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PSAT Writing and Language

13 min readjanuary 12, 2021

brandonwu

Brandon W


PSAT ✏️

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What's poppin—thanks for checking out the Writing and Language guide! Let's get you prepped so you score the highest possible PSAT score you can when October arrives.

Resources:

What are the PSAT sections?

On the PSAT, you'll work through four sections of the test. These four sections are:
  1. Reading Test 📚
  2. Writing and Language Test 📝
  3. Math Test - Calculator 🧮
  4. Math Test - No Calculator ➗
After working through the hour-long reading test, you'll start thinking 🤔 like a writer while taking on the 35 minute writing and language section! In this guide, you'll learn about the different elements of this section, analyze strategies to pursue, and get some practice at the end.

Breaking Down Writing and Language

Writing and Language is the only section on the PSAT that gives you less than a minute per question, but there's no need to worry, because there's not a lot of reading you'll need to do. In 35 minutes, you'll take on 44 questions split among four passages (eleven questions per passage) ⏲️
Passages will cover a variety of topics, so you might even find a pasage that interests you. The possible categories and topics of writing include:
  • Arguments
  • Nonfiction narratives
  • Careers
  • History
  • Social Studies
  • Humanities
  • Science
https://firebasestorage.googleapis.com/v0/b/fiveable-92889.appspot.com/o/images%2F-aW9P2jgUu6Qp.png?alt=media&token=445dd2d3-1431-4a48-8c2a-91944f20d093

While you won't be using a red pen on the PSAT, answering questions on the Writing and Language test is just like editing a classmate's paper. Image from Pixabay.

Types of Questions

On this section, you'll have a passage on the left side of the page with questions on the right side. Unlike the reading section, you don't need to flip back and forth between passages and questions to revise and edit! 😌
You'll see five categories of questions on the PSAT Writing and Language section. Let's break down each of these sections.

Resources:

Command of Evidence

This is the core of the revision aspect of the Writing and Language section. When tested on command of evidence, you'll pick an answer choice that best improves a passage's communication of information and ideas. ⭐
For instance, you may answer questions that ask about the best way to enhance an argumentative claim or whether an added supporting detail is relevant.
Common questions in the command of evidence category include:
  • Which choice best reflects the information from the graph?
  • Which choice best completes the sentence and accurately represents the information in the table?
  • Which choice would set up the information that follows?
  • The writer is considering adding/deleting the underlined sentence . . . Should the sentence be kept or deleted?
Here's what that may look like on the PSAT:
https://firebasestorage.googleapis.com/v0/b/fiveable-92889.appspot.com/o/images%2F-vhtYmQ5Idf0n.png?alt=media&token=65ed9da0-802a-4379-8f8f-858328142b1e

This question exemplifies the command of evidence category. Courtesy of Khan Academy.

Words in Context

Questions that cover words in context want you to improve the word choice (or diction) of a specific piece of text. Here is where the rule "shorter is better" often applies—you want to pick the most concise answer that isn't repetitive.
You could also be asked to use word choice that is more precise or improves style/tone. Here are ways you will apply words in context on the PSAT Writing and Language section:
  • Finding a concise way of conveying an idea that does not change the meaning
  • Not changing a linguistic pattern, such as the use of repitition for emphasis
  • Using more formal language or informal language depending on the tone of the passage
  • Combining two sentences or editing sentences for a less choppy paragraph

Analysis in History/Social Studies and in Science

You'll encounter at least one history/social studies and/or science passage. In this category of questions, you'll make edits to a passage in these areas.
These questions may also include tables/graphs/charts, but you will not need to do any math when applying those graphics to the passage. Here's an example of a question in this category:
https://firebasestorage.googleapis.com/v0/b/fiveable-92889.appspot.com/o/images%2F-srmCjMHgSKBO.png?alt=media&token=db3e00df-5768-4c0b-986b-f6e0e7370a6a

Here's what a question about analysis in science looks like. Courtesy of Khan Academy.

