SAT & ACT Strategies Series: Must-Know English Punctuation Rules
This is the first in a series of posts that will cover the most useful (and sometimes least known) college entrance exam test-taking strategies and subject matter. Stay tuned for weekly posts full of tips & tricks for each SAT & ACT section: reading comprehension, writing & language, mathematics, science, & the (not-so-dreaded-anymore) essay.
After reading this article you will be able to...
demonstrate understanding of the English punctuation marks necessary for the SAT & ACT
combine sentences in well-informed & stylistically-rich ways
share punctuation memes to help spread your new knowledge
Why didn't we learn this stuff in school?
Students & parents alike often cringe at the topic of English punctuation. Students are frustrated because they simply haven't been taught how & when to properly use less-common punctuation marks like semicolons (;), colons (:), and em-dashes (—). Parents often feel worried for the same reasons — with the added pressure of trying to explain what they don't fully understand.
Strangely, few people are formally taught the rules of punctuation in their grade-school English classes. Some stellar teachers out there make a point to teach these essential tools for expression, but more often it seems like students are expected to just “pick up” on the dozen or so rules that govern when to use a comma. That doesn’t really happen unless a student is both a particularly prolific reader and an avid observer of style.
Adding to the challenge, country-dependent rules of style, like those involving quotation marks, simply require prior knowledge, while punctuation on the Internet follows different, often frequently-changing rules, that are different from those expected on the SAT & ACT exams.
Which punctuation marks are tested on the SAT & ACT?
Punctuation is one of three main Writing & Language sub-areas covered by both the SAT & ACT (the other two are grammar & rhetoric style, which I’ll cover in another post). Students must know advanced functions of specific punctuation marks: periods, commas, colons, semicolons, dashes, quotation marks, parentheses, question marks, and apostrophes will all make at least one appearance per section.
Let’s start with the colon. Good colon use doesn’t appear forced.
A colon is often used to start a list, even if it’s only one item long.
I ate just one thing: a bag of 40 malted milk balls.
“Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” — Arthur C. Clarke
A colon follows a main independent clause* to expand upon or clarify its subject matter by adding either a dependent clause or another independent clause.
His team included his buddies from college: Jason, Matt, & Hassan.
“We must all suffer from one of two pains: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret.” — Jim Rohn
*An independent clause is simply a complete sentence, meaning it has at least a subject and a predicate (description of the subject that is begun by a verb). Fun fact: the shortest English sentence is “I am.”
A colon can express a time or ratio.
The proportion of flour to sugar should be 3:1.
Class starts at 11:30 AM sharp.
A colon can separate a title from a subtitle.
Star Wars: A New Hope
A colon can introduce dialogue or follow a letter’s salutation.
Yoda: Do* or do not — there is no try.
*Capitalize the first word after a colon when it is a proper noun or when it starts a complete sentence.
To Whom It May Concern:
A colon does not come right after a verb.
Their team will play: Joey, John, & Jerry. incorrect & awkward
A colon is not used with the words “including” or “such as” or “like” or “the following/as follows” — because they duplicate the meaning of the colon, so having both would be redundant.
The colors of the painting are as follows: red, orange, & yellow. incorrect & wordy
A semicolon functions as a soft period. It looks like both a period and comma and acts like both, too. A semicolon separates two independent clauses (like a period). A semicolon also creates a shorter visual pause between related complete thoughts (like a comma) by not capitalizing the first word of the second sentence (unless it meets other capitalization criteria).
Shrek is an ogre; Donkey isn’t.
“Prejudices are rarely overcome by argument; not being founded in reason, they cannot be destroyed by logic.” — Tryon Edwards
A semicolon can separate list items when they already contain commas.
He’s lived in three cities: Destin, FL; Roanoke, VA; and Portland, OR.
“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
An Oxford comma comes before the “and” in a list (of 3+ items) and prevents confusion. While the Oxford comma is considered optional in some parts of the grammar world, the SAT & ACT both expect its use.
They saw elephants, zebras, and giraffes.
“A satisfied life is better than a successful life because our success is measured by others, but our satisfaction is measured by our own soul, mind, and heart.” — Vishnu Bharath
A comma can separate two complete sentences if you pair it with a FANBOYS (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, & so) coordinating conjunction. This combo avoids the dreaded comma splice error.
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” — Plato
“Every man die, but not every man truly lives.” — William Wallace
A comma is used to add a dependent clause.
He was just going to have one more potato chip, just one more.
“Some cause happiness wherever they go, others whenever they go.” — Oscar Wilde
A comma can be placed between two coordinate adjectives where putting “and” would be appropriate. A good way to know if you're dealing with coordinate adjectives is to reverse their order. If they carry the same weight and modify the noun in an equal way when reversed, then you have a pair of coordinate adjectives.
It was a bright, beautiful afternoon.
“When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.” — Kurt Vonnegut
A comma is used before direct address & after interjections.
We’re going to learn how to cut and paste, kids! (Note: without the comma, this sentence takes a dark turn. )
A comma is used to denote proper format when writing dates, cities/states, & numbers larger than 999.
She was born on September 18th, 1959 in Austin, Texas.
A comma always follows the abbreviations e.g. and i.e.
I like using Latin abbreviations to give examples of my favorite foods (e.g., bacon).
A comma is used after conditional clauses & introductory phrases or a conjunctive adverb at the beginning of a sentence.
“If you choose not to find joy in the snow, you will have less joy in your life but the same amount of snow.” — Anonymous
“While one person hesitates because he feels inferior, the other is busy making mistakes and becoming superior.” — Henry C. Link
Here’s a sample list of conjunctive adverbs and adverbial phrases: accordingly, however, also, moreover, consequently, on the other hand, for example, otherwise, for instance, similarly, furthermore, therefore, hence, thus.
