The Essay
Basics of Language
As you saw in our close study of the scoring rubric, sophisticated use of language will raise your score.
Your essay score will primarily be based on the quality of your critical thinking and your ability to present a strong argument. But without some basic language skills, you won’t be able to convey your thinking or argument. Your writing should be a clear window that readers can look through to see your argument. What follows are some key elements of language chosen not so much to prevent mistakes but rather to give you as many options for communicating your meaning as effectively, clearly, and engagingly as you can.
We’ve broken the basics of language into five main sections. Each section relates to a specific feature of the scoring rubric. Here’s a handy chart:
Feature of Language Feature of the Scoring Rubric
Verbs Sentence structure, coherence, flow, grammar, and usage
Agreement Coherence, flow, grammar, and usage
Modifiers and modification Coherence, flow, sentence structure, grammar, and usage
Clause organization Organization, coherence, flow, sentence structure, grammar, and usage
Usage Vocabulary, grammar, and usage
Verbs
Good writing depends on actions and chronology—who did what to whom when? If you want to prevent your readers from getting lost, make sure you drive them in the right direction.
Past vs. Present Perfect
The past tense signifies that something occurred or existed in the past. It is indicated by an –ed at the end of a word, or by an equivalent irregular form, such as flew or thought:

Barbara worked in New York long ago.

This means that Barbara worked in New York at some definite point in the past. She no longer works there.
The present perfect tense refers either to something that began in the past and continues into the present or something that occurred in the past but still has some bearing on the present. It is indicated by using has/have plus the –ed (or the equivalent irregular) form of a verb:

Barbara has worked in New York before.

Unlike the previous sentence, this sentence means that Barbara worked in New York at some unspecified point in the past.

Barbara has worked in New York for twenty years.

This sentence means that Barbara started working in New York at some point in the past, never stopped, and is still working there in the present.
There are a few words that signal that the present perfect rather than the past should be used. These signpost words are:
Signpost Word Example Comment
ever Bill has read novels ever since he retired. Notice how this sentence uses both the present perfect and the past. Bill has read novels means that Bill started reading novels at some point in the past and still reads them in the present. [E]ver since he retired means that Bill started reading novels at a definite point in the past—when he retired.
never Evan has never been one to restrain himself. This means that at no point in the past—and up to the present moment—has Evan been able to control himself. A state of being that began at some indefinite point in the past has continued up to the present moment.
since Since learning to swim, Ingmar has enjoyed the ocean. Again, an action has occurred at some indefinite point in the past and continues to this day.
yet The book hasn’t been written yet. A particular state of being—that of not completing the book—has not occurred since some indefinite point in the past and continues not to occur up to the present moment.
Past vs. Past Perfect
The past perfect tense (also known as “pluperfect”) refers to something that began and ended before something else occurred in the past. The past perfect tense is “more past than the past.” It is indicated by using had plus the –ed (or equivalent irregular) form:

Darwin had visited the Cape de Verde Islands before he visited the Galapagos Islands.

This means that Darwin’s presence in the Cape de Verde Islands preceded his presence in the Galapagos Islands, which itself occurred in the past.
As a rule, if you have two actions that occurred in the past, put the one that occurred deeper in the past in the past perfect tense. The more recent action should be in the past tense.
If-clauses
What’s the difference between the following two sentences?

If I really study this book, I will raise my essay score.

If I were the president, I would do things a lot differently.