Expression of Ideas

These questions are a catch-all for questions that don't really apply to any other section. Example questions in this category could discuss:
  • Impact of the passages' organization and possible revisions
  • Structural changes (like moving around paragraphs)
  • How well sentences & paragraphs work together/transition
Here's an example of a question in this category:
https://firebasestorage.googleapis.com/v0/b/fiveable-92889.appspot.com/o/images%2F-qY2U4ZGaA9xl.png?alt=media&token=2ea1b564-638f-4281-90f2-8123c366d648

Placement of sentences for organization is a core aspect of the expression of ideas category. Courtesy of Khan Academy.

Standard English Conventions

The standard English conventions section is fairly self-explanatory, and it covers the foundations of English: punctuation, usage, and sentence structure. You'll answer questions that ask you to change words, clauses, sentences, and punctuation, which include a variety of grammar topics:
  • Verb use
  • Parallel construction
  • Subject-verb agreement
  • Connecting sentences
  • Proper use of commas, colons, dashes, and semicolons
Here's an example of a standard English conventions question:
https://firebasestorage.googleapis.com/v0/b/fiveable-92889.appspot.com/o/images%2F-r3G3s9Ruxs4B.png?alt=media&token=1a28facf-3b4d-4c34-9bdf-b1fb2c4a4a4c

Knowing how to effectively use commas and dashes is crucial to standard English conventions and scoring high on writing and language. Courtesy of Khan Academy.

Review of Conventions

Here's a useful table that will help you remember some common PSAT grammar rules!
PSAT Grammar Review
TextHow/When to use it Examples
Subject-verb agreementMake sure your subjects & verbs are both singular/plural!John and his sisters are at school. Either Don or Laura is coming to the event.
Pronoun-antecedent agreementPronouns should match their antecedents (a word that a pronoun refers to). Remember that pronouns like everyone/somebody/nobody/either are singular—therefore, you should use "his or her" rather than their.Each of the workers eats lunch in his or her office. All of the jewelry has lost its shine.
Fragments vs complete sentencesFragments lack a subject/verb pair, whereas complete sentences have both!The answer to our prayers vs Your quick arrival was the answer to our prayers.
ParrallelismMake sure two parts of your sentences match—this means similar verb tenses and balanced articles (like a and the).The ballerina was praised not only for her agility but also for her strength.
Active voiceYour sentences should be as direct as possible—the subject should generally be placed at the front with the object at the end of the sentence.Divya wrote the letter to the President vs The letter to the President was written by Divya.
Semicolons & periodsSemicolons are basically substitutes for periods! When connecting two sentences, you can use either a semicolon or a period.The goalie's arm broke before halftime; our team lost the game.
CommasThe three most common uses of commas are before a conjunction to join two sentences, between a dependent & independent clause, and using two commas between non-essential words/phrases. Commas can also be used for items in a list, and they can separate two reversible adjectives describing a noun.1) Michelle slept in, and she woke up to the smell of pancakes. 2) After going to the storeChris went to get some food. 3) Janet, the first of two childrenfelt left out. 4) I bought three things: apples, oranges, and bananas. 5) Melanie ate some eleganttasty food.
ConjunctionsCommon conjunctions (also known as FANBOYS) include for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. These connect two sentences with a comma before them.I was fifteen minutes late to the wedding, yet the proceedings had not started.
ColonsColons are used either before a list of items or before a clarifying explanation.1) I grabbed three items off the shelf: cookies, chips, and candy. 2) There is only one thing you can do now: go home while you still can.
DashesThere are two types of dashes: en dashes (short) and em dashes (long). Dashes can be used to indicate non-essential statements in a sentence (similar to commas), or they can be used before a list/explanation (like a colon). Some writers also use dashes to create pauses in sentences.1) Shanghai—which is an ancient city—now has many new buildings. 2) Nairobi has many tourist attractions—national parks, museums, and wildlife tours.

