The SAT Writing and Language section will test you on your knowledge of punctuation. Understandably, many students are utterly confused by commas and semicolons and clueless when it comes to colons and dashes.
In this article, I'll eliminate your confusion and explain all of the punctuation rules you need to know to ace SAT Writing. Furthermore, I'll provide practice questions to test you on what you've learned.
Punctuation on SAT WritingSAT punctuation questions test you on your knowledge of commas, semicolons, colons, dashes, and apostrophes. In this article, I’ll explain the rules for all punctuation except apostrophes because I’ve devoted a separate article to apostrophes. Excluding apostrophe questions, there are about 4-6 punctuation questions on the SAT. Most of the punctuation rules are fairly straightforward; if you spend the time to learn and understand these rules, you should be able to correctly answer the punctuation questions on SAT Writing.
The Rule for All SAT Punctuation Questions: When in Doubt, Leave It Out
For the SAT, if you’re unsure if a sentence requires punctuation, it’s better to err on the side of leaving out punctuation. Only use commas, semicolons, colons, or dashes if you identify a situation that requires them. You’re more likely to miss a punctuation question by adding unnecessary punctuation than by leaving out punctuation that’s needed. Take a look at this example:
The comma before “that” is unnecessary. A common error on SAT punctuation questions is to randomly place a comma or semicolon within a sentence, especially in sentences in which there are other commas. In this sentence, answer choice D is the correct answer. No punctuation is needed. Remember that if punctuation isn’t needed, you should leave it out.
Now I’ll go over specific rules to help you determine when to use punctuation.
The 6 SAT Comma Rules
While there are a multitude of comma rules, the SAT only tests a few of them. I’ll explain the comma rules that are important to know for the SAT.
#1: Surround Non-Restrictive Clauses and Appositives With Commas
The key rule to remember here is that a portion of a sentence that can be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence must be surrounded by commas.
Relative Clauses: Restrictive vs. Non-Restrictive
Relative clauses are dependent clauses that describe a noun and start with a relative pronoun or adverb like “who,” “that,” “which,” or “where.” The basic rule is that restrictive clauses shouldn’t be surrounded by commas and non-restrictive clauses should be.
What’s a Restrictive Clause?
Restrictive clauses are essential to the meaning of the sentence. You can’t take a restrictive clause out of a sentence without significantly changing the meaning of the sentence. Here’s an example:
People who sleep well are more alert.
If you remove the clause “who sleep well,” the meaning of the sentence would be substantially changed. You’d be left with “People are more alert.” Because you can’t remove the clause without changing the meaning of the sentence, the clause shouldn’t be surrounded by commas.
What’s a Non-Restrictive Clause?
A non-restrictive clause isn’t essential to the meaning of the sentence. If you got rid of the clause, the sentence would still make sense, and its meaning wouldn’t change. Here’s an example sentence with the non-restrictive clause underlined.
Nate, who works as a software engineer, majored in computer science.
The clause “who works as a software engineer” adds more information about Nate, but if it were removed, the meaning of the sentence would be the same. There would be less information about Nate, but the sentence still states that he majored in computer science. This is what the sentence looks like after removing the non-restrictive clause:
Nate majored in computer science.
What Is an Appositive?
An appositive is a descriptive phrase that doesn’t include a verb. Like a non-restrictive clause, an appositive can be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence. Here’s an example sentence with the appositive underlined:
Torsha, a fan of celebrity gossip, loves watching The Wendy Williams Show.
If we get rid of the appositive, the sentence still has the same meaning:
Torsha loves watching The Wendy Williams Show.
If you’re unsure if a phrase is an appositive, eliminate the phrase. If the meaning of the sentence is unchanged, the descriptive phrase is an appositive that should be surrounded by commas.
The rule that appositives must be surrounded by commas is one of the most often tested comma rules on the SAT.
Because the only difference in the answer choices is the placement of commas, we know this question is testing our knowledge of comma rules. In this sentence, the phrase “an associate professor of geology at Ohio State” is an appositive. The phrase describes Jason Box, and it can be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence.
All we have to do is apply the rule that appositives must be surrounded by commas. The error in the original sentence is that there is no comma after “Ohio State.” The correct answer is C. There is no comma before the appositive in answer choice B, and answer choice D places a comma within the appositive unnecessarily, and there isn’t a comma at the end of it.
Pretty comma (stealingsand/Flickr)
#2: Use Commas After Introductory Phrases or Clauses
Any time a sentence starts with a dependent clause or modifying phrase, it must be followed by a comma. Here are some examples:
Although I want to go to Hawaii for Joe’s wedding, I have to work.
In high school, Suzy was the class clown.
Unable to focus because of the loud construction work outside, Harry went to the library to study.
On the SAT, a sentence may include an introductory dependent clause or phrase, and you have to select the proper punctuation that follows the introduction. Only a comma can come after an introductory phrase or clause that isn’t a complete thought.
