The SAT Writing & Language Test: The Basics

Writing & Language is the second verbal section of the SAT.

In this section, students have 35 minutes to complete 44 questions. 

About half of those questions concern standard English conventions, or straight-up grammar, and punctuation. The other half tests rhetorical skills, or “expression of ideas.”

Your performance on this section is calculated on a scale of 200 and 400, and your Writing and Language score contributes to 50% of your SAT verbal score

This section has fewer questions than Evidence-Based Reading, which has 52 questions. This means that each question on Writing & Language is technically worth more individually.

In this introductory post to SAT Writing and Language, we discuss the following:  

SAT Writing & Language: Introduction

SAT Writing and Language consists of four passages. These cover the following topics:

  • Science
  • Humanities
  • History
  • Social science
  • Career fields

Each passage is accompanied by 11 questions. 

Unlike the Reading section, Writing & Language questions occur throughout the passage instead of at the end. 

Here’s what that looks like:

SAT Writing & Language
Source: College Board SAT Practice Test 1

No passage on SAT Writing & Language is necessarily “harder” than another. In fact, each passage is likely to contain a healthy mix of grammar, punctuation, and expression of ideas questions. 

That being said, a punctuation question may be easier for most students than an expression of ideas question! But we’ll get to that in a minute.

Question Categories

The College Board breaks the Writing & Language section down into two sub-scores: 

  • Standard English Conventions and 
  • Expression of Ideas

These sub-scores reflect the two general question categories in this section. 

  • Standard English Conventions questions test mastery of the fundamental rules of grammar/punctuation.
  • Expression of Ideas questions measure proficiency in writing strategy, such as rhetoric, diction, and the organization of ideas.

This might sound like a lot, but it becomes a lot easier once you know what kind of questions to expect! 

SAT Writing & Language: The Basics

By definition, the SAT is standardized, which means that every test repeats the same set of concepts. What’s more, SAT Writing & Language only tests a finite amount of concepts, grammatical and rhetorical.

This means that you don’t have to go out and memorize pages and pages of grammar rules. Nor do you have to be a rhetorical genius to get a 400 here.

The key to success on SAT Writing and Language? Knowing what it tests and getting absolutely comfortable with those concepts ahead of time!

SAT Writing & Language: What You Actually Need to Know

In order to master the SAT Writing & Language section, students need to be comfortable with the following concepts:

College Board Sub-score Concept
Standard English Conventions Apostrophes: Plural vs. Possessive
Colons and Dashes
Combining and Separating Sentences
Comma Uses and Misuses
Dangling and Misplaced Modifiers
Essential & Non-Essential Clauses
Parallel Structure
Pronoun and Noun Agreement
Question Marks
Relative Pronouns
Verbs: Agreement and Tense
Word Pairs and Comparisons
Expression of Ideas Add, Delete, Revise
Diction, Idioms, and Register
Sentence and Paragraph Order
Sentence vs. Fragments
Shorter is Better

As you can see from this chart, Standard English Conventions (i.e., grammar) questions will test your knowledge of standard written English grammar, punctuation, and other rules. 

A typical Standard English Conventions question might look something like this:

SAT Writing Language
Source: College Board SAT Practice Test 1

How to solve:

At first glance, this question might appear difficult, but comparing the answer choices to one another can give us clues on how to crack it.

The primary difference between choices A-D is the type of punctuation used, which tells us that this question is probably testing our ability to join incomplete and complete ideas with the proper punctuation.

A comma (choice B) can only be used to separate an incomplete thought (or dependent clause) with a complete thought (or independent clause). A comma plus a coordinating conjunction (choice C) can be used just like a period to separate two independent clauses. A colon (choice D) is used to introduce a list or explanation, and everything that comes before the colon must be a complete thought. 

In context, the punctuation is separating an independent and dependent clause, and so the answer must be B.  

Expression of Ideas questions will ask you to improve the effectiveness of communication in a piece of writing. 

A typical Expression of Ideas question might look something like this:

SAT Writing and Language
Source: College Board SAT Practice Test 1

SAT Writing and Language

How to solve:

Notice how the question asks students to accomplish a very specific purpose: it asks for the answer that describes a self-reinforcing cycle. Many students solve these questions by subbing the answer choices back into the passage, but doing so can actually result in error.

It’s vital to read the context first, which says that “as the ice melts, the land and water under the ice become exposed, and since land and water are darker than snow, the surface absorbs even more heat, which _____.”

The context is discussing the melting of ice, as reinforced by heat absorption. Logically, heat absorption is only likely to increase ice’s capacity to melt. Only D suits this assessment, and reiterates the fact that this is a cumulative melting process (i.e., a self-reinforcing cycle).

As you can see from these examples, most Expression of Ideas questions will have a question in front of them, whereas the Standard English Convention questions will not

In general, this often means that Expression of Ideas questions take more time to complete than Standard English Conventions questions. They often require a firm understanding of context, rather than rote grammar rules.

In some cases, they may even feel more challenging! But they are still worth the same amount of points on Test Day.

