kitchen table math, the sequel: SAT Question of the Day

Sunday, May 17, 2009

SAT Question of the Day

This is the question of the day from the College Board

"The following sentence contains either a single error or no error at all. If the sentence contains an error, select the one underlined part that must be changed to make the sentence correct. If the sentence contains no error, select choice E."

The Sun has been shining for "nearly" five billion years and is thought "that it has" sufficient thermonuclear fuel in its core "to shine" "for about" another five billion.

A "nearly"
B "that it has"
C "to shine"
D "for about"
E no error

[Ed. My question is how do you define "error" in writing?]

Correct Answer: B

Here's Why:

The error in this sentence occurs at (B), where there is awkward and unidiomatic phrasing. The awkward “that it has” should simply be “to have.”

Question Type: Identifying Sentence Errors (Writing)

[Ed. Too bad they don't give hints on the test.]

"Hint - Look for awkward or wordy phrasing."

[Ed. Awkward or wordy phrases aren't "errors" to me. This tells me that SAT prep can make a huge difference.]


CassyT said...

I was wondering about that question today as well. Really - awkward and wordy? Have they read any literature that predates 1900? Or a legal paper? If you chose "no error" you's probably make a great lawyer.

Anonymous said...

This is less a matter of SAT prep than important elements of grammar than are rarely taught explicitly anymore.

I keep a 40 year old Warriner's 11th grade Grammar and Comp book that a high school teacher told me to go save in 1975 because it was being sent to be burned.

If you can get an old textbook or even a newer version of Warriner's, explain participial phrases, gerunds, and infinitive phrases (what was going on here) directly to your middle schooler using examples. Also show them how prepositional phrases function in a sentence as either adjectives or adverbs.

It won't take long, their writing will always be better and tighter, and foreign languages will be so much easier to learn.

I learned the last part last year when my daughter was trying to conjugate infinitive phrases in her Spanish class. Her teacher recognized an error but couldn't explain to her the verbal was acting as a direct object and not the verb of the sentence.

Math is not the only subject that has to be taught by a parent at the kitchen table to be taught well these days.

Anonymous said...


As a followup to your comment, lawyers who think there is no error tend to write contracts that are the subject of litigation because they are ambiguous and briefs that lack clarity and are not as persuasive.

Good writers write in an active voice and never confuse verbals which are modifying something with the verb of the sentence. It simply comes across as descriptive, to the point writing.

Verbal phrases and proper subordination of clauses may seem nerdy but they are a bit like factoring in algebra. It seems like unnecessary, monotonous excess until you master it and then its insights can help transform your understanding.

SteveH said...

But is it an "error"?

As an engineer, I take those things literally. Actually, they don't say that it's an error.

I think that the only way to figure these things out is by doing a lot of practice tests. Perhaps you would develop a better feel for their thinking. If there is anything slightly improper, they would not want you to select "no error".

linsee said...

That grammar needs to be taught explicitly, amen. And true, "awkward or wordy phrasing" is not in itself an error. However, "[The Sun] is thought 'that it has'" is clearly ungrammatical, though it's not clear whether the error is with "that it has" or with "is thought." You could fix it by saying "and it is thought that it has . . ." which is still awkward and wordy, as well as gratuitously passive, but is not an error.

And to anonymous above, who said "Good writers write in an active voice," that sounds like recycled Strunk & White. It is certainly not a general principle of good writing.

ChemProf said...

To see the error (and I'd argue it is actually ungrammatical), it helps to restate the subject after the conjunction, in this case "The Sun". If you do that, then the sentence becomes:

... and the sun is thought "that it has" sufficient thermonuclear fuel...

which is clearly not right. Saying "It is thought that it has" may not be ideal due to passive voice, but isn't ungrammatical. However, that first "it" doesn't refer to the sun as the subject, instead it is an idiom. The actual problem, then, is subject-verb agreement, albeit in an unusual form.

This is less a bad question than a really poor explanation -- another sign that grammar should be taught explicitly, even to those writing SAT prep materials!

concernedCTparent said...

This is where diagramming sentences pays off big. Not that you'd actually diagram it on paper, particularly given the time constraints of an SAT; instead, you develop the ability to diagram a sentence in your head (something akin to mental calculations in math). As you pull out subjects and predicates (in this case the predicate is compound), the grammatical error reveals itself almost immediately.

cranberry said...

"The Sun has been shining for "nearly" five billion years and is thought "that it has" sufficient thermonuclear fuel in its core "to shine" "for about" another five billion."

You could also rewrite it to:

The Sun has been shining for "nearly" five billion years, and it is thought "that it has" sufficient thermonuclear fuel in its core "to shine" "for about" another five billion.

The original sentence is "awkward and wordy" because it's ungrammatical. The question is better than the explanation.

