Improving sentences – tips, examples, and explanations

When examined in the context of the entirety of the test, the “Improving Sentences” portion may seem significantly less daunting than it does at present.  I’m tempted to entirely ignore it and proceed to “Improving Paragraphs”; perhaps that will be my downfall on the S.A.T., as it is this section that one should master if one wishes to be able to a) examine paragraphs critically, and b) produce a good essay.

So, let’s proceed as we did with the identifying of errors in sentences – tips, examples, and explanations!

Tip #1:  This is rather obvious, but it needs to be stated nonetheless.  Do everything in your power to ensure that the sentence you end up with is not a fragment.  There is only one correct option; some of the others that you may be presented with might sound better than it.  Don’t worry about that – we’re not searching for the most stylish piece of text.  Rather, we’re looking for that which is grammatically sound.  Do not be afraid of changing the given sentence significantly – if you’re given an option that you know to be grammatically correct, and it happens to change the sentence drastically, then there’s nothing to worry about.

“Scenes from the everyday lives of African Americans, which are realistically depicted in the paintings of Henry Ossawa Tanner.”
Whilst you may see this form used to, for example, caption photographs, it’s not to be used in formal writing.

So, let’s examine our options:

A) “Scenes from the everyday lives of African Americans, which are realistically depicted in the paintings of Henry Ossawa Tanner.”
B) “Scenes from the everyday lives of African Americans being realistically depicted in the paintings of Henry Ossawa Tanner.”
C) “The paintings of Henry Ossawa Tanner realistically depict scenes from the everyday lives of African Americans.”
D) “Henry Ossawa Tanner, in his realistic paintings, depicting scenes from the everyday lives of African Americans.”
E) “Henry Ossawa Tanner, whose paintings realistically depict scenes from the everyday lives of African Americans.”

Tip #2:  If your sentence is only appropriate for use as a caption, then it is incorrect.
That sounds like a very vague statement; here’s what I mean.

“Scenes from the everyday lives of African Americans, which are realistically depicted in the paintings of Henry Ossawa Tanner.” If you had photographs depicting the lives of African Americans in an article about this painter, then this fragment could be placed under them, and would make sense.  However, right now, it doesn’t – it reads awkwardly, and its structure is just incorrect – the second clause sets us up to believe that more will be said, and then the sentence ends.  It would be all right if we had something like, “Scenes from the everyday lives of African Americans, which are realistically depicted in the paintings of Henry Ossawa Tanner, resound with the power of the human spirit to survive in even the most dire of conditions.”

“Scenes from the everyday lives of African Americans being realistically depicted in the paintings of Henry Ossawa Tanner.”  Unless this is found under a photograph of Tanner painting these scenes, it is a fragment.

“The paintings of Henry Ossawa Tanner realistically depict scenes from the everyday lives of African Americans.”  This actually makes sense as an independent sentence – it conveys everything that we’d wanted to say.  It’s the correct answer, although it’s very different from the original; that isn’t a problem!

D) is off by a tidbit – if “depicting” became “depicts”, then the sentence would be a grammatically correct one.  E) doesn’t function unless it’s placed under a photograph of Tanner.

Why do I continually mention captions and photographs?  Captions are meant to complement the visual – without the visual, they are incomplete.  I’m not suggesting that all captions are incomplete sentences – I’m suggesting that they’re incomplete ideas.  That’s what we want to avoid in our sentences.

If you’re muttering “soft” to yourself, then I’m certain that you aren’t alone.  Let’s look at this one in a less nebulous manner.  In order for a sentence to be correct, we need both a subject and a main verb (that verb which states the action of the subject).  Sentences A) and B) lack a main verb; sentences D) and E) do not effectively combine a subject and a main verb.

Tip #3:  You always need a subject.

Looking up from the base of the mountain, the trail seemed more treacherous than it really was.”  We need to fix the underlined component in a manner that will ensure grammatical stability in the entirety of the sentence.

