Posts filed under: Writing

Summer-long Challenge: Grammar Police

One of the things you should be doing this summer if you want to improve your critical reading skills is making sure to read some sophisticated writing (newspapers, magazines, books) every day. You should be doing your best to understand the arguments made (if possible, by discussing what you read with others), and you should be making flashcards for words you don’t know.

You should also keep your eyes peeled for the occasional grammar error. Why? Because once in a while, even in sophisticated writing, you’ll find one. And if you do, I’ll give you a Math Guide. Yeah, seriously.

The rules
  • To submit a grammar error, leave a comment in this post with a link and an explanation of the error.
  • I want real, SAT-tested grammar errors, not just writing style you don’t like. If the SAT doesn’t test it, it doesn’t count. I’m looking for stuff like:
  • Wikipedia doesn’t count. Neither does your own blog, or your friend’s blog. Message boards are so far from counting it’s not even funny. I could do another contest about finding 10 posts in a row on a message board with flawless grammar. That one might actually be harder.
  • Spelling errors and obvious typographical errors, while fun to point out, don’t count for this contest. I know I’ve accepted a few since this contest began, but the SAT doesn’t test spelling errors, or even hold your own against you in the essay.
  • Newspapers and Magazines definitely DO count. So do books, but you’re going to have to find a way to link to them. Maybe you snap a picture of the error and the book cover and submit the images?
  • If your submission contains bad grammar in dialog because that’s how a character speaks, “that don’t count.”
  • Anything that doesn’t fit the above descriptions can also be submitted, but whether it counts will be at my discretion. For example, if you show me a short story on McSweeney’s that contains a run-on that seems to me like it was done on purpose for stylistic reasons, that doesn’t count. But if that same story contained a dangling modifier, it’d count.
  • Once an error has been submitted, it can’t be submitted again. Neither can a reprint of it. (For example, AP stories end up in a bunch of different newspapers, but once the story’s been submitted from one paper’s sites, that same story can’t be resubmitted from another paper’s site.)
  • If you win once, you can’t win again.
  • If you’re not in the US, you can win but you have to pay for shipping.
  • Contest ends August 31, 2012.
UPDATE: This was emailed to me instead of left in the comments, but I wanted to add it to the post as an illustration of what I’m looking for.

From the New York Times: Lana Peters, Stalin’s Daughter, Dies at 85, 6th paragraph:

“Long after fleeing her homeland, she seemed to be still searching for something — sampling religions, from Hinduism to Christian Science, falling in love and constantly moving. Her defection took her from India, through Europe, to the United States. After moving back to Moscow in 1984, and from there to Soviet Georgia, friends told of her going again to America, then to England, then to France, then back to America, then to England again, and on and on. All the while she faded from the public eye.”

That’s a dangling modifier, folks. Her friends didn’t move back to Moscow and then to Soviet Georgia. Nice work to the anonymous reader who sent that one in.

Grow your vocabulary and become a better writer at the same time

I found this image all over the web but couldn’t find an original creator. 🙁

People are always asking me for the best way to increase vocabulary. Because I’m most often asked this question about a week before the test, what they usually mean by “best” is “most expeditious.” Let’s be clear: What I’m going to be talking about in this post isn’t the fastest way to grow vocabulary. But it’s a great way to build a robust vocabulary over time, and become a better writer at the same time. I can sum it up in three words: Use a thesaurus.

In more than three words, here’s what I mean. When you’re writing a paper for school (or a letter to your grandma, or an acceptance speech for a major award) make it your mission to repeat as few words as possible. If, for example, you would use the word “angry three times, go back and replace two of them with “chafed” and “irate.” If you have occasion to use “big” more than once, use “voluminous,” or “hulking,” or “colossal.” See if you’re able to create a document that doesn’t repeat any words that aren’t conjunctions, articles, prepositions, or pronouns.

It’s a challenge to do this well. Not every word a thesaurus will provide is exactly interchangeable in every scenario; you’ll need to make sure the word you’re trying to use actually fits. For example, it’s cool to say a house is “big,” or “capacious,” but you probably wouldn’t call a house “burly.” It’s advisable, then, to use the thesaurus and dictionary concomitantly. Use the thesaurus for word ideas, and the dictionary to confirm that your choice actually works in context.

One last note: This practice will not only enhance to your vocabulary, but also elevate your writing. The most important writing you do isn’t really the SAT essay, but let’s have a quick look at how you’re actually being evaluated on the SAT essay. What’s this? An essay that receives a top score of 6 “exhibits skillful use of language, using a varied, accurate, and apt vocabulary”? Hmm…

5-Paragraph Essay: Part III: Dodging Claim and Summary (What NOT to Do)

This is part 3 of a multi-post series on writing the 25-minute SAT essay, a paragraph-by-paragraph, sentence-by-sentence breakdown. Basically, these posts will construct a full-fledged essay template.

If you haven’t checked out part 1 on the introduction paragraph, jump on over there first. And part 2 on topic sentences here.

I had this convo the other day:

Me: Ah, so nice to see you again, my dear good ol’ friend Mr. Analysis.
Mr. Analysis: I’m going to pwn you, straight up. You can’t even handle me right now. I’m so tricky.
Me: Hey, that’s not nice. Plus, if I remember correctly, I’m the one who pwned you last we met. Remember all those As I got on English papers in high school?
Mr. Analysis: Pfft. That doesn’t count. As I recall, you only got an 11 on the SAT essay one time.
Me: @#%@%!! Crap. You’re right. Good thing I got a 12 the next time. And since you’re being so mean to me, I’m going to expose just how to pwn you to the rest of the world now.
Mr. Analysis: Say what??!! I keel you now. I keel you till you dead.
Me: Sure, buddy. See you in hell.

All right folks, listen up. Mr. Analysis is no easy opponent. He doesn’t like to go down without a fight as you just saw in my conversation above. He’s a belligerent, mean little guy with a lot of brawn on his side. In some ways, it’s a David vs. Goliath match.

No matter though because I’m in your corner. Now the biggest things to watch out for are Mr. Analysis’ right and left hooks. He even has pet names for each fist. His right fist has the word “CLAIM” tattooed to it. And his left knuckles spell “SUMMARY.” Those are his two biggest weapons against you.

So basically, you gotta get past Claim and Summary to get to Analysis himself. But what exactly are Claim and Summary?

CLAIM – a statement, declaration, or allegation. This guy is a beast to beat because Claim likes to go unsupported. He’s a bit of a show off, and no doubt, most of Mr. Analysis’ blows will be from his right fist, Claim.

