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Students usually assume that every question on the SAT Writing and Language test will be based on rules. At the same time, students often rely on pure intuition for certain types of questions, and believe there are no rules for composition and style questions. In fact, there are unambiguous rules underlying composition and style questions.

“To make the paragraph most logical…”

A logical organization question gives a student four places to put a sentence in a paragraph. The challenge is to make the sentences fit together better, or “flow” from one to the next. A common misconception is that the writing passages are opinion essays, and each paragraph provides multiple pieces of evidence for a claim, arranged in no particular order. Actually, SAT writing passages are informational. Informational passages do not need to change the reader’s mind. Instead, almost all paragraphs will be organized from broad to narrow, with conversational transitions between sentences.

Consider the following examples: the organization of an opinion paragraph is simple, because supporting sentences can go in any order and if you needed to place a sentence somewhere, it could technically go anywhere. In an informational paragraph, however, information flows from general information, to more specific. A concept is introduced, before further information is given about that concept.

OPINION PARAGRAPH

  1. Topic sentence
    Humans began to fish by angling rather than spear-fishing, in the stone age.
  2. Support sentence
    Gorges have been discovered at many stone-age sites.
  3. Support sentence
    A gorge can be made from wood, stone, or other stone-age materials.
  4. Support sentence
    A gorge is the ancestor of the fish hook because it is also baited and attached to a line, but it is much simpler to make.

INFORMATIONAL PARAGRAPH

  1. Broad topic
    The art of catching fish by means of a baited hook or “angle” dates back to the stone age. 
  2. Narrower focus
    Prehistoric men observed fish-eating insects and had a simple intuition: maybe fish could be tricked into swallowing a fishing line.
  3. ‘Gorge’ (item/concept) introduced
    Lacking metal, they used a piece of wood or bone fashioned into a gorge.
  4. ‘Gorge’ described
    A gorge is long and narrow, with a hole or groove in the middle for a line.
  5. Very specific information about how the ‘gorge’ works
    When the line is pulled, the gorge becomes stuck crossways in the mouth or belly of the fish.

Each sentence in the informational paragraph needs to be in the correct order. This is based on a simple rule: place like information together. Each sentence will have keywords that tie it to the sentence before and the sentence after. There are also more obvious connections like pronouns and transition words. For example, “they used” refers to the prehistoric men mentioned in sentence 2.

“Which most effectively combines the sentence…”

Another common type of question is the sentence combining type. Let’s say the SAT asked us to combine sentences 3 and 4. Many of the wrong answers would be wrong because of misplaced modifiers. A misplaced modifier is not grammatically wrong, but creates the wrong meaning. The rule is: place descriptive phrases (modifiers) close to what they modify.

Bad: Wood or bone was fashioned into a gorge, which, lacking metal, was a long narrow shape with a hole or groove in the middle for a line.
Good: Lacking metal, they fashioned wood or bone into a gorge, a long and narrow tool with a hole or groove in the middle for a line.

The phrase “lacking metal” should be used to describe “they” (the prehistoric humans). But in the bad version, it is next to the word “which” (the gorge). As an object, a gorge does not have possessions and cannot “lack” for anything.

The misplaced modifier is not a deadly mistake, but it is worse than the alternative. Bad style is additive, so one problem might be tolerable, but two problems will scream out for correction. The “bad” sentence is breaking more than one rule of style.

Further stylistic rules:

The rhythm, structure, and punctuation of a bad sentence make it choppy. The above example has one more comma, which is a side effect of making the phrase “lacking metal” interrupt the sentence. It is breaking the rule: Avoid choppy sentences.

The bad example says the gorge “was fashioned.” We know that a person must have fashioned the gorge, but the subject of the sentence is “wood or bone.” This is a “passive subject” because it doesn’t tell who actually did the fashioning. The bad sentence is also breaking the rule: Prefer the active voice to the passive.

These are not the only style and composition rules tested on the exam, but this should demonstrate that every question on the writing and language exam is based on objective rules which can be mastered.

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Travis C

Travis C

Travis graduated from the University of Texas in 2004 with a degree in English literature. He worked at a cable news channel in Singapore before attending the University of Canterbury to retrain as a secondary school teacher. He has 9 years of experience teaching English literature and other subjects at private schools in Myanmar, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore. He has taught advanced literature and language classes for high school, and classes for students whose first language is not English.

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