SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

SAT Writing: Word Choice and Diction Errors

Posted by Mary Ann Barge | Aug 6, 2015 8:30:00 AM

SAT Writing

 

 

Mark Twain famously once wrote in a letter that the “difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter - it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

The SAT agrees with good old Mark, and tests students on their ability to recognize when the almost-right word has been subbed in for the right one.

Are you confident in your ability to not be tricked by the SAT's unusual diction questions? Read on for some strategies and tips for this section. 

In this guide, I will:

  • explain what diction is and why the SAT asks about it
  • tell you when to look for diction errors on the SAT and how to approach these questions
  • show you examples of this kind of question similar to those on the SAT
  • give you a master list of commonly-confused words in English

 

 What does “diction” mean, anyway?

Diction is a fancy way of saying “word choice” - you may have heard your literature teacher talk about this idea when analyzing a famous author’s writing style.

When used by the College Board, however, it refers to something on a slightly lower level. A lot of words in the English language are easy to confuse because they look or sound similar but have quite different meanings.

For example, can you spot which words are incorrectly used in the sentences below?

When Allen heard that the SAT would be changing, the news was difficult for him to except. He had spent allot of time studying for the old test, and now he wondered if that had been a total waist. How would these changes effect his scores?

There are actually four diction errors in the above passage, but they can be difficult to spot because they sound like the correct words that should have been used.

Except should be accept

Allot should be a lot

Waist should be waste

Effect should be affect

 

Why diction errors?

Most of the questions you will see on SAT Writing tests your ability to spot basic grammar errors. As such, learning the grammar rules that the SAT thinks are important will usually go a long way in helping to improve you score.

Diction errors are very different: there's no clear rule you can learn that will help you out or even a set list of easily-confused words that the SAT might use, making this section particularly difficult to prepare for.

SAT Writing is all about your ability to edit and spot when something doesn't make sense. Can you only catch errors that follow strict grammar rules or can you also see when something doesn't make sense because the wrong word is being used?

 

Where will I find diction questions?

Since these question are fairly different from the others you will encounter on this part of the SAT, they are considered to be more difficult. The more difficult questions usually appear towards the ends of sections.

You are most likely to find diction questions in the Identifying Errors section of the test because they don't give you answer choices to correct the errors on this part of the test. These questions would not be nearly as difficult to catch if the correct word were given in the answer choices - in fact, that would be an easy giveaway that one of the original words was incorrect!

Diction questions will rarely, if every, appear in the Improving Paragraphs section.

Keep in mind that not every SAT will have diction errors. Sometimes they don't appear on a test at all! Other times, there will be a few of them. This uncertainty is another reason that they are difficult to prepare for and even harder to recognize. 

It seems that diction errors are becoming a little more common on recent tests than they were in the past, but they still don't make up a large amount of the questions on SAT Writing.

The June 6, 2015 SAT, as an example, had two diction questions.

 

Strategies for Diction Questions

Always have a plan.

When diction questions do appear on the SAT, they're very unpredictable. You never know which commonly confused word the College Board will choose to test, and they tend to not repeat themselves.

Spend a bit of time reviewing the list of commonly confused words below and see if there are any words that jump out at you as things that you might confuse. Limit your studying on this section to just what's trickiest for you.

When you get to the final questions on the Identifying Errors or Improving Sentences section, pay particular attention to any questions that seems to have "No Error" or correct as is as an answer. This is where you will most likely find a diction question.

Go back and double check everything that is underlined. Is each word correct? Did you read too quickly and mentally sub in a similar word for what is actually written? Does anything jump out at you that you can remember from the list below of commonly-confused words?

If you can see a diction error, choose that as the answer. If not, keep your answer as "No Error."

And keep in mind that you're statistically more likely to have "No Error" as an answer, or a totally different grammar mistake that you just didn't spot the first time, than a diction error!

