Don’t stop reading! Yes, you use pronouns every day and you know how to use them—for the most part—but if you want to make an 800 on that writing section, you’ll want to be able to spot all of the SAT’s tricks, those concerning pronouns included.
Some pronoun errors are easy to spot; your’ll see they and say, “Wait, us don’t talk like that.” But, if that’s your only argument, chances are you’re missing more pronoun questions than you think. Many SAT problems cleverly mimic mistakes we make when we’re speaking every day English. Many of these errors are so pervasive that they have passed into accepted spoken English; when we understand what someone means without much effort, we can say they were correct as far as “descriptive grammar” is concerned. The SAT however is testing us over our knowledge of “prescriptive grammar” (the kind your English teacher attempted to tell you about once), so even though there were no descriptive mistakes in the previous sentence, there was one prescriptive mistake.
Did you catch it? In case you didn’t, the word “someone” is always singular, but the pronoun “they” is always plural. Thus “they” incorrectly replaces “someone” in the penultimate sentence of the previous paragraph. The word that a pronoun replaces is known as its “antecedent,” and pronouns must always match their antecedents in number.
In order to agree with its antecedent, a pronoun must first have a clear antecedent. Again, we may think this is an easy thing to spot, but consider the following example of a vague pronoun:
In Sweden, they eat fermented herring at Midsummer celebrations.
Who are “they”? Swedes, right? Again, if someone said this in conversation, we’d understand what he or she meant, but technically “they” isn’t referring back to anyone. While it’s implied that “they” means “Swedish people,” we could be talking about tourists who are tricked into believing that eating such a novelty is tradition (for the record, it actually is).
For once, however, all those years of crabby old English teachers patronizingly sneering, “‘My sister and I,’ not ‘my sister and me,’” will be helpful, right? Let’s try a real SAT problem:
The (A)regularly scheduled conference between my tutor and (B)me (C)is set for Friday, but my low grades in chemistry (D)requires me to arrange an earlier meeting. (E)No error
Since our English teachers are always right, the answer must be B, right? But if you stop at B, you’ll miss the subject-verb agreement error that happens later in the sentence, D (low grades… requires). Wait, what?! There are two errors?! NO. Your English teacher was just wrong—or at least wasn’t telling you the whole truth. If the phrase “so-and-so and me” is acting as the subject of a sentence or clause, then yes, it is always “so-and-so and I.” However, in the example sentence above, the phrase “my tutor and me” follows the preposition “between” and thus is acting as the object of the preposition.
We know when to use the nominative pronoun “I” and when to use the objective pronoun “me,” but, for some reason, when we add someone else to a phrase with a pronoun, we forget what role it’s playing in the sentence. Nominative pronouns (I, he, she, we, it, etc.) are those that act as the subject of a clause while objective pronouns (me, him, her, us, it, etc.), you guessed it, fill the object role. People use several tricks to test whether or not the pronoun in play is the correct pronoun, but all you really need to ask is, “Is the pronoun performing an action?” In other words, is there a verb that goes along with it? In the example sentence, the “conference… is set for Friday,” but there’s no verb to match “me”; the objective pronoun is correct.
Pro Tip: Eliminating unnecessary pronouns always makes a sentence more clear:
In the eighteenth century, the English emphasis on the study of Greek and Latin allowed it to produce some fine poetry written in classical verse forms.
A)the English emphasis on the study of Greek and Latin allowed
B)by emphasizing the study of Greek and Latin,
this allowed England
C)English emphasis on the study of Greek and Latin allowed
D)an emphasis in England on the study of Greek and Latin allowed
E)an emphasis on the study of Greek and Latin allowed the English
In the original statement, who or what is “it”? I don’t know either. So, A is incorrect. Unless the problem is that the pronoun is just misidentifying the antecedent (ex: using “it” instead of “he”), the answer to correcting a vague pronoun is probably not just replacing it with another pronoun. In answer choice B, the word “this” is acting as a pronoun… sort of. Again, it’s unclear what the antecedent for “this” is, even though the sentence has been reconstructed; a pronoun cannot replace a prepositional phrase like, “by emphasizing the study of Greek and Latin.” Answer choices C and D seem to make much more sense—D even seems like it could work—but, nationalistic though they may be, the noun “England” doesn’t mean “the English,” and so we have no clear antecedent for the pronoun “them.” E is correct because it eliminates the unnecessary pronoun altogether and illustrates the most economical use of language, allowing “the English” to describe both who was studying Greek and Latin and who was writing fine poetry.