Top 11 Grammar Mistakes the SAT Hopes You Make

While spelling is not technically tested on the writing section of the SAT, you are likely to see a few questions on word choice in which knowing the proper spelling of certain words is helpful. These types of questions usually come up in Sentence Correction problems, and are typically well-hidden since test-takers tend not to expect them. If you remember that they exist, and watch for the most common types of errors, you should have no problem.

Here are a few of the word choice errors I have seen on actual tests:

  • Compliment/Complement - Compliment with an 'i' means to say something nice, while complement with an 'e' means to match well with. "I like the cake" is a compliment. "I brought a pie" would be a complement. You can remember because it is I who gives compliments.
  • Discreet/Discrete - To be discreet is to be secretive or careful (i.e. thieves are discreet when they steal. To be discrete means to be separated (i.e. two different piles of objects are discrete piles). Always look to see if there's a 't' to separate the two 'e's.
  • Who/Whom - If you want to figure out which one is correct, rephrase the sentence as a question and then answer it. For example, to know the correct use in "Mr. Porter called the author who/whom he met in Portland", change it to "who did he meet in Portland?" and then answer the question. If the answer would be "he", use who; if the answer would be "him", use whom. Mr. Porter met 'him' in Portland, so it should be "Mr. Porter called the author whom he met in Portland." Notice that both 'him' and 'whom' end with 'm'.
  • Less/Fewer and Amount/Number - Every sign in the grocery store you see that says, "10 items or less" is grammatically incorrect.  It should read "10 items or fewer."  Use the word 'fewer' with things you can count, and use the word 'less' with items you cannot.  For example, there is less sand at this beach, so there are fewer people here.  You can't count 'sand', but you can count people.  The same rule is true for amount and number.  The small amount of soda in your glass means you should have a smaller number of ice cubes.  We can't count 'soda', but we can count ice cubes.
  • Affect/Effect - In most cases, 'affect' will be a verb, and 'effect' will be a noun. If the word is preceded by an article (a or the), a preposition (into, for, etc.), or an adjective, the correct choice will be 'effect'. Note that 'effect' can also be a verb if it is being used in the sense that something brought something else into existence. "I affected the melon's price" means that I changed it. "I effected the melon's price" means that I created it.
  • Precede/Proceed - To precede means to come before, while to proceed means to continue. You can remember this because 'e' comes before 'o' in the alphabet.
  • Bi-/Semi- - The difference between biannual and semiannual is that bi- means every two years, and semi- means twice a year. Semi- has more letters than bi-, so it occurs more frequently.
  • Councilor/Counselor - A councilor is a member of a council, while a counselor is one who gives advice. In some ways, you can consider a counselor to be one who sells their advice.
  • Hanged/Hung - Pictures are hung and people are hanged. It is incorrect to say that, "the outlaw was hung at noon." He was hanged at noon.
  • Elicit/Illicit - Detectives try to elicit information from witnesses (it's a verb), while things that are naughty or illegal are illicit (it's an adjective). You can remember because things that are illegal are illicit.
  • Imply/Infer - If you are implying something, you are giving information. If you are inferring something, you are interpreting information. For example, by creating this list of common errors tested on the SAT, I am implying that you should study grammar, and you can infer that your score will increase if you do.

So remember that while spelling is not tested, the SAT loves to catch you making errors in homophones. Keep your eyes open for any suspicious single words that are underlined in Sentence Correction questions and remember the above rules and you are sure to score an extra few easy points.

Have any insight on this topic? Want to ask a question or make a suggestion? Click here to leave a comment.

Related Articles



I like this article because i never really looked at the words and how they were spelled like that so it really help me out.

- Josh McDowell, 09/21/08 at 1:20 pm

This helped out a lot.

- Jessica Foster, 09/23/08 at 8:31 am

I like this article because this informed me a lot on the homophones that are commonly confused with one another.

- Jasmine, 02/23/09 at 9:06 am

I liked this article, it helped alot and I learned alot from it.

- Leah Basnight, 02/25/09 at 9:15 am

Is very common to mix up a lot of homophones but like it says you just have to watch out for it.

- Andy Deering, 04/16/09 at 11:54 am

Now that i have seen words that sound the same but spelled differnet and dont mean the same it will be very easy to mix them up

- Porschia smallwood, 05/04/09 at 10:37 am

I am always the one who mispells words like these, so I wrote them down for reminders. :)

- Lindsey Kendrick, 06/30/09 at 8:49 am

i'm always misspelling words, even easy words. my friends laugh at me because of it.

- meghan correll, 09/25/09 at 10:22 am

I think that it is impossible for one to not get these words mixed up.

- Jaquan Daniels, 09/28/09 at 10:36 am

if you forget these words and they come out on error id's, most likely it is the correct answers

- Thomas, 10/09/09 at 6:33 am

This really helped!

- Boesfox, 04/25/11 at 9:36 am

Have a question or comment about this article? Leave me a message.