The Seven Deadly Screw-Ups
The Seven Deadly Screw-Ups
The same types of grammar errors pop up again and again on Identifying Sentence Errors questions. Our list of Seven Deadly Screw-Ups tells you what kinds of errors to look and listen for, but you also need to know precisely what each one means. Below we provide a bit more background and plenty of examples to help make sure you’ve got each screw-up squared away in your head.
A word of advice: When going through the examples below, read them out loud to yourself. Hearing what sounds right and what sounds wrong can help burn these grammar rules into your brain. Also, we know from experience that it’s easy to space out while studying grammar. Talking out loud will help keep you focused. Ready to get familiar?
Screw-Up 1: Pronouns
Pronoun errors are the most common type of screw-up found on Identifying Sentence Errors questions. To reiterate what we covered in Improving Sentences: pronouns are words that take the place of nouns (words for people, places, and things)—words like she, her, hers, he, him, his, they, their, it, its, that, and which. Let’s look at this sentence:
Ernie felt better after playing air guitar.
A pronoun is a word you would use to replace the noun Ernie:
He felt better after playing air guitar.
“Hearing” pronoun problems might take a little practice, because people often use pronouns incorrectly in casual speech. So even if a particular pronoun sounds correct, double-check it to make sure it follows all the rules governing pronoun use. Here are those rules:
Pronoun Agreement
Pronoun agreement is by far the most frequently tested pronoun rule in Identifying Sentence Errors questions. Here’s what it’s all about.
Pronouns must agree in number with the noun. If the noun is plural, the pronoun must be plural; if the noun is singular, the pronoun must be singular. This sounds straightforward enough, but spotting errors in pronoun agreement on the test can be tricky because we make errors of pronoun agreement so frequently in speech. We tend to say things like “Yo, somebody lost their shoe!” instead of “Yo, somebody lost his shoe!” You might avoid saying somebody lost his shoe because you don’t want to exclude women by saying his, and it’s cumbersome to write somebody lost his or her shoe. People attempt to solve these problems with the gender-neutral their. So if you see it on the test, you’ll know it’s an error. Their might be gender-neutral, but it’s plural, and plural pronouns cannot ever replace singular nouns.
Since this error is so common in everyday speech and therefore sounds correct to many people’s ears, you can be sure you’ll see a few questions on it on the test. The deceptively correct sound of many pronoun agreement errors serves as a good reminder of how dangerous it is to just trust your ear. Often what sounds right is dead wrong.
The sentence below is incorrect because the pronoun and the noun don’t agree in number:
Every student  at the party  tried  to look   their   best .  No error .
 A B C D E
This sentence begins with the singular noun student, so the pronoun must be singular too. Their is plural and therefore wrong in this sentence.
The pronoun and noun also won’t agree if the noun is plural and the pronoun is singular:
 Even though  some possess the flexibility to put their legs
A 
over their heads, most people  vary  in  his or her  ability
 B C 
to achieve  this feat .  No error .
 D E 
In this sentence, the problem is with C, the phrase his or her. Those pronouns refer to the plural noun people, but his or her is singular, because that pesky or makes it one or the other. This is a case in which their is correct, and his or her is incorrect.
Another kind of pronoun agreement question just tests to see if you’re paying attention. On questions like the one below, you’ll get into trouble if you’re reading quickly and fail to make sure that the pronoun matches up with the noun it replaces:
 For  the robber trying to decide between potential getaway
A 
cars, every car  up for  consideration has  their   own  set of
 B C D 
advantages.  No error 
 E
In this sentence, the pronoun their replaces the noun car. This is incorrect, because car is singular, and their is plural. If you were reading carelessly, however, you might assume that since the first part of the sentence contains the plural noun cars, the plural pronoun their is correct. Always be sure you’re inspecting each pronoun carefully.
Pronoun Case
We’re about to get on your case. The “case” of a word refers to the function that a word performs in a sentence. The most important thing for you to understand in reference to pronoun case is the subjective and objective case. “Huh?” Exactly. Let us explain.
A word is the subject of a sentence if it is the main noun that performs the verb. The object of a sentence is the noun toward which, or upon which, the verb is being directed. Look at this sentence:
Sam kissed Jess.
Sam is the subject, since he performed the kiss, and Jess is the object, since she received the kiss.
When a pronoun replaces a noun, that pronoun must match the noun’s case. This is important because pronouns actually have different forms, depending on their cases.
Subjective Case Pronouns Objective Case Pronouns
I me
you you
he, she, it him, her, it
we us
they them
who whom
In the example sentence, you would replace the subject, Sam, with the subject pronoun, he, and the object, Jess, with the object pronoun, her. He kissed her.
The SAT Writing section often tests your knowledge of pronoun case in a tricky way. You’ll get phrases like her and her cats or him and his friends. They try to confuse you with these phrases by including two pronouns, each of which is doing separate things. They want you to reason that if one pronoun is in a certain case, then the other pronoun should be in the same case, right? Noooo. For example:
 Her  and  her friend  like to stay in their hotel room and
A B 
 drink root beer  whenever  they take a trip .  No error .