 

Let's look at one together

Though Joe was not implied in (A) the cheating scandal at the school (B), he still was questioned (C) by the principal (D). No Error. (E) 

As always when you are reading through a question on SAT Writing, you should start by looking for the most common grammar errors. (Not sure what the most common mistakes are? We have a guide for that coming soon!) 

Looking at this sentence, I don't see any problems in verb tense and form or subject-verb agreement, and the sentence is correctly formed (meaning it's not a fragment or a run-on). "At the school" is fine as a prepositional phrase. So far I don't see any grammar errors, and so I'm leaning towards No Error.

But not so fast! At this point, I have to go back and double check that all of the underlined words are used correctly. "At the school" and "was questioned" are both phrases with words I'm very familiar with - there's no way these are being used incorrectly.

However, I remember that "implied" and "principal" are both on the list of commonly-confused words.

"Principal" sounds a lot like "principle." One word means a person who runs a school, while the other refers to an ideal or belief. If I had been unsure about which is which when looking over the list below, I would have found a way to remember which is which - such as thinking, "At school, your principal is your pal." Therefore, principal is correctly used in the sentence.

What about implied? That's also on the list, as a word that's commonly confused with "implicated." If I had been having trouble with these two words, I would have had to memorize the definitions or come up with another way to remember the difference between them. From looking at the list below, I know that "imply" means "to suggest" and "implicate" means "to suggest involvement in something."

When I sub those definitions back into the sentence, it's clear that "implied in" doesn't make sense. I should be "implicated in." Therefore, (A) is the correct answer.

 

Here are some more to do on your own!

Some of the following questions have No Error, and others have diction errors. Can you spot them?

1. Due to human interventions, the Alaskan salmon now struggle (A) to reach their spawning grounds, a situation that has (B) adversely effected (C) the area's (D) mammals. No error (E)

2. Most warning signs of cancer are not alarming individually, though several of the symptoms (A) added together (B) are seen (C) as (D) a signal of the disease. No error (E)

3. Only by using (A) unconventional methods were (B) the doctors able to successfully complete (C) what had been (D) a difficult surgery. No error (E)

4. The public has excess (A) to an economical and efficient (B) recycling center that is responsible to community needs and complies with (C) current federal regulations governing (D) waste disposal. No error (E)

5. The report is essentially (A) a vague and extremely lacking (B) record of what (C) happened to each of (D) the victims. No error (E)

6. In (A) American letters, Rachel Carson is a prime example of a reporter who, by assuring (B) public interest in (C) an important topic, achieved immortality for herself. (D)  No error (E)

7. Love is one of our most indiscriminate (A) emotions; it can (B) unexpectedly (C) strike you or me (C), millionaires or paupers (D), cynics or romantics. No error (E)

8. As (A) exotic pets mature, they develop destructive behaviors (B) that their owners, who wanted (C) adorable, furry companions, often find difficult to except (D). No error (E)

Answers: 1. C; 2. E; 3. E; 4. A; 5. E; 6. B; 7. E; 8. D

 

List of commonly confused words

WORD

MEANING

WORD

MEANING

accept

to receive, take

except

excluding

access

entrance; opportunity

excess

more than needed

addition

something added

edition

a certain production of something

adopt

to legally take on, accept

adapt

to change to be more suitable

advice

a recommendation

advise

to give a recommendation

adverse

bad; unfavorable

averse

opposed to

affect

to influence

effect

a result

afflict

to cause suffering

inflict

to force something harmful

aisle

space between rows

isle

island

allude

to make an indirect reference

elude

to avoid

allusion

an indirect reference

illusion

a false idea or vision

already

happened before now

all ready

to be entirely prepared

altar

table for religious ceremony

alter

to change

altogether

completely; entirely

all together

all things with each other

a lot

a large number of something

allot

to give out an amount of something

ambivalent

to have two different feelings about something

ambiguous

having more than one possible meaning

amoral

having no sense or right and wrong

immoral

having intentionally bad morals

anecdote

a short personal story

antidote

a substance or activity that stops something bad

angel

a spiritual creature

angle

space between intersecting lines measured in degrees

apart

separated, into pieces

a part

a piece of something

appraise

to examine and judge

apprise

to tell someone of something

are

3rd person plural of “to be”

