The writing section of the SAT or English section of the ACT both require a strong understanding of grammar and usage rules. On the SAT, the Standard English Conventions questions test students on grammar to include verbs, punctuation (comma, colon, apostrophe, etc.), idioms, and parallel structure. On the ACT, this category is called Conventions of Standard English. If you’ve forgotten your grammar rules, read on for a quick lesson.


A verb describes an action or state. The subject of a sentence explains what the sentence is about or who/what is performing the action. On the SAT, you will be tested on verb tense and subject verb agreement. A verb tense refers to the time of an event: past, present, or future. To determine verb tense, look for clues within the sentence and the sentences before and after to see what other tenses are used.

Example: Students intending to study philosophy in graduate school have scored higher than students in all but more four other majors.
The answer is have scored, not had scored or will score.

Subject verb agreement

A singular subject must agree with a singular verb, and a plural subject must agree with a plural verb. First, identify the subject and remember that the subject is never part of a prepositional phrase (a preposition and noun).

Example: The girl in the white dress with blue eyes is nice. The subject is “girl;” the verb is “is.”


A comma indicates a pause between parts of a sentence. Look for the following comma uses:

1. Commas separate items in a list.
Example: My favorite breakfast is bacon, eggs, and fried potatoes.
2. Commas separate independent clauses when a conjunction is used. Ask yourself, “can this be a sentence on its own?” If so, it is an independent clause. The seven conjunctions can be remembered with the acronym FANBOYS (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so).
Example: I have been to France, but I have not been to Spain.
3. Commas are used to separate a dependent clause. Ask yourself, “can this be a sentence on its own?” If not, it is a dependent clause.
Example: While listening to the radio, we heard that it was predicted to snow.
4. Commas are used before and after an appositive. An appositive further describes the noun before it, and it can be removed from the sentence without losing meaning
Example: My sister, Jamie, is one of my favorite people.
Example: Isaac Newton, one of the most well-known scientists, is credited as the father of calculus.


A colon separates two independent clauses when the clauses relate to each other. Look for the following colon uses:

1. Colons introduce appositives when they are at the end of a complete sentence. In these instances, the colon provides more emphasis than a
Example.: I finally found my true passion in life: traveling the world.
Traveling the world” is describing “my true passion”.
2. Colons introduce a list of items, but only when the list follows an independent clause (a phrase that could be a sentence on its own).
Example: I enjoy all types of music: rock, hip hop, country, classical, etc.

Word Choice/Idioms

Idioms are common in speech. There are no grammar rules when it comes to idioms; for these questions you just go with what sounds right. When a preposition (on, in, with, to, of, etc.) is underlined, the correct response is most likely an idiom.

Example: I listen TO the radio, but I listen FOR the mailman.

Parallel Structure

Items in a list must be the same part of speech (all nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.).

Example: Twyla Tharp has been a dancer, choreographer, and collaborator on several ballets.
Dancer, choreographer, and collaborator are all nouns.

Pronouns/Possessive Adjective

A pronoun replaces a subject or object that has already been mentioned in the sentence. It can be singular or plural. A possessive adjective describes who owns a subject or object and can also be singular or plural.

Singular Subject Subject Plural Object Singular Object Plural Possessive Singular Possessive Plural
1st Person I You Me Us My Our
2nd Person You You You You Your Your
3rd Person He/She/It They Him/Her/It Them His/Hers/Its Their

When you see a pronoun, ask yourself two questions:

1. What is the pronoun replacing? Does the pronoun agree?
Example: The city provides their citizens with free Wi-Fi.
Incorrect: “their” is referring to the city, which is singular.
Correct: The city provides its citizens with free Wi-Fi.
2. Is the pronoun ambiguous?
Example: Eric, Sam, and Jake were running when he fell.
Incorrect: Who is he? We don’t know; it could be Eric, Sam, or Jake. Therefore, we cannot use a pronoun.
Correct: Eric, Sam, and Jake were running when Jake fell.

Who vs. Whom

The rules for pronouns can be applied to who vs. whom. Who is a subject like I, you, he/she, we, and they. Whom is an object like me, you, him/her, us, and them. If you can replace the word with a subject, you would use who; if you can replace the word with an object, you would use whom.

Example: With whom are you going to the movies?
Whom is correct because you would say, “I am going to the movies with HIM.”
Example Who wrote the poem?
Who is correct because you would say, “HE wrote the poem.”


Apostrophes have two main purposes: to create contractions and show possession.

1. Contractions are a combination of two words.
Example: it’s = it is; you’re = you are; who’s = who is
2. Apostrophes show possession.
Example: I am going to my brother’s baseball game.
Whose baseball game is it? My brother’s. This means that I have one brother.
Example: I am going to my brothers’ baseball game.
Whose baseball game is it? My brothers’. This means that I have more than one brother.