Tuesday, September 18, 2012

SAT Question: An Unfair Comparison?

Olivia was perplexed by yesterday's SAT Question of the Day:

Hi Snarky. I am studying for the SAT and I got yesterday's SAT Question wrong. I don't understand why the correct answer works and my choice doesn't. I chose D but the answer is C. Can you explain it?
Here's the SAT Question from September 17, 2012:

Part or all of the following sentence is underlined; beneath the sentence are five ways of phrasing the underlined material. Select the option that produces the best sentence. If you think the original phrasing produces a better sentence than any of the alternatives, select choice A. 

Modern discus throwers use much the same technique of ancient Greece.

Answer Choices:

  • (A) of ancient Greece
  • (B) of ancient Greeks
  • (C) as ancient Greeks did
  • (D) as they did in ancient Greece
  • (E) like ancient Greeks 

Hi Olivia. If it makes you feel any better, I would select Choice D, too. But let's walk through it and see where it takes us.

Modern discus throwers use much the same technique of ancient Greece.

This sentence makes a comparison between modern discus throwers and ancient Greek discus throwers. So right away, we can hone in on one word: same.

When making a comparison, we use the phrase same as, not 'same of' or 'same like'. That means we can eliminate choices A, B and E. Hooray!

Next, both sides of the comparison should be parallel—meaning that they follow the same form. On one side, 'Modern discus throwers use' follows the simple pattern of noun + verb. That means on the other side, we need as + noun + verb.

Choice C does that: as + ancient Greeks + did.
Choice D also does that: as + they + did. (The prepositional phrase 'in ancient Greece' does not come into play here.)

So far, it looks like both Choice C and Choice D are correct. But the SAT is about choosing the best answer, so let's take a look at the explanation given on the CollegeBoard site:
Choice (C) is correct. It avoids the error of the original by comparing what “Modern discus throwers” do to what “ancient Greeks did” (not to “ancient Greece,” a comparison that would not make logical sense).
That explanation is wrong. It implies that Choice D is incorrect, when it isn't. Choice D does not compare what 'modern discus throwers' do to 'Ancient Greece.' Choice D compares what 'modern discus throwers' do to what 'they did in Ancient Greece.'

My verdict: I think Olivia has unearthed an unfair question. Both Choice C and Choice D are correct.

Please, English teachers, feel free to chime in here with your opinions.

Update: As Patrick rightly points out in the comments, there is a problem with Choice D. The pronoun 'they' seems to refer back to 'modern discus throwers', otherwise known as the antecedent. Therefore, Choice D does not make sense and Choice C is better.

Grumble, grumble. I concede. But I still say the explanation on the CollegeBoard website is woeful and doesn't address the antecedent.


  1. The problem with answer D is that it may not be clear to the reader who "they" are.

    It's possible someone would misinterpret the sentence to mean: Modern discus throwers and the discus throwers in ancient Greek are literally the same people using the same techniques.

    Granted, that misinterpretation would require a person to either have no common sense, or believe in reincarnation. But, there are plenty of both types of people out there.

    1. Good point! As you say, the problem with Choice D is that 'they' seems to refer back to 'modern discus throwers', otherwise known as the antecedent. So I have to agree that Choice C is better.

      But I still say that the explanation given on the CollegeBoard site is dreadful.

    2. True. Their explanation is incomplete at best.

      But, after reading my comment again, it's clear I don't know much about grammar. (Not to mention spelling.)

      So I don't have much room to talk. :-)

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