Ask Language Log: SAT "Identifying Sentence Errors" questions

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From reader Q.C.:

I'm writing to you as your article "The SAT Fails a Grammar Test" came to my mind the other day when I happened to stumble on the following Identifying Sentence Error question from a PSAT:

Opposite to the opinion of several respected literary critics, Jane Austen does not make good taste or manners in themselves sure signs of virtue in her characters.

I came up with three possible answers. The College Board people may feel that the phrase "opposite to" should be replaced by a more idiomatic expression, such as "opposed to" or "contrary to;" or that Jane Austen, being deceased, should be described with the past tense, thus faulting "does not;" or they may believe that there's no error, since dictionaries agree that "opposite" can mean "contrary", and the so-called "historical present tense" is quite common in literary review and literary criticism.

As I'm not a native speaker of the English language, I asked an intelligent American teacher of English literature for clarification. She kindly pointed out that the phrase "opposite to" sounds "uneducated" and hence needs revision, as the College Board officially agrees. Still, she confessed, "even educated colleagues outside of the English Department make such errors."

Q.C. points out that "opposite to the opinion of X" sometimes occurs in published works, citing Google Books examples like these:

I distrust my own judgement, especially as it is opposite to the opinion of a majority of gentlemen

… in an inaugural dissertation published here in the year 1786, relates an experiment made by him which is completely opposite to the opinion of Haller

… this construction or mentioning of statements opposite to the opinion one holds seems too obvious by itself to count as much of an understanding test for recipients of irony.

So Q.C. wonders whether this question hinges on what he call "the subject agreement theory", whereby the opening phrase "Opposite to the opinion of several respected literary critics" should modify the subject of the following clause, Jane Austen. But it bothers him that this requirement would presumably not be imposed if the phrase were "Contrary to the opinion of several respected literary critics", and that other initial adjective phrases like "More important" are also often used as sentence-level adjuncts.

I might add that it's not hard to find published examples where "opposite to X" is used as a sentence adjunct, although this is obviously much rarer than "contrary to X":

Opposite to expectations, however, the children who received the intrinsic motivation training and were rewarded scored higher in their creativity than did the children who received the training but were not rewarded.

Opposite to our predictions parental rewards (B=-.18) and role modelling (B=-.11) significantly decreased outcome certainty.

Opposite to this theory a starting vortex (OSV) is shed from both trailing edges after they have separated.

Q.C. argues that "questions of this kind lean unfavorably toward international students who are well versed in the English language", since "a clever non-native speaker with considerable knowledge of English usage and some pragmatic, semantic, and syntactical understanding" may still "not fully understand what 'language pundits' think of a particular wording".

It's clear, I think, that "Opposite to the opinion of X" is much less idiomatic than "Contrary to the opinion of X" as a sentence-level modifier; and it's fair to evaluate SAT test takers on whether or not they know this. But the College Board probably did frame this question as a "dangling modifier" error, not an "unexpected n-gram" error, in which case the answer should have been the same if the test sentence had read

Contrary to the opinion of several respected literary critics, Jane Austen does not make good taste or manners in themselves sure signs of virtue in her characters.

And this takes us right back to the key problem with the SAT's "Identifying Sentence Errors" questions, as I explained in my 2005 post:

In each test sentence, I could easily see one place where some people would identify an error. However, each of the possible "errors" is doubtful at best, and "No Error" is always one of the options. As a result, my decision about how to answer becomes a judgment about the linguistic ideology of the College Board, not a judgment about English grammar and style.

This is a problem for all thoughtful and well-informed test takers, not just for non-native speakers.

And my suggested emendation still stands: Eliminate the "No Error" answers from the "Identifying Sentence Errors" questions, and rephrase the instructions as something like:

The following sentences test your ability to recognize grammar and usage errors. Each sentence contains one example of a word choice or a grammatical choice that is often regarded as an error by skilled users of standard American English. Select the one underlined part that must be changed to avoid this perception of error.