The first sentence states that if a condition is fulfilled (really studying this book), then a particular action will result (raising your essay score). The second sentence states something that’s contrary to fact, something imagined that exists only in thought. The person making that statement is not the president, clearly, but is projecting himself into that person’s situation.
The first sentence is in the indicative mood; the second sentence is in the subjunctive mood. (Again, don’t worry too much about the names used here.)
The main point is the form of the second (subjunctive) sentence. The if clause should never include a would verb; would is used only in the second clause, which we’ll call the would clause:
Incorrect Correct Comment on Correct Version
If you would have stayed longer, you would have had more fun. If you had stayed longer, you would have had more fun. If-clause is in past perfect
Would-clause is in present perfect
Active Voice vs. Passive Voice
Voice is a feature of verbs that shows whether the subject of a sentence is doing the action or having the action done to it.
  • Passive The citizens were not notified.
  • Active The mayor did not notify the citizens.
Note that the passive voice allows a writer (or speaker) to dodge responsibility by hiding the identity of the person executing the action. “Gee, the citizens just weren’t notified. Oh, well. Such is life.” The active version of the sentence names names and ascribes actions to a real, live person.
For that reason, the passive voice is most widely used in politics, the business world, or in any other activity involving a bureaucracy. Educators and stylists have been pushing for wider use of the active voice: the SAT reflects this trend. As you may have heard your English teacher say, verb your way through your writing. Use active, focused, forceful verbs, not the same weak passive verbs over and over again.
The active voice usually requires far fewer words than the passive voice to convey the same idea:
  • Passive The guitar was handed by the roadie to the rock star. (11 words)
  • Active The roadie handed the guitar to the rock star. (9 words)
  • Passive The investigation of the war crimes alleged to have been committed by the occupying forces was carried out by an international agency. (22 words)
  • Active An international agency led the investigation of the occupying forces’ alleged war crimes. (13 words)
Notice in both examples how we replaced a form of to be with a more active verb:

First example: was replaced by handed

Second example: was replaced by led

If your sentence contains a form of to be, be on the lookout for an unnecessary passive construction. Concision is the hallmark of good writing; the active voice is far leaner than the bloated passive voice.
Agreement
If words don’t agree with one another in a sentence, meaning is obscured. There are several types of agreement.
Subject/Verb Agreement

Life jackets is necessary.

Rain are wet.

It’s easy to see what’s wrong with these sentences. The subjects of these sentences (life jackets and rain) do not match their verbs (is and are, respectively). Life jackets are plural, but is is singular; rain is singular, but are is plural. Subjects and verbs must match, or “agree.”

Life jackets are necessary.

Rain is wet.

Intervening Clauses and Phrases
The tricky thing for the essay is that you’re going to want to vary your sentence structure. However, you need to vary your sentences grammatically, but in such a way that doesn’t obscure your meaning. So let’s look at some more complex sentences with subject/verb agreement in mind.

The prescription of antidepressants, which is driven by the fact that medications are more likely to be covered by insurance than psychotherapy, often lead to burying the sources of depression.

See the error? If not, get rid of the intervening clause:

The prescription of antidepressants often lead to burying the sources of depression.

Can you see it now? If not, isolate the subject and verb:
 The prescriptions of antidepressants  often  lead  to burying
Subject Verb 
the sources of depression.
 
Antidepressants is not the subject—the prescription of antidepressants is. Prescription is singular; lead is the plural form of the verb. You need the singular form of the verb to match the singular subject.
The correct version is:

The prescription of antidepressants, which is driven by that fact that medications are more likely to be covered by insurance than psychotherapy, often leads to burying the sources of depression.

Hidden and Compound Subjects
Here’s another typical error you may commit when you try to vary your sentence structure:

Inside the tank is a goldfish and a snail.

Tricky! The subject is hidden here—it’s not the tank. What if you flip the sentence around so that the subject, which we’re accustomed to seeing at the beginning of a sentence, comes first?

A goldfish and a snail is inside the tank.

The is sticks out more when the sentence is rewritten this way; it should be are. A goldfish and a snail is a compound subject; compound subjects take plural verbs. Only the word and can create a compound subject. As well as, or, and along with do not create compound subjects:

Rock and jazz are influential musical styles.

Rock, as well as jazz, is an influential musical style.

Rock, along with jazz, is an influential musical style.

Rock or jazz is an influential musical style.

Singular or Plural?
What’s wrong with the following sentence?

Neither of those two musical styles are as influential as blues.

The problem is that neither, either, and none take singular, not plural, verbs. The correction is:

Neither of those two musical styles is as influential as blues.

Finally, watch out for nouns that seem plural but are actually singular, such as:

The series of plays was very entertaining.

The team was crushed by the loss.

The couple finds life together to be challenging.

