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Lucas Fink

Introductory Phrase Problems in SAT Writing Multiple Choice

Caused by a fatal error in design, the airship S.S. Doanblowup met its tragic end in 1915 in a sudden, ironic explosion.

If you saw a sentence like this in the SAT writing multiple choice, you’d definitely want to make a correction (or in the case of Identifying Error questions, point out the problem). If you haven’t spotted what the problem is already, go back and look at the first part of the sentence, up until “airship.” Then ask yourself what exactly was “caused by a fatal error.” Was it the airship? No.

Everything that comes before that first comma is supposed to modify or give details about one specific noun in the main sentence. If we go back and try to find that noun, we’ll come pretty naturally to the word “implosion.” Those two pieces—the noun and the modifier, have to be placed near each other in the sentence for the reader to make clear sense of it. As it is now, it’s just plain old wrong, and the SAT writing multiple choice is going to test whether you know that.


How to spot modifier problems on SAT writing

The SAT has a special fondness for gluing an introductory modifier that doesn’t refer to the subject to the start of a sentence. The example above has exactly that problem.

Any time you see an introduction like that offset by a comma, check to see if it should modify one specific noun in the sentence. Then check if that noun comes soon after the comma. If it doesn’t, and there’s another noun instead, then you’ve found the error.


How to fix the problem

There are two ways to fix this. First, we can move the modifier.

The airship S.S. Doanblowup met its tragic end in 1915 in a sudden, ironic explosion caused by a fatal error in design.

The other option is rearranging the main sentence.

Caused by a fatal error in design, a sudden, ironic explosion brought the airship S.S. Doanblowup to its tragic end in 1915.

In both cases, that modifier now falls next to the noun it’s meant to give details about, which is the explosion.


Practice spotting modifier problems

Take a look at the practice Improving Sentences questions over on the College Board’s site. There’s at least one instance there, and there are many more in any practice tests you have. How quickly can you identify the issue?


About Lucas Fink

Lucas is the teacher behind Magoosh TOEFL. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean. None of them come in handy, nowadays.

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