This is the biggest problem I see when students write. They write a dizzying number of unsupported claims. Students make some big bold statement, but then they don’t back it up with any sort of evidence. Worse, they don’t even try to explain their reasoning behind their bold declaration.

Claim Example: “The death penalty is unfair. It is an ineffective way to curb violence because too many criminals get away anyways. The death penalty would only show the world how hypocritical we are.”

Notice that this writer is getting pummeled by Claim. Every sentence is just a claim, a declaration without an ounce of reasoning or support. He doesn’t explain WHY he thinks the death penalty is unfair. Sure, he says it’s ineffective, but what’s his reason? Because too many criminals get away? That doesn’t explain HOW it’s ineffective; that’s just restating the definition of ineffective (when something doesn’t work…when criminals get away.) He needs to actually tell us WHAT makes it possible for the criminals to get away and WHY the death penalty doesn’t deter crime. Basically we want to know WHAT makes or HOW or WHY the death penalty is ineffective.

He goes on to say the death penalty shows the world how hypocritical we are. Okay…but…like, how? He doesn’t answer that.

To get past CLAIM you have to use your own weapons: the five Ws and H (who, what, where, when, why, and how). Constantly re-read your own sentences and ask yourself those five Ws and H. If you can ask yourself one of those five Ws or H, then you need to answer it. You need to clarify your sentence until you’re no longer making an unsupported claim. You need to explain your reasoning behind your claim. Tell us what makes you believe your claim.

The other big foe is SUMMARY, Mr. Analysis’ left fist. If you’ve heard your English teacher ever tell you, “Don’t give me a plot summary, give me a plot analysis…” then you’ve already gotten a taste of the secret to beating SUMMARY.

SUMMARY – a restatement of what’s already been said in your own words. Or telling us the details of the event/incident/example you’re going to use to support your claim.

It’s great that you’re bringing in some specific examples to support your claim. The problem is you can’t let the example itself do all the fighting (analyzing) for you.

Let’s say you want to argue (claim) that the death penalty is effective, and the example you have for that is a study in Texas about the effects of the death penalty.

Summary Example: “In Texas, where the death penalty was in effect for quite a long period of time, the crime rate was at an all-time low. But when the death penalty was repealed, Texas suddenly experienced a spike in crime rates, especially murders.”

That’s almost pretty good. However, it’s still just a summary because it summarizes what happened – the details of the situation. This is not analysis because it doesn’t actually tell us HOW the death penalty is effective. Yes, I know it’s pretty clearly implied, but you need to explicitly say it. Don’t let your summary sing its own merits. You need to drive the point home with a sentence (or several) that directly spells it out so that even the slow ones can’t miss your point.

Go on and actually say, “By scaring would-be criminals with the very real reality of the death penalty, Texas was able to deter crime and create a state with record low crime rates. This consequence is no coincidence but the result of an effective deterrent known as the death penalty. The reason Texas saw a spike in murders immediately after the death penalty was revoked is that criminals were no longer scared by the possibility of their own deaths. Criminals knew the worst that could happen to them if they were caught was a lifetime prison sentence, maybe at a maximum security facility, from which there was still hope to break out of or earn probation and an early release. As long as they weren’t dead, there was always a chance to rectify things. This lesser punishment made criminals more willing to commit more deadly deeds. Clearly, anything less than the death penalty is ineffective at preventing murder.”

That there, my friends, is true analysis.

Summary is the first step to getting to true analysis, but summary is not analysis itself. Summary helps set up your position so that you can better explain yourself. But just like opening your SAT book is great because it puts you in a position to study, it doesn’t actually study for you. YOU have to study. YOU have to analyze, not just let your summary analyze for you because it won’t and can’t.

True analysis is showing WHY your claim is right by supporting it with specific examples where you don’t just summarize what happened, but actually tell us something that’s not directly stated in the quote/example you’ve picked.

Now that you’ve learned to dodge Claim and Summary (what NOT to do), you still have to learn how to deliver the finishing blow (what TO do): strike Mr. Analysis deep in the chest. We’ll cover how to actually analyze well in the next post.

To winning!

Peter Peng is a SAT/ACT tutor and college admissions essay consultant based in the greater Los Angeles area. He is currently working on a book entitled The SAT Decoded and can be reached at peter@pwnthesat.com.

5-Paragraph Essay: Part II: Body Paragraph — How to Write a Topic Sentence


This is part 2 of a multi-post series on writing the 25-minute SAT essay, a paragraph-by-paragraph, sentence-by-sentence breakdown. Basically, these posts will construct a full-fledged essay template.

If you haven’t checked out part 1 on the introduction paragraph, jump on over there first.
Paragraph 2 — Example 1/Analysis (approx. 7-10 sentences):
Paragraph 2 is your first body paragraph. This is where you analyze your first example, but for now, let’s just focus on the first sentence of the paragraph, your topic sentence.
Sentence 1: topic sentence that states you’re going to use specific example #1 to support the point you claim in your thesis; make this a rehashing of your thesis…a mini thesis essentially.
Naturally, in order to write this topic sentence, you need to know what your example is. If you’ve cared to follow my introduction advice (which you should), then you’ve already listed your examples in the last sentence of the intro. It is imperative that you have these examples ready to go before you even begin writing the intro. Outlining your essay before you begin is absolutely necessary. That is not a suggestion; it’s a command. Trust me…I hated outlines too, but it’s really necessary here because if you mess up your organization, you won’t have time to erase and rewrite.
Writing a topic sentence involves uniting two things in holy matrimony:
  •          Thesis (first sentence of intro)
  •          List of examples (last sentence of intro)

*Note: I use the term “sentence” loosely because maybe you spent more than one sentence to accomplish the task. Don’t constrain yourself to strict sentence counting…this ain’t blackjack.

