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Noun-Of-Noun: Misleading Phrases on the SAT Writing & Literature and ACT English section

Today we'll discuss a misleading phrase type commonly used on the SAT / ACT, and a source of confusion for students: noun-of-noun phrases.


Noun-of-noun phrases are exactly as they sound: a noun which serves as the subject/object, followed by the word 'of', followed by a noun which serves as a descriptor. Below are some examples of noun-of-noun phrases:


  1. 'quantities of milk'

  2. 'stages of construction'

  3. 'examples of difficulty'

  4. 'one of the animals'



The difficulty with these phrases is that the true subject or object of the phrase is confusing. For example, take the sentence:


'A pile of dust rose from the floor.'


What's the subject of this sentence? 'Pile' or 'dust'?


The answer is 'pile'. The word that comes after OF only serves to describe the subject. A pile is rising from the floor. 'Dust' simply details what this pile is made of.


Now let's formulate a general rule:


In noun-of-noun phrases, the FIRST noun is the subject/object. The second noun is just a descriptor.


Note that the first noun of noun-of-noun phrases can either be a subject ("One of the girls is here."), or an object ("I see one of the girls.") For the question type we're concerned with today, only subjects are of concern. So for purposes of clarity, from here on in within this article, we'll refer to the first noun of noun-of-noun phrases as the subject.


Returning to our earlier examples, we can now identify the subject of each phrase:

  1. 'huge quantities of milk': the subject is 'quantities'. 'Milk' is a descriptor.

  2. 'stages of construction': the subject is 'stages.' 'Construction' is a descriptor.

  3. 'examples of difficulty': the subject is 'examples.' 'Difficulty' is a descriptor.

  4. 'one of the animals': the subject is 'one.' 'Animals' is a descriptor.



So: how does the SAT / ACT use this to trick you?

Note that in the above four examples, the plurality of the subject noun and the plurality of the descriptor noun are different. For example, in the phrase #1, 'quantities' is plural, but 'milk' is singular. In phrase #4, 'one' is singular, but 'animals' is plural.


On the SAT/ACT, noun-of-noun phrases are paired with a verb that is fitting for the descriptor noun, rather than the subject noun. Here's an example:


'Sheets of ice, lying on the tundra, drips to the river.'


Here, 'sheets' is the subject, not ice. The correct verb should be 'drip.'



Another example:

'The group of dogs, which he hadn't seen before, run to the barn.'


The subject is 'group', and the verb should be 'run', not 'runs.'


One last example:


'In the middle of the night, the bag of apples, bright and red, fall to the ground and roll to the door.'


The subject is 'bag', and the verbs should be 'falls' and 'rolls.'


Note that in all the examples given here, there's a clauses between the noun-of-noun and the verb that goes with it. The last sentence is especially long and also has a clause before the noun-of-noun. Overcomplicated sentences, and clauses between noun-of-noun phrases and their appropriate verbs, serve to distract you from the correct grammar.


Many of my students can correctly answer when I ask, for example, what the subject of "bag of apples" is. They can also confidently say that the correct phrase would be "The bag of apples falls", and not "The bag of apples fall", since 'bag' is the subject, and it is singular.



Nevertheless, within the context of a convoluted sentence, such distinctions often become blurred, and "One of the animals are", read in a hurried fashion, can often come to seem perfectly correct. I've noticed that the majority of my students - regardless of the level of their English skills - slip on these questions, at least the first time they come across them in their lessons with me.


So keep an eye out for this question type. The constructors of the Writing & Literature section of the SAT, or alternatively, of the English section of the ACT, love asking questions about this phrase. It'll possibly pop up in at least one question on your exam.


For more tips and methods, or to get help personally tailored to your needs, consider working with me. I've helped people from all over the world get into their dream school. In coaching you, I adopt my methods specifically to your personality, schedule, and learning style. For this reason, studying privately with a skilled coach is the best way to increase your test score.


Happy learning! Tova