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Disguised Subject-Verb Agreement on the SAT Writing Section

Posted in Test Prep on February 10, 2010 by

Rich is one of Knewton’s expert GMAT teachers, but he’s also a whiz at SAT prep.


Subject-verb agreement is a fairly simple thing we all learn about early in school:  If a subject is singular, the verb must also be singular.  For example, in the sentence “Thomas sells clothing,” the singular noun “Thomas” is matched with the singular verb “sells”.  It can be confusing, of course, that “sells” has an ‘s’ at the end (since s’s are often at the end of plural nouns). But because “sells” matches with the singular “Thomas,” it must be singular.

Likewise, a verb will be plural if its subject is plural, as in “The salespeople sell clothing.”  Again, even though the word “sell” may appear to be singular, it is plural because it is matched with the plural “salespeople.”

These are fairly straightforward examples.  But of course, the SAT has to make things a little bit trickier.  Interestingly enough, the SAT Writing section tries to trip you up not by making the content itself more difficult, but by changing the sentence structure so it becomes harder to recognize errors in subject-verb agreement.

Here’s an example of a “find the error” question that does just this:

IDSE sample question

Did you find the disguised subject-verb agreement error?  If not, try removing the modifying clause in between the two commas, and then read the resulting sentence:  “Music theory help musicians both understand their artform and appreciate its nuances.”

Pretty obvious now, isn’t it?  The singular “Music theory” is incorrectly matched with the plural “help.”  The sentence should of course read, “Music theory… helps musicians…”

Notice that what makes this question “difficult” is in no way related to content.  All they do is throw in a modifying clause between the subject and the verb, increasing the distance between the two for confusion’s sake.

And notice that in this case, the SAT writers double your fun by ending the modifying clause with the plural “ensembles,” which looks pretty good when paired with the next word, the plural “help.”  The problem, of course, is that even though “ensembles” and “help” appear back-to-back in the sentence, they are not paired together in terms of the sentence’s meaning.  “Music theory” is the thing that “helps,” not “ensembles.”

This happens extremely often on the SAT Writing section.  The test will separate the subject from the verb to confuse you, and it will also conclude a modifying clause with a noun that correctly matches the main verb in number but not in terms of the sentence’s meaning.

Be on the lookout for these types of errors as you work through your SAT practice questions!  Knowing this simple trick will help you tackle many questions on test day.