SAT Tips: Idioms

Today’s QOTD is a great example of one of the “grammar rules” that the SAT loves that is more like stuff to memorize than it is rules to apply. Since our job is to help you out, we’re going to explain the concept behind this question so you know what to do if you see a question like this on the test. One of the things that makes this question so tough is that it’s testing idioms.

Idioms are often misunderstood by the best writers and orators, so don’t feel bad if you A) don’t know what they are or B) don’t know how to spot them. Let’s hope by the end of this post you’ll know what an idiom is and how to spot one on the SAT, (if not make sure you ask us for clarification)! First let’s define what it is:


Idiom: a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words


It’s also important to distinguish a grammatical idiom from an idiomatic expression. The SAT tests grammatical idioms but not idiomatic expressions, so you’ll never see a question in which the right answer depends on you knowing what “raining cats and dogs” means.


No Seriously, what’s an idiom?

Even with that technical definition you might not really get it, so let me break it down a little further for you. An idiom is a phrasing created by pairing words, the words that must be paired to create the proper meaning are typically defined by history and tradition. For example, it’s correct to say “neither…nor” not “neither…or” why? Because. Just

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because that’s the rule. Some Queen, King, or grammar god way back in the days of yore decided that was the way to do it so that’s how it’s done. The way most of us have to learn idioms is by growing up around people who taught them to us as we learned to speak. Your mother hopefully told you a 100 times growing up that you say “plan…to” not “plan …on”. If you didn’t learn the proper idiom as you learned the language, your best bet now is to get a list of common idioms and start memorizing them.


How do you spot idioms on the SAT?

The SAT often tests idioms, in fact, they are probably in the

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top 7 grammar rules tested, so knowing how to spot and deal with them can boost your score. The first way to spot an idiom on the test is to look out for prepositions and “little words”. Idioms typically come in the form “[[word]]…[[preposition]] :

Example 1:

My friend Sam is not only handsome but also wise.
Example 2:

The lady on the subway spent the entire ride arguing with every other rider about the US economy.

The toughest part of idioms is that they are often hard to notice, especially since the SAT will often put words between the two parts of the idiom!. Whenever you think you spot an idiom on the test, be sure you find the word pair that make up the idiom. Keep in mind that these two parts are sometimes right next to each other, and sometimes seperated by other words. In order to determine if an idiom is correct or incorrect, you’ll need to examine the words the SAT pairs together.: “ran … to” is very different in meaning than “ran … for”.

So to do well, consider this:

1. Learn to spot the commonly tested idioms
2. Look out for changing prepositions (and other small words).


Some recently tested idioms include:

between x and y
drawing x from y
remedies for x

Check out the question above, apply what you’ve learned and good luck!

The Bell Curves Team

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