Page 2 Writing and Language Study Guide for the PSAT/NMSQT® exam

Specific Skills to Practice

During this test, you will be asked to find the best correction for an error in a sentence. Be sure you know how to work with these types of issues in language in order to most clearly present information in writing.

Making a Logical Comparison

When a written piece makes a comparison, the elements being compared (whether they be people, things, places, etc.) must be similar in order to be logical. Take a look at this sentence:

“The cost of living in New York is higher than Nashville.”

Although you probably understand the point of the sentence, it is not a logical comparison because the elements being compared are not similar. As written, the example sentence is comparing the cost of living in New York with the city name Nashville. The logical way to phrase this is:

“The cost of living in New York is higher than the cost of living in Nashville.”

The second sentence makes more sense because it is comparing cost of living with cost of living, two similar elements, rather than cost of living with Nashville.

Placing Modifiers

Modifiers are words, or even phrases, that are placed in a sentence to change something. Usually, they give extra details about a subject. Here’s an example:

“Sam saw a long snake in the grass.”

The modifier, long, gives extra information about the snake. It is important to correctly place modifiers in a sentence to avoid modifying the wrong subject. A misplaced modifier can change the entire meaning of a sentence and confuse the reader. Look at these examples:

“I only ran half of the marathon.”
“I ran only half of the marathon.”

In these sentences, the modifier is the word only, and by changing the location of only the meaning becomes totally different. The first sentence (only ran) is saying that for half of the marathon, all the author did was run: no walking, no skipping, no jogging, etc. The second sentence (ran only) is saying that the author participated in half of the marathon before quitting. Confusing, right? To help keep things clear, remember to keep your modifiers as close to their subject as possible.

When your modifier is a phrase at the beginning of a sentence, make sure the subject immediately follows the comma, like this:

“Running quickly down the sidewalk, the ice cream truck breezed by my frantic waves.”

In this sentence, the modifier (running quickly down the sidewalk) is referring to the subject I, but the misplacement in the sentence makes it seem like the modifier is referring to the ice cream truck. An example revision is this:

Running quickly down the sidewalk, I waved frantically as the ice cream truck breezed by me. Be careful of the following two errors which often occur when placing modifiers:

Dangling modifiers: the modifier is referring to a subject that isn’t present in the sentence
Squinting modifiers: the modifier is sandwiched between two subjects that could work with the modifier, leaving the reader confused about which one is correct.

For more information on modifiers, check out this site.

Choosing the Right Word

There are many confusing words in the English language that either look similar, sound similar, or have a similar meaning. This makes it easy for a writer to place an incorrect word in a sentence. To easily identify and correct these errors, it is important to review lists of commonly confused words, such as accept and except, or proceed and precede. Using the wrong word can completely change the meaning of a sentence, or render it grammatically incorrect.

Countless lists can be found online, including this one.

Using Proper Punctuation

Gaining meaning from text is often dependent on the author’s appropriate use of punctuation. There are entire books written on this topic, but here are some very basic rules you’ll want to know and use.


Commas (,) are one of the most common punctuation marks and are used in a variety of situations, but as a general rule they separate grammatical units and create brief pauses in sentences. Commas help the writer avoid a run-on sentence and help the reader more easily understand the text. Try reading a sentence out loud and if a natural pause occurs, a comma is most likely appropriate.

“After I brushed my teeth I put on my pajamas.” (incorrect)
“After I brushed my teeth, I put on my pajamas.” (correct)

As with the examples above, a sentence that begins with a dependent clause should have a comma before the second, independent clause. When a sentence contains two independent clauses, they should be separated by a comma and a conjunction.

“I ate all of the apples, so I was not hungry for dinner.”

Commas are also used to separate items in a list. In a list of three, the comma after the second item is called the Oxford comma. There is some debate regarding whether this comma is necessary, but it is generally safer to use it than to omit it. Should you decide against using the Oxford comma, just make sure your entire written piece follows the same path. Consistency is key.

“I like dogs, cats, and rabbits.” (Oxford comma)
“I like dogs, cats and rabbits.” (No Oxford comma)

There are many other scenarios in which commas are useful and/or necessary. Review lists such as this one to familiarize yourself.

Semicolon and Colon

A semicolon (;) is used to separate two independent clauses that are related in topic. This punctuation mark acts the same as a comma and a conjunction (and, or, but, etc.), and thus should never be used with a conjunction.

“Daniel broke his foot; he couldn’t run the marathon.” (correct)
“Daniel broke his foot, and he couldn’t run the marathon.” (correct)
“Daniel broke his foot; and he couldn’t run the marathon.” (incorrect)

A colon (:) can also separate two independent clauses, but it is only appropriate if the second clause explains or expounds upon the first.