 C D E 
This sample has a plural subject: Her and her friend. You know her and her friend is the subject since they are the ones who do the liking in the sentence—they perform the verb (drink). In this sentence, the first her is a pronoun and should be in the subjective case, not the objective case.
Don’t worry if this all feels too technical for you. If you can grasp this kind of grammatical complexity after a few tries, then you’re in great shape. But whether you know the grammar or not, there is a strategy that can help you decide if a pronoun is in the proper case. When you have a compound subject like her and her friend, throw out each side of the phrase and try it out in the sentence—just remember to make the verb singular, since it stops being plural when you throw out one half of the subject. If you follow this method, you’ll get two sentences, which would begin in the following ways:
Her likes to stay . . .
Her friend likes to stay . . .
You should immediately be able to hear that the first sentence is wrong and the second one is right. Suddenly it seems obvious that the first part of the original sentence should read:
She and her friend like to stay . . .
The Curious “Cases” of Me and I
The SAT particularly likes to test you on phrases such as John and me or the ghost in the graveyard and I, because many people don’t know when to use me and when to use I.
Here’s a quick True/False question for you: It’s always more proper to use I—true or false? FALSE. Often me is the right word to use. Read the following example:
There is usually  a haze of  blue smoke surrounding  Jesse and I 
 A B 
in Chem lab, especially when we  mix  together chemicals of
 C 
 unknown origin .  No error .
 D E 
In this example, B is incorrect, since it should read Jesse and me. So how can you tell when to use I and when to use me? It’s got nothing to do with formality or propriety. Me is used as an object of a preposition. I is used as the subject (or part of the subject) of a sentence. “Give that ball to me.” “The dog and I sped down the lane.”
It’s often hard to tell when to use I and when to use me. One of the best ways to tell is to cut out some of the surrounding words. For example, in the sentence above, if you cut out Jesse and from the sentence, you get the phrase smoke surrounding I. Though we told you not to rely on your ear exclusively, examples like this one don’t require a trained ear to detect the error. You’d never say or write the smoke surrounding I. It should leap off the page and shout out its incorrectness to you.
It’s always a good idea to double-check your ear. On I/me questions like this example, substitute me for I (or vice versa if the case may be). Here you’d get smoke surrounding Jesse and me, which sounds better and checks out correctly if you drop Jesse and to get smoke surrounding me.
The Strange “Cases” of Me and My
It can also be tough to depend solely on your ear to try to figure out whether to use me or my. Look at this sentence:
 When it  comes to  me  studying for the math tests, “ concentration 
A B C 
is my middle  name .  No error .
 D E 
Although it may sound right, me is actually incorrect in this sentence. The me/my refers to studying. You need a possessive word to indicate that the sentence refers to your study habits. If you use me, the phrase means when it comes to me. The subject of the sentence is not you, it’s your study habits. Using my gives the sentence the possessive meaning it needs to convey.
Pronoun Shift
This is a bad thing. A sentence should start, continue, and end with the same kind of pronouns. Pronoun shift occurs when the pronoun type changes over the course of the sentence.
When one  first begins  to arm wrestle,  it’s  important to
 A B 
work on your endurance and to make  your  biceps appear  formidable .
 C D 
 No error .
 E 
If you start talking about one, you have to keep talking about one for the duration of the sentence. Therefore, the sentence could read, When one first begins to arm wrestle, it’s important to work on one’s endurance, or, When you first begin to arm wrestle, it’s important to work on your endurance. But the sentence cannot combine one and you. So C is the correct answer.
Ambiguous Pronouns
A pronoun is called “ambiguous” when it’s not absolutely clear what the pronoun refers to. People use ambiguous pronouns all the time when they’re talking. This works out fine in speech, as you can usually make it clear, from context or gestures, what the pronoun refers to. But in writing, you often can’t provide that sort of context. Even if the result sounds awkward, you must make sure it’s absolutely clear what the pronoun refers to. See if you can spot the ambiguous pronoun in the following sentence:
Sarah told Emma that  she   had  a serious foot odor problem,
 A B 
 and that  medicated spray  might  help.  No error .
 C D E 
The pronoun she poses a problem in this sentence. Who has a problem with foot odor, Sarah or Emma? No one knows, because she is ambiguous. Grammatically and logically, she could refer either to Sarah or Emma. Therefore, A is the correct answer.
Comparisons Using Pronouns
Take special notice whenever you see a comparison made using pronouns. When a pronoun is involved in a comparison, it must match the case of the other pronoun involved:
I’m much stronger than  her ,  which  is good,  because  it means
 A B C 
 I’ll dominate  this wrestling match.  No error .
 D E 
In this sentence, I is being compared to her. These two pronouns are in different cases, so one of them must be wrong. Since only her is underlined, it must be wrong, and therefore it’s the right answer.
