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How to Approach Improving Sentences Questions
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!
How to Approach Improving Sentences Questions
When answering questions in this section, use these eight rules to help you. We briefly list the rules below and then explain them in more detail, using them to answer the sample question.
  1. Read the sentence and try to hear the problem.
  2. If there is an error, immediately eliminate (A).
  3. Before you look at the answer choices, figure out how to fix the error.
  4. Look at the remaining answer choices and try to find the correction that most nearly matches your own correction.
  5. If none of the corrections matches your own, go through the answer choices and eliminate those that repeat the mistake in the original sentence or contain a new mistake.
  6. If you’re stymied, turn to your bag of cheap tricks (more on cheap tricks in a while).
  7. Once you’ve picked an answer choice, plug the answer back into the sentence to make sure it works.
  8. Remember, even if you only eliminate one answer choice, you must guess.
Now to apply these steps to the sample question, which is reprinted below:
Jenna was awarded the medal not for her academic prowess or her skill on the soccer field, but for her being a participant in gym class.
(A) but for her being a participant in gym class
(B) the reason being for her participation in gym class
(C) the reason was her participating in gym class
(D) but for her being participation-willing in gym class
(D) but for her participation in gym class
1. Read the sentence and try to hear the problem.
A good ear will take you far on Improving Sentences questions. If you can read a sentence and figure out what about the underlined part sounds strange or wrong, you’re on your way to a right answer. You might read the sample sentence and immediately recognize that wordiness is the problem—the phrase but for her being a participant should be rewritten in a more compact form. If you don’t come up with the specific term “wordiness,” you might sense that something about the underlined part is vague and a bit convoluted. It’s fine if you can’t think of the term that would best describe the problem. Just getting a general sense of the problem will be very helpful.
2. If there is an error, immediately eliminate (A).
You already know that there’s a problem with this sentence. That means you can eliminate (A), since answer choice (A) always repeats the underlined part word for word. Even if you know only that there’s an error of some sort, and haven’t yet figured out what the error is, you can eliminate (A).
The elimination of (A) means something besides “one down, four to go.” It means that even if the other four answers look like gibberish, you must guess. Remember, if you can eliminate even one answer choice, the guessing odds are in your favor.
3. Before you look at the answer choices, figure out how to fix the error.
Once you’ve decided what the problem is with the underlined part of the sentence, say to yourself (silently, not aloud—you don’t want to reveal your genius to other test takers in the room): “This would be a better sentence if it read something like Jenna was awarded the medal not for her academic prowess or her skill on the soccer field, but for participating in gym class.” That conveys the right information, but doesn’t take up unnecessary space.
It is of the utmost importance to correct the sentence in your head before you look at the answer choices. Why? Because if you go right to the answer choices, and dutifully read through them one by one, by the time you get to (C), they will all sound equally confusing and wrong. The answer choices are designed to make you feel this way. If you have a solution in mind before you dive in, you can look at the answer choices calmly, and with focus.
4. Look at the remaining answer choices and try to find the correction that most closely matches your own correction.
Your correction was, Jenna was awarded the medal not for her academic prowess or her skill on the soccer field, but for participating in gym class. You look at the remaining answer choices and see which one of them most nearly matches your correction:
(A) but for her being a participant in gym class
(B) the reason being for her participation in gym class
(C) the reason was her participating in gym class
(D) but for her being participation-willing in gym class
(E) but for her participation in gym class
(E) looks most like the answer you came up with before looking at the answer choices. It’s not exactly like your prepared answer—it uses her participation instead of for participating—but it’s very close. Rarely will an answer choice exactly match the one you generated on your own, which is fine. The purpose of preparing your own answer first is not to find an exact match in the answer choices, but to have an idea of what you’re looking for before you start reading the choices.
Of course, sometimes you won’t be sure whether your own answer matches any of the answer choices closely enough. In that case, move to step #5.
5. If none of the corrections matches your own, go through the answer choices and eliminate those that repeat the mistake or contain a new mistake.
You’ll usually see a few answer choices that actually repeat the mistake. Some might fix the original mistake, but in the process add a new error to the mix.
Suppose you weren’t certain that (E) matched your prepared answer closely enough. In that case, you would read through the answer choices and try to determine if they repeated the first mistake or contained a new one. Answer choice (B) has a problem similar to that of the original sentence. It says, the reason being, which is a wordy phrase. (C) contains a new problem: the word participating is a gerund, but should be a noun. (D) repeats the original mistake, repeating the phrase but for her being; it also introduces a new problem by using the strange phrase participation-willing. Only (E) neither repeats the original problem nor contains a new one.
Step #5 covers cheap tricks that can help you eliminate answers when all else fails. Since we aren’t stumped on this question, we’ll skip the cheap tricks for now, and discuss them at the end of the chapter.
6. Plug your answer back into the sentence to make sure it works.
Jenna was awarded the medal not for her academic prowess or her skill on the soccer field, but for her participation in gym class.
Sounds good. This step shouldn’t normally cause you to reevaluate your work; it’s just a quick check to make sure the answer choice actually sounds okay in the context of the sentence.
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