SAT Tip of the Week: Basic Grammar for Subjects, Verbs, and Descriptive Phrases

SAT Tip of the Week - Full For those of us who grew up speaking English as our native language, grammar can be somewhat of an afterthought. We take for granted that the linguistic constructions that we use when we are arguing with our parents or flirting with a prospective prom date employ a regimented structure that we may not realize we are using. Basic understanding of piecing a sentence together is necessary for really taking that grammar score to the next level. Let’s take a look at some of the basic grammatical elements that make up our language.

Subjects And Verbs

At the most basic level, a sentence is a subject and a conjugated verb. “I ran.” “We lost.” In each case there is a noun which is associated with some conjugated verb. Sometimes the subject is hard to spot. Let’s look at an example SAT sentence with an error.

“Before the dawn of man, but not before the dawn of life itself, there was creatures who was able to survive in a world with a completely different chemical composition than the world we live in now.”

Where is the subject in the above sentence? As we can see, the subject can be rather tricky to spot when there are a lot of other grammatical pieces and less common sentence structures around. Before we delve into what the subject is, why don’t we talk about what the subject isn’t.

Descriptive Phrases

There are many different varieties of descriptive phrases (prepositional phrases, introductory elements, appositives, etc.), but the essential definition for descriptive phrases is a piece of language that can be removed without affecting the core structure of the sentence. That is to say, a phrase that can be removed without making the sentence incomplete.

The granddaddy of all descriptive phrases is the prepositional phrase. A prepositional phrase is simply a phrase that begins with a preposition. The phrases, “Before the dawn of man” and “not before the dawn of life itself” and “in a world…live in now” are all prepositional phrases and can be removed without making the sentence grammatically incomplete. If we read the sentence without these phrases, it reads, “There was creatures who was able to survive.” As we can see, this is still a complete sentence, albeit an incorrect one. Can we find the subject now?

It’s still a little difficult to nail it down because of the construction, “There was…”. This is what is called an expletive construction. An expletive construction is an inversion of the normal subject-verb sentence structure which employs the word “there” and a conjugated verb of “to be” (is, are, was, were, etc.) to emphasize something in existence. “There are three books on the table,” is a expletive clause. If I were to write this as a subject-verb sentence, it would read, “Three books are on the table.” The subject, then, are the books, since they are the objects on the table. So in our original sentence, the subject is “creatures” and the verb “was” has to agree with that subject, which it does not. The sentence should read:

“Before the dawn of man, but not before the dawn of life itself, there were creatures who were able to survive in a world with a completely different chemical composition than the world we live in now.”

For Advanced Users

The final type of construction we see in this sentence is a “who” phrase. Who, Whom, That, and Which, phrases are descriptive phrases that provide some descriptions for another noun in the sentence. “Who” is used to describe subjects of a sentence, whereas “Whom” is used to describe objects of a sentence.

“This is the person who I was telling you about (subject = “person”).”

“My friend knew Albert Einstein, whom we all admired (subject = “my friend”and object = “Albert Einstein”).”

“That” is used for restrictive clauses, or descriptions that are necessary for specifying the object being discussed, whereas “Which” is used for non-restrictive clauses, or clauses that can be removed and have the specificity of the noun in question remain. I get that this is confusing so lets look at some examples.

“This is the gun that killed Abraham Lincoln (“that killed Abraham Lincoln” restricts which gun we are discussing. Without this phrase the sentence reads “This is the gun,” which could be any gun.)”

“The gun that killed Abraham Lincoln, which is housed in the private collection of a wealthy history enthusiast, is valued in the millions (“which…enthusiast” does not restrict which gun we are discussing, it simply gives further information about this gun).”

The “That-Which” distinction can be very tricky, but the real takeaway is that these phrases describe a noun and can be removed without affecting the grammatical structure of the sentence. This is very useful when checking for subject-verb agreement in the main clause of the sentence. The other takeaway is that if a new verb is introduced in these kinds of phrases, it must either agree with some new subject or the noun being described by the phrase.

“He is the kind of person who can always get you out of a jam. (“can” must agree with “who,” which is referring to the subject “He”).”

“This is the one piece of advice that I have remembered from childhood. (the verb “have remembered” must agree with the new subject “I”).”
Though discussing grammar can seem tedious, it is amazing how quickly these restrictions become apparent when we open our eyes to them. By learning more about the rules that govern our language, we can not only become better SAT students, but better able to understand the rules that are hard wired into our language. Happy studying!

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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. Read more of his articles here, including How I Scored in the 99th Percentile and How to Effectively Study for the SAT.