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The following is August 13's SAT question of the day.

Part or all of the following sentence is bold typed; beneath the sentence are five ways of phrasing the bold typed material. Select the option that produces the best sentence. If you think the original phrasing produces a better sentence than any of the alternatives, select choice A.

A Raisin in the Sun won for its author Lorraine Hansberry the distinction of being the first African American to receive the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award.

(A)of being the first African American to receive

(B)to be the first African American receiving

(C)of the first African American to receive

(D)that she had been the first African American to receive

(E)that she was to be the first African American having received

A hint is given for this question

Note that the sentence describes a particular distinction won by Lorraine Hansberry.

And the answer is

Choice (A) is correct. It avoids the errors of the other options by using the idiomatic “distinction of being” to express what the play “won for its author Lorraine Hansberry.”

I think (D) is incorrect since it indicates that the winning the award happened before the publication of A Raisin in the Sun. Am I right? As for the other options, to me they seems all correct. Could someone tell me why they are not?

  • D has a tense issue. Past perfect is inappropriate. She was the first to receive. E also has tense issues. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Sep 3 '15 at 12:09
  • B is not ungrammatical, but "the distinction to be" is not how most native speakers would phrase it, which you could only know if you had read a lot of English writing. books.google.com/ngrams/… – Tᴚoɯɐuo Sep 3 '15 at 12:16
  • C doesn't work because it lacks a predicate. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Sep 3 '15 at 12:18
  • @TRomano I don't agree that B can be grammatical and have the intended meaning. The results from Ngram are all things like Putnam presupposes the distinction to be in place and workable. In that particular case, ro example, the distinction is the Subject of to be, the phrase to be is not some kind of Complement of the noun distinction. – Araucaria Sep 3 '15 at 15:30
  • You need to make a distinction between the two distinctions! :) – Araucaria Sep 3 '15 at 15:41
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B is wrong because "to be receiving" is a present tense and "won for its author" is something that has occurred in the past.

C is wrong because of ambiguity due to a risk that the interpretation could be possessive. To me, "the distinction of the first African American" is equivalent to "the first African American's distinction." "The distinction of being ..." cannot be confused like that, though.

D has a tense issue as @TRomano says. Had been implies there was, or could be someone else who could have later been another "first", which doesn't make sense.

E is wrong because was to be talks about an event that "will" happen (in the past) after another event (also in the past) - of course it's all in the past, but that's the idea. However, the sentence, when simiplified, says she X won Y a distinction - so this is a single event, not two events.

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The noun Distinction

The word distinction has two common meanings. The first means something like difference. Here's a definition from the Merriam Webster Dictionary:

noun dis·tinc·tion \di-ˈstiŋ(k)-shən\

: a difference that you can see, hear, smell, feel, etc. : a noticeable difference between things or people

When we use the word distinction like this, we often use it with a content clause as a Complement. This clause usually begins with the subordinator that:

  • Apes and monkeys look very similar with the distinction that apes don't have tails.

In the sentence above we could change the word distinction for the word difference and it would still mean the same thing.

A second meaning of the word distinction means something like honour. Here are three more definitions about this, again from Merriam Webster:

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a : the quality or state of being distinguished or worthy < a politician of some distinction >

b : special honor or recognition < took a law degree with distinction > < won many distinctions >

c : an accomplishment that sets one apart < the distinction of being the oldest to win the title >

When we use distinction with this type of meaning it doesn't take a content clause. If we want to show how the person is honoured or distinguished, we use a preposition phrase with the preposition of, usually with a non-finite -ing clause as shown in example (c):

  • He had the distinction of being the oldest to win the title.

The noun distinction when used with this meaning does not usually, if ever at all, take to-infinitive constructions as a Complement to explain the nature of the honour.

The Original Poster's question

The Original Poster's question uses distinction with the meaning of special honour. It does not mean difference here. Because of this, it cannot take a finite content clause with the word that. The word is being used with the meaning given in definition (5c) above. This noun cannot take to-infinitive as a Complement either.

For these reasons, the answer cannot be B, D, or E. Example C has no non-finite -ing clause. It would probably be interpreted as meaning the distinction which belonged to the first African American. This is not what the sentence should mean, though. For these reasons, the answer must therefore be A.

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