You’re going to marry those two parts together to form your topic sentence for this first body paragraph. It’s pretty easy. Follow me here.
Thesis: “Although questioning authority may come off as irreverent and rebellious, such an action can actually be beneficial when it allows people to understand the motives and reasons behind the wishes of an authority.”
List of examples: “In both history and my personal life, subordinates who have asked authority to clarify its intentions have helped generate tremendous success. In the Battle of Stony Gate during the Arctic War in 1873 and in a recent championship volleyball match against my high school team’s rival, victory was won because people were willing to question authority.”
Now the fun part…you get to play Dr. Frankenstein. Ready for the magic of recombination? (Cue the maniacal mad scientist laughter).
Topic sentence: When the soldiers questioned General Hendrick’s decision during the Battle of Stony Gate, they were able to better understand his strategy, which allowed them to win the battle. ß Zzap! It’s alive! Congrats, it’s a kicking, breathing topic sentence.
If you really want to be impressive, add some texture and detail. Be more specific.
Topic sentence: When the soldiers questioned General Hendrick’s decision to charge the opposing army despite commanding a far smaller army during the Battle of Stony Gate, they merely wanted to understand Hendrick’s strategy. Understanding Hendrick’s plan allowed the soldiers to work together more cohesively and actually win the battle.
*Note: Don’t worry that there are actually two sentences. Focus on achieving the purpose/function of the topic sentence rather than counting how many periods you’ve used.
See how I explain a bit on how questioning authority was beneficial (my thesis)? I don’t just say it was beneficial. I don’t just say it was beneficial because it allowed the soldiers to understand the general’s strategy. I take it all the way home. I go as far as saying it was beneficial because it allowed the soldiers to understand the strategy and work together more cohesively to win the battle. If the thought gets too long, break it up into two or three sentences.
The more specific you can be, the better. That goes for pretty much everything…from your thesis to your list of examples to your topic sentences to your analysis.
The topic sentence is the easy part. The hard part is deep analysis, which is basically a bunch of sentences that connect your example to your main point (the thesis). Make this commentary explicit, logical, and specific. We’ll get down and dirty with deep analysis in the next post.

Peter Peng is an SAT/ACT tutor and college admissions essay consultant based in the greater Los Angeles area. He is currently working on a book entitled The SAT Decoded and can be reached at peter@pwnthesat.com.

An Oldie But Goodie: 5-Paragraph Essay Part I: Introduction Paragraph

You know the 5-paragraph essay format you learned way back when? Use it. Or at least use a 4-paragraph essay where you cut out one of the body paragraphs.

Of course there are other formats that can get you a nice score on this essay, but if you don’t already know them, now is not the time to learn or practice unfamiliar writing models…not with this much riding on the line. If you’re already familiar with other formats, then I’m guessing you don’t really need my help. You are probably already an excellent writer, and scoring a 10-12 should be a cakewalk for you.
For the rest of you, stick to the 5-paragraph essay structure, which let me remind you goes like this:
Paragraph 1: Thesis + Introduction
Paragraph 2: Example 1/Analysis
Paragraph 3: Example 2/Analysis
Paragraph 4 (optional): Example 3/Analysis, or alternatively, shoot down objections to your viewpoint
Paragraph 5 (optional): Conclusion
Many 4 or 5 paragraph essays following this template have received perfect 12s, including my own where I followed this exact format. Even if you are an excellent writer who knows other formats, the 5-paragraph format is a tried and true format that can get you a perfect score. Why risk other writing models that may or may not work for you?
I say paragraphs 4 and 5 (conclusion) are optional because I’ve seen so many, and I really mean MANY, essays get perfect 12s with only two examples. I’ve also seen many perfect scores with no conclusion whatsoever. You could be mid-sentence with your last sentence when time is called and still earn a 12 if your holistic impression is that good.
However, I wouldn’t make both paragraphs 4 and 5 optional. Try to write at least one of them. A third example (paragraph 4) is only optional if you can’t come up with another example or are running out of time.
Today, I want to focus on the introduction, a short but crucial little guy that not only sets the tone of your essay but also helps you organize your thoughts. A strong intro forces you to think specifically, which is a good thing.
Paragraph 1: Thesis + Introduction (2-3 sentences)
Sentence 1: make your first sentence your thesis where you pick a clear side. Your thesis must be specific.
Cut out the fluffy intros. Just cut…them…out. And don’t just say, “I believe questioning authority can be a good thing sometimes.” Notice how many weak qualifying words are in that sentence. I believe? Well duh, Sherlock. We know you believe it because you wrote it. Sometimes? Give me a break. Almost nothing in life is 100% absolutely the case all the time.
              “Questioning authority can be a good thing.” ß stronger, but we can
do better still.
“Although questioning authority may come off as irreverent and rebellious, such an action can actually be beneficial when it allows people to understand the motives and reasons behind the wishes of an authority.” ß much better.
Notice the level of specificity that single sentence contains. THAT’S what a thesis is all about, baby. That’s what a powerhouse statement does – provides an instant and powerful impact straightaway. We don’t need some lousy, generalizing introductory remarks. Just tell us what you think.
This thesis is potent because it accomplishes many things:
·       Takes a clear side. We know this author believes that questioning authority is good in certain situations. (The prompt probably asked, “Can questioning authority ever be good?”) Notice how the author did not say, “Sometimes questioning authority can be good, while other times it can be bad.” Such a statement doesn’t pick a side at all. Even if you truly can’t pick a side honestly in your heart, just pick one for the essay. You want to EXPLICTLY state your side (that means directly spell it out). Don’t imply it.
·       Addresses opposing view. He shows that he understands potential concerns of the other side (that questioning authority might be irreverent or rebellious). By not simply ignoring such objections to his own stance, this author demonstrates he has considered the big picture, not just his own side. Mature writing always takes other viewpoints into consideration. You don’t need a whole paragraph shooting down arguments from the other side – though you can in the fourth paragraph if you have time – but at least give some credence to the other side.
·       Narrows the scope of the topic. Picking a clear side isn’t about saying whether questioning authority is good or bad. It’s about defining a specific situation when questioning authority is good or bad. He believes it’s good but takes it a step further by saying it’s good “when it allows people to understand the motives and reasons behind the wishes of an authority.” This effectively narrows the scope of his essay to one about understanding motives/reasons. This scope is much more manageable for a 25-minute essay and allows much more in-depth analysis. Remember, the smaller your scope and the more you write on that smaller scope, the more detailed and strong your argument becomes.
·       Makes it clear what we can expect from this essay. Do you honestly have any doubt what this guy is going to be writing about?
·       Uses skillful diction. He doesn’t just say something is “good” but chooses a more appropriate and precise word: “beneficial.” Showcasing your command of precise language and vocabulary just makes you sound smarter, more eloquent.
·       Demonstrates an ability to compose advanced sentences. This thesis is not something simple with a single clause. It has two clauses: “Although questioning authority…blah blah” and “It allows people to…blah blah.” Dual sentence constructions are pretty potent stuff. And powerful writing will earn you that high score. Don’t forget to vary your sentence structures throughout the rest of the essay though. Mix longer dual construction sentences with short and sweet single construction sentences. Varying the lengths helps with readability and flow.
Sentence 2 (optional): expound on your thesis from the other angle.
If your thesis is about how questioning authority is beneficial in order to understand the motives/reasons behind an authority’s wish, then perhaps mention how upset people get at following blind orders. Tell us what sorts of unspeakable evils might happen if people don’t know the reason they are being forced to do something. Your thesis claimed that understanding motives makes questioning authority beneficial. Sentence 2 would explain a situation when NOT understanding motives creates a bad situation, the opposite of beneficial. So approach your viewpoint from two angles that are actually the same viewpoint. Ever heard the joke, “Heads I win, tails you lose?” Well, in both cases – heads or tails – you win the coin toss. Same thing here with sentence 2.
Sentence 3:briefly state your examples that you’ll use to support your thesis.
You should have spent a few minutes outlining your essay before you’ve even written your thesis, so you should already know what examples you’ll use. State them here. Something like this:
“In both history and my personal life, subordinates who have asked authority to clarify its intentions have helped generate tremendous success. In the Battle of Stony Gate during the Arctic War in 1873 and in a recent championship volleyball match against my high school team’s rival, victory was won because people were willing to question authority.”
Okay, I know that’s two sentences…but stop nitpicking. Sentence 3 is meant to serve the purpose of briefly stating your examples. If it takes more than exactly one sentence to accomplish, then so be it. It’s fine.
A Word on Making Stuff Up
By the way, I totally made up that battle and war, but it probably sounded real, didn’t it? It’s fine to make stuff up so long as it sounds believable. To be honest, I never really make up stuff in my essays because real examples are easier to analyze. There are more specific and concrete details to pick from.
If you’re someone who can come up with a believable fake fact, then you’re also probably someone who could write well using real examples. Why not go with the more direct route and just use real examples? Why date controversy? The risk in making stuff up is that these examples often lack concrete details.
You know how you can easily tell when someone’s lying? You ask them a bunch of simple but specific questions rapid fire and watch for his reaction. Enforcers at the popular nightclubs I frequent in Hollywood do this all the friggin’ time. “When’s your birthday?” “How tall are you?” “What’s your home address?” “This picture doesn’t look like you.” If I get flustered trying to answer these questions, I know I’m going to be taking a cab home alone that night.
The same idea applies when you make stuff up for your essay. If you can’t answer questions about specific details, if you just mingle with generalities, your example’s not gonna fly. Bottom line: make stuff up only as a last resort.
I’ll be getting into the body paragraphs and conclusion in upcoming posts! Thanks for reading, and here’s to decoding the SAT. May high scores and years of happiness rain upon you.
Peace and love,
Peter Peng is a SAT/ACT tutor and college admissions essay consultant based in the greater Los Angeles area. He is currently working on a book entitled The SAT Decoded and can be reached at peter@pwnthesat.com.