Question Breakdown

As discussed earlier, students can expect to work through 20-22 English Convention questions and 20-22 Expression of Ideas questions.

Here’s a general breakdown:

Question Type Number of Questions
Punctuation 6-12 questions
Writing Strategy 20-26 questions
Verbs 3-8 questions
Misc. Grammar Topics 0-5 questions
Charts and Graphs 1-4 questions

As you can see, the Writing and Language section is slightly more interested in Writing Strategy than it is in straight-up grammar!

Some students notice those “Charts and Graphs” questions here and panic a bit. Isn’t this the grammar section after all?

Charts and Graphs questions actually appear on all four sections of the SAT (including Evidence-Based Reading). 

Don’t be alarmed by these. They do involve a bit of data analysis, but mostly, they test a student’s ability to synthesize quantitative and verbal information.

Here’s a sample question:

Writing and Language (SAT)
Source: College Board SAT Practice Test 1

How to solve:

While this question might look technical, it actually only involves a little bit of data analysis and interpretation of context. 

The context specifies that “average daily low temperatures can drop _______.” The graph reveals that the average daily low temperatures recorded at Nuuk weather station in Greenland sank as low as 12 degrees F in March.

Thus, our answer is B.

SAT Writing & Language: General Tips 

What strategies do you need to succeed on SAT Writing and Language? Here are some great general tips.

1) Read the full text.

Unlike the SAT Reading section, students do not need to have an in-depth understanding of the passages in order to be successful on the Writing & Language section. 

That being said, there will usually be 1-2 questions per passage that require students to tie a detail, title, or transition to the main idea of the passage as a whole.

For this reason, it’s a good idea to give the passage a quick skim before jumping to the questions. Failing to do so might lead students to miss out on the big picture. After skimming the passage, students should dive into the questions.

2) Identify which concept the question is actually testing

Compare the answer choices to one another for clues – how do they differ? Do some answer choices include a plural subject, while others make the subject possessive?

If so, this is probably a question focusing on apostrophes. Once students have identified the guiding principle, it becomes much easier to identify the error and correct it. 

3) Prove answer choices wrong.

Remember that for every Standard English Convention question, there will only be one answer that is grammatically correct. In addition to finding the right answer, it’s important to check every other answer and identify why that answer choice is grammatically incorrect.

If students ever feel that there are two or more grammatically correct answers, they need to look closer because they are probably missing something. The SAT loves to include “nearly correct” choices that appear solid at first glance, which is why it’s important to check every answer carefully.

Students should be able to definitively rule out all but one choice. 

The Expression of Idea questions can be a little trickier because more than one answer may be grammatically correct, but only one will communicate the author’s intention most clearly.

4) Shorter is often better.

In general, if more than one answer is grammatically correct, the shortest answer will be the right one. The SAT loves to test on wordiness and how to avoid it – in general, shorter is always better.

By extension, if there’s ever an answer choice that says “DELETE the underlined portion,” students should check it first because it’s usually correct.

Remember that process of elimination is your best friend. If you’re ever stuck on the rhetoric questions, compare the answer choices to one another to see how they differ. If every piece of information included in an answer choice isn’t absolutely necessary, then you’re probably better off cutting it out. 

5) Plug it in.

Finally, before students choose an answer, they should plug it back into the passage to make sure it fits. An answer that makes perfect sense on its own might create an error in the context of the passage. 

A Word About “No Change”

As you’ve probably noticed, almost every question includes an answer choice that reads “No Change.”

Students are oftentimes wary of choosing this option, but in reality, it should be treated like every other answer choice.

The layout of the Writing and Language section necessitates a “No Change” option so that the passages can be read in their entirety without gaping holes. Yet the underlined information is no more or less likely to be correct than any other answer choice. 

When you’re selecting your answer, read the full underlined portion included in the text and treat it just like any other answer choice! How does it differ from the other answers? What rule is the question testing on, and how does the original phrase match up to that rule? 

Remembering to check the original text is especially important for the rhetoric questions: what was originally in the passage may very well have been the shortest answer, and so don’t disregard it when you’re trying to play the “shorter is always better” card! 

Next Steps

More so than anything else, the secret to mastering the SAT Writing & Language section is practice. 

Many students rely on their ears to solve problems, but the majority of the questions are testing hard-and-fast rules that can be studied and mastered. 

None of these concepts are particularly difficult, but they require some time and attention to get down.   

How can you make sure that you’re getting the best practice possible?  

We strongly recommend signing up for one of our state-of-the-art SAT programs. Working with professionals who utilize real College Board materials is the surest way to guarantee excellent results as you study for the SAT.

Check out our course offerings here!

Harnick - Headshot (1)

Annie is a graduate of Harvard University (B.A. in English). Originally from Connecticut, Annie now lives in Los Angeles and continues to mentor children across the country via online tutoring and college counseling. Over the last eight years, Annie has worked with hundreds of students to prepare them for all-things college, including SAT prep, ACT prep, application essays, subject tutoring, and general counseling.