Q.C. concludes:

Though I received an 800 in the SAT Writing in my sophomore year (2012), I am not at all happy with these weird types of question. It is amazing that eight years after you published your critical essay online, the College Board still haven't responded, and no change has been made to the test design.

I'm afraid that he overestimates the influence of Language Log. But it's true, the "Identifying Sentence Errors" questions were a bad design in 2005, and they remain a bad design today.



37 Comments

  1. Ellen K. said,

    March 31, 2013 @ 8:28 am

    My first thought was "or" should be "nor". That is, the use of "or" is what I found that might be considered an error, though I don't personally think using "or" in place or "nor" is an error. Though sometimes I do like to use "nor" where it fits.

  2. BZ said,

    March 31, 2013 @ 9:35 am

    Am I the only one who thinks this entire sentence is a mess (if not outright ungrammatical)?

    "Opposite to the opinion" – as already discussed

    "does not make good taste or manners" – Huh? How do you make good taste or manners?

    "in themselves sure signs of virtue" – How do you parse this? Does "in themselves" refer back to manners or to the combination of "good taste or manners". Are the good manners in themselves sure signs of virtue or is it the case that whatever Jane Austin makes is not in itself a sure sign of virtue "opposite to the opinion of several respected literary critics"?

    " in her characters" – Is this modified by the entirety of the preceding part of the sentence or just "sure signs of virtue"?

    [(myl) You're mis-reading (or maybe over-thinking) this. The intended structure of the main clause clearly involves a construction of the form

    make <NP> <PredicatePhrase>

    like "made her proud" or "made him a father". And the final prepositional phrase contributes roughly the same thing to the meaning, whether it's construed as attached higher or lower:

    Hemingway makes machismo a sign of virtue in his characters.

    Colorado's Amendment 64 makes possession of up to one ounce of cannabis legal for adults 21 or older.

    ]

  3. richard said,

    March 31, 2013 @ 9:45 am

    Why is an "aptitude" test policing style in the name of grammar, particularly in this vague Where's Waldo fashion? What sense does that make?

  4. @Quillpower1 said,

    March 31, 2013 @ 9:46 am

    I agree that the framing of the questions is all-important: there should clearly be only one fault and idiosyncratic style, ideology and such red herrings would be misplaced in one-error questions. Students who find more than the single, intended error are having their time wasted by incompetent instructors — and should consider becoming editors.
    You make a valid point when you say the 'decision about how to answer becomes a judgment about the linguistic ideology of the College Board, not a judgment about English grammar and style'.

    This dilemma extends beyond the examination paper. A grammatical error or incorrect spelling in any official campus literature is damaging to a college's image, yet how many undergraduates are prepared to risk questioning not only the ideology but the literacy of their superiors? Is there a win-win way to handle this situation?

  5. Thom said,

    March 31, 2013 @ 10:29 am

    While I do not disagree that these exams should be revised, I see the these phrases as being different in meaning.

    "Opposed to" implies an entity being on opposite sides of an argument.
    (Many people are opposed to the law being ratified.)
    "Opposite to" means that the object of the discussion (not necessarily the sentence) is being the opposite.
    (The results were opposite to what had been seen in other studies.)
    "Contrary to" implied being opposite of expectations.
    (Contrary to what my friends had told me, I found the small town be quite exciting.)

    Therefore, is there a dialect difference going on, or what is causing this assumption that these phrases mean the same thing? Even in the examples in the blogpost, I do not feel that they are show to mean the same thing.

    [(myl) But the question is not about what the quotation means, but whether it contains an "error". Whatever opposite may mean, a writer is free to claim that the truth about Jane Austen's association of manners with character in fact has the property of being opposite to the opinion of certain critics.

    The question under discussion is whether the cited way of expressing that thought, with a sentence-initial adjunct headed by opposite, is or is not an "error".]

  6. Brett said,

    March 31, 2013 @ 10:48 am

    @BZ: I too found the whole sentence to be very poorly written, to the point of being incomprehensible on a first reading. Separated from the "Opposite to…" modifier, I subsequently decided that the rest of the sentence was inelegant but certainly not ungrammatical. However, I think the jarring oddity of the opening modifier made it harder for me to parse the rest of the sentence the first time through.