Want an 800 in writing?

I’m compelled, as I was when I wrote a similar post about the math section, to begin by saying this: If you’re striving for an 800 as a means to an end (admission to the school of your choice, etc.) you should know that close is probably good enough. An 800 is unlikely to open any doors that a score in the high 700s would not. I can relate to anyone who wants to hit 800 just to say she did it—I was that kind of student in high school, too—but it would be irresponsible of me to begin this post with anything other than a disclaimer that if you’re doing this for anything other than the thrill of the chase, you might look back at this time and think that you could have been spending this time doing something that might have brought you more personal satisfaction.

Phew! Now that we’ve got that over with, are you ready for a list of bullet points?!

  • You need to know all the common rules like the back of your hand. This should go without saying, but you absolutely must be able to spot a dangling modifier, a run-on, or a comparison error in your sleep. In fact, you should know everything on this page, and all the pages it links to. Want it all broken down even finer? Get Erica’s book.
  • Learn from every mistake. Some questions are trickier than others, but if you’re shooting for perfection then there’s no such thing as a bogus question. Every mistake is an opportunity not to make a similar mistake. Don’t get mad, get even.
  • Remember that the SAT loves to introduce new problems in the answer choices. In the Sentence Improvement section, one of the easiest ways to miss a question is to pick a choice that fixes the original problem, but introduces a new one (often a run-on). Make sure you read the sentence again with your choice inserted before moving on.
  • Leave no blanks. I advocate guessing in most cases, but especially in this one. If you’re even thinking about 800, then you should be able to correctly eliminate AT LEAST one incorrect choice on even the hardest problems. What’s more, if you’ve got a realistic shot at 800, then you won’t be missing enough to cost yourself points. A blank, in that case, is just as bad as an incorrect guess—so at least give yourself the chance at getting the question right.
  • The essay is important. Look, I know as well as anyone that it’s no fun to write a practice essay. And I’ve worked with enough students to know that no matter how many times I tell them to do a WHOLE test before I see them again, I’ve got maybe a 50/50 chance of them writing an essay. Practicing the essay is no fun. But if you don’t do it, then you’re putting yourself in the unfortunate position of sitting in your exam room at 8 AM with sweaty palms and no idea what to write. Or hand cramps and not enough time/space to fit in everything you want to say. You need to practice writing concise, convincing arguments in 25 minutes. If you don’t, you won’t.
  • The essay is not that important. You can get a 9 on your essay and still hit 800 with a perfect performance on the multiple choice section. So don’t obsess over scoring a 12. I’ve read essays I thought were awful that got 12s, and I’ve read essays I thought were great that didn’t get 12s. You’re at the mercy of nameless, faceless, overworked graders. If you can consistently write essays that score 10 or better, focus your energies on grammar rules and try to ace the multiple choice.
  • Don’t neglect the paragraph improvement section. It’s only 6 questions per test, so it’s easy to brush off preparing for this section. If you’re shooting for 800, though, then you can’t afford to be caught flat-footed. Remember that “in context” means you’re looking for sentences that make sense in the paragraph, and that transition nicely from the sentence before them, and into the sentence after them.
  • Don’t sweat idioms. Seriously, there are an incredible number of idioms that the SAT could test, but unlike vocabulary words which appear over and over again, there’s not much of a pattern to the idioms that are tested. That’s the bad news. The good news is that idiom questions are rare (usually 1 to 3 per test) and that you’ll often be able to get them by ear. Don’t become obsessed with idioms, because you’ll drive yourself crazy and start thinking all kinds of perfectly constructed phrases “sound funny.” Even if you miss an idiom question or two, you can still get an 800; the writing section is forgiving like that. So try to relax about idioms. If you want to do something productive that might have the happy side effect of making you better at spotting idiom errors, read lots of sophisticated writing; you might be exposed to a few idioms you haven’t seen before. And hey, you might also pick up some good vocabulary along the way. Reading is a good thing.
…Am I missing anything?

Weekend Essay Challenge – The Grapes of Wrath edition

By popular demand, here’s another essay challenge. By my own personal financial constraints, I can only award ONE winner this time. Let’s get right into it, shall we?