Another way to approach pronouns in comparisons is to realize that comparisons usually omit words. For example, it’s grammatically correct to say, Johanna is stronger than Tom, but that phrase is actually an abbreviated version of what you’re really saying. The long version is, Johanna is stronger than Tom is. That last is is invisible in the abbreviated version, but you must remember that it’s there. Let’s go back to the wrestling sentence for a sec. As in the Johanna and Tom example, the word is is invisible, but it’s implied. If you see a comparison using a pronoun and you’re not sure if the pronoun is correct, add the implied is. In this case, adding is leaves you with I’m much stronger than her is. That sounds wrong, so you know that she is the correct pronoun in this case.
Take a look at this similar sentence:
Brock Lesner  is  a  better  professional wrestler  than   them .
 A B C D 
 No error .
 E 
In this comparison the word are is implied, since in this sentence the pronoun them is plural. Adding are leaves you with Brock Lesner is a better professional wrestler than them are. That sounds dead wrong, so you know that the sentence should read Brock Lesner is a better professional wrestler than they, and that D is the right answer.
Screw-Up 2: Subject-Verb Agreement
The fundamental rule about the grammatical relationships between subjects and verbs is this:
  • If you have a singular subject, you must use a singular verb. If you have a plural subject, you must use a plural verb.
It sounds simple, and usually it is. For example, you know that it’s incorrect to say candy are good or concerts is fun.
However, in a few instances, subject-verb agreement can get hairy. There are four varieties of subject-verb problems the SAT Writing section loves to test:
  • When the subject comes after the verb
  • When the subject and verb are separated
  • When you have an either/or or neither/nor construction
  • When the subject seems plural but isn’t
Remember, it’s not necessary to remember the name of the problem—you certainly don’t have to memorize this list. It’s only necessary to check subjects and verbs carefully to see if they match up. Knowing the different ways subjects and verbs can go astray will help you check more efficiently.
Subject After the Verb
In most sentences, the subject comes before the verb. The SAT tries to throw you off by giving you a sentence or two in which the subject comes after the verb and the subject-verb match-up is incorrect.
 Even though  Esther created a petition to protest the  crowning 
A B 
of a Prom Queen,  there is  many people who refused to sign,
 C 
saying they support the  1950s-era  tradition.  No error .
 D E 
The SAT frequently uses this exact formulation, so be wary if you see a comma followed by the word there. In this kind of sentence, it’s tempting to assume that just because the word there comes before the verb is, there is the subject—but it’s not. People is the subject. And since people is plural, the matching verb also must be plural. Is is a singular verb, and therefore incorrect in this sentence.
Even when you don’t see the red flag of there is, don’t just assume that the subject always comes before the verb. Look at the following sentence:
 Atop  my sundae, a colossal  mass  of ice cream,  whipped cream ,
A B C 
and sprinkles,  sits  two maraschino cherries.  No error .
 D E 
Tricky! The answer is D, sits. Because the things doing the sitting are two maraschino cherries (plural subject), you need to use sit (plural verb). The sentence should read Atop my sundae, a colossal mass of ice cream, whipped cream, and sprinkles, sit two maraschino cherries. Why is this so sneaky? The subject, maraschino cherries, comes after the verb, sits. With all the singular stuff floating around—one sundae, one mass of ice cream and whipped cream—it’s easy to assume that the verb should be singular, too. Look out for that kind of backwards construction.
Subject and Verb Are Separated
One of the SAT’s most diabolical tricks is to put the subject here and the verb waaaaay over yonder. The test-writers hope that by the time you get to the verb, you’ll forget the subject and end up baffled.
Sundaes with whipped cream and cherries,  while  good  if consumed 
 A B 
in moderation,  is heinous  if eaten  for breakfast,  lunch,
 C D 
and dinner.  No error .
 E 
In this sentence, the subject (sundaes) is at the beginning of the sentence, while the verb (is) is miles away. When this happens, it’s helpful to bracket clauses that separate the subject and the verb so you can still see how the subject and verb should relate. If you ignore the phrase here (while good if consumed in moderation), you’re left with sundaes is heinous. That’s grammatically heinous. So C is the right answer.
Neither/Nor and Either/Or
In neither/nor and either/or constructions, you’re always talking about two things, so it’s tempting to assume that you always need a plural verb.
But if the two things being discussed are singular, you need a singular verb. For example, it’s correct to say, Neither Jason nor Sandra acts well, because if you broke the components of the sentence in two, you would get Jason acts well and Sandra acts well. It’s incorrect to say, Neither Jason or Sandra act well, because if you break that sentence into its components, you get Jason act well and Sandra act well.
It can be hard to hear this error, so be sure to check subject-verb match-ups carefully when you see a sentence like this one:
 Neither  Kylie  nor  Jason  measure  up to  Carrie .  No error .
A B C D E
Even though the sentence mentions two people (Jason and Kylie) who don’t measure up to Carrie, both of those people are singular nouns. Therefore, the verb must be singular. Measure is a plural verb, when it should be a singular one, so C is the answer.
