There’s nothing harder than trying to figure out what someone else thinks is “the best,” and Improving Sentences asks you to do just that. Luckily, we’ve got a few tricks up our sleeve that allow you to move through these questions with confidence.
In this post, we’ll look at the writing skills these questions are designed to test and how to use those skills to answer the questions correctly.
Improving Sentences questions have a section of a sentence underlined and 4 alternatives (plus the option to keep the sentence the way it is). The instructions say that these questions “test correctness and effectiveness of expression.” This means that the sentences aren’t necessarily wrong (though they usually are), they can also just be bad or confusing.
We have to find the best, rather than simply the correct, way of saying something. But the types of choices and mistakes are the same in every test, so let's talk about the most common one and how to “improve” it.
#1 Issue: Conciseness, Conciseness, Conciseness
Almost all Improving Sentences questions involve conciseness; even if it’s not the main problem in the question, some of the incorrect answer choices will be wordy to the point of sounding like nonsense. Just to get a feel for what we mean by this, Here are some concise sentences and their less concise evil twins:
Most dinosaur nests were hidden beneath vegetation from potential predators.
Most dinosaurs laid eggs in hidden nests on the ground that was extremely well protected from other dinosaurs so that they would be more unlikely to be eaten by them.
You can see that all the information in the longer sentence is included in the shorter one: things can only be hidden beneath vegetation if it's on the ground, and the word “predators” means hunting animals. The phrase “hidden from...predators” can only mean that the point is to keep the eggs safe.
Here’s another fun one:
Because bacteria and other organisms can penetrate eggshells and decompose the contents, very few fossilized eggs found today contain any embryonic material.
For the reason that the walls of eggs can be penetrated by bacteria and other small organisms that feed on organic material, the stone-like fossilized eggs people find today are usually lacking any remnants of embryos, whether intact or not.
Okay, the second sentence here is a bit long even for the SAT, but it drives home the point that there is virtually no limit to the amount of irrelevant and repetitive information that can be stuffed into a sentence. And the SAT loves to push that particular envelope.
The key is the information: can the same meaning be conveyed in fewer words? Below, we look at the information in the sentences above:
For the reason that
bacteria and other organisms can penetrate eggshells and decompose the contents
the walls of eggs can be penetrated by bacteria and other small organisms that feed on organic material
very few...contain any embryonic material
are usually lacking any remnants of embryos, whether intact or not
fossilized eggs found today
the stone-like fossilized eggs people find today
As you can see, any extra information that the second sentence offers is not relevant to the point of the sentence: the appearance of the eggs, what organisms feed on (that’s obvious from the fact that they’re eating dino eggs), and whether the embryos are intact or not. Those things don’t matter here, because the sentence is about the absence of embryonic material in the eggs.
Common Problem: Repeated References to Something
Another way to spot an SAT-designed bad sentence is repeated references to a person or thing, like so:
The dinosaur eggs, those which had been incubated by machines, they were almost ready to hatch.
Can you spot the nouns and pronouns in this sentence that refer to the same thing (the eggs)? Go ahead, we’ll wait.
There are three: “eggs,” of course, “those,” and “they.” In this case, you can just take out the second two and the sentence is SAT-approved. Generally, we only need to use a pronoun when there are two things going on in the sentence:
After the incubators had warmed, turned and monitored them for two months, the eggs were ready to hatch.
Above, there’s the actions the incubators took in gestating the eggs, and then the statement that they are ready to hatch. That makes the two references, “eggs” and “they,” necessary. In the previous sentence, the only thing that’s happening is that they’re ready to hatch; the rest of the information is extra.
Even More Common Problem: Gerunds, a.k.a. “-ing” verbs
First of all, let’s get one thing straight: a gerund, or “-ing” verb, cannot by itself be the only verb in a sentence.
Let’s take “feeling” as an example: Can we say “She feeling better”? No, we have to say she is feeling better. We can use it to start a sentence, like “Feeling better, she walked downstairs.” But the operative verb in this sentence is walked, not feeling.
Students overuse “-ing” verbs, because they are more all-purpose than other verb conjugations. But they have limited utility in good writing, and even less utility on the SAT. (Bonus SAT vocab lesson: “utility” means usefulness.) The SAT is constantly presenting us with these kinds of sentences:
The dinosaur eggs were very delicate, the reason for this being that they needed to be incubated.
Then they’ll give us some alternatives to the underlined section:
Strategy: How to Eliminate Carefully and Effectively
The key to maneuvering successfully through the SAT is elimination. The choices are designed to overwhelm and confuse students, which is part of the reason they’re overhauling the test in 2016.
This is also one of the many reasons the SAT requires preparation—the strategy of elimination is actually quite refined and powerful, if you do it correctly. So rather than point out why the right answer is right, we’re going to use the “-ing” verbs example above to give you a sample of our elimination strategy.
Step 1: Which choice is the longest?
Above, it’s (D), and It’s almost never the answer. You can safely eliminate it on this question type: if the others all seem blatantly wrong, then consider it.
Step 2: Which is the most straightforward?
Active voice is always better than passive voice: “they required incubation” is always preferable to “incubation was needed by them”—eliminate (C).
The second person—”you”—is often wrong on the SAT, unless the writer is speaking directly to the reader. When it’s used to mean “a person,” it’s confusing, vague, and inaccurate. Eliminate (B).
These steps leave us with only (A), the original, and (E), the shortest answer choice. Hopefully (E) clearly sounds better to you (see, here I’m talking directly to you, the reader, so the second person in appropriate).
This strategy allows us to work through questions methodically and efficiently without losing our respective minds. It works for all the Reading and Writing questions (and some Math ones), but is especially necessary when your choices are just heaps of words with one “best” option stuck in between.
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Laura has over a decade of teaching experience at leading universities and scored a perfect score on the SAT.