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Identifying Sentence Errors: Common Grammar Mistakes
Please Note:
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!
Identifying Sentence Errors: Common Grammar Mistakes
The SAT II Writing covers the same grammar from year to year. In fact, it tests the same grammar subsets on the different types of questions from year to year. For example, on Identifying Sentence Error questions, the test will cover your knowledge of pronoun errors, tense errors, subject-verb disagreement, and a handful of other errors. If you get a handle on how to find the following common errors, you’ll be in great shape. Below, we discuss common errors roughly by the frequency with which they appear in Identifying Sentence Error questions.
Pronoun Errors
Nouns, remember, are words for people, places, or things. Pronouns are words that take the place of nouns—words like she, her, hers, he, him, his, they, their, it, its, that, and which. Say you begin with this sentence:
Bernie felt better after going on a shopping spree.
A pronoun is a word you could use to replace the noun Bernie:
He felt better after going on a shopping spree.
Whenever you see an underlined pronoun (she, he, it) in an Identifying Sentence Error question, go on high alert. Pronoun errors are the most common error type on this section of the test.
“Hearing” pronoun problems might take a little practice, because we often use pronouns incorrectly in speech. Therefore, even if a particular pronoun sounds correct, double check to make sure it follows all the rules discussed below.
What follows is a discussion of the most common pronoun pitfalls, all of which are tested on the SAT II Writing. Of these problems, by far the most frequently tested is pronoun agreement.
Pronoun Agreement
Pronouns must agree in number with the noun they refer to. 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 gets tricky, because we make errors of pronoun agreement so frequently in speech. We tend to say things like someone lost their shoe instead of someone lost his shoe because we don’t want to exclude women by saying his. And it’s cumbersome to write someone lost his or her shoe. People attempt to solve these problems with the brief and gender-neutral their. This tactic is okay in speech, but 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 replace singular nouns.
Because this error is so prevalent in common speech, and therefore sounds correct, you can be sure that you’ll see a few questions on this topic.
The sentence below is incorrect because the pronoun and the noun don’t agree in number:
Every student in the classroom pretended to forget their homework.
When you start out with a singular noun (like student, someone, anyone, or no one), you can replace it or refer to it only with a singular pronoun (like his or her). This sentence begins with the singular noun student, so the pronoun must be singular too. Their is plural, and therefore wrong in this sentence.
As we know from studying actual SAT II Writing Tests, ETS will almost certainly give you a few questions with an incorrect usage of the word their. Sometimes, however, they test the opposite mistake. Look at the following sentence for an example of what we mean:
 Even though  some possess the flexibility to change their
A 
opinions, most people  vary  in  his or her  willingness to
 B C 
listen  to reaso.n   No error 
 D E
In this sentence, the problem is with (C), the phrase his or her. The second clause in this sentence begins with the plural noun people; therefore, a plural pronoun must be used to refer to that plural noun. His or her is singular. This is a case in which their is correct, and his or her is incorrect.
Another kind of pronoun agreement question will essentially test to see if you’re paying attention. On such questions as the one below, you’ll get into trouble if you’re reading quickly and thus fail to make sure that the pronoun matches up with the noun it’s replacing.
 For  the robber trying to decide between potential getaway
A 
cars, every car  up for  consideration poses  their   own  passel
 B C D 
of problems.  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. Most students do fine on this kind of are-you-paying-attention pronoun agreement question; just make sure you’re inspecting each pronoun with an eagle eye.
Pronoun 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.
A word that is the subject of a sentence 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:
Joe kissed Mary.
Joe is the subject, since he performed the kiss, and Mary 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 Joe with the subject pronoun he and the object Mary with the object pronoun her.
