Must-Know Grammar Rules

There’s are rather large number of grammar rules you would have to memorize in order to really rock the SAT Writing Skills section.  But this section is so heavily-laden with patterns that brushing up your skills on just a handful of them--and knowing the tricks they will try to play on you--will immediately give a boost to your score.  These tips will come in handy most on everybody’s favorite section, Identifying Sentence Errors.  If you want to know more about how to diagnose if this is a weak area for you, visit my blog entry on How to Improve Your SAT Score Without A Tutor.  So here we go:

1.Subject/Verb Agreement

Obviously, your subject and your verb need to agree.  That’s why we can’t say things like “We is going to the movies tonight” or “Stacey smile at the little baby.”  It should be really obvious to you that those are wrong.  At least I hope so.  Of course the SAT never delivers it in a nice little package like that, so let’s look at some of the tricks they like to play.

Their favorite trick is to separate the subject and verb by putting a lot of words in between, and then putting a word right before the verb that would agree with the wrong answer.  Here’s what I mean:

“The monarch butterfly, which follows very specific migration patterns, arrive in a remote area of Mexico each year.”

Did you catch the error?  Did you see the trick?  It should be arrives, not arrive, because the subject is the butterfly.  “The butterfly arrives” is correct.  The trick is that they put the word patterns right before the verb, and “patterns arrive” sounds correct, BUT it’s not the patterns that are doing the arriving; it’s the butterfly. 

This is one of the SAT’s favorite patterns, so watch out for it.  It will keep showing up in a variety of ways.  EVERY TIME you see a verb, go back and check if it agrees with the subject.  Not sure how to find the subject?  One strategy is to take out any clauses in commas, like in the example above. Another thing to look out for is the use of any prepositional phrases.  “The house down the street from my brother’s house in Buffalo”  is really just the “house.”  Don’t be fooled by all the fluff.

One more side note on the subject/verb agreement tricks: collective nouns are SINGULAR.  The SAT loves to use words like “committee” or “board” or “firm” as in “The board in charge of reviewing the new homeowners’ association bylaws IS going to deliver its decision on Monday.”  The board IS.  Even though the board is made up of a group of people, it is one singular entity. 

And that transitions nicely to our next point.

2. Pronoun/Antecedent Agreement

Just like subjects and verbs need to agree, pronouns and antecedents need to agree.  In case you are rusty on that terminology, here is a quick review.  A pronoun is a word that replaces a noun (i.e. his, hers, we, my, its), and the antecedent is the word that it is replacing.  So in the sentence “Jack hung his coat on the hook,” his is the pronoun and Jack is the antecedent. 

Again, I’m mentioning this because it is a super prevalent pattern on this test.  EVERY TIME you see a pronoun, make sure that it agrees with its antecedent.

The same tricks that apply to the subject/verb section above also apply here.  Don’t be fooled by a bunch of fluff words.  Identify the real antecedent and make sure they match. 

Also, remember that collective noun sentence above.  Here it is again:

“The board in charge of reviewing the new homeowners’ association bylaws is going to deliver their decision on Monday.” 

Ah, but did you see I slipped in an error?  Would you have caught that their should have been its?  Most people would not.  Remember the “board” is a singular entity, so the appropriate pronoun would be the singular “its”, not the plural “their”.

3. Verb Tense

Remember I said EVERY TIME you see a verb, go back and check if it agrees with the subject?  If it does, then check its tense before moving on.  The verb tense questions are testing whether you can identify an incorrect tense.  A simple example of this would be as follows:

“Yesterday we go to the movies.”

Obviously, if it was yesterday, which is in the past, we would have to use the past tense went instead of the present tense go.  If all the questions were this easy, it would be no problem.  But what about this one?

“By the time France was liberated in 1944, it was occupied by the Germans for four years.”

What’s the error?  It should read “it had been occupied by the Germans for four years.”

Not many people can all those past perfect and past participle rules.  If you want to learn more than you’ll ever need to know about verbs, here’s a great free tutorial at, but I have a quick shortcut that will get you through most questions.

1. I played violin at Orchestra Hall when I was nine

2. I have played violin since I was nine.

3. I had played the violin for six years until I studied piano in high school.

Sentence 1 implies a singular event in the past.

Sentence 2 implies an ongoing event that originated in the past and has continued up until the present.

Sentence 3 implies an ongoing event that originated in the past and ended int he past.

If you apply those rules to your Writing Skills questions, you should master each and every one.

4. Comparing Like Objects

It is very important to examine any comparisons and make sure they are logical.  I’ll jump right into an example:

“Many people prefer the music of Taylor Swift to Barbra Streisand.” 

Did you see what just happened there?  We compared the music of Taylor Swift to the person Barbra Streisand.  You can’t do that.  You have to compare the music with the music or the person with the person. 

It’s not to hard to keep an eye out for that sort of question, but, as always, there’s a little trick they like to throw in too. 

“The mating calls of long-neck geese are more easily identifiable than those of mallard ducks.”

At first glance it may look like they weren’t comparing like objects--in this case the calls of geese to the calls of ducks--because you didn’t see the repetition of the word calls. However, keep an eye out for pronouns that refer to the thing being compared.  In this case, the word those is referring to the mating calls.  So this sentence would be correct.

5. Idioms

Idioms are simply defined as the way we say something.  These are tough because they either sound right or they don’t.  Idioms are not usually explicitly taught to you in school; rather they are picked up by modeling speech you hear.  So there’s no real way to study just have to know them. 

On the SAT, this will most likely come in the form of a preposition attached to a word. (i.e. looking at, wishing for, standing about)

So how can you apply that to the test?  Well, since they are usually so beautifully disguised in the flow of the given sentences, they are often pretty hard to identify.  Just knowing that his is an SAT pattern question is part of the battle.  That means that you look for prepositions, and then ask yourself if that’s how you usually say it. 

“The activists organized an elaborate protest about the treatment of circus animals.”

I’m looking at the preposition about. Is that what I usually say?  Do I protest about something?  No, I protest against something.  Careful! Your eyes will run right over that without giving it a second thought, so you have to look actively for the prepositions and then ask yourself it that’s the right word. 

There are plenty more grammar rules to come in Grammar Rules and Tricks Part 2, but these are the most common errors and tricks to look for in the Identifying Sentence Errors section (#12-29) of your Writing Skills.