The SAT Grammar Rules Cheat Sheet

Man writing in notebook with pencil
April 26, 2024
Expert Reviewed


Reviewed by:

Mary Banks

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 4/26/24

In one way or another, almost every portion of the SAT requires a solid grasp of grammatical concepts. Our SAT grammar rules cheat sheet will help you better understand the grammatical concepts that will boost your final score.

Understanding SAT grammar rules is a quick yet effective way to secure a better score on the exam. Our SAT grammar tips will not only help you score bigger on the writing and language portion of the exam, but they will also come in handy during the reading component.

Considering the limited time you can afford to spend on each question, it’s a great idea to use these SAT Writing section grammar rules to develop a keen sense of grammatical correctness. 

This way, you can get through the writing and language portion quicker and reserve more thinking time for other aspects of the many interdisciplinary reading questions.

Why Good Grammar Matters on the SATs

The most obvious reason good grammar matters on the SAT is that a considerable portion of the exam tests your grasp of standard English language conventions. This multiple-choice section of the SAT requires you to detect and correct several grammatical errors that appear in provided passages.

Studying our SAT grammar rules cheat sheet will help you perform better on this grammatical section of the exam, along with other parts of the reading and writing sections. 

Considering that each exam component has an allotted time limit, a near-instant knowledge of English grammar can help you focus on other, more challenging aspects of the SAT questions. 

This is especially useful since a notable portion of the writing questions are interdisciplinary, relating science, the humanities, history, and social studies. By reading the provided passages right the first time, you give yourself more time to think critically about executing the comprehension questions.

10 SAT Grammar Rules You Need to Know

Read on to learn ten SAT grammar rules that can help you score bigger on the SAT Writing and Language section.

10 SAT Grammar Rules

1. Possessive Versus Plural Nouns

Let’s kick off our SAT grammar rules cheat sheet with possessive versus plural nouns. The grammatical error of a misplaced apostrophe may be the easiest punctuation blunder to make. The confusion between possessive and plural words will certainly be found all over the writing and language portion of the SAT.

This SAT grammar rule seems simple: an apostrophe plus an s (or a lone apostrophe) at the end of a noun indicates a possessive noun, while a lonely s at the end of a noun signifies a plural noun. However, the English language is infamously inconsistent, and the SAT questions will try to use that inconsistency to trick you.

You must keep in mind that the rule regarding possessive and plural nouns is switched in the context of personal pronouns. The following personal pronouns are all possessive:

  • Its
  • Hers/His
  • Their(s)
  • My/Mine
  • Our(s)
  • Your(s)

Note the lack of any apostrophes. In the context of the word “It,” an apostrophe followed by an s indicates a contraction. The same applies to the more informal “He’s” and “She’s.” Here’s an easy representation of that rule inconsistency:

  • He’s = He is
  • It’s = It is
  • She’s = She is

2. Pronoun/Antecedent Agreement

A pronoun must agree with its antecedent in both number and gender. The SATs will try to trick you with this commonly used grammatically incorrect sentence:

If Julia wants to keep healthy, they should eat broccoli.

The error in the above sentence lies in the word “they” (pronoun) and the name “Julia” (antecedent). While “Julia” is singular and female, “they” is plural and neutral. A correct form of the sentence may read:

If Julia wants to keep healthy, she should eat broccoli.

Now, the singular and feminine Julia agrees with its antecedent, the singular and feminine “she.”

It’s also important to note that a collection noun like “team” can be either singular or plural, depending on whether the members of said team are considered individuals or a group unit. Running with this rule, the following sentence is grammatically correct:

The team won its first game of the season.

The word “team” agrees with the singular “its” because the team is considered a group.

3. Consistency of Verb Tense

Verbs that shift from one tense to another for no discernable reason can confuse a reader. For example, the following shift in verb tense is unneeded:

I take Dalia to the pub. We ate calamari and drank cider.