Tricky Singular Subjects that Seem Plural
There are a bunch of confusing subjects out there that are singular but masquerade as plural. It’s easy to get tripped up by these singular subjects and mistakenly match them with plural verbs. Here are the leading culprits:
anybody either audience nobody
anyone group each none
America number everybody no one
amount neither everyone
In this sentence, for example, nobody seems plural:
Of all of the  students  in my class, nobody, not  even me ,
 A B 
 are  excited about  the new teacher .  No error .
 C D E 
Nobody is always a singular noun, so it needs to be matched with a singular verb. The answer is C. The sentence should read, Of all the students in my class, nobody, not even me, is excited about the new teacher. Look carefully at all seemingly plural subjects to make sure they’re not singular subjects masquerading as plural ones.
Be particularly careful with phrases like as well as, along with, and in addition to. Like the neither/nor construction, these phrases can trick you into thinking they require a plural verb.
The leadoff hitter,  as well as  the cleanup hitter,  are  getting
 A B 
some  good  hits  tonight .  No error .
 C D E 
The actual subject here is leadoff hitter. Since leadoff hitter is a singular subject, the verb must be singular, too. The presence of the phrase as well as does not make the subject plural. Even though there are two hitters doing well, the leadoff hitter is the only subject of this sentence. B is the answer; the sentence should read, The leadoff hitter, as well as the cleanup hitter, is getting some good hits tonight. If the sentence used an and instead of an as well as, so that it read, The leadoff hitter and the cleanup hitter are getting some good hits tonight, then are would be correct. It’s that as well as construction that changes things.
Screw-Up 3: Tenses
Identifying Sentence Errors questions test your knowledge of three common causes of tense errors. We explain each type in detail below.
  • Annoying verbs
  • Illogical tense switches
  • The conditional
Very Annoying Verbs
Very annoying verbs never sound quite right in any tense—like to lie, to swim,or to drink. When do you lay and when do you lie? When do you swim and when have you swum? When did you drank and why are you drunk? Forget that last one.

You LIE down for a nap.

You LAY something down on the table.

You LAY down yesterday.

You SWIM across the English Channel.

You SWAM across the Atlantic Ocean last year.

You had SWUM across the bathtub as a child.

You DRINK a glass of water every morning.

You DRANK a glass of water yesterday.

You have DRUNK three gallons of water this week.

You’ll probably see one question that will test your knowledge of a confusing verb like to lie. Look at this sentence, for example:
 On  Saturday afternoon, I  laid  in the sun  for an hour , working
A B C 
on my  tan .  No error .
 D E 
B is the correct answer here, because laid is not the correct tense in the context of this sentence. The past tense of to lie is lay, so the sentence should read I lay in the sun.
Unfortunately, there’s no easy memory trick to help you remember when to use which verb form. The only solution is to learn and memorize. To simplify that task, we’re providing a table of difficult verbs in infinitive, simple past, and past participle forms. You don’t have to know those technical terms, but it’s well worth your time to look at the list below and learn as many of these as you can:
Infinitive Simple Past Past Participle
arise arose arisen
become became become
begin began begun
blow blew blown
break broke broken
choose chose chosen
come came come
dive dived/dove dived
do did done
draw drew drawn
drink drank drunk
drive drove driven
drown drowned drowned
dwell dwelt/dwelled dwelt/dwelled
eat ate eaten
fall fell fallen
fight fought fought
flee fled fled
fling flung flung
fly flew flown
forget forgot forgotten
freeze froze frozen
get got gotten
give gave given
go went gone
grow grew grown
hang (a thing) hung hung
hang (a person) hanged hanged
know knew known
lay laid laid
lead led led
lie (to recline) lay lain
lie (tell fibs) lied lied
put put put
ride rode ridden
ring rang rung
rise rose risen
run ran run
see saw seen
set set set
shine shone/shined shone
shake shook shaken
shrink shrank shrunk
shut shut shut
sing sang sung
sink sank sunk
sit sat sat
speak spoke spoken
spring sprang sprung
sting stung stung
strive strove/strived striven/strived
swear swore swore
swim swam swum
swing swung swung
take took taken
tear tore torn
throw threw thrown
wake woke/waken waked/woken
wear wore worn
write wrote written
Tense Switch
You don’t always need to use the same tense throughout a sentence. For example, you can say:

I used to eat chocolate bars exclusively, but after going through a conversion experience last year, I have broadened my range and now eat gummy candy, too.

This sentence has several tense switches, but they’re logical and correct: The sentence uses past tense when it refers to the past and present tense when it talks about the present, and the progression from past to present makes sense.
The SAT gives you a sentence or two with incorrect tense switches. Here’s an example:
 At swimming pools  last summer, the heat  will have brought 
A B 
hundreds and even  thousands of people  to  bathe  in chlorine-infested
 C D 
waters.  No error .