And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.

Assignment: Should the needs of the many outweigh the desires of a powerful few? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations.

Submit your essays as comments below. To be considered, they must be submitted before 12:01 AM EST Tuesday morning. I’m looking for clear, concise writing in SAT essay format. Which means I need to be able to believe that what you submit could fit on 2 pages, hand-written, and that you did it in 25 minutes. I will send the winner a free copy of the PWN the SAT Math Guide. You cannot be anonymous to win.

Please note: I will score every essay and try to give a few notes about each one, but there can only be one winner, even if two essays get the same score. It’s possible, for example, that I award two essays a score of 11, which is the highest score. I will pick which one I personally like better to be the winner. That’s just the way it’s gotta be.

Good luck!

UPDATE: I’m really happy with the quality of the responses I’ve been getting with these contests. Congrats to Jaclyn, who won this round, and thanks to all submitters. Keep your eye out for more contests in the future!

Some Essay DOs and DON’Ts


Read enough SAT essays, and patterns begin to emerge. Some of them are good (I mostly still love seeing The Great Gatsby used as an example even though I’ve seen it a million times, as long as it’s appropriate for the prompt) and some not so much. Here’s a hodgepodge of common things you should or should not do, based on what I have seen people do over and over again. In my examples, I’ll pretend I’m writing an essay with the prompt from my recent contest.

  • DO write a clear and concise intro that states your position, mentions your examples, and gets out of the way.
    When achievements are accomplished dishonestly, their value is diminished. Too often, people choose to cut corners to reach their goals, cheapening their success. Disgraced baseball star Barry Bonds and author James Frey are two examples of people who accomplished great things dishonestly, and whose achievements were diminished when their dishonesty came to light.
  • DON’T ponder over the definitions of words, or different philosophies related to the subject. And please do not start your essay with “In life.” Just get to the point.
    In life, there are good achievements and bad achievements. When achievements are good they are achieved by honest means, but sometimes achievements are achieved dishonestly and are therefore bad. What is an achievement? It is when a goal is completed.
  • DON’T claim that your examples are proof of anything. You are making an argument, not constructing a rigorous logical proof.
    The Great Gatsby and my personal experience prove that achievements are worthless if they are not accomplished honestly.
  • DO choose examples that fit the prompt, and about which you are knowledgeable. 
    By the numbers, Barry Bonds is one of Major League Baseball’s all-time greats, but his dishonesty has cast a pall over his 21-year career. He holds the record for most home runs hit over a career, and the single-season home run record, which he set in 2001 when he hit a whopping 73. But when allegations surfaced that Bonds had taken performance enhancing drugs in the process of reaching these milestones, fans were appalled. Many called for the his exclusion from the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. He was dragged through protracted legal proceedings that lasted years and years; he barely avoided a prison sentence after he was convicted of obstruction of justice. Baseball experts generally agree that with his raw talent, Bonds would have been an elite player for many years. Because of his dishonesty and corner-cutting, though, Bonds’ name will forever be associated in baseball lore with dishonesty, not greatness.
  • DON’T use hypothetical examples. Anyone can come up with an imaginary scenario that plays out in a way that supports an argument.
    If a gymnast lies about her age in order to compete the Olympics, and then wins a gold medal, and then an investigation shows that she was too young to compete, her accomplishment is meaningless.
  • DON’T try out vocabulary words in your essay if you haven’t been using them successfully in real life. If you use a word wrong, it makes you look silly.
    Nobody will accolade her in the future because everyone will know that she has a past filled with lies.
  • DON’T make too much up. You don’t need to know every single detail about your examples and it’s OK to fudge a minor detail or two, but if you’re completely in the dark about your example, you’re spending too much energy making up details and not enough energy crafting an argument. I get so much push back on this from students who have heard that they can’t be graded down for making things up, so I’m gonna hit you with the truth. Great works of literature with robust plots and salient themes were carefully crafted over months, if not years. If you’re so arrogant that you think it’s easy for you to come up with a realistic sounding plot of a completely new book in 25 minutes, I won’t argue with you. But I will have no pity on you when your grader is not impressed.
    In the book The Science Test, by Clayford Shuckins, the main character, Matt, has to pass a science test. He doesn’t think he will be able to pass it without cheating, so he asks his friend Ellen if she will let him copy. When the results come out, and Ellen and Matt have the same grade despite the fact that Ellen worked hard and Matt did not, Ellen resents Matt and reports his cheating to the teacher. Matt ends up with a zero and his parents are disappointed.
  • DO be as specific as you can about everything. Specificity is probably what I harp on the most when I work with students on their essays. See my Barry Bonds paragraph above for a bunch of specific details, including number of home runs, what records he holds, how long his career was, what crime he was convicted of, etc.
  • DO conclude your essay succinctly and without fanfare.
    Both Barry Bonds and James Frey were natural talents who might have achieved what they did without dishonesty, but the reputations of both men have been sullied because they did not accomplish their great feats honestly. Achievements are diminished if they are accomplished dishonestly.
  • DON’T cut an example paragraph short in order to write a conclusion if you’re running out of time. You are graded on what you put on the page, not what you leave out, and you’ll do better to make good points about your examples than you will repeating yourself in a conclusion.
  • DON’T start your conclusion by writing “In conclusion.” I hate that.
  • DON’T make overly grandiose claims about what you have accomplished in your essay.
    As the stories of James Frey and Barry Bonds prove, it is never OK to lie, and those who do will always have their reputations destroyed.

Weekend Challenge (sorta) – Cheating Scandal edition

I have been following the SAT Cheating Scandal pretty closely since the beginning. I don’t check in on it every day or anything, but I have a Google Alert set up, so when news breaks, I peek in. Apparently Sam Eshaghoff, the kid who took the test for all those other people, is getting his 15 minutes of fame now, and recently taped an interview with 60 Minutes. He’s just as charming as you’d expect a morally bankrupt person to be. Money quote:

I mean, a kid who has a horrible grade-point average, who no matter how much he studies is going to totally bomb this test, by giving him an amazing score, I totally give him this… new lease on life. He’s going to go to a totally new college. He’s going to be bound for a totally new career and a totally new path on life.

Assignment: Are achievements diminished when they are accomplished dishonestly? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations.

Yep, that’s right. It’s an essay contest. But I don’t want pages and pages here. I want an SAT-length composition. Ideally, I’d like you to complete it in 25 minutes, but I don’t have any way to check you on that, so I guess we’re on the honor system. Think for a minute about how appropriate that is, given the prompt. I just got chills.

