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.
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.