  7. chemiazrit said,

    March 31, 2013 @ 11:04 am

    "does not make good taste or manners" – Huh? How do you make good taste or manners?

    This is a strange misreading and not at all what the sentence says. The sentence states that Jane Austen doesn't "make x a sign of y" where x is "good taste or manners" and y is "virtue." To me (an American native speaker) the meaning is perfectly transparent and entirely grammatically correct.

    Similarly, it seems utterly obvious that "in themselves" refers to the linked pair "good taste or manners" and that "in her characters" refers to entire preceding clause. You're inventing caviling difficulties where none exist.

  8. bianca steele said,

    March 31, 2013 @ 11:18 am

    Whatever opposite may mean, a writer is free to claim that the truth about Jane Austen's association of manners with character in fact has the property of being opposite to the opinion of certain critics.

    On first reading, it seemed to me that the use of "opposite" suggests that Austen read about how the literary critics thought virtue should be represented, and opposed them by refusing to depict virtue in that way. A writer is certainly free to claim that this happened, but only if the literary critics in question were alive in 1800 or so and made general statements about literature as a whole, rather than specifically about Jane Austen's novels. I think it is an error, therefore, but the sentence is so confusing that until the more basic error's identified–those 17th century literary critics whom Austen defied most likely couldn't have existed–there's no reason yet for "opposite" to be identified as a usage error. It's the kind of trick question you see on practice tests, that causes the student to waste time thinking about things that are irrelevant.

    If the sentence said, "opposite to the opinion of critics, I hold that Austen didn't," that would be different.

  9. Dan M. said,

    March 31, 2013 @ 12:32 pm

    Bianca @11:18,

    I find your reading of this strained. Austen's choices about character portrayal can oppose the choices made by others even if she has no direct knowledge of those others.

    To me the sentence seems to clearly say "Making the opposite choice as do some critics, Austen does not [portray such and such]."

  10. BZ said,

    March 31, 2013 @ 12:36 pm

    @myl and @chemiazrit,
    I see what the intended meaning is now. The sentence sure could use some punctuation, though. "In themselves" is what confused me, both because it wasn't separated from the rest of the sentence by commas and because this construction with this meaning seems (to me) to be less common than just "themselves" or "in and of themselves".

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 31, 2013 @ 12:56 pm

    MYL: My impression of the standard (defensible or not) for academic English is that dangling modifiers aren't allowed but certain expressions that look like dangling modifiers get a pass. These include "contrary to", but not "opposite to". I wouldn't be surprised if the College Board explained this question in some such terms.

    [(myl) If those who composed and approved this question thought it through deeply enough to decide that the answer should be "no error" for "Contrary to ..." but not for "Opposite to ...", that would confirm my concern that test-takers are being asked to guess what the College Board's linguistic ideology is, and how it applies to a specific usage question.]

    Incidentally, I'd expect "opposite" to have a stronger meaning than "contrary" here. If Austen's characterization is opposite to what those critics say, then she makes bad taste and bad manners sure signs of virtue. Your first two examples of sentence-adjunct "opposite to" seem consistent with this reading, and I can't tell about the other one. The only other example I found at COCA also seems consistent with "the opposite of this happens" rather than merely "this doesn't happen".

    Ellen K.: I'd actually consider "nor" non-standard there. Bryan Garner recommends "or", but The American Heritage Book of English Usage says that both are used and "or" is more common than "nor" in related sentences, so my opinion might be too pedantic.

    richard: College students have to be able to write standard academic English, so they have to know what fits into that category and what doesn't—whether you call the criterion grammar, style, or anything else. There's still room for debate on what's acceptable in standard academic English.

    bianca steele: Would you read the sentence the same way if it said "Contrary to"?