This example depicts a singular chain of events, yet one sentence is written in present tense while the other is in past tense. The entire narrative should remain consistent in its verb tense, like so:

I take Dalia to the pub. We eat calamari and drink cider.

4. Avoid Sentence Fragments

Each sentence must at least communicate a single complete thought. A sentence fragment is an incomplete thought represented as a single sentence. There are a couple of ways to mistakenly create a sentence fragment. Our top SAT grammar tip is to identify a sentence that has no subject, like the following:

Michael took a flight to London. And then a train to Paris.

The second sentence in this example is a sentence fragment since it does not reference its subject — in this case, Michael. Instead, the example should either include Michael as the subject of the latter sentence or simply make one sentence out of the two by erasing the period in the middle.

An incomplete verb can also create a sentence fragment. In such a sentence fragment, there is only a subject and verb, which fails to create a complete thought. For example:

Michael becomes.

This sentence fragment makes no sense since “becomes” is a verb that requires more information to create a complete thought.

5. Subject/Verb Agreement

No SAT grammar rules cheat sheet is complete without mentioning subject/verb agreement. The subject of a sentence must always match the number of its verb. Read the following sentence aloud and see if you can hear the error:

The girls runs back to the apartment.

Doesn’t that sound clunky and too heavy on the slithery s-sounds? That’s because the plural subject (“girls”) does not agree with the singular verb (“runs”). Singular verbs often have an s added on their ends. Without that added s, those verbs become plural. For instance:

The girls run back to the apartment.

This sentence makes so much more sense because the plural subject of “girls” agrees with the number of “run,” the plural verb.

Here is a list of irregular singular and plural verbs that don’t adhere to the previously stated rule.

Singular Verbs (Present/Past)

  • Is/Was
  • Have/Had
  • Does/Did
  • Goes/Went

Plural Verbs (Present/Past)

  • Are/Were
  • Has/Had
  • Do/Did
  • Go/Went

6. “Who” Versus “Whom”

“Who” is a subjective pronoun, while “whom” is an objective pronoun. This means that “who” will always serve as the subject to a verb in a sentence, and “whom” will always be the object of its sentence.

In case you’re still confused, there is a trick you can use to avoid the fatal mix-up of “who” and “whom.” Try looking at the rest of the sentence surrounding the word “whom.” Since “whom” is the object of the sentence, it will often be preceded by a preposition. Think of the phrases: “To Whom It May Concern” or “by whom.”

7. Avoid Unnecessary Commas

The term “comma splice” refers to two or more independent clauses which are unnecessarily connected into a single sentence by commas. The following is an example of comma splicing:

My wife and I drove to see her parents’ house, her mother and father weren’t home.

Since each of the two example clauses could work as self-contained sentences, they should be made into two different sentences. All of the following are correct:

My wife and I drove to her parents’ house. They weren’t home. (Different sentences)
My wife and I drove to her parents’ house, but they weren’t home. (Added conjunction)
My wife and I drove to her parents’ house; they weren’t home. (Added semicolon)

This is a crucial SAT grammar rule – ensure you understand how to correct comma splices! 

8. Avoid Missing Necessary Commas

There are several instances in which you might miss a needed comma. The most essential would be using a comma to connect two clauses that cannot function independently of one another. Consider the example sentence used in step 4 of our SAT grammar rules cheat sheet:

Michael took a flight to London. And then a train to Paris.

Since the last sentence is dependent upon the earlier sentence to provide a subject, the sentence fragment should be corrected by a comma replacing the middle period as such:

Michael took a flight to London, and then a train to Paris.

A comma should also be used after an introductory element. In this way, the reader can clearly distinguish between the introductory element and the rest of the sentence. Consider the difference in the two following examples:

1. Since everyone else wants to go out in this rainy weather I’ll just stay home alone.
2. Since everyone else wants to go out in this rainy weather, I’ll just stay home alone.

The added comma after the example sentence’s introductory element allows the reader to easily infer the more salient information. 

