Sentence Placement Questions are common on both ACT English and SAT Writing & Language. Test takers frequently get these questions wrong. The main reason is that they don’t understand what, exactly, these questions are testing. How about you? Do you know what the precise criteria is for choosing one answer over another on ACT & SAT Placement Questions? Most test-takers have no idea. They just rely on their intuition. In other words, they wing it. Not a very reliable strategy. What’s worse, even those few students who do understand the target skill usually lack specific tactics for effectively applying that skill to quickly find the correct answer. In this post, I provide you with all the information you need to master Sentence Placement Questions on both the ACT and SAT.
How to Identify Sentence Placement Questions
Identifying Sentence Placement Questions is simple. This question type either proposes adding a new sentence to the passage or refers you to a sentence already in the passage. The question then asks where in the passage this sentence should be placed.
How to Solve Sentence Placement Questions
Focus on a given placement’s LOGIC.
When test takers get Sentence Placement Questions wrong, it’s usually because they’re focused on the wrong issues. In explaining the rationale for their choice, they say things like, “I just felt that the paragraph sounded more natural with the sentence in that position.” Or, “When I put the sentence in that position, the paragraph just seemed to flow better.” But notice that these are subjective opinions. (They’re also vague. For example, what exactly do people mean by “flow”? I’ve heard students use this word thousands of times, but they’re never able to clearly articulate what they mean!) On ACT English and SAT Writing & Language, it’s always best to base our answers not on personal instincts or impressions but rather on objective rules.
So what objective standard should we apply on Placement Questions? To find out, let’s take a closer look at the questions’ wording:
On the SAT, Placement Questions are almost always worded exactly as follows:
“To make this paragraph most logical, sentence [X] should be placed …”
On ACT English, Placement Questions are almost always worded like this:
“… If the writer were to add this sentence to the essay, it would most logically be placed at:”
Another wording common on the ACT is:
“For the sake of logic and cohesion, the best placement for Sentence [X] would be:”
Do you notice any similarities among those question stems? All of them expressly state the key criteria you should use to judge where the sentence should be placed. That key criteria is LOGIC.
This is extremely valuable information. As so often on ACT English and SAT W/L, wrong answers result when you you fail to focus on what the question itself tells you is important. Sentence Placement Questions literally tell you that the key issue is LOGIC. You should believe them!
Thus, the first rule for solving Sentence Placement Questions is to focus on the logical relationships formed (or not) by the given placements in the answer choices. To be assured of victory, you must analyze the various placements according to their logic and avoid becoming distracted by irrelevant criteria (e.g., style, tone, grammar, or the ubiquitous “flow”).
“Okay, great,” you say, “I get that the logic of the different placements is the key criteria. I get that I should focus on logic. The question is – HOW?”
Below are the tools of analysis that you should use to judge whether the placements in the answer choice are logical, or not. The order is important, because I list them in the order of most frequently useful to least frequently useful.
Sentence Placement Questions – Analytical “Tool Belt”
Analytical Tool #1 – Transitions
Transitions are words or phrases that establish logical relationships between two paragraphs, two sentences, or two clauses in one sentence. (On both the ACT and SAT, Placement Questions usually involve the relationship between two sentences, though the other two varieties do sometimes come up.) On the ACT and SAT, transitions tend to fall under five general logical categories: contrast, similarity, causation, emphasis, and time/sequence. Below are some examples:
- By the same token
- As a result
On Sentence Placement questions, transitions are the first place you should start. Here’s what to do:
First, ask yourself if there are there any transitions in the Placement Sentence. (“Placement Sentence” just means the sentence the question asks you to place.) If so, evaluate each answer choice according to the logic of the transition. For example, let’s say the Placement Sentence starts with “However.” That is a contrast word, which means that, for a given placement to be correct, the idea expressed in the rest of the sentence MUST contrast with the previous sentence. If it does, you may have found the correct answer. If it does not, you have definitely found one of the wrong answers!
Second – Even if there are no transitions in the Placement Sentence, you must still check for transitions in the Placement Points. (A “Placement Point” is just the location in the passage where an answer choice suggests putting the Placement Sentence – for example, “After Sentence Two” or “Before Sentence Five.”) Let’s say that you’re evaluating Answer Choice A, which says to put the Placement Sentence before Sentence Three. Does Sentence Three have a transition? If it does, that’s important! For example, if Sentence Three starts with the word “Therefore”, you must analyze whether putting the Placement Sentence before Sentence Three creates a cause and effect relationship.
Analytical Tool #2 – Pronouns
A pronoun is simply a word that stands for a noun. For example, consider the following sentences:
“Steve is tall. He plays basketball.”
The word “he” is a pronoun that stands for the noun “Steve.” Here’s another example:
“I want to buy this car. But it’s too expensive.”
Here, the word “it” is a pronoun that stands for the noun “car.”
(Grammar Note – the noun that a pronoun stands for is called the “antecedent.”)
On Sentence Placement Questions, Pronouns are the second thing you should look for.
First, ask yourself if there are any pronouns in the Placement Question. If so, evaluate each answer choice according to whether the pronoun has an appropriate antecedent in the previous sentence. For example, let’s say the Placement Sentence starts with “She.” In that case, for a given placement to be correct, the previous sentence MUST have a noun that “she” stands for. If it does, you may have found the correct answer. If it does not, you have definitely found one of the wrong answers!
Second – Even if there are no pronouns in the Placement Sentence, you must still check for pronouns in the Placement Points. Imagine you’re working on Answer Choice B, which says to put the Placement Sentence before Sentence Four. Does Sentence Four have a pronoun? If so, you must analyze whether your Placement Sentence contains a noun that could be the antecedent for the pronoun in Sentence Four.
On SAT and ACT Sentence Placement Questions, the first two analytical tools – transitions and pronouns – are the most commonly useful. In fact, once they start using these tactics, students are often surprised at how often they’re able to quickly and accurately solve Placement Questions. However, these two tools are not always helpful. Below, I introduce some other analytical tools you can try if you come up short on transitions and pronouns.
Analytical Tool #3: Paragraph Topic Sentence
According to the conventional wisdom, a well-crafted paragraph starts with a broad statement introducing the paragraph’s general topic. The paragraph then narrows, providing supporting details, explanation, elaboration, etc. When it comes to paragraphs, the SAT loves conventional wisdom, so check to see if your Placement Sentence is a topic sentence (which can be surprisingly easy to miss if you don’t consciously look for it).
Analytical Tool #4: Internal Transition Sentence
Paragraphs are supposed to have a singular focus (again, per conventional wisdom), so transition sentences normally mark a break between two different paragraphs. However, sometimes a paragraph with one main idea might have two different emphases. For example, a paragraph discussing a musician’s practice habits might differentiate between the musician’s morning routine and her afternoon practice routine. In such a case, you might find a transition sentence, internal to the paragraph, bridging the two emphases. Occasionally, this is the case on Sentence Placement Questions. (NOTE – this analytical tool applies more to SAT Writing & Language.)
Analytical Tool #5: Sequence
Sometimes, Placement Questions can be solved by a paragraph’s time sequence, or step-by-step procedure. While it may seem like such situations would be obvious, and thus solving the question would be easy, smart students miss these types of Placement Questions all the time. Again, it’s one of those things that’s surprisingly easy to overlook, unless you deliberately seek it out. So, if you’re stuck, do that!