our

belonging to us

accent

how someone pronounces words

ascent

movement up

   

assent

agreement/approval

assistance

help

assistants

helpers

attribute

a quality/characteristic

contribute

to give something

auditory

related to hearing

audible

able to be heard

aural

related to hearing

oral

spoken or related to the moth

balmy

pleasantly warm

barmy

crazy or silly

bare

not covered

bear

to carry or accept something

bated

in suspense; excited

baited

to harass (past tense)

bazaar

a market

bizarre

very strange and surprising

berth

a bed on a boat/train

birth

time when a baby is born

beside

next to something

besides

in addition to something

boar

a wild pig

bore

a dull person

board

a long, flat piece of wood

bored

feeling uninterested

born

to have been birthed

borne

carried

bough

a large branch of a tree

bow

bend upper body forward

breath

air that comes from lunch

breathe

to take air in and out

brake

part of a vehicle that stops it

break

to separate into pieces

buy

to purchase

by

shows a person who does something

canvas

a strong cloth

canvass

to ask people their opinions

censure

to criticize formally

censor

to remove offensive things from public

capital

city where government is based OR money

capitol

state legislature building

choose

to decide or pick

chose

past tense of choose

climactic

an important or exciting time

climatic

relating to the weather

coarse

rough and thick

course

a series of lessons

collaborate

to work together

corroborate

to provide supporting information

command

to order

commend

to praise

complacent

feeling you don’t need to try hard

complaisant

willingness to please others

complement

something that goes well with something else

compliment

saying something to show praise

comprehensive

thorough

comprehensible

easy to understand

conscience

the part of you that makes you feel guilty

conscious

aware; awake

contemptuous

showing contempt

contemptible

extremely bad

corps

a group of people or military force

corpse

a dead body

council

an elected group of people

counsel

to give advice

credible

able to be believed

credulous

gullible

dairy

milk products

diary

a book of personal thoughts

descent

a movement down

dissent

disagreement

desirous

wanting something

desirable

attractive

dessert

sweet food

desert

hot, dry area

device

equipment used for a particular purpose

devise

to design or invent something

discreet

secretive

discrete

separate and different

disinterested

impartial

uninterested

not interested

do

a helping verb

dew

drops of water

   

due

expected or planned

dominant

most important or wanting control

dominate

to control or have power over

die

to stop living

dye

substance used to change color

dyeing

to change the color of

dying

present participle of “die”

elicit

to get info or a reaction from someone

illicit

not legal

eminent

respected

imminent

about to happen

   

immanent

permanent part of something

emit

to send out gas/heat/light

omit

exclude

envelop

cover something

envelope

what letters go in

everyday

consecutive days

every day

used a lot

exhaustive

repetitive use

exhausting

tiring

expandable

gets bigger

expendable

to leave out

explicit

gratuitous

implicit

complete

fair

reasonable

fare

cost

farther

far

further

more

flaunt

exaggerate

flout

intentionally

formally

properly

formerly

before

foreboding

over-powering

forbidding

not allowed

forth

forwards

fourth

first, second, third…..