Series, team, and couple are singular nouns that refer to groups. Group, actually, is another good example. By definition, a group has more than one member, but a group itself is singular: one group; many groups.
Noun/Number Agreement

All people enjoy maintaining their yard.

You might think this sentence is OK, but it’s incorrect. As written, it means that every single person currently alive, as well as all persons that have ever lived, enjoy maintaining the one yard they’ve all shared! That’s a big yard.
Nouns have to agree in number—start with plural, end with plural; start with singular, end with singular. This sentence should be:

All people enjoy maintaining their yards.

Here’s another common mistake to avoid:

Bob, Jim, and Neil are planning to give up music in order to become a writer.

How can three people, Bob, Jim, and Neil, become one writer? Well, they can’t:

Bob, Jim, and Neil are planning to give up music in order to become writers.

Countability
Another common error involving nouns is what we call countability. Look at the following sentences:

I have many disappointments.

You would be wise to show less hatred toward others.

Both sentences are correct. Disappointments are something one could count; disappointments are discrete entities like puppies or galaxies or staplers. Hatred, however, cannot be counted; hatred is an abstract state of being, as are oppression, liberty, and apathy. Concrete entities—air and water, to name two—can be noncountable as well. (Putting on airs and parting the waters are figuratively countable uses of these noncountable nouns.)
Countability is most often indicated via the less/fewer and number/amount pairings. Here’s a handy chart:
Noun Countable? Use Example
happiness No less Why aim for less happiness than you can achieve?
virus Yes fewer There are fewer viruses than bacteria.
fear No less The less fear we feel, the better we are able to think.
joke Yes fewer If you told fewer jokes, the class could make more progress.
computer Yes number The number of home computers has skyrocketed in the past twenty years.
courage No amount The amount of courage a leader inspires is a telling measure of his value.
flower Yes number I have a number of flowers on my kitchen table.
joy No amount The value of one’s life is proportional to the amount of joy in it.
Pronoun/Number Agreement

Did everyone forget to bring their raincoat with them?

The question above is grammatically incorrect.
Everyone is singular, strange as that may seem. You might think that everyone refers to a collection of people, but it refers to each individual in a collection of people—everyone.
To highlight this error, substitute the equivalent phrase each of you into the sentence:

Did each of you forget to bring their raincoat with them?

The pronoun their is plural, but it refers back to a singular subject, each of you—or, in the previous sentence, everyone. The proper form is:

Did everyone forget to bring his or her raincoat with him or her?

Yes, this is cumbersome, but correct.
The following words behave just like everyone: anyone, no one, nobody, every, each.
Check out this sentence:

Spacely Sprockets reported today that their workforce had accepted management’s demands.

Sprockets may be plural, but presumably there is only one company called Spacely Sprockets. If it’s a single company, it requires a singular pronoun:

Spacely Sprockets reported today that its workforce had accepted management’s demands.

Pronoun Shift
Watch out for pronoun shift too:
  • Incorrect If you start with a particular pronoun, one shouldn’t shift to another later on in the sentence.
  • Correct If one would like to do as well as one can on the essay, one should keep this common error in mind.
  • Correct That way, you will be happy with the score you receive.
Ambiguous and Vague Pronouns
Ambiguous pronouns lack a clear antecedent; vague pronouns lack an antecedent altogether. Antecedent refers to the noun (or pronoun) that a pronoun refers to (ante meaning “before” in Latin).
In the following sentence, the pronoun is bolded:

Donna told Marie about her knitting.

Whose knitting are we talking about, Donna’s or Marie’s? They’re both women, so it’s impossible to tell. Replace her with either Donna’s or Marie’s and you’ve solved the problem:

Donna told Marie about Donna’s knitting.

or

Donna told Marie about Marie’s knitting.

Be on the lookout for all kinds of ambiguities. Look at the following sentence:

Mike gave his brother a bass amplifier that he used every chance he could get.

This seems less ambiguous because we tend to interpret the sentence according to our experience and expectations: “Mike’s a nice guy; he gave his brother a bass amp. That brother used that amp every chance he could get. How touching!”
That’s all well and good, except that it is possible that Mike gave his brother a bass amp and that Mike, not his brother, used it every chance he got. Maybe Mike’s a selfish brother. Maybe Mike’s brother hated the amp. The point is, we’ve got an ambiguous pronoun (he), and that obscures meaning.
Now, what’s wrong with the following sentence?

