The SAT Writing and Language Test-Punctuation

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Punctuation will be the focus of many questions on the Writing and Language Test. But how do you know when to use the different punctuation marks that are being tested? This chapter will answer that question as well as highlight some of the SAT's rules for using punctuation and the strategies you can use to outsmart the test writers.

WAIT, THE SAT WANTS ME TO KNOW HOW TO USE A SEMICOLON?

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, "Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons…All they do is show you've been to college." Unfortunately, this does not apply to the SAT. For the SAT, you'll need to know how to use the semicolon and a few other types of weird punctuation. In this chapter, we're going to talk about the variety of punctuation you need to know how to use on the SAT. Learn these few simple rules, and you'll be all set on the punctuation questions.

First and foremost, stick to the strategy!

Start by asking, "What's changing in the answer choices?"

If you see punctuation marks—commas, periods, apostrophes, semicolons, colons—changing, then the question is testing punctuation. Then, as you work the problem, make sure to ask the big question:

Does this punctuation need to be here?

The particular punctuation mark you are using—no matter what it is—must have a specific role within the sentence. You wouldn't use a question mark without a question, would you? Nope! Well, all punctuation works that way, and in what follows, we'll give you seven basic instances in which you would use some type of punctuation. Otherwise, let the words do their thing unobstructed!

STOP, GO, AND THE VERTICAL LINE TEST

Let's get the weird ones out of the way first. Everyone knows that a period ends a sentence, but once things get more complicated, even a particularly nerdy grammarian can get lost. Because of this confusion, we've come up with a basic chart that summarizes the different times you might use what the SAT calls "end-of-sentence" and "middle-of-sentence" punctuation.

When you are linking ideas, you must use one of the following:

STOP

- Period

- Semicolon

- Comma + FANBOYS

- Question mark

- Exclamation Mark

HALF-STOP

- Colon

- Long dash

GO

- Comma

- No punctuation

STOP punctuation can link only complete ideas.

HALF-STOP punctuation must be preceded by a complete idea.

GO punctuation can link anything except two complete ideas.

Let's see how these work. Here is a complete idea:

Samantha studied for the SAT.

Notice that we've already used one form of STOP punctuation at the end of this sentence: a period.

Now, if we want to add a second complete idea, we'll keep the period.

Samantha studied for the SAT. She ended up doing really well on the test.

In this case, the period is linking these two complete ideas. But the nice thing about STOP punctuation is that you can really use any of the punctuation in the list to do the same thing, so we could also say this:

Samantha studied for the SAT; she ended up doing really well on the test.

What the list of STOP punctuation shows us is that essentially, a period and a semicolon are the same thing. We could say the same for the use of a comma plus one of the FANBOYS.

Samantha studied for the SAT, and she ended up doing really well on the test.

You can also use HALF-STOP punctuation to separate two complete ideas, so you could say

Samantha studied for the SAT: she ended up doing really well on the test.

or

Samantha studied for the SAT—she ended up doing really well on the test.

There's a subtle difference, however, between STOP and HALF-STOP punctuation: for STOP punctuation, both ideas have to be complete, but for HALF-STOP punctuation, only the first one does.

Let's see what this looks like. If we want to link a complete idea and an incomplete idea, we can use HALF-STOP punctuation as long as the complete idea comes first. For example,

Samantha studied for the SAT: all three sections of it.

or

Samantha studied for the SAT: the silliest test in all the land.

When you use HALF-STOP punctuation, there has to be a complete idea before the punctuation. So, these examples wouldn't be correct:

Samantha studied for: the SAT, the ACT, and every AP test in between.

The SAT—Samantha studied for it and was glad she did.

When you are not linking two complete ideas, you can use GO punctuation. So you could say, for instance,

Samantha studied for the SAT, the ACT, and every AP test in between.

or

Samantha studied for the SAT, all three sections of it.

These are the three types of mid-sentence or end-of-sentence punctuation: STOP, HALF-STOP, and GO. You'll notice that there is a bit of overlap between the concepts, but the SAT couldn't possibly make you get into the minutia of choosing between, say, a period and a semicolon. If you can figure out which of the big three (Stop, Half-Stop, and Go) categories you'll need, that's all you need to be able to do.

So let's see what this looks like in context.

1. Jonah studied every day for the big test he was taking the SAT that Saturday.

A) NO CHANGE

B) test, he was taking

C) test, he was taking,

D) test; he was taking

Here's How to Crack It

As always, check what's changing in the answer choices. In this case, the words all stay the same. All that changes is the punctuation, and notice the types of punctuation that are changing: STOP and GO.

Now, when you see STOP punctuation changing in the answer choices, you can do a little something we like to call the Vertical Line Test.

