The SAT Writing section’s multiple choice questions are designed with several go-to errors, thrown in to trick you. With a keen focus, you’ll recognize them as soon as they rear their ugly, grammatically incorrect heads. Going forward, we’ll examine some common pitfalls (and examples) so you’ll know what to look for and how to outsmart it.
This week, let’s look at Error ID questions and focus on their MOST common trap: PRONOUNS. First of all, don’t hate on pronouns. All the pronoun rules are intuitive; you probably already know them. However, you should see how they are tested.
Worry not—Error IDs are point grabs.
Before jumping in, make sure you know the basics.
- Pronouns represent nouns (all types: common, proper, compound)
- ANTECEDENT: The noun that the pronoun is representing. If I say: “Lauren made sure she got up early,” Lauren is the antecedent and she is the pronoun. The order can also be switched: “Because she got up early, Lauren was the first one to arrive.”
- There are different CASES (categories) of pronouns:
Top 6 Pronoun Pitfalls
- Singular vs. Plural: If the noun (or antecedent) is plural, the pronoun must also be plural.
- “Each person went to their” à “Each person went to his or her car.”
- We wouldn’t normally say it like this, but since the SAT is testing formal English, this would be an error on the test.
- Ambiguous Pronoun: It’s unclear which antecedent the pronoun is referring to.
- “When Jeff saw Sam, he smiled.” à “Jeff smiled when he saw Sam” OR “When Jeff saw Sam, Jeff smiled.”
- In the original sentence, we don’t know the antecedent of he. Did Jeff smile, or did Sam?
- Important to Remember: These questions test on formal English grammar more than logic. Sometimes you can use common sense and infer what a sentence means, but if the pronoun is ambiguous, it’s wrong. A sentence should be precise and clear, or it’s wrong. For example:
- “For Christmas, Tiffany gave her sister a sweater that she would end up wearing every day.” You could logically assume that she refers to the sister. However, the sentence could easily mean that Tiffany gave a gift and then decided to keep it for herself. That’s odd, but still a possibility. We don’t know for sure because of the ambiguous pronoun.
- No Antecedent
- “It’s great when you’re acknowledged for hard work.”
- “They say an apple a day keeps the doctor away.”
- What is it referring to? Who is they? These sentences have no antecedent and are technically incorrect.
- These sentences are so common in everyday use that people don’t notice them on the SAT. However, the Writing Section is testing formal English—not necessarily common English.
- “I” vs. “Me”
- This one tends to be a little annoying because we’re used to saying phrases with “I,” when it’s sometimes supposed to be “me.”
- To understand which pronoun is correct, some people think about Subject vs. Object: For the subject of a sentence, we use “I” and for the object, we use “me.”
- …If that’s confusing, just cover up the surrounding words, look at the “I” or “me” by itself, and see if it makes sense.
- “Benji followed Jeff and me to the door.” à If we eliminate Jeff, we have “Benji followed me to the door.” That’s grammatically correct, so the original sentence has no error.
- “He and I went down the street.” à We eliminate He and are left with “I went down the street.” No error.
- “The dogs surrounded Jane and I.” If we cross out Jane, we get “The dogs surrounded I.” That’s wrong. The original sentence should say “Jane and me.”
- With linking verbs (“being” verbs such as is, am, are, etc): We use the subjective pronouns (see above chart): For example, you know that “I am here, “She is there,” “Who am I?” and “Am I ready?” are grammatically correct sentences. Simple enough—you already know this rule. However, some common phrases are actually wrong and those are the ones to remember:
“Hello, can I speak with Dog?”
“Yes, this is he.” NOT “This is him.” He is correct. “It’s me” would be incorrect.
- Pronoun shifts mid-sentence
- The same pronoun needs to be used throughout the sentence.
- “As long as you train regularly and follow your routine, most runners can achieve their” à “As long as you train regularly and follow your routine, you can achieve your goal.”—OR—“As long as runners train regularly and follow their routine, they can achieve their goal.
- Bottom line: we can’t shift from “you” to “runners” and “their.” That’s inconsistent.
- Comparing Pronouns
- There are different categories of pronouns (see above chart). When pronouns are compared (using “as” or than,” they have to be from the same category.
- “I am much faster than him.” à “I am much faster than he”
- The pronouns I and him are from different categories. This is an error.
- In this comparison, I is subjective, so the other pronoun should also be subjective.
This all may seem like a lot of information, but as I said earlier: these rules are intuitive. You already know them better than you think. If you just keep these common traps in mind during practice tests and identify the kind of trap in each question, the errors become much easier to spot.
Worry not—Error IDs are point grabs.