They say that global warming will only get worse.

On its own, the they in this sentence has no antecedent at all. There are many ways to rewrite this sentence; here’s one option:

A panel of expert climatologists says that global warming will only get worse.

Now you have a clear statement. Note, however, that if the original sentence had been embedded in a paragraph, it would be clear who they refers to:

The world’s scientific experts agree. They say that global warming will only get worse.

Context is everything; in this context, they has a clear antecedent: the world’s scientific experts.
Modifiers and Modification
Modifying Words
A modifier is a word or a phrase that describes another word or phrase. The most familiar examples are adjectives and adverbs. Adjectives describe nouns or pronouns; adverbs describe verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs.
Here are some examples:

Adjectives

The loud noise shocked us.

The fruitful hypothesis led to interesting experiments.

Adverbs

Al spoke convincingly.

Stephen fought viciously.

A common error is using an adjective when an adverb is required. For example, why is the following sentence incorrect?

I take that remark serious.

Serious is an adjective modifying take, which is a verb. That’s a no-no; it should be:

I take that remark seriously.

You should also strive to use the proper form of an adjective. Adjectives can take three forms, as you can see in the following chart:
Descriptive Comparative Superlative
hot hotter hottest
dull duller dullest
complex more complex most complex
good better best
bad worse worst
Most adjectives follow the forms exemplified by hot and dull. Some, like complex, require more for the comparative and most for the superlative. Good and bad, and some others, are irregular.
Consider the following sentences.

Of the three cars, that one is cheaper.

That car is cheapest than this one.

Both are incorrect. The comparative form should be used with two objects; the superlative with three or more objects. The sentences should be:

Of the three cars, that one is cheapest.

That car is cheaper than this one.

Modifying Phrases
Phrases can act as modifiers too, and this is where things get a little trickier. Mastering this concept will greatly improve your essay.

Roaring into the Florida sky, the space shuttle awed the spectators.

The phrase roaring into the Florida sky is a unit that modifies the space shuttle. But what if we wrote the sentence as follows?

Roaring into the Florida sky, the spectators were awed by the space shuttle.

What this second sentence is saying is that the spectators were roaring into the Florida sky. That would truly be an awe-inspiring sight!
This is the storied dangling modifier. The modifier roaring into the Florida sky dangles off the front of the sentence, unconnected to the space shuttle, the phrase it modifies.
Some other examples of dangling modifiers follow; they can be pretty funny once you recognize the error:
  • Incorrect Smoking a big cigar, the baby was admired by its father.
  • Comment There’s very little chance that any baby would be precocious enough to smoke a cigar.
  • Correct Smoking a big cigar, the father admired his baby.
  • Incorrect Playing drums for too long, there is a chance of injury.
  • Comment This modifier is dangling by a thread—what could playing drums for too long modify in this sentence?
  • Correct If you play drums for too long, you risk injury.
  • Incorrect Swearing in frustration, my computer continually crashed as I rushed to complete my paper.
  • Comment Was the computer doing the swearing? I don’t think technology is quite there yet!
  • Correct Swearing in frustration, I rushed to complete my paper as my computer crashed continually.
  • Incorrect To get a high score on the essay, a lot of material needs to be mastered.
  • Comment We’re missing the noun that needs modification—who needs to master a lot of material?
  • Correct To get a high score on the essay, test-takers need to master a lot of material.
Another frequent writing error that obscures meaning is the misplaced modifier. Here’s an example:

The teacher posted the grades for the students earned on the midterm.

In this sentence, the phrase earned on the midterm seems to modify the students, when it should modify the grades. This is confusing; here’s a rewrite:

The teacher posted the grades earned on the midterm for the students.

