Welcome to the fourth installment of “Evil SAT Trick of the Week.” As always, we want to remind you that the makers of the SAT are not evil. They do not break laws, for example (we assume). They do not kick dogs or shift their eyes back and forth or wear goatees. Unfortunately, some of the traps that they bake into the SAT are, in fact, evil. Luckily, you have a guide who can show you some of these evil traps and how to avoid them. Unluckily, until you enroll in the Knewton SAT course, my own evil inner child only lets me reveal one trick to you every week. At that rate, it will take ages to see them all… mwah hah hah hah–cough–ok, let’s begin.
Evil Trick # 17: Subject Camouflage
This week’s evil trick concerns the Writing section of the SAT; specifically, the Identifying Sentence Errors question type. This is the question type in which certain words are underlined and labeled A, B, C, D and E (No error), and you must decide which, if any, of the words are grammatically incorrect.
For the most part, this is not a very evil question type. If you know a certain set of grammar rules (which we at Knewton call “The Freshman 15″), you will be incredibly well-prepared for anything you see on this section. However, the SAT does use at least one sneaky trick again and again, and keeping an eye out for it will almost certainly earn you points on the test.
The incorrect word in this sentence is “were” (which would be choice B if these choices were labeled). Why? Because the actual subject of this sentence is “family,” which is a singular noun, and “were” is a plural verb. Nouns like “family,” “team,” and “”jury” are called collective nouns, which describe a group made up of members; collective nouns always act as a unit on the SAT and are considered singular. They must agree with singular verbs and be referred to by singular pronouns.
What’s really evil about this question is that the SAT specifically puts the plural noun “tourists” directly next to the plural verb “were” so that it looks correct. When your eye scans the words “tourists were,” it does not register any error. The subject of a sentence will never be inside of a prepositional phrase, like “of American tourists.” When you see prepositions like “of,” “for,” and “to,” train your brain to “shut off” when checking for subject-verb agreement.
This is no accident; the sentence is designed specifically to catch test-takers who are reading quickly or who are not used to locating the subject of the sentence. Of course, it is also designed to test your ability to catch subject-verb agreement.
This singular-plural subject camouflage can work the other way as well: In this sentence, the subject is “roads.” “To the ancient Roman city” and “of Parma” are just prepositional phrases that describe these “roads.” That means that we need the plural verb “lead” to match our plural subject “roads”. “Parma” and “city” are both singular, and they are placed in the sentence just to camouflage the subject-verb error.
These sentences are not so evil (or tricky) when you know what you’re looking for, are they? The moral of the story is: keep your eyes on the subject, especially when it is separated from its verb. Evil, stay away!