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SAT/PSAT Writing and Language Basic Strategy Outline

Format and Timing

44 questions in 35 minutes, divided into four passages of 11 questions each.  Force yourself very strictly to stay on the good side of a 9 minute per passage pace.  Nine minutes per passage will actually leave you with only 8 for the last one.


General Strategy

  • Read the entire passage and do the questions as you get to them.  Do not skip over parts even if there is a big space between questions, since some questions might ask about the passage as a whole.
  • Always finish reading the entire sentence that contains the underlined portion before answering a question.
  • It is a test of formal written English, not spoken English, so you must know the rules instead of always relying on your ear.
  • Know when your ear is likely correct and when it is likely incorrect.
    • It will often fool you for pronoun agreement and verb agreement and will often miss redundancy.
    • It is all you have to go by on idiomatic language questions.
    • It can be very useful on awkwardness questions.
  • Concentrate on the differences between the answers to figure out exactly what you are being tested on so that you know which rule to apply.
  • “NO CHANGE” is correct about 1/4 of the time it is offered.
  • DELETE the underlined portion” is correct about 1/2 the time it is offered.
  • Take it slowly on nongrammatical questions.  These types of questions take much longer to be certain of.
  • Be careful of questions that feature the words “EXCEPT,” “NOT,” or “LEAST.”  Missing these crucial words is a common cause of careless errors. Put a giant X over the entire question as an unmistakable visual reminder.


Specific Tips

Grammatical Questions

  • Match every pronoun with the word it renames (its antecedent) to check for agreement.
  • Match every verb with its simple subject to check for agreement.
  • The subject is never found within a phrase.
  • Use the is/are test to see if a noun is singular or plural. If “is” sounds good after the noun, the noun is singular.  If “are” sounds good after the noun, the noun is plural.
  • Each, either, and neither are singular.
  • Never put a comma between a subject and its verb.  For example, there is no comma in the following sentence: “The best part about skiing is that you get to go fast.”
  • A semicolon followed by a lowercase letter is identical to a period followed by a capital letter (for the purposes of this test).  If both are offered, neither is correct, assuming there are no other differences between the two answer choices.
  • “Who” is followed by a verb and is not preceded by a preposition.  “Whom” is followed by a noun or pronoun or is preceded by a preposition.
  • Before choosing a period, semicolon, or comma-conjunction, be certain that what comes before and after are both independent clauses.
  • Only combine two sentences if one of them is incapable of standing alone.  If they both work alone, keep them as separate sentences.
  • For awkwardness questions, process of elimination often works well.  Look for specific errors to help you eliminate answers, and also use your ear.  Anything that is overly wordy is definitely wrong.  Before you choose your answer, make sure it has no subtle misplaced modifiers.  If given the choice between active and passive voice, choose the active unless there is a reason to choose the passive.
  • When you add a dependent clause or a phrase to the beginning of an independent clause, ALWAYS separate it from the independent clause with a comma.
  • When you add a dependent clause or a phrase to the end of an independent clause, typically do not use a comma, unless your ear is strongly telling you that you need one.
  • When adding a phrase to the middle of an independent clause, consider whether it is essential or nonessential.  If it is essential, no commas are used.  If it is nonessential, separate it from the rest of the sentence with commas on both sides.


Nongrammatical Questions

  • Slow down.  These questions require much more time than the grammatical questions, so they interrupt the rhythm you have established on the other questions.  Therefore, it is easy to rush without even realizing you are rushing.
  • If you think something could possibly be redundant, irrelevant, or otherwise unnecessary, it probably is.  Take it out.
    • Use the structure of the question to tip you off to look for the possibility of something being unnecessary, irrelevant, or redundant.  If “DELETE the underlined portion” is an option, or if one or two answer choices are shorter than the others, the question is giving you the option of taking something out.  You should think carefully about why you might do so.
  • When a question asks you to insert a sentence to accomplish a specific purpose, pay close attention to that purpose and pick the answer that accomplishes it.  Pay no attention to the context unless the purpose itself is context dependent, as many of the choices will sound good in the context.
  • On transition word questions, you must pay attention to the sentence before and after the transition, unless it is transitioning two parts of one sentence, which is uncommon. Read both sentences and see which transition logically connects their meaning.  Occasionally, the transition will rely on a knowledge of more than one sentence before or after the word, so reading two sentences on each side of the word is a good idea.
  • When given the option of a transition word or no transition word, always choose a transition word if one works.  Only choose not to use a transition word if none of the transition words really fits.
  • On yes/no questions, decide whether the answer is yes or no and come up with your own reason before looking at the answer choices.  Doing so will help prevent you from being tempted by answers that sound good but do not actually make sense.
  • On sentence placement questions, look for a vague reference in the sentence or elsewhere in the paragraph.  If you find one, place the sentence where you need to in order to clarify the vague reference.  If you do not find a vague reference, pay attention to any shifts in verb tense in the paragraph, as such shifts can also provide valuable clues.