Our options are the following:
A) Looking up
B) While looking up
C) By looking up
D) Viewing
E) Viewed

E) is our correct answer – all of the other options exhibit the same problem.  We’d need a subject to modify!  It makes sense to state something like, “When we were looking up from the base of the mountain, the trail…”  However, beginning a sentence with something like “looking up” and not including a subject is subtly sadistic!  The reader is forced to wonder who was looking up, and whether he or she could look up in the same manner.  This kind of sentence structure (or rather, lack thereof) plays on the human ability to assume items which seem to be evident, like the fact that someone was looking up and determined that the trail seemed more daunting viewed from the base of the mountain than it did viewed at some other point.  However, grammar is precision. Be specific, don’t let the reader assume anything, and ensure that verbs meant to modify a subject receive the opportunity to do so.

Tip #4:  Know your punctuation well – understand the distinct functions of commas, semicolons, and colons.

Tip #5:  Think about how you breathe when you read a sentence – a comma is typically a quick pause; a semicolon or colon are indicators of a greater rest.

Tip #6:  Identify the problem; ensure that you change it and nothing else.

Tip #7:  Foster parallel language: if you use “one”, then complement it with “another one” instead of “another”.

“One of the most common types of mistakes that inexperienced physicians make is misreading symptoms, another that occurs about as frequently is recommending inappropriate treatment.”

Try saying the above – it doesn’t flow.  It sounds like the reader is nervous.  Our other options present themselves:
A) symptoms, another that occurs
B) symptoms; another one that occurs
C) symptoms, the other, and it occurs
D) symptoms; another one which is occurring
E) symptoms and also occurring
Sentences A), C), and E) don’t do anything to better the flow, so we’re left with options B) and D). Both adhere to the guidelines provided in the fifth and seventh tips, but only B) fixes its error and nothing else. D) makes the sentence grammatically incorrect in another way – we began with the present tense, but D) would have us spontaneously lapse into the present participle. 

“Underestimating its value, breakfast is a meal many people skip.”

A) Underestimating its value, breakfast is a meal many people skip.
B) Breakfast is skipped by many people because of their underestimating its value.
C) Many people, underestimating the value of breakfast, and skipping it.
D) Many people skip breakfast because they underestimate its value.
E) A meal skipped by many people underestimating its value is breakfast.

Again, there are problems with agreement – the first clause describes something that people do, but attempts to agree with “breakfast”.  Thus, A) is eliminated.  Whilst B) and E) are theoretically correct, they don’t flow well.  C) is filled to the brim with confused present participles and dependent clauses.  D) is a nice, simple sentence, and is our correct answer.

Tip #8:  Maintain clarity in sentences, but be idiomatic.

“Certain shipwrecks have a particular fascination for those people which have a belief in finding the treasure in them.”

Options:
A) which have a belief in finding the treasure in them
B) that belief there is treasure to be found in them
C) who believe they hold treasure and that they can find it
D) who believe that there is treasure to be found in them
E) who believe about treasure to be found in them

Firstly, the idiom is “people who”, not “people which”; thus, we can eliminate A).  B) attempts to use “belief” as a verb, so we know this option to be incorrect.  C) does not adhere to the ideas presented in the eighth tip – “they” is utilized to describe both the shipwrecks and the people, so we’re not upholding clarity.  E) is not idiomatic – one doesn’t “believe about” treasure: one believes in the presence of treasure, or believes that treasure is to be found.  Thus, D) is the correct option.

Tip #9:  Preserve simple languages structures like “either…or…”

“The revolt against Victorianism was perhaps even more marked in poetry than either fiction or drama.”

The options are as follows:
A) either fiction or drama
B) either fiction or in drama
C) either in fiction or drama
D) in either fiction or drama
E) in either fiction or in drama

We’ve already said that it’s good to build parallels.  Firstly, if we’re going to add an “in” prior to one of the words, then we need to include it with the other.  Thus, we can eliminate B) and C).  Now, we need to focus on parallels within the context of the entire sentence.  We have “in poetry”, so we want to include an “in” after the comparison commences.  This idea rids us of A).  So, there remain D) and E).  In each, we mention both fiction and drama, and we want to link them with the structure “either…or…”.  Now, should we take E), or D)?  The correct answer is D) – I know that I said we want to uphold parallels, but we’re now doing so on the scale of the entire sentence.  We only need one more “in” – the classic “either…or…” structure will balance the other two concepts.

