Writing and Language Study Guide for the PSAT/NMSQT Exam

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General Information

The Writing and Language section of the PSAT/NMSQT exam evaluates your ability to use the English language in written form without ever asking you to actually write. You will be presented with four passages, each one taken from one of these areas: the humanities, science, social science/history, and careers.

The actual test is timed for 35 minutes and there are 11 questions pertaining to each of the 4 passages, for a total of 44 questions. In these questions, you will be asked to assume the position of the writer and suggest corrections to improve the effectiveness of the message.

On your PSAT/NMSQT exam score report, there will be three Evidence-Based Reading and Writing subscores. In the Writing and Language test, this is how they will be evaluated:

Subscore: Expression of Ideas

  • language use
  • sentence structure
  • conventions of usage

Subscore: Standard English Conventions

  • conventions of punctuation

Subscore: Command of Evidence

  • development
  • organization

Terms to Know

Have a firm grasp on the following terms and ideas so you can make effective edits within a passage:

Complete Sentence

A complete sentence contains a subject and a verb while expressing a complete thought. Any sentence that lacks one of these elements must be revised in order to be grammatically correct.


“John cooked his dinner.” (complete sentence)
“Cooked his dinner.” (incomplete: no subject)
“John his dinner.” (incomplete: no verb)
Because John cooked his dinner. (incomplete: does not express a complete thought)

Of course these are very basic examples, but the same rules apply to any type of sentence you may read.

Run-on Sentence

A run-on sentence occurs when two independent clauses are joined together without sufficient separation, including punctuation and/or a conjunction. An independent clause is a complete sentence that can stand alone, and two independent clauses are most commonly separated by one of the following:

a period (.)
a semicolon (;)
a comma (,) and a conjunction (and, or, but, etc.)


“I like to run I am fast.” (incorrect: run-on sentence)
“I like to run. I am fast.” (correct: the clauses are separated into two different sentences with a period)
“I like to run; I am fast.” (correct: the clauses are separated with a semicolon)
“I like to run, and I am fast.” (correct: the clauses are separated with a comma and a conjunction)

There are other ways to separate independent clauses, such as a colon (:) if the first clause introduces the second, and complete lists of ways to separate clauses can be found online. The thing to remember is that, no matter how, independent clauses must be separated.

Sentence Fragment

A sentence fragment is the opposite of a complete sentence because it lacks an independent clause (also called a main clause). Remember that an independent clause will contain a subject and a verb while expressing a complete thought.


“Playing tennis every day.” (fragment: no subject)
“Susan playing tennis every day.” (fragment: no verb)
“Tennis every day!” (fragment: not a complete thought)
“Susan loves playing tennis every day.” (a correctly written main clause)


Two equal elements, including words or clauses, are separated by coordinating conjunctions when they are considered grammatically equivalent, meaning they hold the same importance. An example of this is two independent clauses, rather than an independent clause and a dependent clause. The coordinating conjunctions that usually link equal elements are: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. Remember these with the acronym “FANBOYS.”

A comma is sometimes needed along with the coordinating conjunction, such as with two independent clauses, but not always. A list of items, for example, requires a coordinating conjunction but not a comma.


“I ran to the post office, but it was already closed.” [Correct: two independent clauses are separated by a comma (,) and the coordinating conjunction but.]

“I mailed a letter and a package.” (Correct: the phrases “a letter” and “a package” are grammatically equal and are separated by the coordinating conjunction and. No comma is required in this case.)


Subordination occurs when two inequivalent items are linked, such as an independent clause with a dependent clause. When one of the clauses cannot stand alone, a subordinating clause is used to separate the two clauses.


“I jumped for joy because of the sunshine.” (Correct: the subordinating conjunction because separates an independent clause, “I jumped for joy,” from a dependent clause, “because of the sunshine.”)

Unfortunately, there is no handy acronym to remember the many subordinating conjunctions, but lists can be found online for your review.

Verb Tense

The tense a writer selects for a specific verb tells the reader when the action occurred. A very simplified explanation is this:

Present tenses describe things that are happening now, or things that happen continuously.

Past tenses describe things that have already happened, be it five minutes ago or ten years ago.

Future tenses describe things that have yet to occur.

Within these three basic categories are numerous tenses that all writers and editors should have a firm grasp of in order to correctly form sentences. Check out online resources such as this list of tenses.

Verb Mood

While verb tense refers to the when, verb mood refers to the how. Basically, the verb mood shows how the writer/speaker feels about what is being expressed. The different moods a verb can have are:

Indicative: talks about facts/what is happening in reality. It can state, ask, or deny.

“The dog is running.”
“The dog might run.”
“Is the dog running?”

Imperative: commands, advises, or even begs for action.

“Sit down.”
“Stop that!”

Subjunctive: talks about wishes or ideas that are contrary to reality.

“If I were you, I wouldn’t do that.”
“I wish I could go to the party.”

Conditional: explains what conditions have to be met before something can happen. It uses the verbs might, could, or would.

“If the power wasn’t out, I would call the local news about this storm.”
“Josh would go to the party if Anna was invited.”

Infinitive: expresses an action without referring to a subject. The word to comes before the verb.

“To eat there, a reservation is required.”
“I want to take a nap.”

Verb Voice

Verb voice deals with the subject and the action within a sentence. There are two voice options: active and passive. In active voice, the more commonly used, the subject performs the action, but in passive voice, the subject receives the action.


“The team ate the oranges.” (active)
“The oranges were eaten by the team.” (passive)

“I punched Alex.” (active)
“Alex was punched by me.” (passive)

It is almost always better to use active voice when writing. Active verb voice makes writing stronger and more concise, while passive voice usually makes sentences awkward by adding unnecessary words.

Verb Number

The verb number must always match the subject number, which basically means that a singular verb goes with a singular subject, and a plural verb goes with a plural subject.

“The nurse is very helpful.”
“My dogs are running wild.”

There are some cases when it becomes trickier, and these are the ones that writers must be especially familiar with. Some particularly troublesome cases are:

  • when using indefinite pronouns, such as everyone or everybody, which refer to more than one person but always have a singular verb
  • when modifiers, or any other words, come between the subject and the verb (In this case, it can be more confusing to determine if a singular or plural verb is needed. Be sure to correctly identify the subject in a sentence.)
  • when using words ending in s that are actually singular, such as news

Check out complete lists of subject-verb agreement rules online, such as this one.


Sentences that form lists should follow parallel structure, meaning that each item in the list follows the same grammatical form. Take a look at this example:

“Nick ate his dinner, brushed his teeth, and finished his homework.”
“Tonia ate her dinner, had brushed her teeth, and was finishing her homework.”

In the first sentence, the verbs ate, brushed, and finished are all in the simple past tense and thus follow parallel structure. The second sentence, however, mixes several kinds of verb tenses. Ate is in the simple past tense, but had brushed is in the pluperfect and was finishing is in the past continuous. Reading both sentences aloud will help you notice that the second one sounds very awkward compared with the first.


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