  12. Michael Newman said,

    March 31, 2013 @ 1:24 pm

    You are missing the essential point here. Test makers as a general rule don't care much about qualitative critiques. Their very idea of validity is psychometric. If the numbers of right answers to a particular item fall in the right place on the bell curve, the test makers are happy to declare the item valid. A good difficult item is defined as one that only people who do well on the test in general mainly get correct. A bad item is one that mainly people who do badly on the rest of the test get correct.

    [(myl) But these are questions that otherwise high-achieving students may have an especially hard time with. Also, the College Board and its competitors need to be concerned about other things besides psychometric consistency -- there's predictive value relative to college grades, and acceptance by the public of the validity of their questions.]

    These are people who are perfectly happy to develop a way for machines to grade essays, and can't understand why people get upset when they manage to give good grades on hoax essays that people slip into the pool. After all, the numbers usually add up, and there's always a margin of error.

  13. Stephen Hart said,

    March 31, 2013 @ 1:25 pm

    I read the sentence just as bianca steele did. Who's speaking? It's strains credulity to think that the sentence is intended to mean that Jane Austen was opposed to opinions of contemporary critics.
    I read it as a sentence taken out of context, the context perhaps being an academic article of literary criticism. The writer is the literary critic, (who would never use "I") and his or her opinion is opposite to the opinions of other critics.
    In that light, "opposite to" may well be more normal, as evidenced by MYL's three quotes, all apparently from academic works.

  14. bianca steele said,

    March 31, 2013 @ 1:43 pm

    bianca steele: Would you read the sentence the same way if it said "Contrary to"?

    No, “contrary to” sounds fine to me.” That's why I'd think it's a usage error.

    Almost all of the examples in the second group in the original post oppose predictions to results, which could be said a different way: our theory predicted the feather would fall faster than the rock, but the opposite occurred – opposite to the predictions of our theory, the rock fell faster than the feather. “Opposite to our theory, the rock fell faster than the feather”: this sounds so wrong to me that it occurs to me that the writer meant “apposite.”

    I don’t see examples in the post (except maybe the last one, which I don’t know how common it is, and anyway I might guess what came before was about something that behaves in the opposite way from an OSV) that either elide what’s being opposed, or oppose people to people in the way the PSAT question does.

    I'm also wondering how many examples there are of, "Opposite to X, NOT Y," which might add to the difficulty in parsing the sentence.

  15. Y said,

    March 31, 2013 @ 1:59 pm

    I like "opposite to" in this sense. I've never seen it used like this, but it seems a clear if novel metaphor.
    I am, however, scratching my head at Q.C.'s usage, "I am not at all happy with these weird types of question." Sure, 'these' agrees with 'types', so all is technically well, but "these weird types of questions" sounds better to me. I wonder if others feel so.

  16. Victoria Simmons said,

    March 31, 2013 @ 2:55 pm

    I oversee SAT practice exercises in an after-school enrichment program. I often come across sentence whose rightness or wrongness according to the test-makers I strongly disagree with.

    But nothing as bad as this sentence I came across the other day in an exercise created by the English department at Arizona State University. It is a sample sentence meant to illustrate non-restrictive clauses:

    Bill Clinton, who was a former president, cheated on his wife.

    Setting aside the propriety of a public university's using a sentence with politically-weighted content in a handout for students, what's up with that mangled non-restrictive clause? I suppose it would make sense if Bill Clinton were dead, and we were discussing something he did while he was a former president, and we wrote "who was a former president at the time." But not here.

  17. jonathan said,

    March 31, 2013 @ 3:35 pm

    When I read "Opposite to" I started to assume that the sentence was produced by a Brit (I'm an American). But that's just my go-to explanation for things that sound "off", but I can't find grounds for saying that they're wrong.

