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SAT (Fall 2023)

Course: SAT (Fall 2023) > Unit 11

Lesson 3: Writing: Grammar

Writing: Modifier Placement — Video Lesson

David works through a Modifier Placement question on the SAT Writing and Language test. Created by David Rheinstrom.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] We are gonna tackle question 32 today from this passage about the abstract sculpture "Bird in Space" by the sculptor Constantine Brancusi. Let's read the sentence. After hearing a lineup of famous art critics testify to the aesthetic value and originality of non-representational art like "Bird in Space," the court's ruling was in favor of Brancusi. Okay, and we have this whole phrase here that's been underlined at the end of the sentence. Choice A is no change, so the court's ruling was in favor of Brancusi, and then a variety of rephrased versions of that. So B, the ruling of the court was in favor of Brancusi, C, the court ruled in favor of Brancusi, and D, Brancusi was the favorable receiver of the court's ruling. So all of these choices are trying to say the same thing, which is that the sculptor Brancusi won his court case. But they're all switched around in different ways, and it's our job here to choose the best one. What's the sentence telling us? Let's start by finding the subject and the main verb. Okay, after hearing a lineup of famous art critics testify to the aesthetic value and originality of non-representational art like "Bird in Space," blank. The subject and the verb of the sentence are gonna be in the choices. So after someone heard the testimony of these art critics, this court case was resolved, but who was that someone who did the hearing and then made the decision? The whole windup to this sentence, everything that happens before this comma, is describing the subject of this sentence. In other words, it's pointing to the noun that is doing the main verb. This is a question ultimately about modifier placement. Let me explain. So a modifier is any kind of word or phrase that describes something. That can be adjectives like cheerful, or adverbs like hopefully, or full phrases, like after hearing a lineup of art critics. The rule that's being tested by modifier placement questions on the SAT is that modifiers must appear directly next to the nouns they logically describe. You'll see one to two questions about modifier placement errors on test day. So what is a modifier placement error? Flashing white-blue lightning and ringing out with peals of thunder, the little rabbit sought shelter from the raging storm. You might look at that sentence and think, "I don't see anything grammatically wrong here." But it's a logically impossible sentence. The first noun to come after this comma is rabbit, so what we're actually saying in this sentence isn't that the raging storm was flashing white-blue lightning, we're saying that the little rabbit is flashing white-blue lightening and ringing out with peals of thunder. We got an impossible thunder bunny here. To fix this sentence, we can swap the second half around so that this introductory modifying phrase, flashing white-blue lightening et cetera, is instead describing the storm instead of the rabbit. So now all of this modifier is now connected to storm instead of rabbit, and that makes much more sense. We have some top tips for taking on questions like these. Top tip, find the target of the modifier. If you have a sentence that begins with a phrase like, despite having stayed up all night, or shining brilliantly in the sun, or three years older than her brother, the next thing should be the noun that the phrase is describing, the target. So despite having stayed up all night, I still made it to class on time. Shining brilliantly in the sun, the city beckoned. Three years older than her brother, Jackie towered over his friends. Top tip, focus on what you can change. In a modifier placement question, only part of a sentence will be underlined, so focus on that underlined part. Watch, struggling to adjust his bright yellow rain slicker, the fisherman's catch flopped on the deck as he steadied himself. Now, the target of the modifier is the fisherman who's struggling to adjust his rain slicker, but as written, the sentence is telling us it was the fisherman's catch that was struggling, not the fisherman. So this is talking about a fish wearing a raincoat, and that means we need to fix the target. Instead, we have struggling to adjust his bright yellow rain slicker, the fisherman steadied himself as his catch flopped on the deck. Let's go back to our question. Feel free to pause the video here to try it yourself. And now let's do it together. After hearing a lineup of famous art critics. Okay, who heard the lineup of art critics? That's the target of this modifier. Choice A, no change. This is saying that the court's ruling heard the lineup, and that doesn't make sense to me. A ruling is an opinion that a judge issues. It's not a person, and it's definitely not something with ears. In a way, this choice is as illogical as a thunder bunny or a fish in a raincoat. And choice B has the exact same problem as A, it just changes the court's ruling to the ruling of the court. These are interchangeable, and if you ever see two choices that are basically the same, cross them both out, they can't both be right. So they must both be wrong. Choice C, the court ruled in favor of Brancusi. This checks out. The court heard the testimony, and the court made a ruling. This is our answer. It's the only choice that fixes the modifier problem we identified. But let's check out choice D nonetheless. Brancusi was the favorable receiver of the court's ruling. This one's wordy and a bit awkward, and it also changes the meaning of the sentence. It was the favorable ruling that this whole passage is about, and this choice suggests that Brancusi himself is favorable, which doesn't make sense. So I'm gonna cross it out. Lots of students find that with practice, they recognizing specific common errors and question types, and this can save you a lot of time on test day. Instead of testing every choice and guessing, you can start hunting for the one choice that fixes the error. Here, once we realized we had to have the court be the noun the modifying phrase described, we were able to eliminate every choice except for C, our answer. Good luck out there. You've got this.