Common SAT Idioms Students Need To Know

You may have come across idiom questions on the SAT Writing and Language section of the exam and wonder how to answer these problems correctly. If this sounds like you and you are prepared to master idioms on the SAT now, read on!

In today's blog article, we will present the foundational details about idioms, the common idioms in SAT, and strategies on how to approach them effectively. 

Mastering SAT idioms to boost your scores

What is an idiom?

An idiom is "an expression in the usage of a language that is peculiar to itself either in having a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of its elements (such as up in the air for "undecided") or in its grammatically atypical use of words (such as give way)."

Idioms do not follow common English rules. Each idiom, therefore, is special in its own way. To make things simpler, most students like to think of idioms as expressions that have metaphorical meanings besides their exact meanings.


  • "Cross your fingers" - for good luck

  • "I'm all ears" - you have my full attention

  • "It cost an arm and a leg" - it was expensive

The SAT will not be testing you on these conversational phrases. Instead, they will assess your understanding of two other types of idioms.

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How does the SAT test idioms on their Writing and Language section?

The College Board will include questions for two types of idioms: prepositional idioms and idioms with gerunds or infinitives.

What is a prepositional idiom?

In order to answer prepositional idioms correctly, you will need to know which prepositions to use alongside a given word within the context of a sentence.

There is no regulation or rule that you should follow in order to correctly determine which preposition to use.

For example:

  • Say you are "interested in" something, not "interested at" something

  • Say you are "focused on" something, not "focused at" something

In most cases, you should be accustomed to expressions or count on what you think "sounds right."

For example,

  • I am looking after my keys. Has anyone found them?

Sounds odd right? There is no particular grammar rule being broken, but "after" illustrates a mistake in idioms. The correct answer should be:

  • I am looking for my keys. Has anyone found them?

What is an idiom with gerunds or infinitives?

This second type of idiom focuses on verbs.

Gerunds are verbs that can be utilized as nouns and end with "ing." Some examples will be telling, swimming, and dancing.

On the other hand, infinitives are verbs used as nouns as well but are built by using the term "to" alongside a verb. Examples would be to tell, to swim, and to dance.

When faced with an idiom with gerunds or infinitives, you will need to determine which preposition to use and decide between a gerund or infinitive. In some cases, it may be acceptable to use either of the two.

For example,

  • I prefer getting up early in the morning

  • I prefer to get up early in the morning

Both sentences would be considered correct.

This is what an idiom mistake would look like:

  • The manager normally tends being worried on Mondays

The proper idiom usage would be,

  • The manager normally tends to be worried on Mondays

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How can you identify idiom errors and correctly answer them?

The challenging part of idiom questions is that other grammatical questions on the SAT test obey special rules or patterns that can be used in all sentences. Idiom questions will assess your understanding and knowledge of idiomatic expressions and phrases.

It is not realistic to memorize a whole list of idioms; for ESL (English as a Second Language) students who have not been exposed to figures of speeches, remembering expressions will be even more difficult without a rule to guide them.

Despite this obstacle, idioms can be simple to solve because they simply depend on what ultimately "sounds right." As long as you are familiar with the usual idioms that appear on the SAT test, you will be able to recognize an error when you see one.

Things to remember for idioms with gerunds:

  • Although a gerund is a verb with an "-ing" ending, it does not behave as a main verb of the sentence and typically operates as the subject or object of a sentence

  • They do not usually require commas

  • Even though a gerund expression can work as the subject of a sentence, you cannot add an "-ing" to a verb in order to make it a noun

Things to remember for idioms with infinitives:

  • Similar to gerunds, infinitives and infinitive expressions are verbs that operate as nouns within a sentence

  • Infinitives are built of "to" plus the verb

  • They can either be the subject, object, or complement in a sentence

  • You would use a comma with infinitive phrases if it is being employed as an adverbial phrase presenting the main clause

Things to remember overall:

  • If you are given context for your idiom, try to comprehend the background information in order to grasp the idiom

  • Start collecting idioms in a journal or diary. If you hear or read one, write it down so you can look it up in the dictionary.

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The list of common idioms on the SAT

There are thousands of idioms in the English language, but it would not be practical to memorize them if they do not show up on your SAT test.

The SAT college entrance exam will most likely include the prepositional idioms or idioms with gerunds or infinitives. Therefore, the following list includes the common idioms for these two types.

It is important that you gradually become familiar with this list, but remember that it is not realistic to memorize them.

On the College Board's Official SAT Practice Tests

  • as a means of 

  • serve as

  • wait for

  • in order to be

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