SAT Writing Tips Post

SAT Writing Error: Subject-Verb Agreement, Prepositional Phrases and Appositives

OK, this grammar lesson is a long one, but it’s very important and worth the time it takes to read it through. Please correct the following sentence:

1) “Neither of us exercise very often on weekends.”

Like many sentences on the SAT, this one seems just fine when you read it over the first time. But upon closer examination, there is a problem. The sentence should read:

2) “Neither of us EXERCISES very often on weekends.”

Strange, huh? Well, let me explain why this is the case. First of all, whenever you see AN UNDERLINED VERB in the SAT Writing section, you should IMMEDIATELY check to see what the SUBJECT OF THE VERB is, to make sure that the SUBJECT AND THE VERB AGREE IN NUMBER. That is to say, if the subject is singular, the verb should be singular, and if the subject is plural, the verb should be plural. So what is the subject of “exercise?” Well, most students would say that “us” is the subject, but this is incorrect for two reasons:

1) “Us” is technically an object pronoun (meaning it receives an action instead of performing the action) so it cannot be the subject.

2) “Of us” is a prepositional phrase, and A PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE CAN NEVER BE THE SUBJECT OF A SENTENCE.

Before we move on, let’s discuss the concept of prepositional phrases. Prepositional phrases are phrases that include prepositions (which are usually DIRECTIONAL words such as “above” or “across,” or shorter TWO-LETTER WORDS such as “of,” “on” or “at”). Here are some sentences with the prepositional phrases in parentheses. Notice that YOU SHOULD ALWAYS BE ABLE TO REMOVE THE PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE AND HAVE THE SENTENCE STILL MAKE SENSE:

-I walked (across the bridge) to my house.
-The book (about Lance Armstrong) was inspirational.
-That vase (on your table) is beautiful.
-The house (on the hill) is full of spiders.
-Shel Silverstein’s book (of poems and drawings) is hilarious.

So, since “of us” cannot be the subject, the subject must be the word “neither.” But now we have a problem: is “neither” singular or plural?

Well, don’t worry if you don’t know the answer—most students don’t. Neither is technically a SINGULAR PRONOUN. Some examples of other singular pronouns are “it,” “he,” and “she.” So once you know that NEITHER IS SINGULAR, you can SUBSTITUTE A SIMPLE SINGULAR PRONOUN IN ITS PLACE and then just USE YOUR EAR TO SEE IF IT “SOUNDS” RIGHT. For example, because one should write “She exercises on weekends,” not “She exercise on weekends,” one should also write “Neither of us EXERCISES on weekends.”

“OK,” you say, “that makes sense to me after reading through it a couple of times. But how should I know that neither is singular in the first place?” Good question. Luckily, that part is pretty easy. Here’s a list of some common singular pronouns:

Somebody / Someone
Anybody / Anyone
Nobody / No one
Everybody / Everyone

It might seem strange to you that “everyone” is singular, but the truth is that most people use these pronouns correctly in everyday speech. For example, one would say “Everyone IS coming to the party,” not “Everyone ARE coming to the party.” But just in case you forget, here’s an easy trick: IF THE WORD HAS “ONE” INSIDE OF IT, THEN THE WORD IS SINGULAR. Since “one” is the definition of singular, that’s an easy trick to remember. Of course “somebody” does not have the word “one” in it, for example, but “someone” means the exact same thing.

On the other hand, there are some singular pronouns that people frequently mistake for plural pronouns. Because they are frequently misused, you should KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR THESE SINGULAR PRONOUNS:

Neither (Neither one)
None (Not one)
Either (Either one)
Each (Each one)

Luckily, the same trick applies. If you can put the word “one” AFTER A PROUNOUN, then that also means that it is singular. Substitute a simple singular pronoun (he/she/it) to double-check:

1) NEITHER of my cousins HAS red hair.
2) HE HAS red hair.

1) EITHER one of those shirts IS fine with me.
2) IT IS fine with me.

All right…so now it’s time to test out your Subject-Verb agreement skills. Turn to page 416, #19 in the OFFICIAL GUIDE TO THE SAT and give it a shot.

Did you choose letter E? Remember that the SAT LOVES TO TRICK YOU by putting lots of information in-between the subject and the verb, including prepositional phrases. So whenever you see a verb underlined, you should LOOK BACK TO SEE WHAT THE SUBJECT IS. By ELIMINATING THE PREPOSITIONAL PHRASES as I did in my example sentence, you will be able to find the subject more easily. For example, if you eliminate “of Ed, Steve and Rich” then the sentence becomes “(They) HAS continued….” which should obviously be changed to “(They) HAVE continued.” It might sound OK when you read it the first time, but the answer is B.

One more thing that you should be able to ELIMINATE FROM SENTENCES when looking for the subject is the APPOSITIVE. An appositive is an “add-on” to a sentence that is usually separated by commas. As with prepositional phrases, the sentence should still make sense when read without the appositive, and THE SUBJECT OF A SENTENCE WILL NEVER BE INSIDE AN APPOSITIVE. The appositives in the sentences below are in parentheses:

-Tom, (a professional poker player), wore his sunglasses even when he was inside.
-They went to Geoff’s, (a popular sandwich place), to grab some grub.

Now try #23 on page 416 and give it a shot. Once you see a verb underlined (answer choice C), you should look back to find the subject of that verb. You’ll see that if you eliminate the prepositional phrase (“of the investigation”) as well as the appositive (“coming just days before the filing deadline”), the sentence reads:

“The announcement (it) were calculated…”

which should obviously be changed to

“The announcement (it) was calculated.” The answer is C.

Whew! That was a long posting. I hope you find it helpful. There is a lot of information packed into this one, so you’ll probably have to read it through a couple of times before you absorb it fully.



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