 E 
This sentence begins by talking about the past (last summer), but then uses the phrase will have brought, which refers to the future. The phrase will have brought doesn’t fit because it suggests something continuing from the present to the future, whereas the sentence should be rooted entirely in the past. Therefore, B is the correct answer. Always be sure that the sentence’s tenses match the time frame (past, present, or future) in which the subject is discussed.
The Conditional
Your parents are supposed to give you unconditional love, meaning they love you even though you refuse to be seen in public with them. So it stands to reason that the conditional is a verb form used to describe something uncertain, or dependent on something else. Conditional sentences are often characterized by the presence of the word if. The conditional requires a different conjugation of some verb forms, most notably the verb to be. For example, in the past tense, you’d write, “I was a good student and got good grades.” In the present tense, you’d write, “I am a good student and get good grades.” That’s all fine and familiar so far, right? The conditional is different, however. In the conditional, you’d write, “If I were a good student, I would get good grades.”
To conquer conditionals on the SAT, look out for the word if and memorize this simple formula to use the correct conjugation: “If . . . were . . . would.” Here’s an example:
If I  was  to see a  movie  with Mom and Dad, I  would  risk
 A B C
 my  reputation.  No error .
D E 
Was may sound right to you on first reading this sentence, but when in doubt, remember the formula. Was violates the formula and therefore is incorrect. The sentence should read, If I were to see a movie with Mom and Dad, I would risk my reputation. A is the right answer.
Screw-Up 4: Parallelism
Parallel lines line up neatly with each other, right? Parallelism in writing means that the different components of a sentence start, continue, and end in the same way. It’s especially common to find errors of parallelism in sentences that list actions or items. When you see a list of any sort, be on the alert for an error in parallelism. In the question below, for example, the activities are not presented in the same format, which means there is a parallelism error.
Jack never liked  bathing the dog ,  feeding  the llamas, or
 A B 
 to ride  his personal  roller coaster .  No error .
 C D E 
A gerund is a funny word for something you already know well: A verb in its -ing form. Biking, parking, walking, talking—all gerunds. The list of verbs in the example above starts out with two gerunds (bathing, feeding) and then switches to an infinitive (to ride). An infinitive is the to form of the verb. “To run” and “to hide” are two infinitive verb forms. The sentence above begins with gerund verb forms and must continue with gerunds all the way through for it to have proper parallel structure. C is the correct answer.
Some parallelism errors occur at the end of phrases. The sentence below is incorrect because its two halves don’t end in a similar way:
The steak  is definitely  the best entrée  on the menu , and
 A B 
 the clam chowder  is the  best appetizer .  No error .
 C D E 
The best appetizer where? In the nation? In the world? Because the first part of the sentence specifies on the menu, the second part of the sentence must also be specific. In corrected form, this sentence would read: “The steak is definitely the best entrée on the menu, and the clam chowder is the best appetizer in the world.”
Screw-Up 5: Adverbs and Adjectives
Adverbs are often confused with adjectives, especially when used in comparisons. Below we’ve broken down the key adverb pitfalls you should look out for.
Confusing Adverbs with Adjectives
Adverbs are words used to describe verbs or other adverbs. Adverbs often end in –ly (breathlessly, angrily). For example, if you’re describing how you ate your spaghetti dinner, you’re describing a verb (eating), so you need to use an adverb. You could say something like:
I ate my spaghetti quickly.
Adjectives are words used to describe nouns. Again, take the spaghetti example—but this time, suppose that instead of describing the process of eating, you’re describing the actual dinner. Since you’re describing a noun (dinner), you need to use an adjective. You could say something like, “I ate my delicious spaghetti.”
People often confuse adverbs with adjectives, especially in speech. We say things like, “I ate my dinner quick.” Wrong! Because you’re describing an action, you must use an adverb like quickly. One very frequently confused adjective/adverb pair is well and good. Well is an adverb, and good is an adjective, so one can’t be substituted for the other.
This  paper’s  going pretty  good , although I’m not sure  I’ll 
 A B C 
be done  on time .  No error .
 D E 
A paper can’t go pretty good; it can only go pretty well. In order to describe the verb going, you have to use an adverb like well instead of the adjective good.
The SAT usually tests adverb/adjective confusion by giving you a sentence that uses an adjective when it should use an adverb.
 No matter  how  careful  kites are flown, they  often   get tangled 
A B C D 
in trees.  No error .
 E 
In this sentence, the adjective careful is used improperly to describe the verb flown. Because a verb is being described, careful should be carefully. The following sentence has a similar problem:
The fascinating TV  special   shows  how  quick  the hungry tiger
  A B 
 can devour   its  prey.  No error .
 C D E 
This sentence uses the adjective quick to describe the verb devour; the adverb quickly is the right word to use, so B contains the error in this sentence. Notice that in this sentence, the adjective, quick, is separated from the verb, devour, by three words. Sniffing out the improper use of an adjective can be difficult when the verb being described is not directly next to the adjective. If you see an adjective you’re not sure about, don’t be fooled by distracting phrases like the hungry tiger. Just check to see what the adjective is describing. If it’s describing a verb, you’ll know it’s an error.
