptive information.
Step 3. Check Modifiers, Comparisons, and Parallelism.
Modifying descriptive pieces need to be right next to the thing that they are modifying. Check every descriptive piece to make sure it is modifying the correct thing. Make sure that in lists all the items are listed using the same structural elements (i.e. “He likes skiing, biking and to play other sports.” The other two have an -ing ending). Finally, look for comparisons to make sure that the things being compared are alike (i.e. “The president was much more ambitious than the ambition of his opponent”). The president should be compared to another person not the concept of ambition). These are not structural errors and thus require a little more attention, but if you know what you are looking for, these errors become quite obvious.
If you have checked everything and there are no errors present, let that be OK! Sometimes correct sentences sound a little off, and incorrect sentences sound alright, so trust the tools you have been taught! No more staring and wondering if a sentence has an error!
If there is a problem, you will find it. Happy studying!
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.