SAT II Writing will often test your knowledge of pronoun case in a tricky way. They’ll give you phrases like her and her cats, him and his friends, etc. These phrases seek to confuse you 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:
 Her  and  her family  like to stay in their hotel room and
A B 
 play  cards whenever  they take a trip .  No error 
 C D E
This sample has a plural subject: Her and her family. You know her and her family is the subject since they are the ones who do the liking in the sentence; they are the performers of the verb. This sentence is tricky because the her in her family acts as an adjective, not a pronoun. Since family is a perfectly acceptable subject noun, that underlined portion is correct. But the initial her is a pronoun, and it is wrong since it is in the objective case rather than the subjective.
Now, all this might be a little too technical for you. If you already know--—or can grasp—this grammar, 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 phrase like her and her family, just throw out each side of the phrase and try it out in the sentence (remembering to make the verb singular, since by throwing out one half of the subject you stopped it from being plural). Following this method, you would have two sentences, which would begin in the following two ways:
Her likes to stay . . .
Her family 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 family like to stay . . .
SAT II Writing particularly likes to test you on phrases such as Toto and me, or the wicked witch of the North and I, because many people don’t know when to use me and when to use I. A misconception exists that it’s always more polite or proper to use I—but this is not true! Sometimes me is the right word to use. Look at the following sentence:
There is usually  an atmosphere of  heated competition surrounding
 A 
 Jesse and I , especially when we  compete  Cosmic Bowling Night
 B C 
 at the Bowladrome .  No error 
 D E
If you saw right away that Jesse and I is the object in this sentence, good for you! You can confidently answer that (B) is incorrect, since it should read Jesse and me. If you didn’t know the grammar straight off, though, you still should have been suspicious when you saw Jesse and I as one of the underlined portions of the sentence. Then, performing the crossing out trick on Jesse leaves you with There is usually an atmosphere of heated competition surrounding I. That sounds wrong. On this section, of course, you don’t need to fix the errors, you just need to identify them, but if you were to fix this sentence you’d do it by substituting me for I. Plug that back in, and you get There is usually an atmosphere of heated competition surrounding me. That sounds much better.
It can also be tough trying to figure out whether me or my is the correct pronoun choice. Look at this sentence:
 When it  comes to  me  studying for the SAT, “ concentration 
A B C 
is my middle  name .  No error 
 D E
Although it may sound right, me is actually incorrect in this sentence. If you use me, the phrase means when it comes to me, which isn’t right. You’re doing more than talking about yourself; you’re talking about you and studying. Using my allows you to say when it comes to my studying.
Pronoun Shift
A sentence should start, continue, and end with the same kind of pronouns. Pronoun shift occurs when the kind of pronouns used changes over the course of the sentence. If you begin with plural pronouns, for example, you must use plural pronouns throughout.
When one  first begins  to play tennis,  it’s  important to
 A B 
work on  your  serve, and to wield your racket  well .  No error 
 C D E
This sentence presents a pronoun shift problem. If you start talking about one, you have to keep talking about one for the duration of the sentence. The sentence could read when one first begins to play tennis, it’s important to work on one’s serve or when you first begin to play tennis, it’s important to work on your serve, but the sentence cannot combine one and you. (C) is the correct answer.
Ambiguous Pronouns
We call a pronoun ambiguous when it’s not absolutely clear to whom or what the pronoun refers. We use ambiguous pronouns all the time when we’re talking. In speech, you can make it clear, from context or gestures, what pronoun refers to what noun, but in writing you can’t do that. Even if awkwardness is the result, 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 to Sarah or Emma. Therefore, (A) is the correct answer.
Comparisons Using Pronouns
Your suspicions should rise when 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 fatter than  her ,  which  is good,  because  it means  I’ll win 
 A B C D 
this sumo wrestling match. No error 
 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 the right answer.
Another way to approach comparisons is to realize that comparisons usually omit words. For example, it’s grammatically correct to say, Alexis is stronger than Bill, but that’s actually an abbreviated version of what you’re saying. The long version is, Alexis is stronger than Bill is. That last is is invisible in the abbreviated version, but you must remember that it’s there. Now let’s go back to the sumo sentence. As in our Alexis and Bill example, we don’t see the word is in the comparison, 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 us with I’m fatter than her is. That sounds wrong, so we know that she is the correct pronoun in this case.