“I finally understood my friend’s behavior: she was deeply depressed.”

A colon can also be used before a list of items. It is basically signifying that examples will follow.

“Before receiving the benefits, you must turn in several documents: a copy of your driver’s license, a completed application form, and a medical release form.”


Dashes (—) add emphasis to a word or phrase, or indicate a change of thought. Anything between the dashes is not considered part of the subject in a sentence.

“At the shelter, I saw the perfect dog—my dog—waiting patiently to be adopted.”
“Sarah—and her little sister—was always coming over to play.”
“When is the mailman—oh there he is!”


An apostrophe can create a contraction. Take a look at these examples:

“Sarah can’t eat the cookie.”
“Sarah isn’t going to give you that cookie.”
“Sarah won’t want all of the cookies.”

In these sentences, the apostrophes contract cannot into can’t, is not into isn’t, and will not into won’t.

Apostrophes can also indicate possession. See the following basic rules on using apostrophes to make nouns possessive:

Singular noun not ending in “s”: add an apostrophe + “s”.

“Ken’s car is blue.”

Singular noun ending in “s”: add an apostrophe + another “s”, especially when the extra syllable of “es” is pronounced.

“The Jones’s car is red.”

Plural nouns not ending in “s”: add an apostrophe + “s”.

“The men’s volleyball camp is next week.”

Plural nouns ending in “s”: add an apostrophe after the “s”.

“The ladies’ volleyball camp is tomorrow.”

Evaluating a Passage for Clarity

To make the best edits in a passage, you must be skilled at evaluating for clarity. This basically means determining if the passage is written in a clear, concise manner that is easily understood by the reader. Were the facts given in a direct manner that made sense the first time you read them, or did you have to re-read the author’s words multiple times before you gained an understanding of the text? Were the correct words used, with proper punctuation and grammar? Practice evaluating for clarity by reading different kinds of texts and asking yourself comprehension questions. If anything is unclear, ask yourself what the author could have done to present their ideas clearly.

Choosing the Best Repair for a Passage

There may be times when multiple answers could be a possible repair for a passage error. Your job is to select the answer that would best suit, or correct, the text. Try substituting all of the possible repairs into the given passage before making your selection, as this will help you narrow down which choices are viable and, eventually, which choice is best above all. Think about which repair gives the passage the most clarity, and don’t forget that sometimes the best choice is to make no changes at all. Don’t assume the original passage is incorrect.

Identifying Unnecessary Information

You may have to identify what parts of a passage are unnecessary and should be deleted. Part of the idea of clarity is that each sentence is clear, concise, and purposeful. Text without a purpose only serves to make a passage wordy and convoluted. Read the passage selection and question the purpose of each sentence. Anything that does not serve to prove the author’s point or explain their reasoning can likely be deleted.

Placing a Sentence Appropriately in a Passage

Passages should always follow a logical structure (structure means how the passage is organized). Placing a sentence appropriately depends on your understanding of how the points in a passage are organized, be it by importance, chronologically, cause and effect, or others. Review the most common ways that passages are structured on websites such asthis one.

Keywords, or transitional words, will also give you hints about where a sentence should be placed. For example, a sentence beginning with the word finally will obviously be at the end, while a sentence beginning with the word additionally will be somewhere in the middle.

Using Information from Graphs and Tables for Support

Graphs and tables can provide excellent support in a clear, concise manner. Review different types of graphs in order to ensure you can quickly understand them and the information provided. You may be asked to make corrections to a passage based on the information provided in the graph, so understanding how to read graphs is essential. In a correctly written passage, all of the information in the text should match the information displayed on the graph.

Tips and Tricks

  • “Mouth” the words as you read. This will enable you to actually “hear” what the author is saying and evaluate whether it seems clear to a reader.

  • Pace yourself. As you only have 35 minutes to complete the writing and language portion of the PSAT/NMSQT exam, it is important to pace yourself throughout the test. Don’t linger too long over any one part, and try to dedicate an equal amount of time to each passage and its correlating questions.

  • Come back to harder questions later. If you don’t know the answer to a question, move on and return to it at the end. This way, if you run out of time you will at least have already answered all of the questions you are confident about. If you are very short on time, you can come back to the hard questions at the end and simply take a guess. More on that next!

  • Feel free to guess. The PSAT/NMSQT exam operates on a “rights-only” scoring method, meaning there is no penalty for a wrong answer. This means that if you are absolutely stumped on a question, your best option is to guess! A wrong answer will not negatively affect you, and you will have a decent chance at correctly guessing and receiving points.