Post your essays right in the comments; I’ll accept entries until Monday. I’ll score them all, and I’ll send a free copy of the Math Guide to my favorite one. Obviously, to win, you can’t be anonymous.

UPDATE: You’re all winners. I won’t make a habit of this because I can’t afford it, but all three of you who took the time to write essays this time will get a copy of the book. See my specific comments below.

Pronoun Case (or, when “Alan and me” is OK)

“Ain’t nobody chasin’ nobody nowhere.”

Hopefully if you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’ve internalized the notion that YOU SHOULD CHECK EVERY SINGLE PRONOUN YOU ENCOUNTER on the SAT. The most common pronoun errors are pronoun-antecedent agreement errors, but pronoun case questions pop up enough in SAT writing sections that you should familiarize yourself with the ways they’re commonly presented, too, and know how to get through them without relying on “it just sounds weird.”

Pronoun case questions test you on whether you know the difference between “I” and “me”, “he” and “him,” “we” and “us,” etc. Here’s a quick sentence structure to help you organize these:

I chased the dog around the house.
The dog chased me around the house.

He chased the dog around the house.
The dog chased him around the house.

We chased the dog around the house.
The dog chased us around the house.

…and so on.  This simple setup is a great way to remind yourself which pronouns are subjective case pronouns, and which are objective case pronouns. If your pronoun is chasing the dog, it’s the subject, and is in the subjective case. If the dog is chasing it, the pronoun is the object, and is in the objective case.

Here’s a complete list of the pronouns between which you’ll need to differentiate on the SAT. Read through this list thinking of the dog chasing sentence in your head.

Subjective Case
Objective Case

So what?

There are four ways they’ll try to get you here.

  1. Objective case in the subject. These aren’t that hard to spot, because teachers have probably been drilling proper use of subjective case pronouns your entire life. If you’ve ever had a teacher correct you by saying “My friends and I…” then you know what I’m talking about.

    BAD: Me and Gordon don’t ever go to Ravenholm anymore.
    GOOD: Gordon and I don’t ever go to Ravenholm anymore.

    BAD: Julie and him were throwing up all night after they witnessed the collision of two very full septic tank pumping trucks.
    GOOD: Julie and he were throwing up all night after they witnessed the collision of two very full septic tank pumping trucks.

    BAD: Ricky and them were caught swimming in the fountain at midnight.
    GOOD: Ricky and they were caught swimming in the fountain at midnight.

  2. Subjective case in an object. These are a bit trickier, because now you can’t rely on your 1st grade teacher’s voice ringing in your ears.

    BAD: The raptors had Jeff and he trapped in the freezer.
    The raptors had Jeff and him trapped in the freezer.

     The motorcycle gang gave Sarah and I something to do on Friday nights.
    GOOD: The motorcycle gang gave Sarah and me something to do on Friday nights.

    BAD: Erin gave Stacey and he a ride to the train station.
    GOOD: Erin gave Stacey and him a ride to the train station.

It’s cool if you use the table I made for the above questions, but the age-old advice applies as a shortcut: when in doubt, take the non-pronoun out of the sentence and read it to yourself. Does it sound fine? Then leave it. Does it sound stupid? Then change it.

That advice, I’ve found, is less than bulletproof for sentences like the ones below, though.

  • Pronouns following prepositions. If a pronoun appears after a preposition, it MUST be in the objective case. In the examples below, prepositions are italicized.

    BAD: Between Amy and I there are no secrets.
    GOOD: Between Amy and me there are no secrets.

    BAD: Bullets whizzed by we three as we made our way to safety.
    GOOD: Bullets whizzed by us three as we made our way to safety.

    BAD: Steve insisted that there was a foul odor emanating from Jessica and they.
    GOOD: Steve insisted that there was a foul odor emanating from Jessica and them.

    The most dangerous pronoun case questions, in my experience, are been ones that put the subjective case (especially “I”) in a combination after the word “between.” Watch out for phrases like “Between Amy and I…” because they’re ALWAYS wrong. “Between” is a preposition, so it must be followed by “me.” The sentence should read “Between Amy and me there are no secrets.” To approach it from another way, you would never say “between we,” you’d say “between us.”

  • Pronouns in comparisons that end sentences. Dangerous, but pretty rare. When a sentence ends in something like “…than me,” or “…as us,” your spider sense should tingle. As a general rule, you’re going to want subjective case when a comparison ends a sentence, because there’s usually an implied verb that doesn’t follow the pronoun, but could follow it.

    BAD: Seth is shorter than me.
    GOOD: Seth is shorter than I (am).

    BAD: Charlie Brown insists that nobody is more lugubrious than him.
    GOOD: Charlie Brown insists that nobody is more lugubrious than he (is).

    BAD: In that game of Grifball, the red team scored more points than us.
    GOOD: In that game of Grifball, the red team scored more points than we(scored).

    I should also point out, just because it’s interesting, that there are times when the objective case and subjective case are both OK grammatically in a comparison at the end of a sentence, but the case that’s chosen can alter the meaning of the sentence:

    OK: Mike Tyson punched John harder than (he punched) me.
    OK: Mike Tyson punched John harder than I(punched John).

    If you ask me, it’s best to avoid potentially confusing phrasing as a writer, so neither of the above is great, but both are permissible. Note how the meaning of the sentence changes, though. In the first one, I get punched. In the second one, I do some punching. Who could’ve guessed that this post would get so exciting at the end?

*Who/whom isn’t really tested on the SAT, so this is just bonus information you can use to impress your friends.

Review – The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar by Erica Meltzer

Erica Meltzer, whose blog at ultimatesatverbal.blogspot.com should definitely be a daily stop for you if you’re prepping for the SAT (which you probably are if you’re stopping by my site), has spent years holding a microscope to the SAT writing section, and has compiled all of her findings into a book that, miraculously, is under 200 pages long.

In those pages, Erica’s managed to pack advice (and a dizzying number of example sentences) to cover every single grammar rule that could conceivably appear in an SAT writing section. She provides insight into how often certain error types appear. At times, she even provides insight into roughly where in the test certain error types are most likely to appear — did you know faulty comparison errors are most likely to appear in the last 3 Error ID questions? She writes with an authority that only someone who has spent as much time analyzing the test as she has could possibly muster. In short, she knows everything you need to know to get an 800 on the SAT writing section, and she tells it to you. All of it. I don’t think one could find a question, in the Blue Book or in any recent QAS, that tests a concept that she hasn’t covered.

