24 Oct 2007

Another College Board Error

Submitted by Karl Hagen
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I haven't written more installments in my series lambasting the College Board recently, but the following may prompt me to continue sooner rather than later. (I have a lot more to say about useless explanations.) I have discovered what appears to be an error on an operational test question. In other words, this question counted towards the scores of all students who took this particular test.

The May 2007 SAT. Section 6, question 24 has the following question:

After the uprising of October 10, 1911, that has led to the establishment of a Chinese republic, many Chinese Americans decided to return to China in hopes of a bright future there. No error

Do you see the problem?

The intended answer is A (the first underlined segment), which I agree is problematic. The establishment occurred in the past, and there's no obvious connection to the present, so the simple past would be better. But what's up with that? It implies that we should read the relative clause as integrated.

One complicating factor here is the use of the commas. The way the sentence is written, commas must appear on both sides of the relative clause whether or not it's supplemental. It is standard to put commas around a year when writing dates in month-day-year order, and the end of the relative clause also marks the end of the opening modifier, which also requires a comma.

If we shift the date to day-month-year order we can confine ourselves to considering the punctuation and word choice of integrated vs. supplemental clauses without this distraction. (I'm also going to correct verb form.):

Integrated: After the uprising of 10 October 1911 that led to the establishment of a Chinese republic,...

Supplemental: After the uprising of 10 October 1911, which led to the establishment of a Chinese republic,...

In other words, if the relative clause is integrated, there is no comma and that is acceptable. If the relative clause is supplemental, there must be a comma, and that is ungrammatical. (Note that the grammatical myth that you can't use which in integrated relatives is not relevant here.)

The integrated version above simply doesn't make sense to me. Is the sentence asserting that there was more than one uprising on this date? If the relative clause was intended to be supplemental, the use of that is incorrect.

It is true that you can find the occasional integrated relative with a non-restrictive meaning (e.g., "the mother that I spent so much time caring for..."), but as far as I can tell, these always have no more specific determiner than "the" and no other specific modifier.

If we replace "the" with a genitive NP, for example, it becomes ungrammatical:

*Henry's mother that I spent so much time caring for...

And if you're one of those people who thinks that that should never be used in reference to people, note that whom doesn't work either. (Also note that you're wrong. See Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage: "That is definitely standard when used of persons.")

*Henry's mother whom I spent so much time caring for...

To fix this, we must convert it into a supplemental relative:

Henry's mother, whom I spent so much time caring for,...

Similarly, if a modifier that comes between the head noun and relative clause completely specifies a particular entity, it seems impossible to read the relative clause as integrated:

*The country of his birth that he left when he was five...

So while "the uprising that led to the establishment of a Chinese republic" would have been fine, adding the prepositional phrase means that the relative clause has to be restrictive supplemental, and therefore that which rather than that is required.

This mistake may have been as simple as forgetting to underline the word. If that has led had been underlined as a single unit, the question would be unexceptionable. But as written, the question is flawed. Since the instructions to this problem type assert that "the error, if there is one, is underlined and lettered," it seems reasonable to conclude that a student who saw this error would be confused as to what the test-makers intended.

I've written to the College Board about the problem. We'll see if anything results.

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