For the past couple of weeks, we’ve been learning the 4-step SC Process. (If you haven’t read that two-part article yet, go do so now!) Also, grab your copy of The Official Guide 13th Edition (OG13); you’re going to need it for the exercises in this article.
People often ask what they should check “first” in SC, or in what order they should check various potential grammar problems. It would take too long to check for a laundry list of error types every time, though, so what to do? You take a First Glance: a 2-3 second glance at the screen with the goal of picking up a clue or two about this problem before you even start reading it.
Open up your OG13 to the SC section right now—any page will do—and find a really long underline. Now find a really short one.
How would you react to each of these? Each one has its own hints. Think about this before you keep reading.
A really long underline increases the chances that “global” issues will be tested. These issues include Structure, Meaning, Modifiers, and Parallelism—it’s easier to test all of these issues when the underline contains a majority of the sentence.
A really short underline (around 5-6 words or fewer) should trigger a change in strategy. Instead of reading the original sentence first, compare the answers to see what the differences are. This won’t take long because there aren’t many words to compare! Those differences can give you ideas as to what the sentence is testing.
Either way, you’ve now got some ideas about what might be happening in the sentence before you even read it—and that is the goal of the First Glance.
Read a Couple of Words
Next, we’re going to do a drill. Flip to page 672 (print edition) of OG13 but don’t read anything yet. Also, open up a notebook or a file on your computer to take notes. (Note: I’m starting us on the first page of SC problems because I want to increase the chances that you’ve already done some of these problems in the past. It’s okay if you haven’t done them all yet. You can also switch to a different page if you want, but I’m going to discuss some of these problems below, FYI.)
Start with the first problem on the page. Give yourself a maximum of 5 seconds to glance at that problem. Note the length of the underline. Read the word right before the underline and the first word of the underline, but that’s it! Don’t read the rest of the sentence. Also go and look at the first word of each answer choice. As you do this, takes notes on what you see.
For the next step, you can take all the time you want (but still do not go back and read the full sentence / problem). Ask yourself whether any of that provides any clues.
- Remember what we said about short vs. long underlines above.
- Was the last non-underlined word any kind of maker that you’ve seen before (such as the word and)? What about the first underlined word?
- Do the differences among the first word in the answer choices provide any clues about what might be tested?
Note that you’re not actually going to be able to figure out an answer or even eliminate one from this exercise. The goal is to develop ideas about what might be happening in the sentence before you read it. If I hand a problem to you and say, “Think about Modifiers while you do this one,” your job just got easier.
Finally, review the problem to see how good your First Glance was. For now, the problem should be one you did a few days to a few weeks ago—then you can review it quickly to remind yourself of what was tested and see whether your First Glance was reasonably accurate.
Don’t forget to play the “hindsight” game: if you review the full problem and think, “Hey, this one was testing Modifiers via the first word of the underline but I didn’t pick up on that,” perform the First Glance again. This time, ask yourself how the differences could or should signal Modifiers.
Let’s look at some examples to see how this works. The very first problem (p. 672, OG13) is a tough one. There are solid clues in the First Glance, but you have to have a lot of experience with the method to notice them. I’m going to defer this one for now (but we’ll discuss later, don’t worry).
What about #2? What’s the last word before the underline starts?
It’s not a word at all; it’s a semi-colon! The underline starts immediately after, so the first thing you should think is, “Okay, I’ll be checking that part to make sure it’s a complete sentence in all of the answer choices.”
The original sentence also starts with the word if, but the other answers change substantially, including the higher and when. Something starting with if should have an if-then meaning (even if the word then isn’t written explicitly). Something starting with the higher should be making some kind of comparison: the higher I jump, the farther I fall. The more I study, the more I learn. The varied starting points here tell me that I need to examine the structure and meaning of this portion of the sentence—what is it that they’re actually trying to convey?
What do you think about #3? The underline starts with have. That’s a verb. What could they be testing? Possibly Subject-Verb Agreement, possibly Verb Tense. Glance down that first word of the answers. Sure enough, some answers are singular vs. plural. Others do change the verb tense from present perfect to past to past perfect. Excellent! When I read this sentence, I’ll be looking for the subject and also thinking about what timeframe should be conveyed.
All right, let’s go back to that first problem. This one is harder to see; you need more sophisticated First Glance skills in order to pick up on some of the clues.
First, the sentence and underline are long, so suspect Structure, Meaning, Modifiers, or Parallelism. (This will be the case 80% or more of the time with long sentences and underlines.)
Next, the first two words you’ll read are Swiss psychologists. You’ll also train yourself, over time, to add punctuation marks into your glance. The sentence contains a comma a couple of words before the underline starts, so the sentence is looking like it might start with an opening modifier, then a comma, and then the subject of the sentence, Swiss psychologists. (But we don’t know for sure yet!)
A glance down the first word of the answers reveals something unusual: the first word is the same in all 5 answers. There is one small difference though (very small!): two of the answers have a comma after the word psychologists.
So what? Well, something’s changing with the structure. You don’t know what, yet, but something is definitely changing. This is a good time, then, to read the second word of the answers. Does that give you any ideas?
Answers (A) and (B) say psychologists, declaring. That’s a classic modifier set up: comma + declaring must be introducing a modifier.
Answers (C), (D), and (E), by contrast, say psychologists declared. That’s just a straight subject-verb pairing.
That’s fascinating! Why? Because in answers (A) and (B) the subject-verb core of the sentence is NOT psychologists declared. But every sentence has to have a core subject and verb, so what is it in those two answers? I’ll be looking for that when I read the original sentence.
When to Compare Answers First
Quick! Start scanning through the OG, starting on page 672, and find the first problem with such a short underline that you’d definitely want to look at the answers before you read the original sentence.
Some people might pick #3 or #5. Those ones are on the shorter side, but it’s still a judgment call—some will want to read the answers first here and some won’t.
Question #9, though, is a definite slam dunk. It’s so short that you can see at a glance that there are only a couple of differences in the answers. What are they?
(1) less than vs. fewer than
(2) those of / that of vs. (nothing)
(3) 1978 harvest vs. 1978 vs. India’s 1978 harvest
You can’t know which versions are correct but you know now that you should be thinking about whether a pronoun is needed (issue #2) or whether the comparison involves countable or non-countable things (issue #1). Both of those items items point to a Comparison in the sentence (what are we comparing and how are we comparing it?), so you’ll want to find and focus on that comparison when you read the original sentence.
Keep trying the above exercises. If you’re pretty far into your study already, learn how to get better at the First Glance by using problems you’ve already studied in the past. Then you can test your skills on new problems.
If you’re still pretty early in your study and don’t have a lot of “already done” problems, then you’re also still likely concentrating on learning one overall issue at a time (for example, Parallelism or Pronouns). As you do each lesson and try some practice problems, keep the First Glance in mind and, after you’ve done your homework problems, go back and ask yourself whether you could have gotten more out of your First Glance.
As you continue to analyze your work and think about what a First Glance can reasonably show you, you’ll start to build more sophisticated skills. You’ll discover that, most of the time, you can pick up some clues that will help give you a solid direction when you start to read the original sentence.
Good luck and happy studying!