Draw a line where you see the punctuation changing—in this case, between the words test and he. Then, read up to the vertical line: Jonah studied every day for the big test. That's complete. Now, read after the vertical line: he was taking the SAT that Saturday. That's also complete.

So let's think; we've got two complete ideas here. What kind of punctuation do we need? STOP or HALF-STOP. It looks like STOP is the only one available, so let's choose (D).

Let's try another.

2. It was very important for him to do well. High scores in all the subjects.

A) NO CHANGE

B) well; high

C) well: high

D) well, he wanted high

Here's How to Crack It

Check the answer choices. What's changing? It looks like the punctuation is changing, and some of that punctuation is STOP. Let's use the Vertical Line Test. Draw a vertical line where you see the punctuation: between well and high or well and he.

What's before the vertical line? It was very important for him to do well is complete. Then, high scores in all the subjects is not. Therefore, because we have one complete idea (the first) and one incomplete idea (the second), we can't use STOP punctuation, thus eliminating (A) and (B).

Now, what's different between the last two? Choice (C) contains HALF-STOP punctuation, which can work, so we'll keep that. Choice (D) adds some words, with which the second idea becomes he wanted high scores in all the subjects, which is complete. That makes two complete ideas separated by a comma, but what do we need when we're separating two complete ideas? STOP punctuation! Eliminate (D)! Only (C) is left.

Let's see one more.

3. Whenever Jonah had a free moment—he was studying.

A) NO CHANGE

B) moment; he

C) moment, he,

D) moment, he

Here's How to Crack It

The punctuation is changing in the answer choices, and there's some STOP punctuation, so let's use the Vertical Line Test. Put the line between moment and he. The first idea, Whenever Jonah had a free moment, is incomplete, and the second idea, he was studying, is complete. Therefore, we can't use STOP (which needs two complete ideas) or HALF-STOP (which needs a complete idea before the punctuation), thus eliminating (A) and (B). Then, because there is no good reason to put a comma after the word he, the best answer must be (D).

A SLIGHT PAUSE FOR COMMAS

Commas can be a little tricky. In question 3, we got down to two answer choices, (C) and (D), after having completed the Vertical Line Test. But then how do you decide whether to keep a comma in or not? It seems a little arbitrary to say that you use a comma "every time you want to pause," so let's reverse that and make it a little more concrete.

If you can't cite a reason to use a comma, don't use one.

On the SAT, there are only four reasons to use a comma:

- in STOP punctuation, with one of the FANBOYS

- in GO punctuation, to separate incomplete ideas from other ideas

- in a list of three or more things

- in a sentence containing unnecessary information

We've already seen the first two concepts, so let's look at the other two.

Try this one.

4. His top-choice schools were Harvard, Yale and Princeton.

A) NO CHANGE

B) Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.

C) Harvard, Yale, and, Princeton.

D) Harvard Yale and Princeton.

Here's How to Crack It

First, check what's changing in the answer choices. It looks like the commas in this list are changing. Because there's not any obvious STOP or HALF-STOP punctuation, the Vertical Line Test won't do us much good.

Then, it will help to know that that SAT wants a comma after every item in a series. Think of it this way. There's a potential misunderstanding in this sentence:

I went to the park with my parents, my cat Violet and my dog Stuart.

Without a comma, it sure sounds like this guy has some interesting parents. If there's no comma, how do we know that this sentence isn't supposed to say his parents are my cat Violet and my dog Stuart? The only way to remove the ambiguity would be to add a comma like this:

I went to the park with my parents, my cat Violet, and my dog Stuart.

Keep that in mind as we try to crack number 4. In this problem, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton form a list, so they should be set off by commas as they are in (B).

Let's try another.

5. Jonah, everyone seemed fairly certain, was going to get into one of those schools.

A) NO CHANGE

B) Jonah everyone seemed fairly certain

C) Jonah, everyone seemed fairly certain

D) Jonah everyone seemed fairly certain,

Here's How to Crack It

First, check what's changing in the answer choices. Just commas. And those commas seem to be circling around the words everyone seemed fairly certain. When you've got a few commas circling around a word, phrase, or clause like this, the question is usually testing necessary vs. unnecessary information.

A good way to test whether the idea is necessary to the meaning of the sentence is to take it out. Read the original sentence again. Now read this one: Jonah was going to get into one of those schools.

Is the sentence still complete? Yes. Has the meaning of the sentence changed? No, we just lost a little extra thing. Therefore, the idea is unnecessary to the meaning of the sentence and should be set off with commas as it is in (A).

Let's try a few more. Try to figure out whether the word or idea in italics is necessary to the meaning of the sentence, and whether or not commas need to surround the italics. The answers are on this page.

i. The student with the best GPA will be admitted to the best college.

ii. Edward wants to go to Pomona College which is a really good school.

iii. The car that was painted red drove off at a hundred miles an hour.

iv. Charles Chesnutt who wrote a lot of great stories was also a lawyer.

v. Philadelphia Flyers goalie Steve Mason is an underappreciated player.

