Back before the ACT adopted Reporting Categories, questions on the ACT English Test were sorted into two content types, basically either mechanical or rhetorical. The former covered grammar and usage, punctuation, and sentence structure, while the latter included the more complex questions on strategy, style, and organization. Both then and now, grammar mechanics contributed more to your ACT English score than rhetorical skills.
The SAT has chosen a different path. Questions on the SAT Writing and Language section lean more heavily towards the rhetorical:
Expression of Ideas
Of the 44 SAT Writing and Language questions, approximately 22 are concerned a passage’s organization and its impact. Test takers will be asked which words or structural changes improve how well a passage makes its point and how well its sentences and paragraphs work together. The Command of Evidence and Words in Context subscores are based in part on the Expression of Ideas questions and in part on questions from the Reading section.
What do Expression of Ideas questions cover?
- thesis of passages, paragraphs, and graphs
- organization and transitions
- word choice, style, and tone
Standard English Conventions
The remaining 20 SAT Writing and Language questions fall into the category of Standard English Conventions. Thee classic grammar multiple-choice questions focus on the building blocks of writing: sentence structure, usage, and punctuation. Test takers are be asked to change (or not change) words, clauses, sentences, and punctuation.
What do Standard English Conventions questions cover?
- verb tense
- noun-verb agreement
- noun-pronoun agreement
- connecting clauses
- parallel construction
- punctuation, including commas, colons, semicolons, and dashes
Thus, your priority on the SAT Writing and Language is first and foremost to interact with the passage as a whole. Pay attention to the author’s thesis, strategy, and style. Strategies for success on standardized test reading passages will come in handy here. Grammar–including fine points of punctuation and sentence structure–matters a lot as well, but this test puts rhetorical skills ahead of mechanical ones.