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Improving Sentences: Common Grammar Mistakes
There are four errors that will crop up again and again on Improving Sentences questions:
You will probably also see a few questions on conjunctions, coordination and subordination, fragments, and gerunds.
You won’t have to know the names of these errors. For Improving Sentences questions, you’ll just have to know how to spot them and then choose the answer choice that best fixes the error.
Before we get started on the discussion of common errors, it’s worth reiterating that about
In sentences that use the active voice, the subject does the action. For example, in the sentence My dog ate a bunch of grass, we know who ate a bunch of grass: the dog. The passive voice, in contrast, identifies the performer of the action late or even never. For example, the sentence A bunch of grass was eaten leaves the reader unsure of who or what did the eating. When you see the words is, was, were, are, etc., be on the alert: you could have passivity on your hands. The passive voice is one of the most common errors on this section of the exam.
Here we see passive voice in all of its buck-passing ugliness. The passive voice avoids naming the performer of an action. In this sentence, for example, we don’t know until the last word who washed Timmy’s drawers. The phrase was washed suggests that someone, anyone, God maybe, did the cleaning. This avoidance of naming the performer is the reason people object to the passive voice, and the reason it is wrong on the test. If you see a sentence in which you’re not sure who is performing an action until the end of the sentence, or perhaps never sure at all who performs it, you might have a passive voice problem.
In order to fix the passive voice, the performer of the action must get a place of prominence. We must realize that Timmy’s mother did the load of laundry. Both answers (B) and (E) fix the passive voice problem, but (E) is wordy and redundant, so (B) is the right answer.
By the way, do you see why it is of paramount importance that you correct the error in your own mind before reading the answer choices? If you read the answer choices all the way through, by the time you get to (E), they’ve swirled together into a mass of meaningless syllables.
Wordiness is the crime you commit when writing your papers at 1 a.m. the night before they’re due. It’s all that meaningless junk you type in a desperate bid to fill up space. We list wordiness as a subset of the passive voice because on the SAT II Writing the two problems often exist simultaneously in the same sentence. On some questions, it’s difficult to say whether the passive voice or wordiness is the more pressing problem. Of course, you don’t need to worry about what to call the problem, you just have to figure out how to fix the sentence.
This sentence is both wordy and passive. The underlined part could be said in half the space—it’s wordy. You could easily remove a few words without changing the meaning of the sentence at all. For example: Pierre observed the diners and motels of middle America, and these sights are depicted in his trendy paintings. But even in that succinct version, another problem remains: the underlined phrase does not make it clear that Pierre depicted the sights. The phrase sights that are depicted makes it sound like a disembodied hand put paint on canvas.
If you encountered this question on the test, you could immediately eliminate (A) if you realized there was a problem. Both (B) and (C) repeat the original mistakes. They are wordy and they avoid identifying Pierre as the performer of the action. Answer choice (D) looks much better; it’s short and there are no red-flag phrases or words, such as having been or is, that suggest the passive voice. Suppose you suspect that (D) is the right answer; if you plug it back into the sentence, as you should always do, you get, Pierre observed the diners and motels of middle America, and his depiction of these sights in his trendy paintings. This newly created sentence is actually a fragment, and therefore grammatically unacceptable.
So we come to (E): brief, clear, to the point, and entirely devoid of the passive voice. Does it check out? Pierre observed the diners and motels of middle America, and depicted these sights in his trendy paintings. Yes. (E) both avoids wordiness and names Pierre as the performer of the action.
You’ll probably see one or two run-on sentences on this section of the test. A run-on sentence comprises two complete sentences jammed together. For example, this is a run-on sentence:
Both halves of this sentence could function alone:
Because each half of the sentence is complete on its own, the two halves cannot be joined together with a comma.
There are a number of ways to fix a run-on sentence. One of the most common remedies, at least on the SAT II Writing, is the insertion of a semicolon. A semicolon signals that both sides of the sentence are grammatically separate, but closely related to one another. For example, this sentence could be fixed simply by replacing the comma with a semicolon:
There are other acceptable methods for correcting run-on sentences, although on this test, the semicolon is certainly the most common. Suppose you see this run-on sentence:
One way of correcting run-ons is to add the conjunction and:
Finally, you can correct run-ons by making one clause subordinate to the other. This sounds complicated, but take a look at this uncorrected run-on sentence:
“Making one clause subordinate to the other” is simply a fancy way of saying you can correct this sentence by making the relationship between the two clauses more clear. This sentence suggests that despite the student council’s efforts, people didn’t go to the dance because they went to the hockey game. This means we can correct this run-on by adding a word that makes this relationship clear:
Take a look at the following example:
Here we have a classic run-on. The two parts could stand alone:
Remember, the test writers will usually fix run-ons by exchanging the comma for a semicolon. In this case, (E), which uses the semicolon method, is the correct answer.
Note that you could also correct the question above by turning the second half into a subordinate clause:
Alternatively, you could have inserted the word and between the two clauses:
In most instances, the answer choices will only include one of these methods for fixing a run-on sentence. If both methods appear among the answer choices, you can be sure that one of those two answers will introduce some new, unrelated error.
