You are here

Eight Grammar Survival Tricks

EducationWorld is pleased to present these grammar tips shared by Tom Clements, an experienced instructor who has spent over 20 years tutoring for the SATs as well as calculus, physics and chemistry. He is a former Silicon Valley freelance writer for tech magazines, corporate trainer for international bankers, and college English teacher. Clements' new book, How to Write a KILLER SAT Essay...in 25 Minutes or Less! is available for purchase at Amazon.com. Visit his Web site at www.tctutoring.net.

In American education, particularly at the high school level, grammar is a lost art. The closest most high school students get to any real appreciation of syntax is by studying a foreign language like Spanish, where the subjunctive, for example, is used extensively. Mark Twain famously said, "Damn the subjunctive. It brings all our writers to shame."

Facetious or not, Twain has had a lot of company over the years as a grammar-hater. This is true not only of the man on the street -- or the typical high school student -- but also English teachers, most of whom avoid the topic like the plague. High school kids are pretty much left to their own devices when it comes to parsing parts of speech. As a consequence, most don't know a diphthong from a dangling participle. 

All this can be disastrous when it comes to preparing for the Writing portion of the SAT. It's not bad enough that kids have to write a two-page essay from scratch for the new SAT; they also have two sections of grammar to contend with, one called "Identifying Sentence Errors" and the other called "Improving Sentences." Both sections require knowledge and application of grammar rules. 

In the "Improving Sentences" part of the SAT, a sentence is presented along with several variations. Students are asked to determine the best way to express the idea. Most of the variations have a flaw involving some common grammar point. The trick is to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff, grammatically speaking. And tricks are exactly what I teach my students to perform in order to ace the grammar section of the SAT. Having taught both grammar and composition in college, I've simplified a large part of the complexity of English grammar down to 8 Main Points that students find easy to grasp. 

Here are the points:

(1) Leaking Oil -- misplaced modifiers

I call the first rule "leaking oil" in order to give students a stark visual to hold onto. More technically, the rule deals with modifiers that point to the wrong noun in the sentence. These are called misplaced modifiers. 

For example:  Leaking oil, the mechanic fixed the car. 

Clearly, it's the car, not the mechanic, that has the oil leak. When a sentence has a subordinated lead-in like this, I tell students to make sure that the first noun after the comma points back to the action being described. The sentence should read: Leaking oil, the car was fixed by the mechanic. 

To put this concept into play with SAT-style questions, consider the following examples and choose the best way to improve the sentence: 

(a) Working overtime, the industrial facility was populated by hundreds of technicians.
(b) The industrial facility, working overtime, had hundreds of busy technicians.
(c) Technicians, busy at the industrial facility, would be working overtime.
(d) The busy technicians at the industrial facility were the ones who worked overtime
(e) Working overtime, busy technicians populated the industrial facility.

In both (a) and (b) it should be the workers, not the facility, doing the work. Answer (c) is unnecessarily conditional and (d) has the gratuitous phrase "were the ones." Only (e) has the correct noun, busy technicians, following the introductory lead-in. 

(2) Matching  Pairs -- subject-verb agreement

The second rule has to do with matching singular subjects with singular verbs and plural subjects with plural verbs. The College Board tries to trick students by interposing prepositional phrases between the subject and verb, sort of like stuffing Styrofoam peanuts into a FedEx gift box. To get to the gift, you have to first throw out the extraneous packaging. 

For example: The harmful effects of insulin resistance on the metabolic system is well known.

Notice how the unnecessary prepositional phrases of insulin resistance and on the metabolic system subvert the true relationship between the subject and verb. The subject (harmful effects) is plural, so the verb (is) must also be plural. The sentence should read: The harmful effects of insulin resistance on the metabolic system are well known. 

To put this concept into play with SAT-style questions, consider the following examples and choose the best way to improve the sentence: 

(a) Each of the 5,000 spectators are cheering wildly at the game.
(b) The spectators cheering wildly at the game are among the 5,000.
(c) At the game, each of the 5,000 spectators in attendance are cheering wildly.
(d) Each of the 5,000 spectators at the game is cheering wildly

The answer is (d). To analyze this correctly, ignore the prepositional phrase in the sentence (of the 5,000 spectators) and focus exclusively on the subject, which, in this case, is each. Since each is singular, the verb must also be singular. This technique for parsing sentences is both extremely powerful and easy, once you get the hang of it. I have my students do practice test after practice test in order for the techniques to sink in. 

OK, time for a breather. The next rule is the easiest of all to understand and follow. 

(3) Avoid Alien Beings -- use active verbs

In the real world, as opposed to the artificial world of the SAT, it's OK to use being in sentences that are well constructed. For example: Being of sound mind and body, my father lived to the age of eighty. However, on the Improving Sentences section of the SAT, being is ALWAYS the wrong choice. To drive this point home, take a look at the following sentences: 

(a) Jacob has remained in political office for several terms because of being the most popular candidate.
(b) Being the most popular candidate, Jacob has remained in political office for several terms.
(c) Jacob has remained in political office for several terms, being the most popular candidate.
(d) Jacob, the most popular candidate, has remained in political office for several terms. 

Now ask yourself this question: Which of these sentences is the most straightforward and direct? The correct answer is (d) because it gets its point across simply and directly. On the SAT grammar section, sentences can always be improved by eliminating the word being. Put another way: shorter is almost always better. Which brings me to my next rule, really a corollary to the alien being rule. 