Adverb or Adjective Misuse in Comparisons
When you see a comparison or an implied comparison, check to make sure all of the adverbs and adjectives are used correctly. If you’re comparing two things, you need to use what’s known as a comparative modifier. Forget that term. Just remember that when comparing two items, use a word that ends in –er, like smarter, better, faster. Only when comparing three or more things can you use a superlative modifier like smartest, best, fastest.
The SAT will probably test your knowledge of this rule by giving you a question in which a superlative modifier is used incorrectly. Look at the following example:
 Of  the two cars  I drive ,  I like  the Lamborghini Diablo
A B C
 best .  No error .
D E 
This sentence contains a comparison between two cars. Because only two things are being compared, best is the wrong word. Only when comparing three or more things can you use words like best. You could figure this out by phrasing the comparison in a different way. You wouldn’t say, I like my Lamborghini Diablo best than my Civic; you’d say, I like my Lamborghini Diablo better than my Civic. This rephrasing also works if you’re puzzling over a sentence that compares three or more items. You wouldn’t say, After trying skydiving, hula-dancing, and pineapple-eating, I decided that I liked hula-dancing less, because that sentence does not explain if you liked hula-dancing less than you liked skydiving, or less than you liked pineapple-eating, or less than you liked both. What you would say is, After trying skydiving, hula-dancing, and pineapple-eating, I decided that I liked hula-dancing least. The superlative modifier least makes it clear that hula-dancing was the most disagreeable of all three activities.
Here’s a chart of some adjectives with their common comparative and superlative modifier forms.
Adjective Comparative Modifier Superlative Modifier
fast faster fastest
big bigger biggest
healthy healthier healthiest
tough tougher toughest
smart smarter smartest
good better best
few fewer fewest
different more different most different
luxurious more luxurious most luxurious
Screw-Up 6: Gerunds
As we said in screw-up 4 a gerund is a verb form that ends in –ing, such as prancing, divulging, stuffing, and so on. Your understanding of gerunds will usually be tested by questions that use the infinitive “to ___” form, such as to prance, to divulge, and to stuff.
 In my family , Thanksgiving dinner usually causes two or
A 
more family members  to engage in  a screaming match,  thus preventing 
 B C 
the meal  to be completed .  No error .
 D E 
In this example, the problematic phrase is preventing the meal to be completed. This phrase should read thus preventing the meal from being completed, changing the infinitive to be to the conjugated form, being. That change preserves the parallel structure with the gerund preventing in the last clause. Here’s another example:
 To keep  your engine  running  in the freezing cold is a good
A B 
 way  to keep the car’s  interior  warm and cozy.  No error .
 C D E
In this sentence, the infinitive verb to keep should be switched to the gerund keeping to match the gerund verb running in the same clause.
Screw-Up 7: Idioms, Wrong Words, and Double Negatives
Here’s a twist that should make you happy: Idiom errors are easy to spot because they sound dead wrong. Oh yeah, you should know what an idiom is before we get in too deep here. Actually “in too deep” is an idiom—a form of speech that is unique to itself, has its own grammatical construction, and is usually pretty hard to understand just on its own. That makes it pretty easy to see why there’s no set rule at all about idiom errors. You have to be able to read a sentence and think, “That sounds wrong,” based on your familiarity with idiomatic expressions in American English. Usually it’s a prepositional phrase that’s off. For example:
Joan Rivers  recently moved  to a  brand-new  apartment  in  108th
 A B C 
 street .  No error .
 D E 
Here, the answer is C, because in American English we say, “She lives on this street” rather than “She lives in this street.” There is no specific rule that explains why we use the word on; it’s just something you probably know from years of English-speaking. The following is a list of proper usage of idioms that often appear on the SAT Writing:
  • He can’t abide by the no-spitting rule.
  • Winona accused me of stealing.
  • I agreed to eat the rotten broccoli.
  • I apologized for losing the hamsters in the heating vent.
  • She applied for another credit card.
  • My mother pretends to approve of my boyfriend.
  • She argued with the bouncer.
  • I arrived at work at noon.
  • You believe in ghosts.
  • I can’t be blamed for your problems.
  • Do you care about me and my problems?
  • He’s in charge of grocery shopping.
  • Nothing compares to you.
  • What is there to complain about?
  • He can always count on his mommy.
  • Ice cream consists of milk, fat, and sugar.
  • I depend on no one.
  • That’s where cats differ from dogs.
  • It’s terrible to discriminate against chimpanzees.
  • I have a plan to escape from high school.
  • There’s no excuse for your awful behavior.
  • You can’t hide from your past.
  • It was all he’d hoped for.
  • I must insist upon it.
  • It’s impossible to object to her intelligent arguments.
  • I refuse to participate in this discussion.
  • Pray for me.
  • Protect me from evil.
  • Provide me with plenty of food, shelter, and Skittles.
  • She stayed home to recover from the flu.
  • I rely on myself.
