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Solving Standard English Conventions questions

On the SAT Writing and Language test, you will be asked to fix parts of a passage where a writer has not used a standard convention. There are three main elements of Standard English Convention that the SAT is primarily concerned with: Sentence Structure, Conventions of Usage, and Conventions of Punctuation.

Sentence Structure

On these questions, the task is to recognize and correct problems in how sentences are formed.
  • Sentence boundaries: Recognize and correct grammatically incomplete sentences.
    Example: Unable to keep her eyes open. Sarah fell asleep in the passenger seat.
  • Subordination and coordination: Recognize and correct problems in how major parts of sentences are related.
    Example: Although he loves ice cream, Bert tried every flavor at the new dessert shop downtown.
  • Parallel structure: treat grammatically similar structures in the same way.
    Example: In her spare time, Renata spoke to the iguanas, ran with the wild boars, and was climbing coconut trees.
  • Modifier placement: Recognize and correct problems with modifier placement, including dangling and misplaced modifiers.
    Example: Speechless, it was hard for Margo to believe that her friends had forgotten their beach towels on their beach trip.
  • Inappropriate shifts in verb tense, mood, and voice: inappropriate shifts from past to present tense, indicative to conditional mood, or active to passive voice
    Example: Until yesterday, Ana has never been to the zoo.
  • Inappropriate shifts in pronoun person and number: recognize and correct an inappropriate shift from a second person to a third person pronoun (such as from “you” to “one”) or from a singular to a plural pronoun
    Example: I bought a crate of oranges and delivered them to my grandmother’s house.

Conventions of Usage

“Usage” is a term used to describe a range of language practices that are widely accepted and understood by people speaking and writing the same language within a particular culture or community. Particular “rules” for speaking and writing solidify over time (often over many generations) and become the standard by which formal speech and writing are judged. The SAT focuses on a small subset of rules about which there is little to no disagreement in academic circles.
  • Pronoun clarity: Recognize and correct ambiguous or vague pronouns (pronouns with more than one possible antecedent or no clear antecedent at all)
    Example: Molly and Saira had tea and sandwiches at her house yesterday afternoon.
  • Possessive determiners: Distinguish between and among possessive determiners (“its,” “your,” “their”), contractions (“it’s,” “you’re,” “they’re”), and adverbs (“there”)
    Example: Al’s Cake Shop is known for it’s old-fashioned glazed donuts.
  • Agreement: Ensure grammatical agreement between subject and verb, between pronoun and antecedent, and between nouns
Example: Rita and her friend Jorge has decided to join the swim team.
  • Frequently confused words: Distinguish between and among words that are commonly mistaken for one another (e.g., “affect”and “effect”)
Example 1: Maria was in shock as she climbed the stage to except her award for Best Actress.
Example 2: The movie Colonel Justice had a profound affect on me.
Example 3: Kelsey chose a blue sweater that would compliment the color of her eyes.
  • Logical comparison: Recognizing and correcting cases in which unlike terms are compared
    Example: The cost of living in the city differs from the suburbs.
  • Conventional expression: Recognize and correct cases in which word choice doesn’t conform to the practices of standard written English. These questions can be especially tough for those who are learning English as non-native speakers. There isn’t necessarily a good reason why an expression might use one preposition instead of another, but the more fluent you become, the more you will recognize how to fix these problems!
Example 1: Trevor realized, after Suki failed on responding after six weeks for daily text messages, that she would never fall on love at him.
Example 2: Clara arrived at San Francisco three days ahead on schedule.
Example 3: After she sat with the bubble gum for her new skirt, she was next to herself.
Example 4: I never thought I would run from office, but I hope for you will vote on me.

Conventions of Punctuation

The SAT Writing and Language Test includes questions that require you to recognize and correct the misuse of various forms of punctuation, including end punctuation (periods, question marks, and exclamation points), commas, semicolons, colons, and dashes. In some cases, you’ll be asked to add punctuation to clarify and enhance meaning.
  • End-of-sentence punctuation: Use the correct form of ending punctuation (period, question mark, or exclamation point) when the context makes the writer’s intent clear.
    Example: Andrés wondered if he should save his money for a rainy day or go to an amusement park instead?
  • Within-sentence punctuation: Correctly use, as well as recognize and correct misuses of colons, semicolons, and dashes.
    Example: I can’t wait for this weekend, my friends and I are going river rafting.
  • Possessive nouns and pronouns: Recognize and correct inappropriate uses of possessive nouns and pronouns and decide between plural and possessive forms.
    Example: My dogs’ favorite treat is his milk bone.
  • Items in a series: Use commas and sometimes semicolons to separate lists of items.
Example 1: Tina got a car wash; went to the pharmacy, and bought a sled.
Example 2: Juan has been to Paris, France, Venice, Italy, and Kyoto, Japan.
  • Nonrestrictive and parenthetical elements: Use punctuation to set off nonessential sentence elements and recognize and correct cases in which punctuation is wrongly used to set off essential sentence elements
Example 1: Ari’s Candy Corn Emporium, located off Highway 12 is a popular tourist attraction.
Example 2: The Boston Symphony a world-renowned orchestra—played Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.
Example 3: The bat — a type of small mammal, can glide and fly.
  • Unnecessary punctuation: Recognize and eliminate unneeded punctuation
Example: Emily can’t decide if she wants a pet unicorn, or a pet griffin.
Observing standard English conventions is about more than ticking off items on a long list of grammar, punctuation, and usage rules; rather, it’s closely tied to the meaning a writer wishes to convey.
Learn more SAT strategies in this quick punctuation guide!
Adapted from Chapter 15 of the College Board’s Official SAT Study Guide

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