Clause Organization
A clause is a group of words that has a subject and a predicate. Sentences can have one clause or many clauses. Clauses are the building blocks of sentences and are very important units of meaning; essentially, they create a logical flow. How clauses and phrases are positioned and the punctuation used to connect them generates the flow that all good writing must have. Varying your clause structure will be greatly rewarded on the essay.
The following sentence has three clauses, each of which is underlined:
  Einstein shocked most of his peers  when  he proved that measurements of  time, length, and mass were relative to the observer 
 Clause 1 Clause 2Clause 2 
because  Newtonian physics had assumed these measurements to be absolute  regardless of the observer. 
 Clause 3Clause 3
The words that are not underlined are the all-important connections between the clauses. They guide the reader from clause to clause, and essay-readers will reward your ability to choose these words appropriately. Appropriate connections require that you follow logic as well as grammar. As much as any feature of language, their proper use creates the flow so valued by the essay-readers.
In the sentence above, when lets the reader know that what shocked most of Einstein’s peers is about to be announced. Furthermore, since when is a temporal word, you know that something specific happened at some specific point in time. Because lets you know that the reason why his peers were so stunned is about to be revealed.
Logical flow is most obviously transmitted by signpost words, which often link paragraphs. English has many such guide words and phrases. Here’s a handy list of some common ones; be sure you can use them properly:
and even so
also for still
although however thus
as well as moreover therefore
because nevertheless though
but no less than yet
consequently or
despite otherwise
The Weak And
One common feature of poor clause connection is “the weak and.” Think about it: what does and mean? It’s pretty much the word version of the + symbol. And denotes addition or the mere presence of two equivalent things at the same time or in the same place:

Frank likes beans and Mongo likes cheese.

You feel like shrugging your shoulders and saying, “Well, Frank likes his beans; Mongo likes his cheese. To each his own, I guess.” And doesn’t lead the reader anywhere. It makes no causal connection. It stops the flow dead in its tracks.
The following sentence has the same problem:

Darwin’s theory of natural selection shocked Victorian England and a pillar of Victorian culture had been that a benevolent deity had specially created all species.

Huh? You know that this sentence just cries out for causation; substitute because for and to make this sentence flow:

Darwin’s theory of natural selection shocked Victorian England because a pillar of Victorian culture had been that a benevolent deity had specially created all species.

Commas, Semicolons, and Colons
A related and much-misunderstood concept is the use of commas, semicolons, and colons. These punctuation marks act as connection words: they’re shorthand for certain types of connections between clauses. They’re critical both for logical flow and for sentence structure variety.
If a period is a “full stop,” and a comma is a “pause,” then a semicolon is somewhere in between, but closer to a full stop. Use it to separate two clauses that could stand alone as sentences:

All music gives me some amount of joy; some types of music give me more joy than others.

All music gives me some amount of joy. Some types of music give me more joy than others.

Use a colon either to “announce” a list or to magnify or exemplify what preceded the colon:

You’ll need a few key items on test day: a number-two pencil, a calculator, and a sweater.

Most of the troublemakers in my class are actually gifted students: Kim, for example, consistently receives high scores on aptitude tests.

Often what we consider “traditional” cuisine is really a recent invention: until Columbus, for example, Italian food lacked tomatoes.

Like semicolons, colons can separate clauses that can stand alone. However, if you use a colon, you’ll be stressing that the clause after the colon follows sequentially from the phrase that precedes the colon:

All music gives me some amount of joy; some types of music give me more joy than others.

All music gives me some amount of joy: some types of music give me more joy than others.

The first sentence indicates that the speaker gets some amount of joy from any type of music, but, as an almost statistical point, that some types of music give him more joy than others. The second sentence places more emphasis on the fact that select types of music give him more joy than others.
Comma Issues
Commas are the hardest of all punctuation marks to master. Don’t fret—just concentrate on avoiding the most common error: the misuse of that and which. When in doubt, use that. If you think you must use which, use a comma to set off the which clause:

The tree that I like to climb the most is in my best friend’s backyard.

The tree I loved, which the town just cut down, was in Roosevelt Park.

Another common error is the comma splice. (These are also known as “fused sentences” and “run-on sentences.”) Basically, don’t use a comma where a period or semicolon is required, as in the following incorrect sentence:

The essay is not the place to stretch the rules of grammar, avoid comma splices.