Take a look at this similar sentence:
 Pedro  is a  better  pitcher  than   them .  No error 
A B C D E
Here the word are is implied (we use are, which is plural, because in this sentence the pronoun them is plural). Adding are leaves us with Pedro is a better pitcher than them are. Again, that sounds wrong, so we know that the sentence should read Pedro is a better pitcher than they, and that (D) is the right answer.
Subject-Verb Agreement
The basic rule about subjects and verbs is: if you have a singular subject, you must use a singular verb, and if you have a plural subject, you must use a plural verb. It sounds simple, and a lot of the time 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 ETS loves to test. These varieties crop up when:
  1. the verb comes after the subject
  2. the subject and verb are separated from each other
  3. you have an either/or or neither/nor construction
  4. the subject seems plural.
Remember, it’s not necessary to remember the name of the problem—you certainly don’t have to memorize that list of subject-verb agreement varieties. 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 awry will help you check more efficiently.
Subject Comes After Verb
In most sentences, the subject comes before the verb. ETS will try 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 II Writing Test frequently uses this exact formulation, so be wary if you see a comma followed by the word there. It’s tempting to assume that just because the word there comes before the verb is, there is the subject—but it’s not. Notice that in this sentence the subject is people. Here we see that since people is the subject, and people is plural, the matching verb 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  mass  of  whipped  and sprinkles,  sits  two
A B C D 
maraschino cherries.  No error 
 E
Tricky! The answer is (D), sits. Because we’re talking about two maraschino cherries (plural subject) we need to use sit (plural verb). The sentence should read Atop my sundae, a mass of whipped cream and sprinkles, sit two maraschino cherries. Why is this tricky? The subject, maraschino cherries, comes after the verb, sits. With all the singular stuff floating around—one sundae, one mass of whipped cream—it’s easy to assume that the verb should be singular, too. Look out for those backwards constructions.
Subject and Verb Are Separated
One of ETS’s best-loved tricks is putting the subject here and the verb waaaaay over there. They hope that by the time you get to the verb, you’ll have no memory of the subject.
Sundaes with whipped cream and cherries,  while  good  if consumed 
 A B 
in moderation,  is sickening  if eaten  for breakfast,  lunch,
 C D 
and dinner.  No error 
 E
In this sentence, they’ve put the subject (sundaes) at the beginning of the sentence, and the verb (is) miles away. Sometimes it helps to bracket prepositional phrases so you can see what’s really going on. A prepositional phrase is a phrase that begins with a preposition like while, although, which, etc., which does not change the essential meaning of the sentence if removed. Prepositional phrases are often set off by commas. If you get rid of the prepositional phrase here (while good if consumed in moderation), you’re left with sundaes is sickening. That sounds plain old wrong. (C) is the right answer.
Neither/Nor, Either/Or
In neither/nor and either/or constructions, if the nouns are singular, the verb must be singular, too. This can be confusing; in neither/nor 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 baseball nor football is fun to watch, because if you broke the components of the sentence in two, you would get baseball is fun to watch and football is fun to watch. It’s incorrect to say, Neither baseball nor football are fun to watch, because if you break that sentence into its components, you get baseball are fun to watch and football are fun to watch.
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  rummy  nor  solitaire  measure  up to  hearts .  No error 
A B C D E
Even though there are two card games being discussed, both of those card games are singular nouns (one game of rummy, one game of solitaire), and therefore the verb must be singular. Measure is a plural verb, when it should be a singular one, so (C) is the answer.
Singular Subject That Looks Plural
There are several confusing subjects that look plural, but are actually singular. Of course, ETS hopes that you will see singular subjects and mistakenly match them with plural verbs. Such confusing subjects to watch out for are:
Anybody Either
Anyone Group
America Number
Amount Neither
Audience Nobody
Each None
Everybody No one
Everyone One
In this sentence, for example, the subject looks plural:
 Nobody , not  even me ,  are  excited about  the weekend .  No error 
A B C D E
Nobody is one of those subjects that sounds plural, but is actually singular. It needs to be matched with a singular verb. Look carefully at all seemingly plural subjects; make sure they’re not singular subjects masquerading as plural ones. In this sentence, the answer is (C). The sentence should read Nobody, not even me, is excited about the weekend.