  18. Nic Subtirelu said,

    March 31, 2013 @ 3:51 pm

    I can't help but think this critique doesn't go far enough. What relevance do items like this have to a fair, equitable procedure for screening candidates for entrance to higher education? Even if we are (post hoc) able to find a linguistic rationale for an item, they still clearly conflate academic ability and linguistic tight-assedness. The best argument I can think of for these spot-the-error item types is that high amounts of exposure to and familiarity with academic discourse (arguably a good indicator that one will do well in higher education) would lead to one being more sensitive to the idiomatic constraints of the language (though I'm not personally aware of any research demonstrating this — and even if it exists, I would imagine the relationship is rather weak). Of course this also leads to the other question of whether we want to further disadvantage people who have not had access to academic discourse. We could be pragmatic and say well even if these "errors" are minor, they are still made a big deal of in higher education by ignorant faculty. I would have to acknowledge that as true, but I would think that (a) it is hardly more important than other constructs like ability to formulate an argument and hence is hardly deserving of its own item type on the test and (b) an ethical institution should not wish to enshrine the language ideologies of a few snobs into its gatekeeping processes. Of course perhaps a cynic will point out that that it's not the goal of the SAT to offer an equitable procedure, but it should be, and those involved in making the test and especially those involved in using it as a gate-keeping mechanism are culpable for its failures. All and all, it's my opinion that items such as these have no place in gate-keeping procedures for higher education.

  19. tsts said,

    March 31, 2013 @ 6:16 pm

    As a non-native speaker (who has lived in the US for many years), my first reaction is that this is a strange exercise. Obviously, the sentence is just weird, in several ways, and it would never occur to me to write this way. Even before coming to the US, it would have been clear to me that this is not a well-written sentence. If any of my students were to write this sentence, I would tell her to rewrite it. But figuring out which defects are really wrong, versus which ones just constitute really bad writing, does not seem very useful.

  20. mollymooly said,

    March 31, 2013 @ 8:04 pm

    I found the test sentence very clunky; in order to understand the intended meaning, I had to rely on my pre-existing knowledge of Jane Austen. I'm not sure if that constitutes cheating. Contrast Victoria Simmons' example, where her pre-existing knowledge of Bill Clinton seems to have made the question harder to answer.

    ——

    Mentally fixing mistakes while processing others' sentences is a core part of language mastery, but in deciding how to do this, it helps to know whether the person who produced the faulty sentence is a child, a NNS, slightly tired, poorly educated, a student trying too hard, a computer program, or someone from the other side of The Border. I think in general PSAT examiners are trying to simulate a few stereotypes of "poorly educated", mainly in the "finished high school but wasn't always paying attention" level. But that's adding an extra layer of noise to the signal.

  21. Richard Hershberger said,

    March 31, 2013 @ 9:21 pm

    Your correspondent wrote: "It is amazing that eight years after you published your critical essay online, the College Board still haven't responded, and no change has been made to the test design." He might be interested in tracking down _The Tyranny of Testing_ by Banesh Hoffman. It makes many similar critiques, in glorious detail. It was published in 1964.

  22. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 31, 2013 @ 10:04 pm

    bianca steele: Thanks for the reply. I asked because if I saw the test sentence in an essay, I'd feel sure the intended meaning of "opposite to" in the test sentence was simply "contrary to". What's opposed is not people but opinions and facts. I'd paraphrase the sentence as "Some critics have the opinion that good manners and taste are sure signs of virtue in Jane Austen, but the fact is that they're not such signs."

    I'm surprised that you and others read it any other way, but no doubt you're surprised that I read it the way I did.

    Some may wonder why anyone would write "opposite to" when what they meant could be expressed by the far more common phrase "contrary to". I don't know, but people do that. A number of my community-college students are at the level that mollymooly described as "finished high school but wasn't always paying attention" (at least to words), and they do such things. I'm tempted to quote several examples from a lab report, by a very good student, that I just finished reading.

  23. Doreen said,

    April 1, 2013 @ 2:19 am

    @Y, "these types of [plural noun]" sounds more natural to me – as a native speaker of AmE – too. But the construction you refer to is sometimes used by BrE speakers, so perhaps Q.C. is more familiar with British English (Q.C. stated that they (!) are not a native speaker of English in their original message).
    Searching for constructions such as types of [NN1] and kinds of [NN1] in the BYU-BNC reveals a variety of instances with singular countable nouns.