Fix this with a semicolon, colon, or period:

The essay is not the place to stretch the rules of grammar; avoid comma splices.

or

The essay is not the place to stretch the rules of grammar: avoid comma splices.

or

The essay is not the place to stretch the rules of grammar. Avoid comma splices.

Watch out for sentence fragments, too. A fragment occurs when a dependent clause, which cannot stand on its own, is forced to do so. These clauses often contain gerunds (-ing constructions) or infinitives:

Proceeding to the next step.

To unite the two parties.

Sentences need both a subject and a predicate. Don’t use fragments on purpose—again, the essay is not the place to take chances.
Comparisons
In this section, we’ll explore two other crucial features of clause structure.
What’s wrong with the following sentence?

Like England, parliaments have been adopted in other countries.

What exactly is being compared here? England and parliaments or England and other countries? Right, England and other countries. This is a perfect example of how imprecise use of language will obscure your meaning and lower your subscore.
To fix this, put the two things being compared next to each other:

Like England, other countries have adopted parliaments.

Also note the passive construction of the first, incorrect sentence. You’ll find that these errors compound and entail each other. Luckily, fixing one often leads to fixing others automatically!
Another, trickier, example:

Like classical economics, Darwin focused on individuals.

It doesn’t make sense to compare classical economics to Darwin. You’re comparing an area of study to a person. You must always compare like with like. Here are some ways to fix this problem:

Like classical economics, Darwinian evolution focused on individuals.

Like classical economists, Darwin focused on individuals.

As you strive to vary your sentence structure, watch out for the long intervening clause!

Like classical economics, which is still the reigning orthodoxy, Darwin focused on individuals.

It doesn’t matter how long the intervening clause is—this is still incorrect. While it’s a good idea to vary your sentence length, be on the lookout for agreement and comparison errors.
Like vs. As
Another key concept is the difference between like and as. Use like to compare nouns (persons, places, things, or ideas):

That man looks like Mick Jagger.

Use as to compare verbs:

That man sings soulfully, just as Mick Jagger does.

Parallelism
Parallel structure is not only a sign of good writing, but it also serves to vary your sentence structure, carry your argument forward, and clarify your meaning. It’s also easy to grasp and use.
First, certain stock phrases have to follow a certain form. Look at this chart:
Form Example
neither/nor That cyclist has neither the equipment nor the endurance to attempt a 100-mile ride.
either/or You can have either a bagel or a donut.
not only/but also Writing a successful essay requires not only good argumentation but also effective use of language.
the more/the more The more you eat, the more weight you’ll gain.
the less/the less The less pollution we breathe, the less chance we’ll have of becoming ill later in life.
both/and Both ants and bees cooperate so closely that they could be considered “superorganisms.”
if/then If you want a high score on your essay, then study this book and practice.
These forms should always be maintained: don’t write neither/or or not only/but.
Second, learn to apply parallelism properly. Look at this sentence:

I walk a lot, but on the other hand, I seem to spend a lot of time sitting on the couch.

You have the other hand, but where’s the first hand? This sentence is not parallel. To fix it, write:

On the one hand, I walk a lot, but on the other hand, I seem to spend a lot of time sitting on the couch.

What’s wrong with the following sentence?

Not only do I like to swim, but I also like water-skiing.

The verb in the first clause is an infinitive, to swim. But the verb in the second part is a gerund, water-skiing. Fix it in one of two ways:

Not only do I like to swim, but I also like to water-ski.

Not only do I like swimming, but I also like water-skiing.

The need for parallel structure arises in series as well. The following sentence is incorrect:

Jane likes knitting, boxing, and to read.

Again, you have two ways to fix this:

Jane likes knitting, boxing, and reading.

Jane likes to knit, to box, and to read.

Another kind of parallelism mistake is the following:

Composing with a computer is better than when you compose with pen and paper.

To fix this, make sure your verbs are in the same form:

Composing with a computer is better than composing with pen and paper.

As usual, pay special attention to sentences you write that have long intervening clauses:

Composing with a computer, which allows you to hear what you’re composing as you work, is better than when you compose with pen and paper.

