SAT Writing – Idioms

Just as idioms lack any justification for the way they are constructed so too do idiomatic phrases. For instance, I just used a common idiomatic phrase (Just as…so too; see below). In other words, certain phrases contain certain words and prepositions.

To give you example, let’s take the most common SAT idiomatic phrase (not only…but also). When the words “not only” appear, at some point in the sentence the words “but also” must appear too. That’s why I use those little dots in between the two phrases. Those dots mean that a bunch of words can come in between the “not only” and “but also”.

To highlight this fact, I’ve bolded the idiomatic phrase in each of the sentences below. I’ve included the top 10 most common idiomatic phrases you are likely to encounter on the SAT. Indeed, this list accounts for the vast majority of idiomatic phrases you are likely to see test day.


1) Not only…but (also)

Function: Show that two ideas are similar. Make sure that parts of speech are parallel (I’ve highlighted the parts of speech below).

I’m not only tired of waiting in line but I am also frustrated at having to pay so much for the tickets.

Pauline Kael not only changed how movie reviews were written but also influenced almost every single movie critic writing today.


2) Either…or

Function: Show difference between two nouns/noun phrases

For the most part, when applying to college, you can take either the SAT or the ACT.


3) Neither…nor

Function: To show two nouns/noun phrases do not apply in a certain instance. Remember: it is never “neither…or”. Also, make sure that the two parts are parallel (though the SAT usually doesn’t directly test this).

Neither a perfect SAT score nor a perfect GPA will guarantee admission into Harvard—one must also show exceptional talent in a certain field.


4) So…that

Function: Basically, whenever you see “so” followed by an adjective (adjective phrase) make sure that a “that” follows the adjective phrase.

The mayor was so revered during his time that the citizens built a statue for him in the public square.

Galileo is so often accorded the utmost respect for a scientist that we forget that he did not always follow the scientific method in his work.


5) Not A but B

Function: pretty straightforward

He was not angry but upset that I had forgotten to call him.

The SAT is not a test of intellectual aptitude but a measure of how well you take the SAT.


6) Think of…as

Function: pretty straightforward

He likes to believe that his colleagues think of him as a nice guy.

His peers thought of Rachmaninoff as a throwback to the romantics; today, many musicologists maintain that the composer was far more forward thinking than his contemporaries knew.


7) As…as

Function: compare two things. Remember, it is never “as…than”

The lion is not as fast as the cheetah.

While the novels of Thomas Hardy are not as wide known as those of Charles Dickens, Hardy is more highly esteemed amongst academics than is Dickens.


8) At once A and B (the A and B stand for adjectives that must come between “at once” and “and”)

Function: To show that a person or thing has two opposite traits or behaves in two opposite ways. Therefore, A and B will basically be opposites.

At once charming and rude, George flattered the hosts while ignoring the other guests.

At once enlightened because of his extensive knowledge of ancient civilizations and uninformed because of his total lack of interest in current events, Johnson, it is said, lives in a time warp.


9) Just as…so(too)

Function: to show that two different nouns or noun phrases are equal. The parenthesis around the “too” means that the “too” is optional.

Just as running will get you into quick shape, so will swimming.

Just as Picasso revolutionized the way an artist approaches the canvas, so too Beethoven utterly changed the way a composer approaches the symphonic form.


10) Between A and B

Function: This is to show the difference between A and B (but I’m sure you knew that). The reason this is tricky is that especially on the Identifying the Error section, the SAT will replace “and” with “or”.

Between you and me, the SAT likes to trap students who think that the pronoun “I” is always preferable to “me”.

Since colleges know that students will have trouble choosing between one major and the array of different fields offered by the college curriculum, they allow students to remain “undecided” for up to 2 years.



  • Chris Lele

    Chris Lele is the Principal Curriculum Manager (and vocabulary wizard) at Magoosh. Chris graduated from UCLA with a BA in Psychology and has 20 years of experience in the test prep industry. He's been quoted as a subject expert in many publications, including US News, GMAC, and Business Because. In his time at Magoosh, Chris has taught countless students how to tackle the GRE, GMAT, SAT, ACT, MCAT (CARS), and LSAT exams with confidence. Some of his students have even gone on to get near-perfect scores. You can find Chris on YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook!

By the way, Magoosh can help you study for both the SAT and ACT exams. Click here to learn more!