Idiom questions on the SAT are different than most of the other grammar questions. Why? Idiom questions can't be figured out by applying a specific rule. You have to rely on your general knowledge of English and your familiarity with certain phrases. Because you’re likely to encounter a couple of idiom questions on the SAT Writing and Language subsection, I’ll provide you with some information about idioms that should help you raise your SAT score.
In this post, I’ll do the following:
- Explain the concept of an idiom.
- Detail the most common type of idiom questions on the SAT Writing and Language subsection.
- Offer strategies to help you identify and correctly answer idiom questions.
- Give a thorough SAT idiom list to help guide your studying.
- Provide you with practice questions to test you on what you’ve learned.
What Is an Idiom?
Idioms are phrases or expressions that do not conform to simple rules. Each idiom, by definition, is unique. Most people think of idioms as expressions that often have figurative meanings different from their literal meanings. Examples of this type of idiom include "at the drop of the hat," "beat around the bush," and "in over (one's) head." However, the SAT does not test you on these colloquial expressions. SAT Writing and Language idiom questions will test you on different types of idioms.
How Are Idioms Tested in SAT Writing and Language?
While the SAT does not test you on the figurative expressions I referenced above, the SAT may test you on two types of idioms: prepositional idioms and idioms with gerunds/infinitives.
For prepositional idioms, you must know which prepositions to use with a given word based on the context of the sentence. For example, you should say that you're "interested in" something, not "interested at" something. You "focus on" something, not "focus at" something. There is no rule to determine the correct preposition to use. You must be familiar with the phrase or rely on what you think "sounds right." Here's an example sentence with a prepositional idiom:
Because he laughed when his friend fell down, Justin was accused of being devoid at sympathy.
You may encounter a sentence like this on your SAT. In the sentence, there is no violation of a specific grammar rule. However, "devoid at" is an idiom error. Why? Well, the correct phrase is "devoid of." The corrected version of the sentence looks like this:
Because he laughed when his friend fell down, Justin was accused of being devoid of sympathy.
The expression "devoid of" means without. Familiarity with the given expression greatly helps to identify an idiom error.
There is another type of idiom that may be tested on the SAT.
Idioms with Gerunds or Infinitives
Gerunds are verbs that are used as nouns and end in "ing." Examples of gerunds include running, jumping, and thinking. Infinitives are verbs used as nouns and are constructed by using the word "to" plus a verb. Examples of infinitives include to run, to jump, and to think.
What are some examples of idioms with gerunds or infinitives? The correct phrase is "capable of being," not "capable as being." The proper idiomatic expression is "mind being," not "mind to be." For these types of idioms, you need to know which preposition to use and whether to use a gerund or an infinitive.
With some idioms, depending on the context, it is acceptable to use an infinitive or a gerund.
Here's an example:
I struggle to do geometry.
Or, you can also write:
I struggle doing geometry.
Both sentences are correct. Here is a sentence with an idiom error:
Bob insists at being annoying.
Do you recognize the idiom error? Do you know the right idiom? This is the corrected version of the sentence:
Bob insists on being annoying.
Again, there is no rule to learn that lets you know that the phrase should be "insists on being" instead of "insists at being." This is another example of an idiom error:
Julie tends being worrisome.
Check out the sentence after the idiom error is corrected:
Julie tends to be worrisome.
The infinitive form should be used with the word "tends" instead of the gerund form. Now let's look at idiom questions from the SAT.
Here are a couple of idiom questions from the College Board's practice tests.
Explanation: The infinitive "to be" is incorrectly used with the verb "serves." In this sentence, the proper idiomatic expression is "serves as." The correct answer is B.
See if you can figure out this idiom question:
Explanation: The correct idiomatic expression is "as a means of." The answer is B.
Why Are Idiom Questions Difficult/Easy?
Why They're Difficult
Idiom questions can be challenging because other grammar questions follow specific rules or patterns that can be applied to all sentences. Idiom questions test your knowledge of specific idiomatic expressions. Literally, there are thousands of idioms. It's not practical to try to remember each one.
Furthermore, ESL students are less likely to be able to identify idiom errors. Those who have recently learned English have had less exposure to idiomatic expressions and can't learn all of the correct expressions by memorizing a rule.
Why They're Easy
Idiom questions are one of the few types of grammar questions where solely relying on what "sounds right" is likely to give you the right answer. These questions don't require you to understand and apply a rule. If you're familiar with the specific idioms that appear on your SAT, you can easily spot any idiom errors.
SAT Tips for Idiom Questions
#1: If a preposition, gerund, or infinitive is underlined, check for idiom errors.
#2: The question may be testing idioms if the answer choices are all prepositions.
#3: Keep a list of idioms that appear on practice tests.
#4: Review and familiarize yourself with the list of idioms below.
Complete List of SAT Writing Idioms
While there are thousands of idioms in the English language, SAT idiom questions will most likely involve prepositional idioms or idioms with gerunds/infinitives. I've listed some of the more common prepositional idioms and idioms with gerunds/infinitives to help guide your studying. Idioms that have appeared on questions in the College Board’s practice tests are listed first.
It's not practical for you to memorize every single idiom on this list. There will probably only be a couple of idiom questions on your SAT Writing and Language subsection. Spending numerous hours learning hundreds of idioms wouldn't be the best use of your study time.
However, I do recommend that you review this list periodically to become more familiar with these phrases. Thinking about proper idiom construction should benefit you when you encounter idiom questions on the SAT. You'll improve your intuitive grasp of idioms and be able to better recognize idiom errors.
Here's my thorough list of idioms:
IDIOMS FROM SAT PRACTICE TESTS
as a means of
in order to be
fall in love
in A as in B
combination of A and B
a fan of
in danger of
in the hope of
in recognition of
made up of
a model of
an offer of
on the border of
a selection of
a source of
take advantage of
an understanding of
a wealth of
as opposed to
in addition to
in contrast to
prefer A to B
a threat to
try to (NOT try and)
in keeping with
GERUNDS VS. INFINITIVES
Verbs Followed by a Gerund
Prepositions Followed by a Gerund
Verbs Followed by an Infinitive
Congratulations on successfully making it to this point in the article! I know that was a long list. By now, you should understand the concept of idioms and how idioms are tested on the SAT. I've created some realistic SAT questions on idioms for you. Consider the proper construction of idiomatic expressions and try to answer these questions without referring to the list above.
1. Diligent research performed by education scholars indicates that more time spent studying correlates from better educational outcomes.
A. NO CHANGE
D. Delete the underlined portion
2. Because she is extremely protective, Renee hopes to prevent her younger sister for making irresponsible decisions at parties.
A. NO CHANGE
3. After being interrogated by the police for five hours, Ken admitted to being guilty of racketeering and money laundering.
A. NO CHANGE
B. to be
C. to having
4. Even though she was expected doing all of the domestic labor, Natasha was unwilling to conform to traditional gender roles.
A. NO CHANGE
B. to do
D. having done
Answers: 1. C, 2. C, 3. A, 4. B
Finally, learn whether you should take the SAT or the ACT.
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Justin has extensive experience teaching SAT prep and guiding high school students through the college admissions and selection process. He is firmly committed to improving equity in education and helping students to reach their educational goals. Justin received an athletic scholarship for gymnastics at Stanford University and graduated with a BA in American Studies.