The answers:

i. NECESSARY to the meaning of the sentence (no commas). If you remove the italicized part, the sentence is not adequately specific.

ii. UNNECESSARY to the meaning of the sentence (commas). If you remove the italicized part, the sentence is still complete and does not change meaning.

iii. NECESSARY to the meaning of the sentence (no commas). If you remove the italicized part, the sentence is not adequately specific.

iv. UNNECESSARY to the meaning of the sentence (commas). If you remove the italicized part, the sentence is still complete and does not change meaning.

v. NECESSARY to the meaning of the sentence (no commas). If you remove the italicized part, the sentence is no longer complete.

Now let's put it all together in this question.

6. Everyone hoped, he would get in, after his brother and two sisters had gone to their first-choice schools.

A) NO CHANGE

B) hoped, he would get in, after his brother, and two sisters had

C) hoped, he would get in after his brother, and, two sisters had

D) hoped he would get in after his brother and two sisters had

Here's How to Crack It

Check what's changing in the answer choices. There are varying numbers of commas in varying places. Remember, the rule of thumb with commas is that if you can't cite a reason to use a comma, don't use one.

It looks like he would get in is being set off by commas. Let's see whether it's necessary or unnecessary information. Read the original sentence; then read the sentence again without that piece of information: Everyone hoped after his brother and two sisters had gone to their first-choice schools. It looks like the sentence has changed meaning and is not really complete anymore. Therefore, that bit of information is necessary to the meaning of the sentence, so it doesn't need commas. Then, there are no good reasons to put commas around or in the phrase after his brother and two sisters.

In the end, there aren't reasons to put commas anywhere in this sentence. The best answer is (D). Sometimes SAT will test "unnecessary punctuation" explicitly, so make sure you have a good reason to use commas when you use them!

As with commas, apostrophes have only a very limited set of applications. Apostrophes are a little trickier, though, because you can't really hear them in speech, so people misuse them all the time. Think about the header of this section. The apostrophes are wrong there. Here's the correct way of punctuating it: You're going to be tested on apostrophes. Can you hear the difference? Neither can we.

Therefore, as with commas, if you can't cite a reason to use an apostrophe, don't use one. There are only two reasons to use apostrophes on the SAT:

- Possessive nouns (NOT pronouns)

- Contractions

Let's see some examples.

7. Some of those very selective schools' require really high score's.

A) NO CHANGE

B) selective school's require really high scores'.

C) selective schools require really high score's.

D) selective schools require really high scores.

Here's How to Crack It

Check what's changing in the answer choices. In this case, the words are all staying the same, but the apostrophes are changing. Remember, we don't want to use apostrophes at all if we can't cite a good reason to do so.

Does anything belong to schools or score? No! Are they forming contractions like school is or score is? No! Therefore, there's no reason to use apostrophes, and the only possible answer is (D), which dispenses with the apostrophes altogether.

As in the previous question, there's no need for any punctuation, and in a question like this, ETS is testing whether you can spot unnecessary punctuation.

But sometimes the apostrophes will be necessary. Let's have a look at another.

8. It's tough to get in to you're top-choice schools.

A) NO CHANGE

B) Its tough to get in to your

C) Its tough to get in to you're

D) It's tough to get in to your

Here's How to Crack It

Check what's changing in the answer choices. The main changes have to do with apostrophes, particularly on the words its/it's and your/you're.

The first word, its/it's, needs an apostrophe: It creates the contraction it is. Therefore, because this one needs an apostrophe, get rid of (B) and (C). As for the other, this word is possessive (as in, the top-choice schools belonging to you), but remember: Possessive nouns need an apostrophe, but possessive pronouns don't. Therefore, because you is a pronoun, this word should be spelled your, as it is in (D).

Phew! These apostrophes can get a little tricky, so let's try a few more. On these (as on many parts of the SAT), you'll find that using your ear, sounding things out, doesn't really help all that much.

Highlight the option that works. The big question is, apostrophes or no apostrophes? You can find the answers on this page.

i. Tinas/Tina's boss said shes/she's allowed to take the next few days/day's off.

ii. If your/you're not coming to my party, its/it's really fine with me.

iii. There/they're are really no good reasons/reason's for your/you're bad attitude.

iv. Well/we'll get back to you as soon as your/you're application is received.

v. Its/it's his/his' guacamole, and he said we cant/can't have any because its/it's not ours/our's.

The answers:

i. Tina's, she's, days

ii. you're, it's

iii. There, reasons, your

iv. We'll, your

v. It's, his, can't, it's, ours

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