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 you need a plural verb. But look at the following sentence:
The leadoff hitter,  as well as  the cleanup hitter,  are  getting
 A B 
some  good  hacks  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 hacks tonight. If the sentence read, The leadoff hitter and the cleanup hitter are getting some good hacks tonight, are would be correct. It’s that as well as construction that changes things.
Tense Errors
Identifying Sentence Error questions will test your knowledge of three common causes of tense errors: annoying verbs, illogical tense switches, and the conditional. Most tense errors will be pretty easy to spot; we don’t make tense errors very often in speech, so when you read a tense error on the test, it will most likely “sound” wrong to you. Your ear is your most reliable way of spotting tense errors.
Annoying Verbs
By annoying verbs, we mean those verbs that never sound quite right in any tense—like to lie or to swim. When do you lay and when do you lie? When do you swim and when have you swum? Unfortunately, there’s no easy memory trick to help you remember when to use which verb form. The only solution is to learn and remember.
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’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.
To lie and to swim aren’t the only two difficult verbs. Below, you’ll see a table of difficult verbs, in their infinitive, simple past, and past participle forms. You don’t have to memorize all of these forms; you’ll probably only see one tricky-verb question. Still, it is well worth your time to read carefully the list below and to make sure you understand especially those verbs that you’ve found confusing before.
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 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
Nowhere is it written that you must 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. That sentence has tense switches galore, but they were logical: the sentence used past tense when it was talking about the past and present tense when it was talking about the present, and the progression from past to present made sense.
ETS will give you a sentence or two with bad tense switches. Your most powerful weapon against tense switch questions is logic. We could prattle on for paragraph after paragraph about present tense, simple past, general present, and present perfect, but remembering the millions of different tense forms, and when to use what, is both difficult and unnecessary. For the SAT II Writing, simply remember: if you don’t hear an error the first time you read a sentence, and if you don’t see a pronoun problem, check out the tenses and figure out if they’re okay. Look at the following example:
 At swimming pools  last summer, the heat  will have brought 
A B 
hundreds and even  thousands of people  to bathe in  tepid 
 C D 
chlorine.  No error 
 E
This sentence begins by talking about the past (last summer), but then uses the phrase will have brought, which is not the past tense. We’re talking about a phenomenon of last summer that is now over and done with, and firmly in the past. The phrase will have brought doesn’t fit because it suggests an ongoing phenomenon. Therefore, (B) is the correct answer.
Just look at the meaning of the sentence on these iffy tense questions, and you’ll be fine.
The Conditional
The conditional is the verb form we use to describe something uncertain, something that’s conditional on something else. You can memorize the conditional formula. It goes, “If . . . were . . . would.” Look at this sentence:
If I  was  queen, I  would  never  have to   study for  a standardized
 A B C D 
test.  No error 
 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 queen, I would never have to study for a standardized test. (A) is the right answer.
Parallelism
Parallelism means making sure 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. In the question below, for example, the activities are not presented in the same format, which means there is an error of parallelism.
Porter never liked  drinking wine ,  eatting cheese , or  to go 
 A B C 
to a cocktail  party .  No error 
 D E
When you see a list like this, be on the alert for an error in parallelism. In this case, the list starts out with two gerunds (drinking, eating) and then switches to an infinitive (to go). Because the list starts out with gerunds, it has to use gerunds all the way through. (C) is the correct answer.
Not all parallelism errors occur at the beginning of phrases; some occur at the end. The sentence below is incorrect because its two halves don’t end in a similar way.
The steak  is definitely  the best entree  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.