To prepare for this, you could either diagram sentences, or learn a foreign language, such as German. English speakers frequently find German grammar difficult, probably because it deals explicitly with clauses. If you understand subordinate clauses, though, German grammar's not that bad.

Anonymous said...

This has turned into an excellent discussion.

I stand by the active voice comment. It's one of the critical elements of writing. To make your points well you want your subject acting on your verb, not your verb doing something to your subject.

One form moves on and the other turns around. I didn't get this point from The Elements of Style but their points are almost always valid. You should use the active voice in writing 95% of the time because it gets to the point. The point is why we write.

In an e-mail world of business correspondence we need to teach grammar directly not just math. For most of us math helps teach us to think but our e-mails are how we'll be evaluated.

Steve - Thanks for posting this. There are real links behind the analysis that ought to go on in math and grammar. There's a reason the ancients taught logic through both.

SteveH said...

My problem is that the question talks about error. Are there explicit rules about what is and what is not an error in cases like this? How common is this sort of question on the SAT test?

Actually, I think the question was posed badly. I know that when I read it, I focused on the word error. But, as I said before, I should have realized that a sentence like that would not have an answer of "no error".

VickyS said...

In my view that SAT question contains a clear grammatical error, one which I recognized right away, but then again I write for a living. I agree with the folks who pointed out that it's the explanation that is faulty, not the question itself.

Commonly accepted "rules of grammar" (which are well taught by the beloved Warriner's) do exist. A grammatical error results when a rule is broken. The problem is that most of these rules are not taught to kids anymore.

Writing mechanics taught in our schools include punctuation and capitalization, parts of speech, topic sentences, 5 paragraph essays and not much more. Whatever the kids know (expressly or implicitly) about direct and indirect objects, reflexive clauses, infinitives, past participles and the like comes from either foreign language instruction or osmosis through extensive reading. Those who osmose can just "tell" where the error is (I have a son like that) but they can't articulate the grammar rule.

One of my pet peeves is a middle school exercise where the student is given a sentence with about 10 different errors in it. This causes enormous confusion and lack of focus, because there are so many ways to "fix" such a sentence. To compound matters, the teachers always only accepted the one that was in their answer key!

(Another pet peeve of mine is the exercise where the teacher give the kids a list of 20 words that are somewhere in a novel they are reading and they have to find them. Sorry, just had to get that off my chest.)

Anyway, what I love about Warriner's is that it drills one grammar rule at a time. When you're done, you know it cold.

VickyS said...

I did some research on John Warriner. He died in 1987 and I found this interesting quote in his obituary in the NYT:

"I had a theory about what a textbook should be," Mr. Warriner recalled years later, "and we incorporated it into this book. The theory I've always gone on is that the teacher does the teaching. I mean by that the textbook is merely a record of what the teacher teaches; and the idea that a textbook can be lively and exciting and illustrated and full of pictures and sort of like a bulletin board - that's not what I want in my classes."

Cranberry said...

SteveH, the explanation is geared for students who have never been taught grammar. As VickyS wrote, there are rules, but if those taking the SAT haven't been taught the rules, any explanation based on the rules would need to be a grammar lesson in itself.

I think that a knowledge of grammar rules would help a student to score well on the SAT writing section. On the other hand, I don't know how much weight colleges give that section of the SAT.

Anonymous said...

Vicky -
That's a wonderful quote.

The teacher who told me to go get one of the Warriner's books from the book room and to keep it was traumatized at what was happening. She was a veteran and must have seen a paradigm shift that educators wanted to destroy these books in the mid -1970s.

My kids can't believe how succinctly and expressly it lays out everything relating to writing.

SteveH said...

So it IS an explicit error, not just awkward phrasing? I can tell that it's not good, but I can't explain why it's an error. I'll have to get a copy of Warriner's book. All of this sounds too much like math. At least with math I know exactly what's important and what isn't.

My son's school uses the osmosis philosophy. Just read, read, read and don't worry about the explanations.

VickyS said...

If you can track down a copy of Warriner's you'll see that (real) grammar *is* a lot like math! Rules that build on each other, coherent, sequential, logical... Maybe we'll have to start a companion blog, "KTE" (kitchen table English).

I just sent an email to the publisher asking them to republish it. Why not?

Anonymous: they were just throwing out their Warriner's, right? I mean, they weren't making a big bonfire and chanting or anything, were they?

Cranberry said...

Amazon has Warriner's.

Anonymous said...

The new editions sold by Warriner's are not nearly as detailed as the old versions. My copy was published in 1965 with a 1958 copyright.

The old Warriner's is like a Dolciani algebra book. There's plenty of slightly varying examples, detailed explanations, and enough practice problems that allow an interested student to teach himself.