On the one hand, my teacher will be happy if I turn the essay in on time. On the other hand, it's only halfway done.
Please note that some of these words can also function as coordinating conjunctions (FANBOYS) and do not require a comma following them when used to separate complete clauses.
A pair of commas that surrounds extra information (the way that dash pairs and parentheses do) is called an appositive comma pair. As with double dashes & parentheses, what's between appositive commas can be removed from the sentence without affecting its grammatical correctness or overall meaning.
He looks, you know, like a man.
This quote from T.S. Eliot's ‘Four Quartets’ uses a pair of double dashes and appositive commas:
“So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years — twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres — trying to learn to use words, and every attempt is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure.”
A single dash functions like a colon to add on an independent or dependent clause. It signals an abrupt interruption and is often a purposeful stylistic choice to set information apart visually for emphasis.
I ate all of your cookies — nah, just kidding!
“Anybody might be an accuser — a personal enemy, an infamous person, a child, parent, brother, or sister.” — John Wilson
A pair of dashes functions like a pair of appositive commas or parentheses. What's between them can be removed from the sentence & it will still be grammatically correct.
His friend — the one who moved away — writes him letters every so often.
“As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world — that is the myth of the atomic age — as in being able to remake ourselves.” — Mahatma Gandhi
Parentheses are used to add related but unnecessary information, clarify a writer’s meaning, or denote a citation. See also: dash pairs and/or appositive commas — which pair to use depends on author's style choice, but typically parentheses look the most appropriate of the three directly before a period, for example.
An apostrophe is used to denote possession for singular and plural nouns.
For singular nouns & acronyms ending in “s” or any other letter, add an apostrophe + s
James’s* love, class’s syllabus, CBS’s fall line-up
*While there is a stylistic grey area in the grammar world about whether James’s or James’ is correct, the SAT & ACT are clear: singular nouns ending in “s” are made plural by adding an apostrophe + s
dog’s toy, match’s flame, FDA’s ban
For plural nouns ending in “s” = add only an apostrophe
teachers’ bathroom or students’ desks.
For plural nouns not ending in “s” , add apostrophe + s
men’s clothing or people’s court
Tip: possessive pronouns (mine, yours, hers, his, its, ours, & theirs) & adjectives (my, your, her, his, its, our, their) don’t require an apostrophe.
An apostrophe can also be used to denote contraction and take the place of letter(s) in the contracted words.
When do not becomes don’t, the space between the two words is eliminated and the apostrophe replaces the o in not.
Double contractions (like I’d’ve for “I would have” or couldn’t’ve for “could not have”) are rare on the SAT & ACT but common in everyday conversation. See the BONUS list below for the even crazier triple contractions found in southern US vernacular.
An apostrophe is not used to pluralize singular nouns. Apostrophes can only used to pluralize numeric digits & single letters for clarity purposes.
She made sure to cross her t’s and dot her i’s.
Back in the 90’s, he brought home a report card with straight A’s.
A pair of apostrophes can function as single quotation marks to surround titles in headings or quotes within quotes.
‘Twister’ premiered this week in 1996.
“For every metric, there should be a ‘paired’ metric that assesses the adverse consequences of the first.” — Andy Grove
In direct quotation, a comma comes before the first quotation mark, and the end punctuation mark goes inside the quotation marks. It’s also helpful to note that a direct quote begins with a capital letter.
The cow says, “Moo.”
Today I asked a kindergartner if Friday was his favorite day of the week, and his response was, “I don't know. I don't know a lot of things. I’m confused all the time.”
In indirect quotation, there is no comma required before and no capital letter to begin an embedded quote. Indirect quotation is used to denote a word as a word.
He said that he’d “get back to me.”
I kept repeating the word “small” until it stopped sounding like a word.
While they work well to denote sarcasm, quotation marks are not used for emphasis (despite what the folks who made these signs thought):
Periods separate two complete sentences (AKA independent clauses), create abbreviations, and denote lower-case acronyms.
I'm too hungry to come up with a better example — i.e., I need to take a break.
“Mastery doesn’t come from an infographic.” — Tony Robbins
Question marks are placed in the middle or at the end of a sentence to denote a question.
I just heard from Andy, and — surely he’s kidding? — he says he’s on a flight to Timbuktu.
“Whassamatta wit’ you?”
Exclamation points are used to denote excitement, anger, or emphasis.
I love it!
STRAY PUNCTUATION TIPS
Independent clauses can be connected by a colon, semicolon, period (AKA full stop), question mark, exclamation mark, or comma + FANBOYS* conjunction.
*FANBOYS = for, and, nor, but, or, yet, & so.
“, however,” and “, therefore,” function as comma units and, therefore, can’t be used to separate two complete sentences unless paired with a FANBOYS conjunction.
Avoid changing the overall meaning of the sentence unless the question is specifically requesting that you do so.
If you see a single dash or a single quotation mark in the answer options, look for non-underlined partners farther back in the sentence.
BONUS: Interesting material that’s not tested.
Apostrophes begin a word when the first letter or syllable is elided to mimic speech patterns.
‘E’s goin’ to ‘ave tea wiv the Queen, ‘e is.
Apostrophes are used in the following triple contractions
you’dn’t’ve = you would not have
I’dn’t’ve = I would not have
it’dn’t’ve = it would not have
y’all’d’ve = you all would have
Jessica Robinson is a test prep tutor in Manhattan who has spent over a decade coaching students in test-prep and anxiety management.
Contact her: firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook.com/curiouslearn/ or as u/battlesong on Reddit