The last administration of the SAT II Writing was on 1/22/05. Beginning 3/12/05, parts of the SAT II Writing test will be included in the New SAT. You should be studying the New SAT book. Go there!
Writing Good Sentences
Now that we’ve talked about both a basic approach and a more individualized approach to the three Topics, we’re going to get to the nitty-gritty of sentence construction, such as how to use apostrophes and quotation marks correctly, and how to avoid writing run-on sentences and fragments. We’re also going to show you how to avoid common pitfalls like inappropriate tone, clichés, and wishy-washiness.
Learning how to get the tone right might take more work than learning how to use apostrophes correctly, but the issues we’re about to discuss are crucial to making a great quick impression. You’ll impress the heck out of the reader by being that rare writer who doesn’t litter his or her prose with clichés or write in an overblown, faux-academic tone.
There’s no time or space in this book to teach you all the rules of grammar. But we can point out to you the most important rules of writing and grammar that people frequently break while writing. These rules are the backbone of good writing. They transform soggy sentences into models of clear, powerful prose.
The Passive Voice and Active Voice
People seem to think that the passive voice provides prose with a sophisticated remove, the type of prose an English butler might write. But the passive voice is actually dull and pale.
The passive voice avoids naming the performer of an action. Unless the performer of an action is unknown or unimportant, always use the active rather than the passive voice. Look at the following sentences for an example of this problem:
In the first sentence, we don’t know until the last word who chose the bell-bottoms. In the sentence that uses the active voice, we know immediately that Mike did the choosing.
The passive voice always forces you to use bland forms of the verb to be: is, are, was, and were. Avoiding the passive voice will make your writing more interesting and vivid, clarifying who is doing what, and allowing you to use interesting, strong verbs.
Passive verb use sometimes occurs when writers begin writing sentences without a clear idea of where the sentences are going. Try to hear the entire sentence in your head before you begin writing.
Avoid Using the Verb To Be
As we just said, the verb to be is fairly weak and boring. In addition to avoiding the passive voice, eliminate that bland verb to be from your writing as much as possible. Certainly, the verb to be must be used when no other verb can take its place. But a great deal of the time people use to be when unnecessary, leading to boring sentences like:
This sentence is grammatically correct, but a much more colorful version follows when you eradicate the verb to be and replace it with other, more action-oriented verbs:
Transitions are the sentences or words that provide the context necessary to help readers understand the flow of your argument. Transitions should take the reader gently by the hand, shepherding him through your essay. A well-placed phrase can serve as an excellent transition from sentence to sentence.
Avoid Run-On Sentences
Teachers hate run-on sentences, and for good reason: a student who writes run-on sentences shows a fundamental failure to grasp proper grammar.
A run-on sentence occurs when two independent clauses are connected without any punctuation mark or conjunction between them. Essentially, an independent clause is a fully expressed idea containing a verb and subject, which is not dependent on any other idea for its existence. Look at the following run-on:
In the example sentence, I wanted to leave work early and I couldn’t because my boss was hovering over me are both independent clauses. Each contains a subject and each contains a verb. Therefore, they cannot be joined together without a conjunction or punctuation mark.
There are two ways to fix a run-on sentence: place a conjunction between the clauses, or separate the clauses with punctuation.
To fix the example sentence using a conjunction, add a comma and the conjunction but between the two clauses.
To fix the run-on with punctuation, add a semicolon or period.
If you have a good understanding of what a run-on sentence is, you can train yourself to avoid writing them. You should also be able to “hear” run-on sentences: they make writing sound breathless and rushed, like a babbling child.
Avoid Sentence Fragments
Sentence fragments are the opposite of run-on sentences. Run-ons are two sentences that the writer has tried to mush into one. A sentence fragment is a non-sentence that the writer is trying to pass off as a sentence. A sentence fragment has a subject, but not a correctly conjugated verb.
Sentence fragments can be difficult to recognize. They are so prevalent in advertising that they can seem correct:
The subject watch and the verb afford don’t go together correctly. Only millionaires can afford is actually an adjectival phrase modifying the subject watch. Within the phrase, afford is connected to the noun millionaires. To fix this problem, you can add a properly conjugated noun:
Or you could reorganize the sentence so that millionaires becomes the subject and afford its correctly conjugated verb:
Be particularly wary of writing sentence fragments when you begin a sentence with words like between, before, although, while, etc. These words have a way of leading to incomplete sentences.
Proper Use of Basic Punctuation Marks
The readers of your essay will lower your grade if you show a pattern of grammatical errors. Since punctuation is an omnipresent feature in writing, misunderstanding a simple rule of punctuation leads to numerous errors and suggests that you know less than you do. Be sure to understand the basic rules of punctuation usage.
Commas exist to help the reader. Often they mark pauses you would naturally make if speaking the sentence aloud. Commas are used for a variety of reasons: to tell the reader to pause, to set off words that interrupt, to set off words not crucial to the meaning of the sentence, and to join two sentences with a conjunction. They are also used in series, in dialogue, and to set off introductory remarks.
People often make coma errors when writing out lists. Commas belong only in the middle of lists, not before them (as in the wrong first sentence below) or after them (as in the second wrong sentence).
It may strike you as a little peculiar, but if you have something like he said or she sighed or they yelled after a piece of dialogue, you have to punctuate the dialogue with a comma, not a period. You can see why this is the rule if you look at the following sentence.
When you hit that period after “Get back here” you stop; then you have to lurch back into action with he said. The correct formulation is:
Semicolons signal a big pause. You must have two sentences on either side of a semicolon. People get this wrong a lot, so be careful. Use a semicolon in place of a period or in place of a conjunction.
Colons are used to signal definitions, commands, and lists.
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