Double Negative
A double negative is a phrase that uses two negative words instead of one. Double negatives are the province of television gangsters and airheads, who say things like, “I don’t take no garbage.” You’ll probably be adept at spotting double negatives such as “I don’t take no garbage,” but ETS will try to trick you into missing a double negative by using words that are negative but don’t sound it, like hardly, barely, or scarcely. If you see any of those three words, you should probably smell a rat.
Katie  can’t scarcely  stand to wear her  gymnastics  leotard
 A B 
 without  underwear underneath .  No error 
 C D E
Can’t is a fairly obvious negative word, but scarcely is also negative, so the two cannot be used together. (A) is the correct answer.
Adverb Errors
Adverbs present problems when they’re confused with adjectives and when they’re used in comparisons.
Confusing Adverbs with Adjectives
Adverbs are words used to describe verbs or other adverbs. Adverbs often end in –ly (breathlessly, hardily, 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 dinner 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, “My spaghetti dinner was delicious.”
People often confuse adverbs with adjectives, especially in speech. We say things like, “I ate my dinner quick.” That, however, is incorrect. Because you’re describing an action, an adverb like quickly is required.
One frequently confused adjective/adverb pair is well and good. Well is an adverb, and good is an adjective, so one cannot be substituted for the other. Look at the following sentence:
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, we must use an adverb like well, instead of the adjective good.
ETS will usually test adverb/adjective confusion by giving you a sentence that uses an adjective when it should use an adverb. See if you can spot the incorrect adjective use in this sentence:
 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 C 
 can devour  her prey.  No error 
 D E
This sentence uses the adjective quick to describe the verb devour; the adverb quickly is the right word to use. 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 right 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 as they should be. How should they be used? Well, if you’re comparing two items, you need to use what’s known as a comparative modifier. Don’t worry—you don’t need to remember the phrase “comparative modifier,” you just need to remember that when comparing two items, use a word that ends in –er, like better, sexier, shinier, etc. Only when comparing three or more things can you use a superlative modifier like best, sexiest, or shiniest.
ETS 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 Ferrari Testarossa
A B C
 best .  No error 
D E
This sentence implies 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 Testarossa best than my Civic, you’d say, I like my Testarossa 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.
Gerund Errors
A gerund is a word that ends in –ing, such as prancing, divulging, stuffing, etc. The infinitive form of a verb is the verb in its unconjugated form: to prance, to divulge, to stuff, etc. Your understanding of gerunds will usually be tested by questions that use the infinitive when they should use gerunds.
 In my family , Scrabble usually causes two or more family
A 
members  to engage in  a screaming match,  thus preventing 
 B C 
the game  to be completed .  No error 
 D E
Your ear will help you on gerund questions. The phrase preventing the game to be completed might sound funny to you. This phrase should read thus preventing the game from being completed, changing the infinitive to be to the conjugated form, being.
Idiom Errors
We’ve been talking on and on about how tough it is to spot the errors tested on this exam, because sometimes grammatical errors sound right. Well, this should make you happy: idiom errors are easy to spot because they sound wrong. In fact, there’s no rule about idiom errors. You have to be able to read a sentence and think, “That sounds plain old wrong.” Usually it’s a prepositional phrase that’s off.
Melissa  recently moved  to a  brand-new  apartment  in  108th
 A B C 
 street .  No error 
 D E
Here, the answer is (C), because we say, “I live on this street,” rather than, “I live 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 idiomatic usage.
He can’t abide by the no-spitting rule.
She accused me of stealing.
I agreed to eat the broccoli.
I apologized for losing the hamsters in the heating vent.
She applied for a 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 neuroses.
Do you care about me?
He’s in charge of grocery shopping.
Nothing compares to you.
What is there to complain about?
He can always count on money from 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 parakeets.
I have a plan to escape from this prison.
There’s no excuse for your 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 lucid arguments.
I refuse to participate in this discussion.
Pray for me.
Protect me from evil.
Provide me with plenty of Skittles.
She stayed home to recover from the flu.
I rely on myself.
She stared at his chest.