(4) Shortest Point -- economy of expression

In English, especially American English, brevity is the heart and soul of popular expression. Think Ernest Hemingway rather than William Faulkner. Short, cryptic slogans like Just do it and No pain, no gain are part of the cultural landscape because of the direct way they convey information. This principle holds true for SAT grammar. The most direct form of expression is the best form of expression. Take a look at the following sentences and determine which one says the most with the fewest number of words.  

(a) The best way to get an exact answer to the question would be to use a calculator.
(b) Using a calculator would be the best way to get an exact answer to the question.
(c) A calculator would be the best possible way to answer the question exactly.
(d) The best way to get an exact answer is to use a calculator.

Clearly, (d) is the most economical expression and therefore the best choice. As a bonus, this rule can be used in conjunction with other rules to whittle down the possible choices. To demonstrate this, take another look at the examples we used earlier to demonstrate the Leaking Oil rule. 

(a) Working overtime, the industrial facility was populated by hundreds of technicians.
(b) The industrial facility, working overtime, had hundreds of busy technicians.
(c) Technicians, busy at the industrial facility, would be working overtime.
(d) The busy technicians at the industrial facility were the ones who worked overtime
(e) Working overtime, busy technicians populated the industrial facility.

Notice that the correct answer (d) is also the answer with the fewest words. As long as a sentence is grammatically correct, the shortest point is the best choice. 

There is, however, one important exception to this rule. Parallel structure is the only thing that beats Shortest Point. 

(5) Apples and Oranges -- comparison mismatch

Take a look at the following examples and see if you can spot the comparison mismatch. 

(a) The novels of Ernest Hemingway are shorter than William Faulkner.
(b) The skyscrapers in New York are bigger than San Francisco.
(c) Buying soda in six packs is usually cheaper than single bottles.

The first example compares novels to people. The second compares skyscrapers to cities. The third compares buying to bottles. All three need to be made longer in order to be grammatically correct. For example: 

(a) The novels of Ernest Hemingway are shorter than the novels of William Faulkner.
(b) The skyscrapers in New York are bigger than those in San Francisco.
(c) Buying soda in six packs is usually cheaper than buying single bottles.

These examples are all longer than their incorrect counterparts, but the extra words add precision and clarity. In short, parallel structure. 

(6) Who 'Dat -- indefinite pronouns

As you can probably surmise by now, the College Board is not your friend. Too many traps, too many trick questions. In many cases, it seems the test is rigged to lure students into making incorrect choices, setting them up to fail. This is nowhere more evident than with the vague and unnecessary pronouns that litter the grammar landscape. Check it out. 

(a) When Kate and Carol went for a winter walk, she forgot to bring her umbrella.
(b) It was so expensive that no one wanted it.
(c) In New York, they like bagels.

In the first example, who forgot her umbrella, Kate or Carol? In the second example, what was so expensive? A painting? A house? Be specific. A yacht!  In the second example, keep this mantra in mind: It's not it!  Define your terms.  And finally, in New York, who likes bagels? Construction workers, NYPD, Radio City Rockettes, Hasidic Jews? Use a picture word, something the reader can see, not a fuzzy indefinite pronoun. 

(7 ) Me Me Me -- subject pronouns never follow prepositions

A fundamental rule that gets shredded in the vernacular but which must be carefully adhered to on the SAT grammar test is that subject pronouns (I, we) NEVER follow prepositions. Instead, use me or us. 

How often have you heard people say: for you and I, between you and I, with you and I, about you and I, etc.? On the street you may get away with this faux pas, but not on the SAT. The correct expression is: for you and ME, between you and ME, with you and ME, about you and ME, and so on. Or, along the same lines, between you and us, for you and us, and so on. 

This rule is really a special case -- for pronouns -- of the rule we saw earlier in Subject-Verb Agreement. More generally, subjects NEVER follow prepositions. Recall how the College Board tries to mislead students by stuffing prepositional phrases in between the subject and the verb.

For example: The harmful effects of insulin resistance on the metabolic system is well known. 

The subject of this sentence can't be insulin resistance or the metabolic system because both of these phrases follow prepositions. The only possible noun left standing is effects, which, by default, must be the subject. Consequently, this rule applies not only to pronouns but also to subjects, giving students a second, foolproof way to avoid making  grammar mistakes. 

(Note: Prepositions are the little guys that guide the reader up, over, around, and through, above and below, of, on, by, for and to.)

(8) Joined at the Hip -- two sentences connected with a comma

The last rule is in some sense the easiest; nonetheless, students often fail to recognize the ploy, lulled by the defective punctuation. 

For example: San Francisco is a small city with a large population, this results in a great deal of traffic congestion.

This is really two sentences joined at the hip that need to be surgically separated, using a semicolon or employing different phrasing. Here are two common ways to correct the problem: 

(a) Use a semicolon: San Francisco is a small city with a large population; this results in a great deal of traffic congestion.
(b) Subordinate one part of the sentence to the other: San Francisco is a small city with a large population, resulting in a great deal of traffic congestion.
 

Conclusion

Of course, it's not enough to simply present the 8 Main Grammar rules to students and expect them to immediately put the concepts into play. Practice makes perfect.

After a little practice, my students tell me these rules provide all the ammunition they need to be successful on the SAT front. In fact, one way or another, these rules cover a broad swath of grammar questions on the test. A little intuition, a little common sense and a large dose of these SAT grammar rules ensure not only a safe return from the battlefield, but also top-scoring honors. 

 

Education World®             
Copyright © 2012 Education World

Comments

Sign up for our FREE Newsletters!

Thank you for subscribing to the Educationworld.com newsletter!