Here’s another example of an Improving Sentences run-on:
(B) is correct. It fixes the run-on by adding a comma and and. (D) might have tempted you; it starts promisingly with and, but it introduces the new problem of the passive voice, and avoids mentioning who should try the crème brûleé.
A modifying phrase is a phrase that explains or describes a word. In grammatical English, modifiers are usually placed right next to the word they are explaining or describing. When modifiers are placed far away from the word they’re describing, the sentence can become confusing. Sometimes, as in the following sentence, it becomes unclear what word the modifying phrase is referring to.
This sentence is problematic, both grammatically and logically. We can logically infer that Jane was doing the eating, but because the modifying phrase is so far from the word it’s intended to modify, figuring out the meaning of the sentence takes a lot of work. And grammatically, one meaning of the sentence is that nausea ate six corn dogs. That is not the meaning the writer intended, but it makes grammatical sense.
When you see a modifier followed by a comma, make sure the word the modifier describes comes right after the comma. A corrected version of this sentence could read:
The phrase eating six corn dogs describes Jane and her behavior, so Jane’s name should come right after the phrase.
Another way to correct the sentence:
Take a look at this sample question:
The correct answer here is a bit tricky to determine. There is a problem with the original sentence. Because the name Marcel immediately follows the modifier having an exorbitant price and a severely trendy cut, the sentence implies that Marcel is overpriced, rather than the jeans. Because we know a problem exists, therefore, we can eliminate (A).
(B) can be eliminated because it is convoluted and difficult to follow. (C) can be eliminated for the same reason; the phrase Marcel’s snatching them up is particularly unlovely. (E) looks better, but the phrase the jeans were chosen needlessly uses the passive voice. (D) is the correct answer. It is not the classic means of fixing a misplaced modifier, but it works. Most important, in the correct answer, the phrase exorbitant price and severely trendy cut modifies designer jeans rather than Marcel. Of secondary importance is the fact that the correct answer solves another problem with the original sentence, which is the phrase having an exorbitant price and severely trendy cut; that word having does not clearly express the relationship between the jeans’ characteristics and Marcel’s purchase. In the correct answer, the word despite does clearly express that relationship. Despite suggests that even though the jeans have a few major problems, Marcel bought them anyway.
We covered parallelism in the Identifying Sentence Error chapter, but we’ll give it a brief review again here since it is likely to show up in the Improving Sentences questions. In a sentence, all of the different components must start, continue, and end in the same, or parallel, way. It’s especially common to find errors of parallelism in sentences that list actions or items. In the list below, for example, the rules are not presented in the same format, which means there is an error of parallelism.
The first two forbidden things end in –ing (-ing words are called gerunds), and because of that, the third forbidden thing must also end in –ing. If you start with gerunds, you must continue with gerunds all the way through a sentence.
Here is a sample Improving Sentences parallelism question:
The description of the pass’s powers begins with an infinitive, to use. Therefore, on the other side of that and, we should find another infinitive. Instead, the original sentence has the unparallel phrase he could transfer. (E), the correct answer, balances both sides of the equation by substituting to transfer. In its corrected form, the sentence is made nicely parallel and balanced by the two infinitives:
Often, Improving Sentences questions will test parallelism by switching the infinitive to a gerund.
The correct answer here is (D). The infinitive to have must be replaced by the gerund having.
Conjunctions are connecting words such as and, but, or, which, etc. They provide means of linking two parts of a sentence together. Suppose you have two sentences:
A conjunction such as which enables you to connect the two halves of the sentence:
Improving Sentences questions will test you on conjunctions by including sentences in which the conjunction doesn’t make logical sense. For example:
The right answer is (D). In this sentence, the conjunction that expresses the function of the novel more elegantly than the phrase and it does.
A few paragraphs ago, we talked about run-ons, which are commonly tested errors in this section. Fragments are almost the opposite of run-on sentences. Whereas run-ons are sentences with too many clauses squashed together, fragments have no independent clause, and therefore are incomplete sentences.
The problem here is with growling, an incomplete verb form. The original sentence sets up—and never fulfills—an expectation in the reader. We think, “The bad-cop vice principal growling at terrified students what?” We expect the sentence to continue.
The sentence would be complete if, say, it read, The bad-cop vice principal growling at terrified students was notorious for his brutal tactics. The answer choices don’t expand on sentences in quite this way, but the correct answer, (E), does take away the problem of expectation. When we read The bad-cop vice principal growls at terrified students, we don’t expect the sentence to continue. He growls and that’s the end of the story.
Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of coordination and subordination. Remember, you don’t need to recognize grammar terms, you just need to recognize the problem when you see it.
Bad coordination happens when two clauses are joined together with a word that misrepresents their relationship. For example:
Here we see that J.C. creates his own T-shirts. He also designs logos for the T-shirts. So should the word but express the relationship between these two activities? No, because the two activities are closely related. The word but would make sense only if the sentence said something like J.C. made T-shirts, but other than that he sat around playing Mario Kart all day. If you get to the middle of a sentence and it takes a turn you weren’t expecting, look for a coordination error.