Writing and Language: Advice

With around 47 seconds per question, here are some pointers so you succeed!
  1. Don't read the passage! You won't have time to answer questions if you're trying to read for details. This isn't the reading section—make sure to just read context around questions.
  2. Annotate the text. Even though test-takers do most of their annotating on reading and math, annotating on this section allows you to figure out the answer to a question before you even look at the answer choices.
  3. Process of elimination is key. Oftentimes, picking the best answer means eliminating three answers that are worse. Make sure to cross out answer choices that you know won't work.
  4. Remember to substitute. For multiple writing & language questions, substituting sentences, words, or phrases will help you choose, in context, the correct answer.
  5. https://firebasestorage.googleapis.com/v0/b/fiveable-92889.appspot.com/o/images%2F-EalsYChIkbWt.png?alt=media&token=868a24cb-3fb0-4e78-9664-4288c8a5c7e3

    Remember to bubble as you go as well; a nightmare scenario is finishing the test but not being able to bubble in time! Image from Unsplash.

Practice Passage & Questions

Want some quick practice? Here's an 11 question practice PSAT section that you should try to complete in about 9 minutes (in accordance with real timing). Note that this mostly tests your knowledge of standard English conventions! Test comes courtesy of CrackSAT.
More and more of our lives are mechanized, and at some point, we have to start wondering, what's the limit of that mechanization? Many factory workers in the 19th century thought their jobs were safe but we know (1) now that they were wrong. Many people in today's world believe there jobs (2) are safe, but how safe are those jobs really?
Studies abound that ask whether man or machine is better at particular tasks, and the results are not always so obvious. Sure, a machine is obviously better at say, welding (3) huge pieces of steel together, but what would you say if someone told you people are more likely to open up to a machine than to a psychologist? Or that a machine could write a quicker, more efficient news story than an experienced reporter could?
These questions may seem overly pessimistic (or overly optimistic depending on your point of view); however, (4) some recent studies have been truly remarkable. Take Ellie, a computer program used primarily to diagnose patients with depression, PTSD and other mood disorders. (5) Many patients found it easier to talk to "Ellie" than to a real person: she (6) didn't react in some of those seemingly judgmental ways that a person would, and her voice never broke on top of that (7) she could help psychologists to diagnose mental illnesses better than human observation could. She could detect facial movements or voice tones that a person might have not heard or ignored.
Whether Ellie is the way of the future is yet to be determined. We can't know right now, but there is no question that she raises some interesting questions, not only about the work of psychologists, (8) but also about all of what we think are definitively human activities.
On the other side of the discussion, however, there's some evidence that humans may have the upper hand. In some of the more basic tasks those learned before the age of about 10 humans (9) have a huge upper hand. Computers can do the complex thinking, but one thing with which they have a lot of trouble is, paradoxically, simplicity. Sure, a computer can tell your washer's and dryer's what (10) a perfect washing and drying cycle is, but can it fold your laundry? Your GPS can tell you the fastest route to the next state, but can it tell you the prettiest way to go or the best restaurants along the way? Not without humans!
While the battle of man against machine rages on. The (11) questions will persist. No matter who wins, though, humans will almost assuredly find ways to adapt: that's something we've been doing for thousands of years, which is something that no computer can say.
1) A. NO CHANGE
B. were safe, but we know
C. were safe; but we know
D. were safe. But we know
2) A. NO CHANGE
B. in todays world believe their jobs
C. in todays world believe they're jobs
D. in today's world believe their jobs
3) A. NO CHANGE
B. better at, say welding
C. better at, say, welding
D. better at say welding
4) A. NO CHANGE
B. your point of view), however,
C. you're point of view), however,
D. you're point of view); however,
5) A. NO CHANGE
B. depression, PTSD, and other
C. depression, PTSD, and, other
D. depression, PTSD, and other,
6) A. NO CHANGE
B. to a real person, she
C. to a real person; but she
D. to a real person she
7) A. NO CHANGE
B. never broke, on top of that,
C. never broke. On top of that,
D. never broke; on top, of that,
8) A. NO CHANGE
B. psychologists work
C. the work of psychologists
D. the work of psychologist's
9) A. NO CHANGE
B. tasks those learned before the age of about 10, humans
C. tasks, those learned before the age of about 10 humans
D. tasks, those learned before the age of about 10, humans
10) A. NO CHANGE
B. can tell your washer and dryer what
C. can tell you're washers and dryers
D. can tell you're washer and dryer
11) A. NO CHANGE
B. on; the
C. on—the
D. on, the