The book’s greatest strength — its completeness — might be seen by some as a weakness, though. Erica leaves no stone unturned, and there are many, many stones. An example: Even though the subjunctive appears, by her own admission, very infrequently on the SAT, it does appear once in a great while, so there’s a page devoted to it in this book. Such minutiae is interesting to me because I spend a lot of time looking at the SAT with a critical eye, and is important to the student who seeks a perfect score, but might not be very important to the student who simply seeks a very good score. Erica does a good job of pointing out which concepts are commonly tested and which ones aren’t; it would behoove a student who’s not seeking perfection to gloss over the uncommon bits and spend extra time reviewing the common ones.

My verdict

The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar is a very impressive book. It’s accurate, insightful, and exhaustive. It’s of a manageable length. It will serve students well both as a training workbook, and as a desktop reference when arcane grammar questions arise. I dare say its usefulness might even outlast the SAT — grammar will continue to be important long after college admissions testing is a distant memory. As a weapon in your test prep arsenal, it will serve you well.

What does a Comparison Error look like?

I got a comment on an old post about Error ID strategies (one of the first posts I ever put up) asking me to clarify the relationship between Comparison Errors and possession. I figured that, since it’s been a while since I wrote about writing at all, I’d oblige, — and go a bit further. I aim to please, you know.

The easiest and snappiest way to describe a comparison error is to say that it compares apples to oranges. If you’re faced with a sentence that doesn’t compare two things of the same kind, you’re faced with a faulty comparison and you need to either mark it as the error (in Error ID) or fix it (in Sentence Improvement).

Some faulty comparisons examples:

  • The battery in my new laptop is way better than my old computer, which had to stay plugged in all the time.
  • I like both singers, but Josh Ritter’s music moves me in a way that Morrissey does not.
  • Unlike Paula, who has an A+ in the class, Eric’s history textbook looks like it hasn’t been opened all year.
  • Because I stubbed my toe on the way to the bathroom the other night, my left foot’s big toenail is a different color than my right foot.
  • Often referred to simply as The Boss, Bruce Springsteen holds up against any other songwriter’s lyrics.

Because faulty comparisons are fairly easy to spot in simple sentences, the writers of the SAT will usually hide them in more complex sentences, and will often try to slip one by you by comparing someone’s stuff to someone else. Here are the same sentences as above, with the actual things being compared in underlined and in bold.

  • The battery in my new laptop is way better than my old computer, which had to stay plugged in all the time.
  • I like both singers, but Josh Ritter’s music moves me in a way that Morrissey does not.
  • Unlike Paula, who has an A+ in the class, Eric’s history textbook looks like it hasn’t been opened all year.
  • Because I stubbed my toe on the way to the bathroom the other night, my left foot’s big toenail is a different color than my right foot.
  • Often referred to simply as The Boss, Bruce Springsteen holds up against any other songwriter’s lyrics.

This is why I like to tell students to watch out anytime an “‘s” exists in a sentence. If that “‘s” indicates possession, there’s a decent chance that it’s setting up a faulty comparison between someone’s stuff, and someone else.

Let’s fix all those sentences, huh?

  • The battery in my new laptop is way better than my old computer‘s battery; my old computer had to stay plugged in all the time.
  • I like both singers, but Josh Ritter’s music moves me in a way that Morrissey‘s does not.
  • Unlike Paula, who has an A+ in the class, Eric appears not to have opened his history textbook all year.
  • Because I stubbed my toe on the way to the bathroom the other night, my left foot’s big toenail is a different color than is the one on my right foot.
  • Often referred to simply as The Boss, Bruce Springsteen holds up against any other songwriter.

Of course, there are many ways to fix each of these. What matters is that I’ve made all the comparisons consistent, and not created any other errors in the process.

Remember: always compare people to people and things to things; never compare a person to another person’s STUFF.

Do you have a process?

I had an interesting conversation with a colleague last night about the importance of having a process. The gist of his argument was this: it’s all well and good to understand what a run-on sentence is (for example), but there are lots of kids who know, objectively, what one is, and still miss run-on questions all the time. Top scorers don’t let any of those slip by because they have a process, and they stick to it.

I know I’ve spelled out processes for my students verbally a thousand times, but last night it occurred to me that I’d never tried to put one down on paper. After sitting down this morning and trying to create a flowchart for Error ID questions, I think I know why. Still, maybe this spaghetti mess is helpful?

I’m thinking of trying to do these for other question types, too. If I do, I’ll also try to tidy this one up a bit more, too. Thoughts?

What is the SAT really testing?

Much hay is made about what the SAT is actually testing. Does it function as some strangely-defined “college readiness” measurement? Is it a pure reasoning test? Is the SAT a test of innate intelligence, like an IQ test? Is it a completely meaningless hoop that you just have to jump through like a circus dog because everyone else does? The College Board claims only that the SAT tests “the skills you’re learning in school: reading, writing and math.” Is that true?

The indefatigable Debbie Stier asked me for my take on this the other day, and I realized that I had never written about it on this site. My answer to all of the above is a qualified “no.” There’s a bit of truth to each claim, and you won’t have to look too hard to find people who’ll argue for any of them. You might even have a friend with a crazy theory of his own (Duuude, the SAT is an awesome predictor of alien abduction!). I’ve been working with the SAT for a while now, and I’ve come to my own conclusions.

The short answer: there is no short answer. Each subject tests different things, and although there are overarching themes, you’re not giving the test fair treatment if you try to encompass the whole thing in just a word or two. What follows is a bit of a brain dump. Chime in in the comments if you think I’m missing something.