He subscribes to several trashy magazines.
I succeeded in fooling him.
Wait for me!
Work with me, people!
Occasionally, the idiomatic association between words can affect the entire sentence. Take the following example:
While the  principal  of the high school  is  mild-mannered,
 A B 
the vice principal  is often  accused  to be  too harsh with
 C D 
the students.  No error 
 E
The answer to this questions is (D) because the word accused must take the preposition of rather than to. This means that the use of the verb to be is incorrect. Instead, the sentence must use of, and the preposition of must take a gerund. For this sentence to be correct, it should read:
While the principal of the high school is mild-mannered, the vice principal is often accused of being too harsh with the students.
Wrong Word
You might see one or two wrong-word questions in Identifying Sentence Error questions. There are tons of frequently confused words, and while it’s impossible to predict which ones ETS will throw at you, it is possible to learn the difference between these pairs of words, even those words you always get wrong in your own writing.
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—words that sound the same or similar when spoken aloud, but that are spelled differently and have different meanings—dying and dyeing, for example. Because 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. Here is a handy list of commonly confused words, and their definitions:
allusion/illusion
An allusion is a reference to something.
Isolde’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 quiche.
alternate/alternative
An alternate is a substitute.
When Cherry 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 she was the owner of a Picasso sketch.
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.
“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 mint chocolate chip ice cream.
effect/affect
There’s a good chance you’ll see this pair on the test, because ETS 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 profound effect on my score.
Affect is usually a verb. To affect something is to change it or influence it.
My high score positively affected the outcome of my college applications.
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 author ducked out the back entrance.
lose/loose
To lose something is to misplace it or shake it off.
Michael 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 the chair’s occupant 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 participate in the looting.
stationary/stationery
Stationary means immobile.
Nadine used her stationary bike as a place to hang her clothes.
Stationery is the paper you get for Christmas from your aunt.
Nathaniel wrote thank-you notes on his humorous Snoopy stationery.
Made-Up Words and Phrases
Here is a list of some of the words and phrases that don’t actually exist, although people still incorrectly use them in their writing. These misspellings and concoctions exist mainly because they are the phonetic 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 a made-up word that 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 an imaginary phrase. Never use it.
Matilda could have gone on the date, but she claimed to have a prior engagement.
should’ve/should of
Should of does not exist.
Chadwick 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, Yolanda 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.
Opie used to play Monopoly with Anthony, but now he has put aside childish things.
Contraction Confusion
Look into your heart. Do you write its sometimes and it’s at other times, with little regard for which its/it’s is which? If you do, cut it out.
Contractions can be confusing. Check out the following list and get them straight.
its/it’s
Its and it’s are often used interchangeably—but they are very different beasts. Its signals possession. It’s is a contraction of it is.
It is understandable, though, 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 why 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.
This day-old soda has lost its fizz.
  • It’s is a contraction of it is.
It’s a shame that this glass of soda was left out overnight.
their/they’re/there
Their, they’re, and there are often used willy-nilly, as if they are interchangeable, which they are not. Their is possessive.
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.
Wanda, whose California roll I just ate, is looking at me with hatred.
Who’s is a contraction of who is.
Who’s responsible for the theft and ingestion of my California roll?
your/you’re
Your is possessive.
Your fly is unzipped.
You’re is a contraction of you are.
You’re getting sleepy.
When to Use What Word?
Below is a list of words we often—incorrectly—use interchangeably.
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.
Ambika enjoys irritating her sister by jabbing her in the leg during long car rides.
number/amount
Use number when referring to a group of things that can be counted.
Caroline concealed a number of gummy bears in various pockets of her jeans.
Use amount when referring to something that cannot be counted.
Caroline drank a certain amount of soda every day.
fewer/less
Use fewer when referring to items that can be counted.
Yanni complained vociferously 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.
famous/infamous
As you might know, a famous person is someone like Julia Roberts.
The famous young actor made his way up the red carpet as flashbulbs popped and girls shrieked.
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.
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