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Are You Smarter Than the Average SAT Taker?

My daughter will start college in less than two years, so she is preparing to take the SAT® (Scholastic Aptitude Test) as part of her college admissions process. She receives “The Official SAT Question of the Day” by email to help her prepare, and the ones having to do with writing get forwarded to me.

A recent question stumped most of the people who answered it. Only 34 percent of those who clicked through to the answer got the item correct. That was 34 percent of 360,480 clicks!

See how you do. Here are the College Board’s instructions for the sentence:

The following sentence contains either a single error or no error at all. If the sentence contains an error, select the one underlined part that must be changed to make the sentence correct. . . .

Here is the test sentence:

The introduction of elevators in hotels meant that previously undesirable rooms on the top floors, away from the bustle and noise of the street, became sought after and more expensive than the lower floors.

What do you think? Is the sentence correct, or must one of the underlined phrases be corrected?










Okay, here is the answer: The sentence is incorrect as is. To correct it, you must change the phrase “the lower floors” to “the rooms on the lower floors.” You cannot logically compare rooms with floors; you must compare rooms with rooms.

Consider that the 34-word test sentence was correctly answered by only 34 percent of respondents. The item illustrates one of my beliefs about writing: The longer the sentence, the harder it is to write correctly–and the more difficult it is for readers to follow.

What do you think of this simpler but longer two-sentence version?

The introduction of elevators in hotels meant that previously undesirable rooms on the top floors became desirable. Away from the bustle and noise of the street, they became sought after and more expensive than rooms on the lower floors.

To receive free SAT practice materials to help you perform better on the test, visit the College Board website. To be a better business writer, practice writing shorter sentences.


Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

17 comments on “Are You Smarter Than the Average SAT Taker?”

  • I’m glad to say I spotted the error immediately, but then I am a professional!

    I recently helped a friend prepare for her GMAT – a US qualification she needed to get into business school – and I noticed a similar thing.

    I found the grammar questions really annoying as they involved having to choose between overlong, badly written grammatically incorrect sentences and overlong, badly written but grammatically correct ones.

    I just hope her essays at business school aren’t written in such a style!

  • Hi, Clare. Congratulations on spotting the error! Take the rest of the day off.

    I agree with your hope for your friend. When I see my daughter composing essays of 300 words or more (a teacher’s requirement), I worry that she will load her business writing with extra words later in life. I try to coach her to add ideas rather than words, which I believe is the teacher’s goal.


  • I missed. I got hung-up on the “previously undesirable” part and couldn’t let go. I’m not defending this—now that the answer is so obvious—but my reasoning was: At the introduction of elevators, there was no previously. They were simply undesirable.

    But then I am just a layman. Which is why I read and heed your blog.

    Thanks for your posts, Lynn.

  • But would any reader actually be confused into thinking that the rooms were being compared to the floors? Not likely–and 66% of test takers thought so, too, apparently.

  • The test sentence is a train wreck, which must have been designed by someone who desperately wanted to confuse the hell out of everyone.

    Nice revision.

  • I got it, but the sentence is so badly structured that even before I read it through, I felt the urge to edit it out of existence…not a good sentence for a test in my opinion.

  • Thanks for testing yourselves, Pete, Karla, Hao, and Yoav, and for sharing your views.

    No, it is not a sentence we would be proud to have written, is it?

    If you think the writing and English sections of the SAT are trying, you should see the math problems. Those make me glad the SAT is behind me.


  • In your two-sentence version, the antecedent of “they” is not completely unambiguous; the nearest noun is “floors” rather than the intended antecedent, “rooms.” Not likely to be misread, I suppose, but I prefer the original (with revisions to make the comparison logical). However, I don’t disagree with your point that shorter sentences are easier to understand!

  • Yes, I spotted it but then it’s always easier to pick up on these things when asked to pore over them to such a degree. It is much more difficult to exercise the same control in everything you write and we are all capable of making mistakes.
    Even me!
    “…practice writing shorter sentences.”, for example, should be “…practise writing shorter sentences.”
    Sorry about that!
    I’m also unimpressed by elevators that were ‘introduced’ to the hotel. I hope they get on very well together! Maybe ‘installed’ would be preferable.
    Finally – and I think this is more pertinent than the last point – in both the test sentence and your alternative, ‘top floor rooms’ and ‘lower floor rooms’ would be less clumsy. Even hyphenated.
    But, like a lot of these points, that is entirely subjective.

  • Hi, Carlotta. Good point! I don’t think “they” could be taken to stand for “floors,” the object of a preposition. But that pesky plural “elevators,” as part of the complete subject, is another plural to consider.

    Still, I prefer the two-sentence version.

    Thanks for pointing out the antecedent issue.


  • Hi, Peter. Thank you for your thorough raking over of the sentence! I have to say I prefer “introduction,” which points out the newness of elevators. But I appreciate your close copyediting.


  • Lynn, you’re right that “floors” is unlikely to be misread as the antecedent of “they,” but why can’t the object of a preposition be the antecedent of a pronoun? Consider the following, admittedly lame, sentence:

    I am aware of the problems with the car. They became clear the first time I drove it.

    “Problems” is the object of the preposition “of” and the antecedent of “they.”

    Carlotta (avoiding work by debating grammar)

  • Hi, Carlotta. Your pronouns work because there is only one plural noun that “they” could represent. And “it” could only stand for “car.”

    It isn’t that objects of prepositions can’t be antecedents. But in a complex sentence, the reader normally looks back to a more prominent word for the antecedent. If the phrase is “rooms on the top floors,” “they” is not likely to refer to “floors.”

    Thanks for pursuing this interesting question.

    Now get to work!


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