  24. Robert Hay said,

    April 1, 2013 @ 7:10 am

    As an SAT prep teacher myself, I can tell you that the College Board's intention here was undoubtedly the idiomatic error. Such errors occur frequently on the test, though they more often involve choosing the wrong preposition (e.g. "listen at" vs "listen to").
    As for the "dangling" question, I'm not sure why anyone would think it's a dangling modifier with or without "contrary". That issue only arises in cases when the opening phrase is clearly intended to describe something, but that something is not in the subject position. If you open with "contrary to the opinion of critics", I can't think of any NP that could modify without radically rewriting the sentence, which we can't do on questions in this format.
    (FWIW, dangling issues are much more likely to appear on Improving Sentences questions, the other major type of multiple choice question, which involves rephrasing the sentence more heavily.)
    I could see someone thinking "opposite to" was somehow dangling if they interpreted it to mean "physically across from", but then you would get the same answer.
    I think you're being too hard on the CB here. It seems like a perfectly reasonable question to me. You agree that "opposite" is idiomatically problematic. And you agree that the sentence would actually be acceptable with "contrary". So there's no problem here.

    [(myl) If you're right that the problem here is supposed to be "inadequate cliché approximation" rather than "dangling modifier", then I would criticize the question on other grounds -- it's one thing to focus on conventionally-associated prepositions, where some choices are clearly errors, and quite a different thing to feature a case where a perfectly grammatical option is simply a little too close to a very common alternative sequence, which might therefore be preferred (contra Orwell on clichés) so as not to startle readers.

    And anyhow, it's clear that many test takers will worry about the "dangling modifier" issue.

    This example is not as problematic as some that I've seen, but it's not a good question. And I still maintain that the "no error" option is a Bad Thing in every way. ]

  25. Finding the errors with Mark Liberman | Number One Pencil said,

    April 1, 2013 @ 7:39 am

    [...] and critiques its assumptions. Here's  Mark Liberman's classic essay on the test, and here's a newer post investigating the grammar of one particular question.  Warning: serious grammar [...]

  26. bianca steele said,

    April 1, 2013 @ 8:13 am

    Jerry Friedman:
    I'm not sure why the PSAT should base its idea of good grammar on what many college students (community college or otherwise) think is OK–though maybe that's not what you meant. And I don't think most science students are that concerned about the fact that they do well on the math and science parts of tests and less well on the English language parts. (If it looked like "opposite to" was common in scientific writing in the way it was used in the test question, I would be more concerned.)

    I could figure out what sentence meant, too, after reading it a couple of times–time test-takers don't have. There's something to be said for being able to read things that aren't written clearly, but this isn't a reading test, it's a writing test, and there's less to be said, I think, for writing unclearly just because 49% of writers are below the mean, quality-wise. I've known plenty of people who think they're great at "English," who somehow get a completely different meaning from the correct one, and complain that they're not getting their deserved good grades, too many to think the "Kant wrote badly too and we can still figure out what he meant" argument is valid.

    You seem to be saying that you expected to see the construction, and you assumed what came after the comment was, basically, a "blob" that represented ideas or concepts, regardless of what the words meant, or the fact that the word after the comma named a person capable of "opposing critics," or the fact that writing in opposition to critics is both possible and plausible. OK, but to me that's the "Kant wrote badly too" argument. If I read something like that in a science textbook (and I'd be surprised to see "Opposite to Einstein's widely read papers, Newton insisted that gravity was a constant"), I could figure out out from context, because science textbooks usually provide a lot of that and it's usually straightforward.

  27. Alex Blaze said,

    April 1, 2013 @ 8:40 am

    I just feel bad that they're dragging poor Jane Austen into this, especially since she can no longer defend herself. The sentence *is* a mess, something she should not have her name associated with.

    But I chose "opposite" as the error before reading the discussion of the question. It just sounded so off that, even though nothing was clearly ungrammatical about it, I assumed there was an obscure rule it violated.

    Not really a great way to test people, but students who read a lot will stand a better chance at this question than those who don't.

