7 Common Grammar Mistakes That Can Ruin Your Test Score

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01
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How Grammar Can Impact Your Test Scores

Grammar mistakes in real life are just going to happen. We all make mistakes from time to time – even English teachers! If you're taking a standardized test like the SAT, GRE, ACT, state standardized tests and more, however, these grammar mistakes can hold back your test score in a major way. Just a few mistakes can knock down the Verbal portion of your exam.

So, take the time now to get rid of these seven common grammar mistakes so your test score is as high as it can possibly be.

02
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Bad Pronoun/Antecedent Agreement

You've seen it all before. A pronoun, a word that takes the place of a noun like he, she, it, they, our, them, etc., is out of agreement with the noun it is replacing (the antecedent). Maybe the pronoun is plural when the antecedent is singular or vice versa. Most of the time, an error like this is hardly noticeable. People use bad pronoun/antecedent agreement in spoken language all the time. Say these three sentences out loud:

  • Everyone has their own solution to bad grammar.
  • A kid can get in a lot of trouble with their parents if they repeatedly use poor grammar.
  • Someone is eventually going to pay for their grammar mistakes.

They don't sound that terrible, right? On a standardized test, however, they'll get you every time. Here's what a pronoun antecedent question could look like on a standardized test like the ACT. On the ACT English section, you could find a question like this, although the words you would be analyzing would be underlined instead of capitalized:

Each one of the students in Ms. Smith's art class must supply THEIR OWN paintbrushes, paints, and watercolor paper.
A. NO CHANGE
B. his or her own
C. his own
D. to each their own

The correct answer is B: his or her own. Why? "Each" is the subject of the sentence, and it's singular. Therefore, the pronoun replacing the word "each" must be singular too: his or her. Although Choice C offers a singular pronoun, the usage of the word "his" is not inclusive. The sentence does not indicate that Ms. Smith's class was comprised only of boys.

03
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Bad Comma Usage

The placement of a comma can ruin a person's day; just think about poor Grandpa in the example above! Comma rules, like using commas to set off interrupting elements, placing commas between items in a series, and inserting commas prior to coordinating conjunctions (among others), are there for a reason. Memorize them. Use them. And learn to recognize when they are MISused on a standardized exam.

Here's what a comma question could look like on the Writing portion of the SAT exam. This type of question is known as an "Improving Sentences" question, although the portion of the sentence on which you'd be tested would be underlined instead of capitalized:

In the past, hurricanes were all given WOMEN'S NAMES, NOW THEY ARE given names of both men and women.
A. women's names, now they are
B. womens' names now they are
C. women's names; now they are
D. womens' names, now being
E. women's names; now they are being

The correct answer is C. Using a comma at the end of a complete thought, thus joining it to the next sentence, turns the two into a comma splice. You need the semicolon in between to form a harder stop. Although Choices C and E both use the semicolon correctly instead of the comma, Choice C is the only selection to maintain the appropriate verb tense, as well.

04
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Bad "Who/Whom" Usage

It's pretty simple, right? The pronoun, "who," is always a subject and the pronoun, "whom," is always an object. But people say sentences like, "Who should I give my application to?" or "Who did you give the ball to?" all the time. Conversationally, you're unlikely to get called out for this common grammar mistake. On a standardized test, however, you're going to lose points.

Here's what a "Who/Whom" question could look like on the ACT English section. Again, the words in question would be underlined, not capitalized.

If the tribesmen did not dance, the spirits WHOM ATTENDED the feast would be angry and the animals, necessary for food and warmth, would stay away.
A. NO CHANGE
B. who attended
C. whom have attended
D. with whom attended

The correct answer is B. The word "who" is taking the place of the word "spirits" in the subjective form; it's the subject of that clause. Choice C changes the tense of the verb and keeps the wrong pronoun. Choice D makes the sentence nonsensical.

05
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Bad Apostrophe Usage

Repeat these sentences out loud: "I, being of sound mind and body, recognize that I do not need to add apostrophes to make my words plural. I solemnly swear, from now until the end of eternity or upon my death (whichever comes first), I will renounce my apostrophe abuse.

Weddings are not Wedding's. Birthdays are not Birthday's. Anniversaries are not Anniversary's. Christenings are not Christening's. One tiny apostrophe can ruin your day on a standardized test if you're used to using them for every plural word.

Here's what an apostrophe question could look like on the ACT English section:

The collision sounds of screeching tires and shattering glass in the westbound lanes stopped the three BUSES headed east on the other side of the freeway.
A. NO CHANGE
B. bus's
C. buses'
D. bus

The correct answer is A. The plural form of the word "bus" does not need an apostrophe, so that rules out Choices B and C. Choice D is incorrect because a singular noun does not work as an antecedent for the plural pronoun, "their."

