Page 3 Writing and Language Study Guide for the SAT® exam

Usage Conventions

Usage, as you can probably assume, refers to how the writer uses parts of English. Be prepared to analyze and edit the following usage conventions:

Writings use pronouns to re-label nouns they have already introduced. Examples of pronouns are he, she, it, me, whom, us, mine, etc. Be sure to review the complete list of pronouns. Clarity of pronouns is essential for writers because lack of clarity causes confusion for the reader and the point of the writing will be lost. Some common errors in clarity include the following:

  • Which noun is being referenced? Example: “Susan asked Sharon to help plan the reunion. However, she didn’t show up to the meeting.” (Who is she?)

  • Change in point of view (POV). Example: “Eric gave his employees the company memo. But you forgot to give a memo to Sandra.” (There was a change from third person POV, he, to second person POV, you.)

  • Change in quantity or number. Example: “The box of printer paper was finally delivered. The typists already used them.” (Them should be it, since the noun being referred to is the box.)

Possessives tell us when something is owned. Possessive pronouns can be identified because they replace the noun, whereas possessive determiners are used in conjunction with the noun. Example:

  • “The black Samsung is her phone.” (Her is a possessive determiner because it is used with the noun phone.” It is determining who owns the phone.)

  • “The black Samsung is hers.” (Hers is a possessive pronoun because it completely replaces the noun phone while identifying who owns the phone.)

Be sure to review the different types of possessives and make sure not to confuse possessives with contractions (its versus it’s, your versus you’re, etc.).

Proofread carefully to ensure grammatical agreement. A quick Google search will award you with complete lists of agreement errors and ways to fix them, but common places where you may find agreement errors are between the subject and the verb and between the pronoun and the noun it is replacing (called an antecedent). Here are some examples:

  • “The bag of apples are in the kitchen.” (Incorrect because the singular subject bag requires a singular verb is, rather than are.)

  • “Sarah bought a carton of eggs so she could use them in the bake-off.” (Incorrect because the singular subject carton requires a singular pronoun it, rather than them.)

Even the best writers can sometimes use the wrong word in a sentence, but this leads to confusion and frustration for the reader. As the editor, you must be wary of frequently confused words in order to properly correct them. Words like affect and effect, or awhile and a while cannot be used interchangeably, no matter how similar they sound. Be sure to review commonly confused words to ensure you know the proper meanings. One easy-to-use list of them can be found here.

Writers often make comparisons to strengthen or clarify a point. However, it is very important that the items being compared are alike, creating logical comparisons. When proofreading, watch for the signal word than, which often means a comparison is being made: “greater than,” “longer than,” “better than,” etc. Check out these examples of common comparison errors:

  • “The beaches in Thailand are prettier than Florida.” (INCORRECT)

  • “The beaches in Thailand are prettier than the beaches in Florida.” (CORRECT)

Because beaches and Florida are not like terms, it is illogical to compare them. Beaches must be compared to beaches.

  • “Sarah’s term paper is longer than Billy.” (INCORRECT)

  • “Sarah’s term paper is longer than Billy’s term paper.” (CORRECT)

  • “Sarah’s term paper is longer than Billy’s.” (CORRECT)

A term paper cannot be longer than a human, so it must be clear that Sarah’s paper is being compared to Billy’s paper, not Billy himself.

  • “The quarterback of the college football team, Dan Jobson, is faster than any player on the team.” (INCORRECT)

  • “The quarterback of the college football team, Dan Jobson, is faster than any other player on the team.” (CORRECT)

Always remember to use the words other or else when comparing someone to members of the same group. In the example above, the first sentence doesn’t use other, which means the sentence is comparing Dan to all players, including himself, since he is a part of the football team. Using other specifies that Dan is being compared to his teammates. See the next similar example that uses the word else.

  • “The math teacher at Washington Academy is stricter than anyone on the faculty.” (INCORRECT because the math teacher is a member of the faculty.)

  • “The math teacher at Washington Academy is stricter than anyone else on the faculty.” (CORRECT because of the word else.)

Conventional expression refers to writing in a way that follows the conventions of English. The only time it is excusable not to follow standard conventions is for a specific rhetorical purpose. For example, many writers of fiction break standard conventions to display the personality or language pattern of a specific character. Words like “ain’t” aren’t a part of standard conventions, but they can be used to show that a character is less proper than other characters. As you act as an editor on the SAT, you must determine if a break in convention is to accomplish some rhetorical point, or if it is simply incorrect.

Punctuation Conventions

Punctuation signals the beginning and end of sentences, displays sentence breaks, and makes writing easy to understand. Make sure you are familiar with the following punctuation conventions:

End-of-sentence punctuation must always be used or the sentence is considered incomplete. The context of the sentence should determine the type of punctuation needed to correctly end the sentence. The three options for end-of-sentence punctuation are periods (.), exclamation points (!), and question marks (?).

Within-sentence punctuation can be trickier than end-of-sentence as they include a wider array of marks [commas (,), dashes (—), colons (:), semicolons (;), and more], and have more rules to follow. Review punctuation usage for within-sentence marks to ensure you are able to correct any errors.

Do you know how to correctly use possessive nouns and pronouns? Possessive nouns usually occur when you add an apostrophe to a noun (Shanda’s, Patty’s, Ben’s, etc.), whereas possessive pronouns are their own separate words (mine, yours, his, etc.). Possessives can get especially tricky when dealing with plurals (families’ and family’s are both correct depending on the context), so be sure to review plural possessive rules.

Items in a series occur when three or more items are listed within a sentence. These items, whether verbs, nouns, infinitives, etc., should be separated correctly to avoid confusion. Commas (,) and semicolons (;) can be used, but the comma is the most common choice. Review rules for correctly separating items in a series.

Nonrestrictive and parenthetical elements are nonessential items within a sentence. These phrases usually give extra information that informs the reader but isn’t totally necessary to the writer’s purpose. Correct punctuation must set these elements apart from the essential parts of the sentence. Review rules for parenthetical elements and the types of punctuation used to set them apart, such as parentheses [ ( ) ] and commas.

Unnecessary punctuation makes a sentence choppy and confusing. Commas are the most frequent culprit in unnecessary punctuation, so comma usage is a great point to review prior to the SAT. Being able to recognize and delete unnecessary marks is an important part of being an editor.