  • She stared at his ridiculous haircut.
  • He subscribes to several trashy magazines.
  • I succeeded in seducing him.
  • Wait for me!
  • Work with me, people!
Occasionally, the idiomatic association between words can affect the entire sentence in a sort of cascade of idioms. Take the following example:
While the  principal  of the high school  is  relatively laid
 A B 
back, the vice principal  is often  accused  to be  too harsh
 C D 
with the students.  No error .
 E 
The answer to this question is D because the word accused must take the preposition of rather than to. Idiomatically, the preposition of must be followed by a gerund rather than an infinitive, so the verb to be is incorrect. The sentence should read:
While the principal of the high school is relatively laid back, the vice principal is often accused of being too harsh with the students.
Wrong Words
There are tons of frequently confused words in the English language, and while it’s impossible to predict which ones the SAT will throw at you, it is possible to learn the difference between these pairs of words.
We’ve broken down wrong words into categories: words that sound the same but mean different things (like allusion and illusion), made-up words and phrases (like should of), tricky contractions (like its and it’s), and words commonly and incorrectly used as synonyms (like disinterested and uninterested).
Words That Sound the Same but Mean Different Things
In the following list, you’ll find homonyms, such as dying and dyeing. Homonyms are words that sound the same or similar when spoken aloud but are spelled differently and have different meaning. Since the word die sounds exactly the same as the word dye, it can be hard to remember which spelling means expire and which means color. The words in this list sound pretty much the same and are therefore often set as traps to confuse you on the SAT. They’re not all full-on homonyms, but they all sound alike enough to make certain questions on the SAT Writing section extra tough:
allusion/illusion
An allusion is a reference to something.
Johnno’s essay was littered with conspicuous allusions to Shakespeare and Spenser.
An illusion is a deception or unreal image.
By clever use of his napkin, Jason created the illusion that he’d eaten his rotten broccoli.
alternate/alternative
An alternate is a substitute.
When Evie was ousted after the voting scandal, the alternate took her place on the student council.
An alternative is a choice between two or more things.
The Simpsons provides an alternative to mindless, poorly written sitcoms.
appraise/apprise
To appraise is to figure out the value of something.
After appraising the drawing, Richard informed Cynthia that her house was worthless.
To apprise is to give someone information.
In an urgent undertone, Donald apprised me of the worrisome situation.
breath/breathe
Breath and breathe cannot be used interchangeably. Breath is a noun, and breathe is a verb. That little e on the end makes all the difference. A breath (noun) is the lungful of air you inhale every few seconds.
Elena took a deep breath and jumped off the diving board.
To breathe (verb) is the act of taking in that lungful of air.
“I can’t breathe!” gasped Mario, clutching at his throat.
conscience/conscious/conscientious
A conscience is a sense of right and wrong.
After he robbed the store, Pinocchio’s conscience started to bother him.
To be conscious is to be awake and alert.
Suddenly, Marie became conscious that she was not alone in the room.
To be conscientious is to be dutiful and hardworking.
Conscientious Cedric completed his chores and then did his homework.
desert/dessert
A desert is a place with sand and camels.
The cartoon figure pulled himself across the desert, calling out for water.
A dessert is something sweet that you eat after dinner.
My favorite dessert is cookie dough ice cream.
effect/affect
There’s a good chance you’ll see this pair on the test, because the SAT knows that differentiating between effect and affect drives students crazy. Effect is usually a noun. The effect is the result of something.
Studying had a very positive effect on my score.
Affect is usually a verb. To affect something is to change it or influence it.
My high SAT score positively affected the outcome of my college applications.
The extra tricky part is that effect can also be a verb, and affect can also be a noun. In those instances, effect means “to cause” and affect means a “sense of being alive or vital.” Here are two examples.
The students marching outside the Supreme Court are hoping to effect change.
The mummy standing silently against the wall appears to have no affect.
eminent/imminent
An eminent person is one who is well known and highly regarded.
The eminent author disguised himself with a beret and dark glasses.
An imminent event is one that is just about to happen.
When the paparazzi’s arrival seemed imminent, the celebrities ducked out the back entrance.
lose/loose
To lose something is to misplace it or shake it off.
Michel tried to lose the hideous shirt his girlfriend had given him for Christmas.
Loose means movable, unfastened, or promiscuous.
The loose chair leg snapped off, and Doug fell to the floor.
principal/principle
The principal is the person who calls the shots in your high school.
Principal Skinner rules Springfield Elementary School with an iron fist, yet he still lives with his mother.
A principle is a value, or standard.
Edward, a boy of principle, refused to cheat on the test.
stationary/stationery
Stationary means immobile.
The scarecrow remained stationary in the field.
Stationery is the paper you get for Christmas from your aunt.
Nathaniel wrote thank-you notes on custom stationery.
