Of the errors on the SAT, the idiomatic error can seem to be the most difficult to spot. Though these kinds of errors are particularly tricky, there are some clear steps that can be taken to help prepare for the dreaded error of idiom.
What is an idiomatic error?
Essentially, an error of idiom is a mistake in the word or words, often prepositions, that are used in association with other words, often verbs. An example would be the previous phrase, “used in association with”. It would be incorrect to say “used for association with” or “used in association to”. There are literally thousands of idiomatic phrases in English. For this reason, it can be very difficult to strengthen this particular skill, though there are ways to increase one’s ability to spot an idiomatic error.
How can I strengthen this skill?
The first step is to be aware that idiomatic errors are most likely errors in the choice of the preposition being used. Often on the writing portion of the SAT, there are words or phrases that are underlined which could, hypothetically, contain an error. For instance, the verb in a sentence might be underlined because SAT writing problems contain errors with subject verb agreement, verb tense agreement, and so on. Most prepositions that are underlined on the SAT indicate possible idiomatic errors.
To be clear, this is not to say that most SAT questions with underlined prepositions contain idiomatic errors, this is simply to say that idiomatic errors are most commonly found in prepositions, so the primary error to check for when a preposition is underlined is an error of idiom. Identifying the prepositions is the first step in checking for an idiomatic error.
The second step is to try to identify the verb or other words the preposition is associated with and attempt to use the whole phrase in a different context to figure out whether or not the phrase is viable. Say we had an example like this:
“The inclination that the child had for reflexively putting questions back towards those asking them was as ingenious as it was irritating.”
Let’s imagine that “toward” is underlined in the above example. “Toward” is a preposition and is thus a prime suspect for an idiomatic error. As the sentence is, it is difficult to know whether or not “toward” is being used properly. To test its use, we can construct a new phrase that uses the verb phrase “put questions” and “toward”. Is it correct to say “Let me put this question toward you”? It sounds a bit funny, doesn’t it? It sounds much less strange to say “Let me put this question to you”. By using this little trick it is much easier to see that the above example has an error of idiom and should use the preposition “to” instead of “toward”
Idiomatic errors can be tricky to spot, but trust your instincts when you put the preposition and accompanying words in a new context. If it sounds wrong, it probably is. Also, the more a person reads and is exposed to language, the easier these types of problems become, so be sure to continue to expose yourself to lots of SAT passages and questions and continue to read for pleasure as well. It’s cheaper than a movie to go out and grab something from the used book store, and it can help to improve your score on the SAT. 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. Read more of his articles here, including How I Scored in the 99th Percentile and How to Effectively Study for the SAT.