Don’t Be Afraid to Choose “No Error”

Matt Larriva
Nov 23, 2013

SAT Writing Section: Too Many Students Don’t Choose “No Error”

On the SAT writing section, we are presented with 43 multiple choice questions (there are 49 total, but 6 are paragraph improvement) which ask us to revise a sentence, or to leave it as-is.

Over time, students have been conditioned to expect to be tricked by this test, and for this reason I see them selecting, “No Error” very infrequently, and with great disdain. This mistake is unnecessary and solvable.

Once again we will use the fact that the SAT is standardized to help us. Realize that there are about 12 errors that the SAT tests in its writing section. They are:

  •                Subject verb disagreement
  •                Pronoun antecedent disagreement
  •                Verb tense disagreement
  •                Prepositional/Idiomatic disagreement
  •                Passive/Active voice
  •                Faulty Comparison
  •                Incorrect pronoun choice (I/me, she/her)
  •                Conjunction errors/Semicolon errors
  •                Wordiness
  •                Adjective/Adverb disagreement
  •                Misplaced Modifiers
  •                Obscure Errors: (flawed superlatives, incorrect word choice, etc.)

Each one of these is tested with nearly the same relative frequency test after test. Therefore, we can expect to see Subject Verb errors tested about seven times, Pronoun Antecedent tested about six, Obscure Errors come up about once per test, and the rest of the errors lie somewhere in the middle of the frequency distribution.

We’re going to talk about the meta-test now: the test within the test, or the test beyond the test. Realizing that these errors each must occupy an answer bubble, how many places are there for all of these errors to live? The knee-jerk answer is 5: (A) (B) (C) (D) (E). But, recall that on the identifying sentence errors section, (E) is always reserved for “No Error.” And on the Improving Sentences section, (A) is always a verbatim restatement of the original, and therefore is a de facto “No Error.” So if the aforementioned 10 errors have to be divided up between only 4 answer spaces, that means their relative frequency has just been reduced by 20%, and “No Error” has just become the 20% answer choice. Said differently, “No Error” is the right answer choice more than any other single error, simply because (E) must be selected with the same frequency as (A) (B) (C) (D).

Therefore, don’t be afraid to choose “No Error”, since it needs to be tested at least as much as the next-most-frequently-tested error.