The SAT Writing section, which should NOT be confused with the Essay, was changed in 2016
to resemble the ACT Writing section. While the old SAT exclusively tested the student’s
grammatical prowess, the new SAT emphasizes not only grammar but also rhetorical style. It is
crucial for students to maximize their knowledge of English grammar. Students will need to go
beyond just a review of the grammar they learned in middle school. This is not to suggest that
middle school grammar is not important; indeed, it is essential. However, students who really
succeed on this section have not only a good grasp of the fundamentals but also are aware of the
more obscure rules, many of which were probably never taught in middle school.
The SAT Writing section contains four separate passages on a wide variety of topics. Various
portions of the passages will be underlined and there will be questions corresponding to the
underlined part. Often, you will be asked to evaluate an underlined sentence for grammatical
accuracy. However, you might also be presented with style errors or rhetorical errors—-many of
are obscure. Remember, the SAT test makers must find a way to separate the strong performers
from the weak performers. The more difficult questions are often going to challenge you on a
number of things that your teachers didn’t have time to get into when you were in middle school.
A few examples here will bear this out:
1. Look at this sentence:
“The fireman lowered the cat down from the tree.”
Just about any student who read this sentence would probably think there was nothing wrong
with it. It seems perfectly fine. Furthermore, there are probably very few English teachers who
would notice, or deduct points for, this error.
What is the error? Well, what does “lower” mean? Is is possible to “lower something up?”
Obviously not. Therefore, to “lower something down” is a redundant phrase. This is an example
of a stylistic, rhetorical error more than a grammatical error. Students who get in the 700’s and
beyond are able to recognize an error like this.
2. or this:
“Jeff, who was obsessed with being very unique, always kept up with fashion trends so that
he would not what NOT to wear.”
Again, it’s hard to see anything wrong with the above sentence. Everything works, right? Well,
for the most part it does, but there’s one very picky little problem: the word “unique,” because it
literally means “one of a kind,” cannot be make into a comparative or a superlative. Either
someone is one of a kind or not; there are no degrees of uniqueness. Therefore, the phrase “very
unique” would be incorrect.
3. and one more example:
“My brother, who stands at 6’ 10”, is much taller than me.”
Most of us in the English-speaking world would say that this sentence is fine. If you were to say
this to anyone, it is likely that no one would correct you. There are quite a few conventions used
in spoken English that are actually incorrect from a grammatical point of view.
The correct way to say it, however, is “My brother, who stands at 6’ 10”, is much taller than I.”
To many English speakers this sounds counterintuitive because we’re so used to using the
objective case after the word “than;” the rule, however, is that one must use the subjective case
after “than.” So we see here that just because a sentence SOUNDS correct, doesn’t mean it
actually is. Conversely, just because a sentence SOUNDS wrong, doesn’t mean that it actually is.
Students who rely on gut feeling (“sounds ok to me!”) are generally not going to perform well on
the writing section.