06
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Bad "It's/Its" Usage

Once in a while, you might have a typo and accidentally replace "it's" (the contraction between "it" and "is" or "it" and "has") with "its" (the possessive form of it). It's okay. We understand. On a standardized test, however, the scantron graders are not quite as lenient. Watch out for those pesky buggers!

Here's what an "it's/its" question could like on the Writing portion of the SAT exam. This type of question is known as an "Identifying Sentence Errors" question. On the SAT, you'd see a sentence like the one listed below. The capitalized words would be underlined, and each would have a letter below the line. You'd have to bubble in the letter of the underlined portion that contained the error.

Alexis INSISTS THAT her neighbor owns the black cat ON THE Happy Cat television commercial and, INCREDIBLY, it performs IT'S own stunts! NO ERROR

The error is with the "it's". It should be "its" because the sentence shows possession.

07
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Bad Usage of Parallel Structure

Take a peek at the world around you. Almost everything you'll find is symmetrical. If you take a hacksaw to your Diet Coke can, computer screen, car, or face, you'll find that when they're split in two, they're nearly identical on each side. Symmetry makes the world go 'round. Sentences that contain items in a list should be symmetrical, too. What's that mean? Basically, the items in the list should match. If a past tense verb begins the first clause, a past tense verb should begin the next. If you use a gerund to describe your first favorite activity (running), then you should use a gerund to describe the rest (I like running, reading, and swimming.) Saying something like, "I like to run, swimming, and going on hikes" would be grammatically incorrect because it lacks parallel structure.

Here's a parallel structure question as posed by the GMAT Verbal section. These types of questions are known as "Sentence Corrections" in the GMAT world:​

In order to qualify for the PGA Tour, aspiring golfers are required to place in the top 30 at Qualifying School, WIN THREE EVENTS ON THE NATIONWIDE TOUR, OR TO FINISH IN THE TOP 20 of the Nationwide Tour's earnings list.
A. win three events on the Nationwide Tour, or to finish in the top 20
B. win three events on the Nationwide Tour, or finishing in the top 20
C. to win three events on the Nationwide Tour, or finishing in the top 20
D. to win three events on the Nationwide Tour, finishing in the top 20
E. to win three events on the Nationwide Tour, or to finish in the top 20

The correct answer is E. The sentence lists three requirements: "to place," "win" and "to finish." The first and last verbs are in the infinitive form, while the other is in the present tense. The sentence must be structured so the word "to" is used with only the first word, or with all three. Choice E is the only answer that fits.

08
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Bad Subject/Verb Agreement

Most of the time, modifiers stuck in between the subject and verb cause the problem with determining whether or not a subject agrees with the verb. If all the junk in between the two words were taken out, it would be much easier to figure out! 

Here's a subject verb agreement question as posed by the GMAT Verbal section. These types of questions are known as "Sentence Corrections" in the GMAT world:

Information for travelers, such as road maps, hotel directions, or rest area locations, ARE PROVIDED FREE OF CHARGE FROM THE AUTOMOTIVE CLUB, LONG KNOWN FOR ITS roadside assistance plan.
A. are provided free of charge from the automotive club, long known for its
B. is provided free of charge from the automotive club, long known for its
C. are provided free of charge from the automotive club, long known for their
D. is provided free of charge from the automotive club, long known for their
E. is to be provided free of charge from the automotive club, long known for their

The correct answer is B. The agreement problem is between the subject, "information" and the verb, "are provided". Choice B makes them both singular, which is accurate. Choice D does this too, but changes the pronoun "its" to "their" which messes with the pronoun/antecedent agreement between the word "club" and "its". Since both are singular, they have to stay that way! Choice E changes the verb form entirely, which changes the tense of the sentence.

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Roell, Kelly. "7 Common Grammar Mistakes That Can Ruin Your Test Score." ThoughtCo, Jan. 3, 2018, thoughtco.com/common-grammar-mistakes-that-can-ruin-test-score-3212073. Roell, Kelly. (2018, January 3). 7 Common Grammar Mistakes That Can Ruin Your Test Score. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/common-grammar-mistakes-that-can-ruin-test-score-3212073 Roell, Kelly. "7 Common Grammar Mistakes That Can Ruin Your Test Score." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/common-grammar-mistakes-that-can-ruin-test-score-3212073 (accessed January 16, 2018).