Answers & Explanations

  • 1. B — You'll want to use a comma to connect these two sentences in the presence of the conjunction 'but'. Answer choice A is a run-on, so it is incorrect. Answer choice C is incorrect because semicolons can connect two sentences, but not those with conjunctions. Answer choice D is incorrect, as you can't start a sentence with a conjunction.
  • 2. D — This question tests your knowledge of possessive nouns/apostrophes and there vs their vs they're. In this sentence, only answer choice D correctly has "today's" and "their." Answer choice A is wrong because it states "there jobs," when 'their' is the correct possessive noun. Neither answer choice B nor answer choice C has an apostrophe for todays, which makes both wrong.
  • 3. C — The word "say" can be deemed a non-essential phrase; therefore, it should be accompanied by a comma before and after. Answer choice A is incorrect, as the use of one comma before "welding" makes it seem like the clause before the comma is a dependent clause when it isn't. Answer choice B creates a fragment prior to the comma, and answer choice D lacks the clarity that C has with two commas.
  • 4. A — This question tests two common rules that some students often forget! Only answer choice A has both a semicolon before however and "your" as the possessive noun. Since an independent clause (full sentence) follows the word "however," a semicolon should come before however. Therefore, answer choice B and C are wrong. Answer choice D incorrectly uses you're (you are) instead of your.
  • 5. B — On the SAT, commas in lists should be placed between each item in addition to being placed before the conjunction and (also known as the Oxford comma). Thus, answer choice B correctly places commas after "depression," "PTSD," and the word "and." Answer choice A lacks the Oxford comma, answer choice C incorrectly places a comma after "and," and answer choice D places an unnecessary comma after the word "other."
  • 6. A — The use of a colon as an explanation is correct, which is why no change is acceptable. Answer choice B creates a run-on with a comma separating two independent clauses (it should be a semicolon instead). Answer choice C is incorrect as it has a semicolon followed by a conjunction (it should be a comma instead), and answer choice D creates a run on.
  • 7. C — Having the words "on top of that" to start a new sentence creates the clearest transition, which makes C the best answer. This question exemplifies process of elimination, as answer choices A and B create a run on and answer choice D has an unnecessary comma after the word "top."
  • 8. C — Answer choice C correctly deletes the apostrophe present in answer choice A and D, as the word "of" basically serves as an indication that the work is possessed by the psychologists. Answer choice B lacks an apostrophe (it should be psychologists').
  • 9. D — The clause 'those learned before the age of about 10' serves as a non-essential phrase and therefore needs a comma before and after. Answer choice A leads to a run-on with no commas. Answer choice B creates an awkward dependent clause with the word "those," and answer choice C has an awkward independent clause with the word "those." Therefore, D has the clearest and most precise answer.
  • 10. B — Answer choice B has the correct use of "your" and the lack of possessive nouns. Answer choice A is incorrect as washer/dryer have unnecessary apostrophes. Answer choice C and D both use "you're" (you are) instead of your.
  • 11. D — Since the clause before question 11 starts with "while," it is a dependent clause and needs a comma prior to the independent clause, making answer choice D the best answer. Answer choice A is incorrect as the first sentence is a fragment. Answers B and C are wrong as you cannot use a semicolon or an en dash to connect a dependent and independent clause.

Practice Resources

If you need help with PSAT Writing and Language, here are some resources and PSAT practice tests you can use to score high on test day:
  • Khan Academy—While preparation is more geared towards the SAT on Khan Academy, the PSAT and SAT have lots of overlapping content. In addition, you'll get valuable practice for the SAT, which you may need to take for college admissions.
  • Crack SAT—CrackSAT offers links to previously released PSAT and SAT tests that you can take for practice.
  • Critical Reader—The Critical Reader offers great example sentences and further explains different grammar rules crucial for the PSAT Writing and Language section.

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