9. Avoid Dangling Modifiers

Following SAT Writing grammar rules means avoiding dangling modifiers. The term “dangling modifier” refers to a word that does not modify a sentence in the intended manner. Consider this sentence:

After a long day at the office, Julia’s dog still wanted to play.

This sentence makes it sound as though Julia’s dog works at an office, doesn’t it? As funny as that image may be, it isn’t the sentence’s intended meaning. The words “Julia’s dog” modify the sentence to seem much more ridiculous than intended.

The solution to a dangling modifier is as simple as rewriting the sentence with stronger and clearer word choices.

After a long day at the office, Julia came home to find that her dog wanted to play.

10. Pay Special Attention to Word Choice

The SAT will be designed to trick you into making mistakes, so it’s important that you pay close and careful attention to detail. You will likely find a few words with commonly mistaken definitions or spelling in the provided passages.

These SAT grammar tips are especially useful; study this list of commonly misunderstood words, so you won’t be so easily tricked come test time:

Affect vs. Effect

  • Affect: a verb that means to influence
  • Effect: a noun synonymous with “result”

Than vs. Then

  • Than: a conjunction comparing two things
  • Then: a signifier of time and sequence

Allusion vs. Illusion

  • Allusion: a passing reference
  • Illusion: a thing deceptive in appearance

Elicit vs. Illicit

  • Elicit: a verb that means to evoke
  • Illicit: an adjective referring to things of an unlawful nature

Anyway vs. Anyways

  • Anyway: a word indicating digression.
  • Anyways: a mistaken form of “Anyway.”

SAT Grammar Rules FAQs

1. How Can I Make Sure I Spot Grammatical Errors?

When a sentence is grammatically incorrect, it will sound strange when read. This intuition for grammatical errors should help guide you toward any words or punctuation that need correcting.

If you read through a passage and still cannot intuit the error, have patience and read through the full question at least three more times. For each read-through, you should pay attention to where the passage feels wrong. 

Once you follow that initial feeling, you can look more carefully at a particular sentence, clause, or word to uncover the exact syntactic problem you must resolve.

2. How Many Grammatical Conventions Should I Know for the SATs?

Some independent study, tutoring, and this SAT grammar rules cheat sheet should see you through most of the grammatical conventions you will be tested on during the exam. Many of the same types of grammatical errata will be repeated across several questions.

It’s much more important to develop a solid grasp on ten or so grammatical conventions than to be a dilettante of a million different grammatical rules. The tips listed on this SAT grammar rules cheat sheet address many of the most frequent errors you will find during your exam.

3. What Should I Do if I Have Trouble with a Question?

If reading through the full passage several times did little to help you with a question, one excellent SAT grammar tip is to mark the parts of the sentence. Underline or circle sentence subjects, verbs, pronouns, etc. This allows you to dissect the salient grammatical information from the passage, making it simpler to detect errors.

Many SAT writing questions will add extraneous prepositional phrases before or between incorrect grammatical elements. The test is actively trying to distract you away from the grammatical problem. Marking the page may help you see past these extraneous bits of information.

4. If I Have to Guess, What Can I Do to Maximize My Chance of Getting It Right?

Though it's best to come back to a difficult question later and try to solve it, you may have to resort to guessing. There’s no infallible way to guess the correct answer to a multiple-choice question. However, there is a way to eliminate a few false multiple-choice answers.

You may find that several of the available choices seem to add superfluous information to the provided passage. These longer and more digressive choices are more likely to be the wrong answer than they are to be right. The correct answer to grammatical questions tends to be relatively simple and concise.

5. What Other Resources Can I Use to Prepare for the SAT?

Investing in personalized SAT tutoring is one of the best steps you can take to prepare for the exam and learn SAT grammar rules. A personalized tutoring experience will allow you to identify, correct, and strengthen any weak spots you may encounter in your studies.

Final Thoughts

The thought of carefully picking out and correcting grammatical errors on a timed test may seem daunting, but a thorough study of our SAT grammar rules cheat sheet will provide you with the English language skills you need to maximize your exam score.

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