As far as I know there was no public spectacle associated with eliminating these books. They were phased out as too authoritative for someone's taste and replaced with texts that were far less explicit. They were not phased out because the covers were frayed and it was time for new books.

I appreciate the book more as an adult than I did when I retrieved it at 16. I have never forgotten the teacher's belief that something precious was being eliminated when she read those books were to be collected and destroyed.

SteveH said...

In math, educators talk about the evils of drill and kill and how their approach teaches understanding. Less is more. What is the equivalent in English? All you need is to read and discuss in groups? Do they claim that everything you need to know can be leraned by osmosis?

I never like it when arguments in math focus on which algorithm you use for something like long division. The real problem is how less becomes more.

CassyT said...

I guess we could become Grammar Vigilantes, like this teacher in Milwaukee.

Cranberry said...

That links to an HTML page of a powerpoint presentation, which gives examples of this sort of sentence. I believe it's from the University of Belgrade, which makes sense, as Americans don't learn grammar in the same manner as do students learning English as a second language.

SteveH said...

It passes the Microsoft Word spelling and grammar check, so it must be OK. I'm using my 21st Century Skills!

Cranberry said...

While Googling for passive + infinitive, I found that has the text of a grammar text from 1896, by Baskervill. Glancing at it, it's quite readable, and illustrates its points with sentences drawn from literature. The text is available for free on the Kindle. I recommend the Kindle for those who want to find out of print texts.

I don't know the solution to the problem of the state of grammar instruction. Making a knowledge of grammar indispensable to doing well on the SAT is a good first step. I'd gladly sacrifice some of the time my eldest child spends on personal essays to a review of sentence structure.

The larger problem is, though, that we've lost the taste for authority. It is fashionable to hold that there is no one correct way to speak or write. I don't know any way around that. The bitter irony is, the students who leave school with no knowledge of grammar are left at a distinct disadvantage. It's a purposeful crippling of the mind, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

If you wanted to make learning subjective and ensure the need for teachers to have some sort of intermediary role for "learning" to occur, you needed to get rid of just the type of authoritative textbooks that fell into disfavor in many subject areas.

The Lippincott readers were so well designed phonetically that, as Jeanne Chall noted, most kids using them could intuit their way to understanding how to read. Gone!

Warriners with its explicit rules for accurate and precise spoken and written English. Removed and destroyed.

Math books like Dolciani"s, Richard Brown's, Jurgensen's Geometry that alone improved the knowledge of every interested teacher and student. No longer in widespread use.

It's now a lot easier to assert that the SAT isn't really measuring real skills. That's the next phase of the assault on excellence.

It's a real loss that so few in the 21st century will have access to the sort of materials that allowed generations of Americans to teach themselves. Sites like KTM help fill the void of knowledge of what was once available and what can still be obtained.

Anonymous said...

It's not just the kids who don't know grammar; neither do many English teachers. My kids have had a number of them, in top-rated districts. They usually could write correct English, but they didn't know the grammar rules. Only one actually taught sentence diagramming, in 7th grade. One of her colleagues announced, proudly, that she couldn't diagram sentences, that she had never done it and that she thought it was useless.

At my state university in the 60s, all English majors (don't remember about minors) in the College of Arts and Sciences were required to take (1)Structure of the English Language and (2) Stylistics, in that order. They were both taught by the same professor and they were considered to be the most difficult courses in the department; failure was a real option. The College of Education didn't require either one and it required only half of the subject-area credits the College of A & S did.

Anonymous said...

I actually took 2 Warriner's - the 11th grade book and the Complete Edition. I just got the Complete Edition from my 9th grader's room.

Here's a quote from the preface:

this book, like the other texts in this series, states the facts about language and the conventions of usage; it gives full explanations of all important skills in writing, speaking, and listening; and it includes enough drills and exercises to meet any teaching demand.

Does that level of authority seem presumptuous today?

The preface goes on to state that it was designed to be a "handy reference in which the student can easily find the answer to almost any language problem he is likely to encounter".

It's difficult to find textbooks now that were designed to promote objective, authoritative, standards of what a well-educated person ought to know.

No wonder the teacher so long ago thought something precious was being lost. Perhaps she had also taken English courses and not just education courses.

Anonymous said...

Institutions, both k-12 and colleges, are unwilling to fail kids; it's politically unacceptable. It wasn't always that way; there was no k-12 social promotion and colleges expected to weed out a third of the freshman class with "weeder classes" ( freshman English and sciences). I remember the (1969) midterm exam grade distribution in one of my English classes; (1) 98, (1)B, about 10 Cs and the rest Ds and Fs, with actual point values assigned and no curve. I saw grades below 20. The professor told us when we began Moby Dick that we could not pass the exam if we read only the trot; that the exam would tell her who had REALLY read the whole book. She was right. A lot of kids disappeared after that exam, to repeat the class the following semester, but I never heard of any complaints. BTW, the short-answer questions were brutal, but the killer was a 50-point essay discussing the three sermons in the book; the trots mentioned only two. She also taught the Structure and Stylistics courses I mentioned above, so you get the idea of what she required. EXCELLENT teacher.