Critical Reading
  • Deep Reading: Are you able to interact with a passage in such a way that you understand the author’s tone? Can you draw inferences about how the author might respond to counterarguments or criticism of her point of view? Do you understand why she might have bothered to sit down and write the passage in the first place?
  • Precision: Do you comprehend sophisticated writing (both in the passage and in the answer choices!) well enough to pick the one correct response from a list when the incorrect choices are often incorrect for subtle reasons? Often incorrect choices can be eliminated because of a single word in the choice! Do you know exactly what words mean? On hard sentence completions, it’s not good enough to have a vague sense that a particular word is “positive” or “negative.” You have to know precise definitions, and recognize appropriate use (not for every single word, mind you, but for enough to successfully eliminate incorrect choices).
    • Vocabulary: This is a corollary to the above, but obviously you need to possess a decent vocabulary to score well on the CR section.
  • Umm…math: How are your fundamental math skills? Are you comfortable working with right triangles, exponents, and percents? Can you reliably translate word problems into mathematical equations? There’s no way around this; there are many techniques that can help boost your score, but if your fundies are weak your score will be also.
  • Nimbleness: Do you see multiple ways to solve many of the problems? Are you willing to take shortcuts if they’re available (like on questions like these), or are you dogmatic in your methodology? Are you able to transition easily between techniques if the first one you try doesn’t bear fruit? Are you willing to try crazy things if you’re stumped?
  • Stick-to-itiveness: Do you persevere when your first approach comes up empty? I’ve been teaching this stuff for years and I don’t get questions wrong when I take the test, but that doesn’t mean I still don’t end up at a dead-end once in a while on my first go-through of a problem. The highest scorers cock their eyebrows, learn from their missteps, and reroute when they run into trouble.
  • Grammar: Can you spot common usage errors? The SAT doesn’t cover every grammatical rule, and it stays pretty far away from most grammar controversy. (Oxford comma? Not tested.) If you know the most common SAT rules, you’ll be in pretty good shape. If you’re looking for an exhaustive list of rules, Erica Meltzer’s got you covered.
  • Flow: Can you identify (in the multiple choice) and execute (in the essay) a logically structured, well formed sentence or paragraph? Are you able to recognize when contrast or transition words are appropriate, or when an edit might drastically improve clarity and readability?
The Bottom Line
It’s quite difficult to say, concisely, what the SAT is testing, and attempts to do so are often uselessly reductive (it’s what you learn in school!) or dismissive and curmudgeonly (the SAT tests you on how well you take the SAT). Students who work assiduously in school (not students whose grades are exemplary because of cramming skills) tend to do well because there is a fair amount of overlap between SAT skills and the skills ostensibly taught in high school, but it’s also very possible to raise SAT scores a great deal with focused prep because the SAT is fairly predictable, despite its breadth.
Regardless of what the SAT tests, your score is not a number that defines your worth. It is not tattooed on your forehead, and once your senior year is over it will very quickly be relegated to a dusty, rarely-traveled corner of your mind. As crazy as this may seem to you now, you might get to a time in your life when you can’t even remember what your SAT score was. But it is a number that may help you gain admission to the schools you pine after, so if that’s important to you, then you should take the steps to ensure that you’ll be happy with your score.

Run-on Sentences and Fragments (featuring The YUNiversity!!!)

A quick note before we begin: I’m positively elated to have teamed up with Tumblr all-star The YUNiversity for this post! Everybody knows that eye-popping visuals are a great boon to students trying to learn otherwise dry material, and nobody does them better. If you like the illustrations he provided for this post, you simply must make a habit of checking his site every day. He’s amazing.

Ok, now. If you want to understand run-on sentences, first you have to understand the difference between a sentence and a fragment. Both are similar in that they contain a subject and a verb, but a sentence can stand on its own as a complete thought, and a fragment cannot. Fragments seem to end abruptly, and leave you wanting to ask something like “…and then what?” To make things super clear in this post, in the examples below complete thoughts will be in green and fragments will be in brown.#

It’s easier to show this than to try to describe it, so here are some fragments. As you look them over, ask yourself “What is it about these that prevents them from standing alone as complete sentences?”

  • even though his fans booed him
  • when the cows come home
  • because her mother was in jail for grand theft auto
  • while you were sleeping
  • to whomever the taser belonged

None of the above are complete thoughts — they’re the beginnings or the ends of thoughts, but mean very little on their own. On the SAT, if you see a fragment trying to be a sentence all by itself, you have to fix it. Fragments are always wrong on the SAT.

A run-on (or “comma splice,” if you like) is kinda the opposite problem. If you come across a comma that’s separating two complete thoughts, that’s a run-on. Like fragments, run-ons are always wrong and you need to fix them.

A run-on looks like this:
Two complete thoughts separated by a comma? NO ME GUSTA.
To fix a run-on:

(FANBOYS: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so)

WRONG: My father smokes cigars, everything in our house smells like cigars.
RIGHT: My father smokes cigars, so everything in our house smells like cigars.

WRONG: The other day my favorite episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was on, I didn’t watch it.
RIGHT: The other day my favorite episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was on, but I didn’t watch it.

WRONG: Corey stayed up until 2:00 AM last night, she’s feeling very tired today as a result.
RIGHT: Corey stayed up until 2:00 AM last night, and she’s feeling very tired today as a result.

(BE CAREFUL!!! On the SAT, semicolons REQUIRE complete thoughts on either side.
If there’s a fragment on one side of the semicolon, it’s wrong.)

WRONG: Make sure your zombie survival hideout is stocked with weapons that can pierce a human skull, the only way to kill a zombie is to destroy its brain.
RIGHT: Make sure your zombie survival hideout is stocked with weapons that can pierce a human skull; the only way to kill a zombie is to destroy its brain.

WRONG: The hardest part of the SAT for many students is its length, the test is almost four hours long.
RIGHT: The hardest part of the SAT for many students is its length; the test is almost four hours long.

WRONG: Yesterday I played laser tag, I won first place three times in a row against a bunch of 14 year olds.
RIGHT: Yesterday I played laser tag; I won first place three times in a row against a bunch of 14 year olds.

(If one side isn’t a complete thought anymore, problem solved!)

WRONG: Students at Brown University call themselves Brunonians, it’s weird.
RIGHT: Students at Brown University call themselves Brunonians, which is weird.

WRONG: The flashing lights kept me up at night, I had to move the router out of my bedroom.
RIGHT: Because the flashing lights kept me up at night, I had to move the router out of my bedroom.

WRONG: The developers’ commentary in Portal 2 is very enjoyable, however* players should play through the game without it first.
RIGHT: Although the developers’ commentary in Portal 2 is very enjoyable, players should play through the game without it first.

* The word “however” is NOT a conjunction and cannot be used to fix a run-on. If it’s not one of the FANBOYS, don’t use it as a conjunction. Click here for more on words like “however.”

(In real life, yes of course. On the SAT Sentence Improvement section though, this is never an option. The sentence you’re improving is always going to remain ONE sentence.)

Shall we summarize?

On the SAT Sentence Improvement section, when you see a comma (yes, every time) you must ask yourself:

Read about Dangling Modifiers, Broseph. 

And don’t forget! Whenever you see a semicolon, you must ask yourself:

Think you’ve got all this? Try a drill, brochacho!

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# What we’re really talking about here, if you want to get technical, is the difference between dependent and independent clauses. A dependent clause DEPENDS on something, so it can’t stand on its own. Dependent clauses are fragments. Independent clauses can stand on their own as complete sentences. Every time you see “complete thought” in this post, we’re really talking about an independent clause. As for the color schemeindependent clauses are green, and dependent clauses are brown