  28. Diane said,

    April 1, 2013 @ 3:14 pm

    @Jerry Friedman, Thank you for your rephrasing of the sentence. Like Bianca, I thought the original sentence was a mess, though I could guess it meant something like what you wrote. To me, changing "opposite to" to "contrary to" does not help at all. I can't quite put my finger on what exactly is wrong with the original sentence. I think it may be that I read the sentence as saying that *Jane Austen* does something opposite to the opinion of several respected critics, when the writer is really trying to say "my opinion is opposite to the opinion of several respected critics in that, unlike them, I think Jane Austen does not etc…" I think I am getting tripped up by the implication that a writer had done something opposite (or contrary) to the opinion of critics of their writing. The critics could be wrong, but that doesn't mean that the writer is doing something opposite to them.

  29. Brett Reynolds said,

    April 1, 2013 @ 6:00 pm

    Just to add another confounding variable, it appears that opposite to may have been just as common as contrary to if you go back 200 years or so: http://goo.gl/T5T7C

  30. Nathan Myers said,

    April 2, 2013 @ 3:43 am

    Clearly, the error is in the omission of the word "mistakenly" prior to "respected". Replacing "several" with "a few" or "a rabble of" might help.

  31. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 2, 2013 @ 3:59 pm

    bianca steele: My writing seems to be as unclear as the PSAT sentence. All I was doing was pointing out that I read that sentence quite differently from you. I wasn't defending the sentence as well-written or the test question as valid. I was absolutely not making a "Kant wrote badly too" argument.

    I'm not sure why the PSAT should base its idea of good grammar on what many college students (community college or otherwise) think is OK–though maybe that's not what you meant.

    I didn't mean to suggest that it should. I started that paragraph with "Some may wonder…"—people who don't wonder that could have skipped the rest.

    However, maybe the College Board should think about mistakes that college students are likely to make. I suggested that the purpose of such questions is to see whether students are likely to be able to detect non-academic locutions in their writing and revise them to meet academic standards. So asking them to evaluate example sentences containing typical student errors might make sense.

    I agree with you that the sentence is something of a "blob". If you saw it in an essay, you'd determine the intended meaning by finding a way that the ideas in it fit together to make something that someone is likely to say. In my data-free opinion, people communicate that way a lot. Of course one can go wrong in that way, and I'm in favor of greater precision.

  32. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 2, 2013 @ 4:25 pm

    Y and Doreen: Americans sometimes use "these types/sorts/kinds of" with singular count nouns. For instance, from coverage of the WACO hearings on CNN (via COCA), "We've done much more advanced training, not only of field commanders, but of FBI headquarters executives, on how do you respond to these kinds of crisis."

    It seems to me that by the "logic" used in prescription, the singular is called for. "This type of question" implies many questions of this type, so "these types of questions" can do so too; there's no need for a plural. However, American Heritage and Garner give examples of plural nouns in such constructions without comment (in the process of commenting on "these kind", etc.). This may be a peeve waiting to happen. Maybe I should have submitted it to that best-new-peeve contest at the Chronicle recently.

    (I can't read MWDEU at Google Books any more, unfortunately, but it would hardly prescribe anything where Garner and the AHD are silent.)

  33. bianca steele said,

    April 3, 2013 @ 8:12 am

    Jerry Friedman:
    I didn't mean to insult you, by implying your meaning wasn't obvious univocal. No offense, I hope.

  34. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 3, 2013 @ 9:58 am

    bianca steele: I appreciate your consideration, but I definitely didn't take offense, so nothing to worry about.

  35. Chandra said,

    April 3, 2013 @ 1:19 pm

    Never mind the issues with the SAT question – I'm thrown by "questions of this kind lean unfavorably toward international students".
    Lean unfavorably toward? To "lean toward" (figuratively), in my idiolect, means to favour. How can one favour someone unfavourably?

  36. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 4, 2013 @ 10:01 am

    The author of that phrase is not a native speaker of English.

  37. Jandro said,

    April 10, 2013 @ 7:03 pm

    @Chandra

    "lean unfavorably toward" like "a towering and collapsing ivory tower"?

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