Change when you compose to composing, just as we did in the previous incorrect sentence.
Usage
Word Choice
Word choice is a key feature of the scoring rubric. The proper and appropriate use of words can really impress. Let’s start with the much more concrete and discrete concept of proper word choice.
What’s wrong with the following sentence?

That conversation had a powerful affect on Gordon.

Affect is not the word you need; effect is correct. Affect as a noun means “emotion” or “mood”; effect as a noun means “an outcome or result.” Affect as a verb means “to influence,” whereas effect as a verb means “to cause to occur.”
There are many such tricky pairs in English. Since a varied and properly used vocabulary will raise your score, you should work to sharpen your vocabulary.
If you have a spare hour, log on to www.sparknotes.com/ultimatestyle and check out our book SparkNotes Ultimate Style for a comprehensive list of commonly misused words.
Idioms and Prepositional Idioms
Idioms are inherited quirks of language that we absorb without question but which cause nonnative speakers endless trouble.
For example, here’s an idiom we’ve all used:

It wasn’t me.

Look at this grammatically. A pronoun that refers only to humans, me, is replacing a pronoun that refers only to inanimate objects, it. However, every native English-speaker knows what this phrase means, and has used it quite effectively.
These types of idioms are so dangerously close to clichés that you should avoid them at all costs.
However, the proper use of another type of idiom will definitely impress your readers. The particular meaning of certain words requires the use of a particular preposition:
  • Incorrect Helga prefers poetry over novels.
  • Correct Helga prefers poetry to novels.
  • Incorrect Barack doesn’t have a favorable opinion toward Freud’s theories.
  • Correct Barack doesn’t have a favorable opinion of Freud’s theories.
Sometimes, a word can be combined legitimately with more than one preposition, but the meaning will then shift. Knowing which preposition triggers which meaning is crucial to good usage.

My remark was meant as a joke.

You, my friend, are meant for greatness.

Meant as shows intent; meant for indicates a destination. A complete and relatively short list of such prepositional idioms can also be found in SparkNotes Ultimate Style (www.sparknotes.com/ultimatestyle).
Double Negatives
Finally, let’s consider double negatives. When we want to negate something, we use no or not:

I allow no talking during a movie.

I do not allow talking during a movie.

For reasons of redundancy and idiomatic preference, we don’t use both no and not in the same sentence:

I do not allow no talking during a movie.

Words other than no and not can indicate negation. Here’s a list of those words with their positive counterparts (which are not necessarily their antonyms). Don’t use a negative word with not or no.
Negative Word Positive Counterpart Examples
never ever
  • Incorrect I don’t never eat meat.
  • Correct I never eat meat.
  • Correct I don’t ever eat meat.
none any
  • Incorrect I don’t want none.
  • Correct I want none.
  • Correct I don’t want any.
neither either
  • Incorrect I don’t want neither of those two puppies.
  • Correct I want neither of those two puppies.
  • Correct I don’t want either of those two puppies.
nor or
  • Incorrect I don’t want the puppy nor the kitten.
  • Correct� I want neither the puppy nor the kitten.
  • Correct I don’t want the puppy or the kitten.
nothing anything
  • Incorrect I don’t want nothing from you.
  • Correct� I want nothing from you.
  • Correct I don’t want anything from you.
no one anyone
  • Incorrect I can’t help no one.
  • Correct I can help no one.
  • Correct I can’t help anyone.
nobody anybody
  • Incorrect I don’t know nobody here.
  • Correct I know nobody here.
  • Correct I don’t know anybody here.
nowhere anywhere
  • Incorrect I can’t go nowhere with this cast on my leg.
  • Correct� I can go nowhere with this cast on my leg.
  • Correct I can’t go anywhere with this cast on my leg.
Three other words are often involved in double negatives: hardly, scarcely, and barely.

I can’t hardly wait to graduate. (Two negatives—can’t and hardly)

Believe it or not, this is not grammatically incorrect. But it has fallen into extreme idiomatic disfavor. Do not use these words in your essay! Instead, use:

I can hardly wait to graduate. (One negative—hardly)

I can’t wait to graduate. (One negative—can’t)

Now that you have all these concepts under your belt, it’s time to learn the most effecient way to use your knowledge on the SAT essay.
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