January 31, 2005

The SAT fails a grammar test

Jennifer Medina had an article in yesterday's NYT about how "the new SAT, with all its imponderables, is increasing the agitation" of high school juniors across America.

What used to be a two-part, three-hour ordeal, half math, half verbal, will now require students to spend 45 more minutes completing an extra writing section. The new section will consist of three parts - one an essay, the other two multiple-choice grammar and sentence-completion questions.

Among the sources of anxiety that the article cites are the fact that "scoring an essay is subjective at best", and the students' uncertainty about how colleges will weight the old and the new SATs, which options are required by which colleges, and the relative difficulty of the tests to be given on different dates. I hate to add to the agitation of our nation's young people, but based on the controversial grammar questions of the past, and the sample questions now on the SAT web site, anyone planning to take the new SAT should also be very worried about the type of question that the College Board calls "Identifying Sentence Errors".

I tried the two sample questions in this category. 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.

The instructions tell me that

This question type measures a [sic] your ability to:

  • recognize faults in usage
  • recognize effective sentences that follow the conventions of standard written English

and provide the more specific directions:

The following sentences test your ability to recognize grammar and usage errors. Each sentence contains either a single error or no error at all. No sentence contains more than one error. The error, if there is one, is underlined and lettered. If the sentence contains an error, select the one underlined part that must be changed to make the sentence correct. If the sentence is correct, select choice E. In choosing answers, follow the requirements of standard written English.

OK, fair enough. Now here's one of the sentences:

After (A) hours of futile debate, the committee has decided to postpone (B) further discussion of the resolution (C) until their (D) next meeting. No error (E)

The official answer is this:

The error in this sentence occurs at (D). A pronoun must agree in number (singular or plural) with the noun to which it refers. Here, the plural pronoun "their" incorrectly refers to the singular noun "committee."

This is doubly problematic. In the first place, it raises the issue of whether collective nouns like "committee" are singular or plural, from the point of view of verb agreement as well as pronoun choice. This is a matter on which British and American norms are different -- and the instructions refer us only to "the conventions of standard written English", not to "the conventions of standard written American English" (or should that be "standard American written English", or "American standard written English"?).

In the second place, if we take committee to be singular, there is still the infamous "singular they" question, about which we at Language Log alone have written more often than I care to think about (here, here, here, here, here, among others).

In fact, this kind of constructio ad sensum has a distinguished enough history to have a special name in traditional grammar: synesis:

A construction in which a form, such as a pronoun, differs in number but agrees in meaning with the word governing it, as in If the group becomes too large, we can split them in two.

Often-cited examples from the King James translation of the bible include:

For the wages of sin is death. [Romans 6:23]
Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and preached Christ unto them. [Acts 8:5]

As for the authority of respected members of today's community of English users, the examples on committee-rich sites like the U.S. Congress and the National Academies seem to favor they and their in anaphoric reference to committee:

I thank the committee for their time and look forward to working with them in the future.
And now we are transferring the jurisdiction over securities to the Banking Committee so that they may conduct the business of the securities industry in precisely the same way they have supervised the business of the banking and the savings and loan industries.
The panel agreed with the chair's suggestion to submit the revised chapter of findings, conclusions and recommendations to the NWS Modernization Committee for their review at the February 9-11 meeting.

If the College Board is right about this, then hundreds of thousands of phrases in the Congressional Record and similar places, which seemed fine to their authors and seem fine to me and many other competent analysts as well, are in fact grammatical errors. Could we ask for a recount here?

Here's the other practice question:

The students have discovered (A) that they (B) can address issues more effectively through (C) letter-writing campaigns and not (D) through public demonstrations. No error (E)

Again, I had no trouble seeing where the problem might be. As the official answer explains:

The error in this sentence occurs at (D). When a comparison is introduced by the adverb "more," as in "more effectively," the second part of the comparison must be introduced by the conjunction "than" rather than "and not."

But the trouble is, comparatives don't always need a "second part" introduced by "than". The "second part" may be omitted entirely:

Apartment hunters have more choices these days.
Powell fears more violence as elections loom closer

or the cited change may be contrasted with an alternative in a conjoined phrase:

For example, cattle eat more grass in winter and less in spring; more forbs in spring and less in fall and winter; and more browse in fall and less in spring.
The outlook for precipitation is much less certain, but most projections point to more precipitation in winter and less in summer over the region as a whole.

The contrasting alternative is sometimes expressed with a conjoined negative, as in this phrase from a user's manual:

If your television has a number of video inputs, it is better to go direct and not add extra cabling.

This does not seem in any way ungrammatical to me, and the alternative

If your television has a number of video inputs, it is better to go direct than to add extra cabling.

does not strike me as a stylistic improvement. More exact counterparts can be found in an interview with Ken Knabb about Kenneth Rexroth:

He had this notion that the poem was going to subvert people little by little. That it was more effective to be subtle, and not just use crude propaganda.

and a report from the British House of Lords:

We consider that the safety issue would be dealt with more effectively by JAR-OPS and not by a Directive which would overlap with existing regulations.

I don't believe that these two examples are ungrammatical, nor do I think that they would be improved stylistically by replacing the conjunctive contrast with a than phrase. The SAT example

The students have discovered that they can address issues more effectively through letter-writing campaigns and not through public demonstrations.

is also clearly not ungrammatical. I guess I agree that the College Board's preferred alternative

The students have discovered that they can address issues more effectively through letter-writing campaigns than through public demonstrations.

is a bit better, but it's still a rather awkward sentence. In any case, the answer No Error (E) seems like a plausible answer to this question as well.

Let me be clear:

  • I support and uphold the norms of standard written English in spelling, punctuation, word usage and grammar.
  • I agree that students should learn these norms and should be tested on this knowledge.
  • I believe that well-defined violations of these norms often occur.
  • I recognize that writing can be culpably awkward or unclear, even when it is fully grammatical, and that students should learn to recognize and correct examples of this.

However, I also believe that linguistic norms should be defined by the actions and judgments of respected members of the community, not the invented regulations of isolated self-appointed experts. It's patently unfair to ask students to identify as errors contructions and usages that are widely used by respected writers and viewed as acceptable by expert analysts.

I therefore have two suggestions for the College Board.

First, create a usage panel like the one that Geoff Nunberg chairs for the American Heritage Dictionary. Don't put Sentence Error questions on the SAT -- or among the practice questions on your web site -- without checking them with your usage panel.

Second, eliminate the "No Error" answer from your grammar and usage questions. Rephrase your 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.

Then a student who knows, as I do, that "singular they" is deprecated by a few authorities, but is supported by most informed grammarians, and has often been used by great writers over the centuries, will not be forced to second-guess the ideology of the test designers:

"... well, there's not really any error at all in this sentence; but there is an instance of singular they; so perhaps the testers want me to flag it as an error, in which case I should answer (D); or perhaps they are trying to catch the silly people who incorrectly believe that synesis is always an error, in which case I should answer (E); hmm, how sophisticated and well informed do I think that the designers of this test are?..."

A student who can reason along those lines certainly deserves full credit for this question; but as things are set up, it's a coin toss. If No Error (E) were not an available answer, then the student could reason

"...well, there's no error in this sentence, but there is an instance of singular they, and that must what the in-duh-viduals who designed this test want me to answer, so OK, (D) it is..."

This would still be testing knowledge of linguistic ideology rather than knowledge of English grammar, but at least it doesn't require the student to calibrate the College Board's precise ideological stance in order to answer "correctly".

[Update: if you haven't had enough, there are other posts on this subject here , here and (at paralyzing length) here.]


Posted by Mark Liberman at January 31, 2005 03:26 PM