ChemProf said...

"So it IS an explicit error, not just awkward phrasing?"

Yes, but it is a subtle error because "it is thought that" is an idiom. The subject of this phrase has to be "it", since it really means that "experts think that". When you have a subordinate clause (that can't stand alone as its' own sentence) connected with a conjunction like "and", the subordinate clause must share the subject of the first sentence, in this case "the sun." So it would be correct to say "The dog ran and jumped" if you mean that "The dog ran and the dog jumped" but not if you meant "The dog ran and the cat jumped" (to use a silly example). In this case, the subordinate clause doesn't have the same subject, so is incorrect, and the sentence can be corrected by changing "is thought that" to either "it is thought that" or "to have".

"Do they claim that everything you need to know can be leraned by osmosis?"

Pretty much, and as in math, they are wrong!

"It passes the Microsoft Word spelling and grammar check, so it must be OK. I'm using my 21st Century Skills!"

And that points out that it isn't exactly a passive voice issue, since most grammar checks will catch that! (Also, while passive voice should be used carefully, I'm always annoyed with blanket condemnations. In scientific writing, for example, passive voice may be more important -- we care that "Water was boiled for 30 minutes" not that Jane boiled the water!)

linsee said...

To anonymous at 4:21 5/17, who said, "I stand by the active voice comment. It's one of the critical elements of writing. To make your points well you want your subject acting on your verb, not your verb doing something to your subject."

No, you don't. You want the subject of your sentence to be the topic of the sentence -- often, but not always, the agent who carries out the action of the verb.

As a grad student in linguistics (Minnesota 1988-92) I took a two-quarter course in English grammar for prospective English teachers, and one of our assignments for the chapter on active/passive voice was to pick a book off the shelf and tally the voices of the verbs in the first few pages.

My tally for "To Kill a Mockingbird" began with this opening sentence:
"When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow."

You think Harper Lee got it wrong? What possible subject of the active verb "break" do you think should have replaced Jem as the grammatical subject?

As for S&W, they often fail to follow their own advice, so they really didn't believe it either. Geoff Pullum summed it up for the Chronicle of Higher Education: "50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice."
See Language Log for much more,

Anonymous said...


The comment was that it is important to understand the distinction between the active and passive voice to be an effective writer and that the active voice is more appropriate about 95% of the time.

Chem prof and you have each shown instances of when the passive voice is appropriate. That's why it should be an arrow in a writer's quiver. Harper Lee understood she wanted the focus to be on Jem's broken arm. Why it was so badly broken is at the heart of her story.

Why do you think citing an exception to a generally applicble rule refutes the rule?

You are welcome to believe grammar is stupid and has no value in teaching analytical skills. I suspect though if you ever need a lawyer you will prefer to have one who writes clearly and forcefully, draws valid analogies well, and can spot inconsistencies in an argument.

Those useful skills were taught for centuries with grammar because of its emphasis on function and logic.

I'm aware that linguistics graduate programs don't necessarily advocate teaching grammar as the old versions of Warriners advocated. That's why it was so important to destroy all available copies of the Warriners textbooks.

Michael Weiss said...

I know I'm late to the party, but the sentence in the original post is definitely flawed, and the flaw is a true error, not just awkwardness or passive voice (both of which have their proper place).

To see the error most clearly, just trim off the first predicate, shorten the last descriptive phrase, and consider this reduced sentence:

The sun is thought that it has sufficient thermonuclear fuel.This just sounds wrong. But what, specifically, is wrong with it?

There are two different ways to use the construction "is thought".
One way looks like this:
1. A is thought to be B
(where A is a subject, and B is a descriptive phrase).

2. It is thought that X
(where X is a clause, containing its own subject and predicate).

In the example sentence, The sun is thought that it has sufficient thermonuclear fuel, there is a full clause after the word "that" (namely, it has sufficient thermonuclear fuel), but the word "It" is missing from "It is thought" -- so if this is supposed to be a construction of type 2, then it's defective. On the other hand if it's trying to be a construction of type 1, then the problem lies with the phrase "that it has", which should be "to be". There are two ways to fix this sentence; but the SAT only offers one of them as an option, so that's the one.

There is definitely some technical terminology here that would be useful to know -- something about coordinating and subordinating conjunctions -- but I am not sure naming the error is necessarily better than describing it.