In this question, we can eliminate (B) because the word however is also a bad choice when joining these two clauses. It expresses the same kind of relationship as does the word but. We can eliminate (E) for the same reason. Answer (D) isn’t quite as bad as (B) and (E), but J.C. made T-shirts since he designed the logos himself doesn’t make that much sense. J.C. doesn’t make T-shirts because he designs the logos, he makes T-shirts and designs the logos, which is exactly what (C) says. Answer (C) conveys the idea that the two halves of the sentence go together. Read the sentence once to make sure it makes sense: J.C. made T-shirts and he designed the logos himself. Lovely.
Subordination problems happen when there are two subordinate clauses and no main clause. When you see the words although, because, if, since, or so that, you know that a subordinate clause is on the way. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard the phrase “subordinate clause” before. As an English speaker, you already know where subordinate clauses go and how they should sound. If you see one clause that starts with although, because, if, since, or so that, and then another clause that starts with one of these words, you’ll hear the screwiness loud and clear:
You don’t need to know that this sentence is an example of bad subordination. You just need to see that the two parts of the sentence don’t go together. Why don’t they? Because there’s something strange about the middle of the sentence. You hit the comma, and then the sentence takes an unexpected turn.
The first part of the sentence sets us up: Because Teddy thought his first date with Maria went well, we expect something along the lines of he invited her out again or he kissed her on her front porch, right? Instead, we get the phrase so that. That sounds funny. So (A) is wrong, because immediately we heard a problem. In (B), the word although gives us exactly the same sort of problem as existed in the original sentence. Same with (C), because. (D) looks good (and is the right answer). In (E), the word and doesn’t go with the although that starts the sentence. Read (D) into the sentence to make sure: Because Teddy thought his first date with Maria went well, he called her every day for the next week. Looks good.
On coordination and subordination questions, the only important thing is to think of yourself, the reader. Did you feel a twinge of surprise when you hit the middle of the sentence? Did the sentence veer off in a weird and unexpected direction? If so, look for an answer choice that makes you, the reader, feel like you’re on firm ground.
We put the cheap tricks at the end of this chapter because they are to be employed only in cases of desperation. Use them when you cannot eliminate even one answer choice, or when you’ve eliminated all but two answer choices and find yourself wasting precious minutes agonizing over which answer choice is the correct one.
Before we begin discussing the cheap tricks, we must add a further caveat: do not apply the cheap tricks blindly. They don’t work all of the time, and they shouldn’t be relied upon too heavily. For example, we advise you to avoid answer choices that include gerunds, answers that change the content of the sentence, and long answers; but sometimes the right answer will include a word that ends in –ing, sometimes the right answer will seem like it changes the meaning of the original sentence, and sometimes the right answer will be long. The cheap tricks can improve your odds of correctly answering a question on which you’re stumped, but they aren’t foolproof.
That said, let’s dive into the bag of cheap tricks. Suppose that you find yourself stymied by this question:
You invoke the first rule (read the sentence and try to hear the problem) and hear something funny about the phrase seeing as how. Let’s say you’re not sure how to fix it. Even though you don’t immediately think of a solution, since you know a problem does exist, you remember that you can automatically eliminate (A) because that choice repeats the underlined part of the sentence. You then call on another rule, and eliminate any answer choices that repeat the original mistake. In this case, that means eliminating answer choice (D), which repeats the problematic word seeing.
Let’s say you now find yourself stuck. (B), (C), and (E) look equally good to you. It’s time to call on the dirty tricks that will allow you to outwit the SAT II test writers.
Cheap Trick #1: cross out answer choices that begin with -ing words
In the case of the sentence Brent’s cowboy hat looks pretty silly, seeing as how he lives in Manhattan, employing the trick means you’d read the word considering and alarm bells would go off. That means you can eliminate answer (C), considering him living in Manhattan. In cases like this one, -ing words (for the record, they’re called gerunds) are often awkward. If you read the sentence and have no idea which answer choice is right, get rid of the one with a word like considering.
Cheap Trick #2: cross out answer choices that change the content of the sentence
Be suspicious of answer choices that fiddle with the meaning of the sentence. (E) is the obvious suspect in our sample question: after all he doesn’t live in the West. There’s a better reason than the cheap trick to eliminate (E): if you substitute (E) into the original sentence, you get Brent’s cowboy hat looks pretty silly, after all he doesn’t live in the West, which is a run-on sentence and therefore grammatically incorrect. If you didn’t spot the run-on, though, and were in a panic, you could have eliminated (E) anyway, thanks to Cheap Trick #2. The sentence we started out with had to do with New York, and how ridiculous one looks sporting a cowboy hat in Manhattan. (E) brings up the West—new territory. Remember, the directions explicitly instruct you to choose the answer that best expresses the meaning of the original sentence, so an answer choice that messes with the original meaning should be eliminated.
Cheap Trick #3: brevity is the soul of a right answer
When you find yourself staring blankly at two or three answer choices, bewildered and sweaty, go with the shorter answer choice. ETS likes to keep the right answers concise. (B) is not only the right answer, it’s nice and short: since he lives in Manhattan.
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