Imaginary Words and Phrases
Here is a list of some words and phrases that don’t actually exist but still tend to be used in writing. These mistakes happen mainly because they are the phonetic, or sounded out, spellings of words and phrases we use in speech. For example, the phrase should of (a grammatically incorrect phrase) sounds like the way we pronounce should have or should’ve, which is why it creeps into people’s writing.
a lot/alot
Despite widespread usage, the word alot does not exist. It is never grammatically correct. Always use the phrase a lot instead.
Henri ate a lot of brie with his bread.
could’ve/could of
Could’ve is the contraction of could have. People sometimes write could of when they mean could’ve or could have. Unfortunately, like alot, could of is not a real phrase. Never use it.
Britney could have gone on the date, but she claimed to have a prior engagement.
regardless/irregardless
This is an easy one because the “word” irregardless does not exist. Always use regardless.
Regardless of whether your physics teacher uses fake words like irregardless, you should not.
should’ve/should of
Should of does not exist.
Arnold should have done his Spanish homework.
supposed to/suppose to
Suppose to falls in the category of made-up phrases. It’s often used in place of supposed to because when we’re talking, we say suppose to instead of the grammatically correct supposed to.
According to the vet, Christina is supposed to brush her pit bull’s teeth once a month.
used to/use to
Use to (you guessed it) is made-up. The correct spelling is used to.
Alex used to play checkers with Anthony.
Contraction Confusion
Look deep within your soul. Do you write its sometimes and it’s at other times, with little regard for which its/it’s is which? If you do, stop it.
its/it’s
Its and it’s are very different. Its is a possessive pronoun. It’s is a contraction of it is.
It’s understandable why people confuse the two words. The most common way to show possession is to add an apostrophe and an s (Dorothy’s braids, the tornado’s wrath, Toto’s bark), which is perhaps the reason people frequently write it’s when they should write its—they know they want to show possession, so they pick the word with the apostrophe and the s.
To avoid making a mistake, when you see the word it’s, check to make sure that if you substituted it is for the it’s, the sentence would still make sense. To sum up: its signals possession, while it’s is a contraction of it is.
This day-old soda has lost its fizz.
It’s a shame that this glass of soda was left out overnight.
their/they’re/there
Another bunch of very confusing words. It’s too bad, but their, they’re, and there are not interchangeable. Here’s how to distinguish them:
  • Their is a possessive pronoun.
  • They lost their hearts in Massachusetts.
  • They’re is the contraction of they are.
  • They’re the ugliest couple in all of Boston.
  • There means over yonder.
  • Look! There they go!
whose/who’s
Whose is possessive, while who’s is a contraction of who is.
Anna-Nicole, whose California roll I just ate, is looking at me with hatred.
Who’s responsible for the theft and ingestion of my California roll?
your/you’re
Your is possessive. You’re is a contraction of you are.
Your fly is unzipped.
You’re getting sleepy.
Which Word When?
Below is a list of words people often—but incorrectly—use interchangeably.
number/amount
Use number when referring to a group of things that can be counted.
Faith concealed a number of gummy bears in various pockets of her jeans.
Use amount when referring to something that cannot be counted.
Faith drank a certain amount of soda every day.
fewer/less
Use fewer when referring to items that can be counted.
Yanni complained that he had received fewer presents than his sister did.
Use less when referring to items that cannot be counted.
Yanni’s parents explained that because they loved him less than they loved his sister, they gave him fewer presents.
aggravate/irritate
When screaming in frustration, we often say things like, “That’s so aggravating!” However, this is incorrect usage. Aggravate is not synonymous with irritate. To aggravate is to make a condition worse.
Betty’s skin condition was aggravated by her constant sunbathing.
To irritate is to annoy.
Aeisha enjoys irritating her sister by jabbing her in the leg during long car rides.
famous/infamous
As you probably know, a famous person is someone like Julia Roberts or Tom Cruise.
The famous young actor made his way up the red carpet.
An infamous person or thing, however, is something different. Infamous means notorious—famous, yes, but famous in a bad way.
The infamous pirate was known the world over for his cruel escapades.
disinterested/uninterested
Even reputable daily newspapers occasionally confuse disinterested with uninterested. Disinterest suggests impartiality.
Nadine and Nora need a disinterested third party to referee their argument.
In contrast, an uninterested person is one who is bored.
Nora is completely uninterested in hearing Nadine’s opinions.
Double Negatives
A double negative is a phrase that uses two negative words instead of one. Double negatives are used very effectively by people like Tony Soprano—“I don’t take nothin’ from nobody”—but your score on the Writing section will get whacked if you fall prey to their tough-guy allure. You’ll probably be adept at spotting double negatives such as “I don’t take nothin’ from nobody,” but the SAT may try to trick you into missing a double negative by using words that count as negatives but don’t sound like it, such as hardly, barely, or scarcely. If you see any of these kinds of words paired with another negative (don’t, can’t, won’t), it’s an error.
Katie  can’t scarcely  stand to wear her  gymnastics  leotard
 A B 
 without  underwear  underneath .  No error .
 C D E 
In this example, can’t is obviously a negative word, but scarcely is also negative, so the two cannot be used together. A is the correct answer.
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