Writing: Improving Sentences

"Part of the following sentence is underlined; beneath the sentence are five ways of phrasing the underlined material. Select the option that produces the best sentence. If you think the original phrasing produces a better sentence than any of the alternatives, select choice A."

Instructions like this will appear at the beginning of each group of questions on the SAT. To help you memorize and internalize them, I'm going to include them here with the daily questions. One way to help internalize the directions is to paraphrase them: ask yourself, "What do I need to do here?" These instructions tell you that you will probably need to fix something in the underlined portion of the sentence and that your five answer choices provide different versions of the underlined material. Remember that choice A restates exactly what was in the question, so don't waste your precious time reading it. 

When light from a distant source, such as the sun, it strikes a collection of water drops, such as rain, spray, or fog, a rainbow may appear.

Since looking at the answer choices can change the way you think about the problem and, more importantly, slow you down, remember to look at the sentence first to predict what the correct answer will look like. The most obvious problem right now is the word "it." To some it just "sounds wrong," but the "gut feeling" strategy only works if correct grammar sounds right to you. For many students, colloquial and informal speech is far more familiar, and correct grammar sounds strange or wrong. What exactly is wrong with "it?" 

The problem could be related to the antecedent. "It" is a pronoun, and every pronoun needs an antecedent--the word that pronoun replaces. What is the antecedent of "it" in this sentence? The closest noun is "sun," and before that was "source," but neither of those sounds right. "It" refers to the "light." So, a missing or unclear antecedent isn't the problem. 

"It" also appears to be the subject of the first clause in this sentence, so maybe we have a subject-verb agreement problem. First, identify the verb: "strikes." Next, find the subject. Stop to read the whole sentence and ask yourself, what strikes? If you read closely, you'll find two answers: "it strikes" and "light... strikes." There's the problem: these two subjects are trying to share the same verb! What would happen if we simply remove the extra word?

When light from a distant source, such as the sun, strikes a collection of water drops, such as rain, spray, or fog, a rainbow may appear.

The sentence certainly sounds better. Now look at the answer choices.

Answer Choices 
  • (A) such as the sun, it strikes
  • (B) like the sun's striking
  • (C) such as the sun, and striking
  • (D) such as the sun, strikes
  • (E) like the sun's

Remember that choice A has already been eliminated. None of the other choices have the word "it," so look next at the differences between the various answer choices. Some choices say "such as the sun" while some say "like the sun's," and some say "striking" where others say "strikes" or omit the verb entirely. 

You can rule out B and E because they include the possessive word "sun's." The sentence already says that the light is "from a distant source," so the possessive would seem to imply that the sun's source of light is somehow different from the sun itself. 

You can also rule out C because the participle "striking" cannot be the main verb of the sentence. That only leaves choice D.

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