kitchen table math, the sequel: Is it Weird or is it Wrong?*

Monday, August 1, 2011

Is it Weird or is it Wrong?*

*From the Introduction to The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar.

"Is it weird or is it wrong" was my process for the SAT Writing Section (pre-Erica).

Here's how I scored in 2011, "by ear," as an adult:

It is worth noting that:
1) I do not recall ever being taught grammar in school.

2) I do remember being told by an English teacher that a comma happens when you feel a pause. I believed that was "the official comma rule" for about 35 years.

3) I worked in book publishing for over two decades and am a voracious reader.
Point #1 is probably a universal truth for American-educated kids facing the SAT today, as is some variation of point #2.

According to Erica:
Most of my students had little to no familiarity with grammatical terminology, so rather than simply reviewing concepts and offering up a couple of tricks, I had to teach them virtually all of the fundamentals of grammar.

Point #3 probably makes me an anomaly.

Given that the average SAT Writing score is 492, I can not think of one reason why every student facing the SAT should not own their own copy of The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar. This is THE definitive guide to the SAT Writing section (and trust me, I've examined most others).

Erica is the most precise human being I have ever met with regard to SAT grammar. I have visions of her picking through single words in the Blue Book as if individual blades of grass. To give you some idea:
Furthermore, I noticed that specific kinds of questions always showed up at specific points in the test. For example:

-Faulty comparisons almost always showed up in the last three Error-Identification questions, as did certain kinds of tricky subject-verb agreement questions.

-The final Fixing Sentences question (#11 in the first Writing section, #14 in the second) very frequently dealt with parallel structure.
Are you starting to get the picture?
When I first started picking apart exams and grouping their questions by category, I did not quite understand why the College Board chose to focus so heavily on certain types of errors (subject-verb agreement, pronoun agreement, parallel structure) and virtually ignore others. Contrary to what most guides say, “who vs. whom” is not actually tested on the SAT, even though who, and very occasionally whom, are underlined on various questions. Then, as a tutor, I read the writing of high school students – lots of them. And I started to notice that most of their writing was full of the exact errors tested on the SAT. Here it seems that the College Board does actually know what it’s doing.

The other point worth noting about this book is that she includes the indices from the Blue Book broken down by category. So in other words, if you need to find a bunch of dangling modifier questions to practice on, flip to the back of this book and you'll find them cross referenced by page and test/problem number.

Illustration by Jennifer Orkin Lewis

Full disclosure: I scoured the book about 10 times for missing punctuation and spacing errors in the 11th hour, in exchange for tutoring time with Erica. It was a labor of love and I'd do it again in a heartbeat.


Catherine Johnson said...

Having taken a few writing sections myself, I can confirm the fact that "Weird or wrong" is the question--though in my case I phrase it as "Bad writing or bad grammar?"

It's amazingly hard to tell the difference sometimes.

SATVerbalTutor. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SATVerbalTutor. said...

Agreed. Some of the sentences in the Writing section are truly awful (as I always say, sometimes you just have to wonder what the people at the College Board were on when they came up with certain things).

But just to play devil's advocate for a moment, one of the goals of the Writing section is to test whether someone truly knows a particular set of grammatical rules. One of the ways the CB has seen fit to do this is to (I think) deliberately give a set of sentences that sound uniformly bad so that the test-taker *can't* just get the right answer by ear. The only way to answer the question is to identify the option that eliminates the error being tested -- if you don't know the rule, you can't find the answer. The actual quality of the writing is pretty much beside the point. I'm not necessarily defending this, I'm just explaining the possible logic behind some of the stuff that shows up on the test.

Jen said...

I think that's a good explanation of it. The sentence sounds awful -- it's awkward and bumpy. But as you run through the list of things that could be wrong, SATwise, there's nothing there. The pronouns work, the verb is correct, it's not a parallel problem...

Then it's just ugly, but not wrong.