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Common Traps on the 'Improving Sentences' Question Type

Avoid common traps and improve your sentence structure. Stay ahead with the latest trends and tips on university admissions and scholarships.

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Dec 15, 2023

Anyone who’s looked at the SAT will say that it’s an extremely tricky test, loaded with traps. Let’s explore one of the common traps with a particular type of question: Improving Sentences, the question type where a significant portion of the sentence or perhaps the entire sentence is underlined. Choice A will be the option of leaving the sentence “as is” and the other choices will be different phrasings.

Probably the best overall way to avoid traps is to know all the needed components for a right answer. Any right answer will have correctness, concision, and clarity, also known as the “3 C’s”.

Correctness refers to grammatical correctness

Concision refers to not using any more words than are necessary

Clarity refers to the fact that the right answer won’t say anything substantially different from what the original sentence said.

The first trap you need to be aware of is the modifier trap. “Dehydration, in addition to strong sun rays, cause the marathoner to collapse.” This sentence displays the modifier trap. If you fall for the modifier trap here, you may believe that the rays are the subject, but actually dehydration is.

College Board wants you to believe that the subject of the verb is in the modifying phrase, when really it should be just before or after that phrase.  Here, the modifier trap is set off with commas and is signaled with the phrase “in addition to”. Other phrases that may signal the trap are: “in addition to”, “along with”, “together with”, and “as well as”.

Another major trap is the parallel structure trap. Many do not realize that certain sentences call for parallel structure. We can know if a sentence calls for parallel structure if it can be broken into parts A and B which would look like “this as opposed to that”.

This would look like the following: “The cyclone slammed through the busiest part of the city, both uprooting trees and power cables were snapped”. What comes after the word “and” should be “snapping power cables”. This is because we want to have both verbs being in the same gerund form, that is ending with “-ing”. Other cases of parallel structure may be where we need to have nouns in both the A part and the B part or adjectives in both parts.

Next, it is a good idea to avoid excessively wordy sentences when all other things are equal. If you have two grammatically correct sentences that mean the same thing, you should always, and I mean ALWAYS, choose the shorter one. Longer ones are only longer because they use useless words.

Additionally, although the passive voice is grammatically correct, it is poor writing and should thus be avoided in identifying errors. An example of passive voice is the following: “When you bake a cake, the oven should be preheated”. This sentence is passive because we talk about the condition of the oven, instead of doing anything to it. A more active way to phrase this would be: “When you bake a cake, you should preheat the oven”. Another way one can know if they are dealing with passive voice is if the subject is not actually doing anything. For instance, consider the sentence, “The stocks were sold by the broker.” The subject here is “stocks” but the stocks are not actually doing anything. What would be much more active is if we wrote, “The broker sold the stocks”. Here, the broker is doing something, and that’s selling.

Let’s look at two sentences to understand the trap of altered meanings. “Until recently, I never thought much about my name, or names in general, for the most part”. “I have never thought much before about names, generally”. The second sentence, while grammatically valid, actually says something quite different from the first sentence. The first sentence is saying the guy doesn’t think much about any names. The second is saying that he doesn’t think about names in general, but he may instead think about them in a more specific fashion. Remember, the correct answer cannot say anything substantially different than what the original sentence said!

Improving sentences is only a portion of the broader Writing section on the SAT, but a very important one. Keep up your hard work and keep reading our blog for more helpful hints!

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