Picking the right words to say exactly what you want to say is part of what makes writing challenging, and getting good at picking those words is a skill. That skill is what the syntax questions on the SAT are designed to test.
“Syntax” refers to how words and phrases are put together in sentences. Strong syntax clearly communicates the writer’s point while maintaining an appropriate style and tone. Much like the words-in-context questions in the Reading portion of the test, syntax questions present you, the test-taker, with options to replace a small portion of a sentence, usually a word or two. Your job is to decide whether the original choice is fine or if the message or tone could be improved by one of the other answer choices.
(1) Despite the record-setting drought, the grocery chain’s (2) amount of avocados decreased (3) significantly.
Which of the following would be the most precise replacement for the underlined portion?
A. NO CHANGE
B. Because of
D. In spite of
This question relies on your understanding the relationship between the drought and the avocado shortage. Logically, this is a cause/effect relationship, but “Despite” fails to communicate that, so choice A can be eliminated. Choice D is just another way of saying the same thing, so that can go, too. Of the two that are left, only choice B, “Because of” demonstrates cause and effect, so that would be our answer.
The SAT will often ask you to judge the syntax of transitions or relationship-indicators at the beginning of sentences. Make sure you read the whole sentence, and maybe the sentences immediately before and after the selection, to ensure you fully understand what it’s trying to convey.
A. NO CHANGE
This syntax question has no instructions, but it clearly is offering options to use in place of “amount”. Notice that all of the answers could work, but only one makes the most sense in context. Technically, avocados are countable, so “amount” would never be the best option here. Choice D, “number”, is better, but let’s not jump to conclusions. “Crop” makes sense in that avocados are farmed, but saying “the grocery chain’s crop” doesn’t quite fit, since the grocery isn’t actually growing the plants. However, a “supply” of avocados fits much better, since groceries receive supplies of food. So, between choice C and choice D, which wins?
In this case, C comes out on top because it is more precise and more clearly gets the point that the drought is affecting the source of the avocados across than “number” would.
A. NO CHANGE
B. a lot
Again, no instructions on this question, but we know what to do, right? The adverb “significantly” is being used to describe the drop in avocados, but perhaps there’s a better choice. We can eliminate B immediately because “a lot” is much too casual for the tone of the sentence. “Terrifically” can also go. It has multiple meanings, but it generally carries a positive connotation, and a shortage of avocados is not good at all!
So now it’s down to D, “obviously” versus the original “significantly”. Choice D just doesn’t fit as well as A because there is nothing in the rest of the sentence to indicate that someone is observing the shortage, only that it is a large shortage. In this case, the original option wins out.
Of course, on the test, this sentence would be part of a passage, so its context in the larger picture would be important to consider, but these examples illustrate the types of syntax questions the SAT will include. Factors such as tone and connotation can help you make the best word choices, both on the test and in your own writing.
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About Elizabeth Peterson
Elizabeth holds a degree in Psychology from The College of William & Mary. While there, she volunteered as a tutor and discovered she loved the personal connection she formed with her students. She has now been helping students with test prep and schoolwork as a professional tutor for over six years. When not discussing grammar or reading passages, she can be found trying every drink at her local coffee shop while writing creative short stories and making plans for her next travel adventure!
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