Tip #10:  Try to move related concepts closer together in the sentence.

“Many of the instruments used in early operations of the United States Army Signal Corps were adaptations of equipment used by the Plains Indians, particularly that of the heliograph.”

Our options are the below:
A) Corps were adaptations of equipment used by the Plains Indians, particularly that of the heliograph
B) Corps, there were adaptations of equipment used by the Plains Indians, particularly the heliograph
C) Corps, and in particular the heliograph, was an adaptation of equipment used by the Plains Indians
D) Corps, and in particular the heliograph, were adaptations of equipment used by the Plains Indians
E) Corps being adaptations, the heliograph in particular, of those used by Plains Indians

The “that of” piece in A) doesn’t flow with the structure of the earlier component of the sentence.  This is the same case with the instance of “there” in B) – these chunks are unnecessary additions.  C) comes close, but doesn’t agree with the subject in number – it’s a singular whilst the sentence commences with “many”.  E), again, uses the present participle where we should be in the past tense.  D) is our answer.

Tip #11:  Ensure that concepts are connected with the use of conjunctions.

“The problem of antibiotic resistance, frequently compounded in certain countries because the sale and use of antibiotics are not tightly controlled.”
A) resistance, frequently compounded in certain countries because
B) resistance, frequently compounded in certain countries and
C) resistance, frequently compounded in certain countries when
D) resistance is frequently compounded in certain countries where
E) resistance is frequently compounded in certain countries and

The first problem that we need to fix is that of the two clauses flowing smoothly into one another (I’m tempted to formulate some strange jokes relating to osmotic pressure).  The comma does nothing for us – let’s eliminate A), B), and C).  Let us now think back to the eleventh tip – “and” is a conjunction that doesn’t help us here.  It does nothing to link the two concepts.  The sentence using “where” is evidently the correct one – we need to describe the countries further, not tie on another item.  D) is correct.

I hope that may’ve proven beneficial – now, we’ve only “Improving Paragraphs”, “Sentence Completion”, “Passage-Based Reading”, and the essay to cover.  Until tomorrow!

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4 Responses to Improving sentences – tips, examples, and explanations

  1. J says:

    Here’s a tip: use your intuition. No joke.

    I got a 740 on the SAT Writing. Lame, but expected of an Asian. 50/52 on MC, but a 9 on essay. How obvious.

    Work your ass off on the essay, but from what I’ve read on your posts, you should be fine. Use the world-hated five paragraph format, and you’ll be fine.

    Oh, and write quickly.

    Unless, of course, you’ve already taken the SAT exams. Then you can discard my bit of…experience.

    • Sophia says:

      Hi, J! I’m very grateful for your continued reading of my less-than-impressive posts, and for your ever-stimulating responses.

      That said, I would venture to state that trusting one’s intuition is indeed instrumental to success on an assessment of this breed.

      That’s an excellent score! I don’t think being Asian dictates much – to be perfectly frank, you exhibit far better English than I do, and I’m European. However, the S.A.T. evaluates neither one’s linguistic capabilities nor one’s intelligence.

      I make a point of always writing quickly where essays are concerned; I also attempt to finish a given section at least ten minutes prior to the conclusion of that portion. I don’t know if I’ll be fine, but I will try my best.

      I have yet to take the S.A.T., regrettably.

  2. J says:

    I don’t chance upon personal SAT advice online often, so I’ll take my time responding to your posts.

    Overall, yeah, you’re set. Specifically, keep in mind the that the SAT has ZERO correlation between an individual’s ability and his/her test grade. Think of it as preparing for the so-called IQ tests. A 2400 guarantees you nowhere.

    The writing section blows. Hard. There’s nothing worse than something as generic as what ETS requires each student to complete.

    Critical Reading was fun. Difficult for an Asian such as I, but fun.

    • Sophia says:

      Thanks for your encouragement! I must confess to, erm, getting a kick out of Writing. I find it relaxing.

      That’s the spirit! Critical Reading is indeed fun, haha.

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