gorilla

large monkey

guerrilla

unofficial military group

hear

sounds

here

present

heard

noise

herd

flock/gaggle/group

hoard

collect/store

horde

large group

hole

hollow space in something

whole

complete

human

people/person

humane

kind

implicit

complete

complicit

involved in

imply

suggest

implicate

suggest someone is involved in something

   

infer

guess something based on the information you have

incur

experience something unpleasant

occur

to happen

indeterminate

impossible to know

interminable

lasting a long time, in a boring way

influence

make an impression

affluence

wealth

ingenious

really clever

ingenuous

honest

its

belongs to

it’s

it is

knew

knowledge you have

new

not old

know

knowledge

no

denied

laid

the past of lay

lain

lied down

later

in the past

latter

near the end of a period

lay

to put something down

lie

horizontal

lead

to take charge

led

had taken charge

lessen

to weaken

lesson

what a teacher teaches

lightning

weather

lightening

not as dark

loose

not fitting tightly

lose

to not win

maybe

perhaps/possibly

may be

accepting something as true despite your opinion on it

meat

flesh

meet

assemble

   

mete

punish

metal

hard, shiny substance

medal

metal object given as a prize

   

mettle

determination when doing something

miner

someone who works in a mine

minor

not important

moral

right and wrongs

morale

the meaning

passed

to qualify

past

something that’s happened

patience

to stay calm

patients

sick people

peace

tranquility

piece

a part of

peak

the top

peek

a quick look

   

pique

annoyed

pedal

foot operated part of machine

petal

part of a flower

   

peddle

to sell

perpetrate

do something bad

perpetuate

elongate

personal

relating to a person

personnel

staff

persecute

treat someone unfairly

prosecute

to convict

perspective

viewpoint

prospective

potential buyer

plain

ordinary

plane

flying vehicle

pore

small hole for sweat to pass through

pour

make liquid flow from a container

precede

to happen before something else

proceed

to go forward

precedent

to set an example for others

president

the head of

prescribe

give medical treatment

proscribe

to not allow something

presence

being in a place

presents

gifts

principal

most important

principle

basic rule

quiet

no noise

quite

completely

rain

precipitation

reign

to rule

   

rein

straps that control a horse

raise

to lift

raze

completely destroy

rational

reasonable

rationale

the reason

reluctant

unwilling

reticent

saying little about what you feel

respectfully

showing respect

respectively

in the same order

reverend

Christian official

reverent

showing respect

right

correct

rite

traditional religious ceremony

   

write

produce words

road

surface built for vehicles

rode

to have ridden

scene

a view

seen

to have looked

sense

logic

since

from a time in the past

sensible

well behaved

sensitive

to be dealt with carefully

   

sensory

connected to the physical senses

sight

vision

site

a place of importance

   

cite

mention something as proof

simulate

to mimic

stimulate

to make something happen

stationary

still motion

stationery

office supplies

straight

not curved

strait

narrow area of sea

suppose

think something is true

supposed to

expected to do something

taught

educated, instructed

taut

stretched very tight

than

used to compare two things

then

at that time

their

belongs to them

there

used to show something exists

   

they’re

they are

through

from one end to the other

threw

to have thrown

   

thorough

completely

to

used to give the reason

too

as well as

   

two

comes after one

track

narrow path

tract

large area of land

visual

relating to seeing

visible

able to seen

waist

around the middle of your body

waste

a bad use of something

waive

allow someone to break the rules

wave

move hands from side to side

weak

not strong

week

7 days

weather

conditions in the air above the earth (wind, rain etc)

whether

if, or not

   

wether

a castrated ram

where

to, at, or in what place

were

past tense of be

which

determining pronoun

witch

woman with magical powers

whose

which person owns or is responsible for something

who’s

who is

your

belonging to the person being spoken to

you’re

you are

   

yore

a long time ago

 

What's next?

Familiarize yourself with some other errors you're likely to see on the Identifying Sentence Errors questions, like pronoun agreement, adjectives vs. adverbs, and subject-verb agreement.

More concerned about the big picture? Make sure you know the best way to approach Identifying Sentence Errors and Improving Sentences.

If you're a member of the class of 2017, determine whether you should study for the current SAT or the redesigned version with this guide.

 

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Mary Ann Barge
About the Author

Mary Ann holds a BA in Classics and Russian from the University of Notre Dame, and an MA from University College London. She has years of tutoring experience and is also passionate about travel and learning languages.



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