The introductory phrase, from “Living” to “ethic,” modifies the Harvey Girls. Because the phrase isn’t a complete thought, meaning it can’t stand alone as a sentence, we must put a comma at the end of the phrase. The correct answer is D. Answer choice C is wrong because the addition of “and” makes the sentence incorrect. When an introductory phrase describes a noun, the noun being modified must come directly after the comma. In this sentence, the phrase is modifying the Harvey Girls.
#3: Use Commas to Separate Items in a List
You’re probably familiar with this comma rule: in lists of three or more items, you must place a comma after every item except the last. Check out this example:
During spring break, my days will consist of eating, watching Netflix, and sleeping.
The three items on the list are “eating,” “watching Netflix,” and sleeping. Because there are three items, there are commas after the first two. The last comma in the list before “and,” known as the oxford comma, is technically optional, and you won’t be tested on whether or not to use it. However, every list question I've seen uses the oxford comma.
Here’s another example:
Participation in sports teaches many important values, including perseverance, teamwork, and dedication.
The three items on this list are “perseverance,” “teamwork,” and “dedication.” On the SAT, there may be incorrectly placed commas placed before the first item or after the “and” prior to the last item. In the sentence above, you can’t place a comma after “including” or before “dedication.”
Incorrect: Participation in sports teaches many values, including, perseverance, teamwork, and dedication.
Incorrect: Participation in sports teaches many values, including perseverance, teamwork, and, dedication.
Correct: Participation in sports teaches many values, including perseverance, teamwork, and dedication.
Sleep is important. (RelaxingMusic/Flickr)
As we know, items in a list must be separated by commas. The three items in this list are "yogurt manufacturers," "food scientists," and "government officials." The semicolon in the original sentence is being used incorrectly. In answer choice D, there is an unnecessary comma placed after “and.” The correct answer is C.
#4: Don’t Use Commas to Separate Complete Thoughts
Using a comma to separate two complete thoughts creates a grammar error known as a comma splice. Here’s an example of a comma splice:
Dorothy failed her test, it was extremely difficult.
The clauses before and after the comma are complete thoughts that could stand alone as sentences. There are a few ways to correct a comma splice. You can put a conjunction after the comma:
Dorothy failed her test, but it was extremely difficult.
Also, you can put a relative pronoun after the comma:
Dorothy failed her test, which was extremely difficult.
Finally, you can use a semicolon or colon to correctly separate two complete thoughts:
Dorothy failed her test; it was extremely difficult.
Dorothy failed her test: it was extremely difficult.
Next, take a look at a comma splice example from the real SAT.
The comma after “instance” is incorrect because the clauses before and after the comma are complete thoughts. Answer choice C is still a comma splice. Answer choice D is wrong because the resulting sentences don’t make sense in context. The correct answer is B. A colon comes after a complete thought, and it sets up a list or explanation. In this sentence, an explanation follows the colon. Even if you were unsure of colon rules (which I’ll explain later), you could have selected the right answer by eliminating wrong answer choices.
#5: Don’t Use a Comma Between an Adjective and a Noun
You can’t place a comma between an adjective and noun. Check out this example sentence:
Incorrect: Trista bought a blue, truck.
Correct: Trista bought a blue truck.
On the SAT, this comma rule tends to come up when a title is being used as an adjective before a noun. Here are a couple of examples:
Incorrect: I enjoy reading the books of acclaimed writer, Malcolm Gladwell.
Correct: I enjoy reading the books of acclaimed writer Malcolm Gladwell.
Many people incorrectly assume there should be a comma; however, in this sentence, “writer” is describing Malcolm Gladwell, and you can’t place a comma between an adjective and a noun.
I like his books. (Michelle Tribe/Flickr)
Similarly, if the title comes before a possessive noun, there shouldn’t be a comma after the title or the possessive. Check out this example:
Incorrect: You are extremely excited to read PrepScholar writer, Justin Berkman’s next article.
Incorrect: You are extremely excited to read PrepScholar writer Justin Berkman’s, next article.
Correct: You are extremely excited to read PrepScholar writer Justin Berkman’s next article.
Remember that there shouldn't be a comma after a title used as an adjective or a possessive noun. In this sentence, there are commas placed after both "painter" and "Georges Seurat's." We need to remove the commas to correct the sentence. Only answer choice D removes both unnecessary commas.
Semicolons on the SATThe only thing you have to know about semicolons is that they are used to separate two complete thoughts. You should be able to replace the semicolon with a period and have two complete sentences. Here’s an example:
Incorrect: Because Jesse is my friend; I invited him to my party.
Correct: Jesse is my friend; I invited him to my party.
The second sentence is correct because the semicolon is separating two independent clauses. On the SAT, semicolons are often used incorrectly.
Immediately, we know that the semicolon is incorrect because the phrase after the semicolon can’t stand alone as a sentence. Now we have to determine the correct comma placement. Answer choices B and C are wrong because you can’t place a comma after a preposition. Answer choice D is correct; the comma separates the independent clause from the explanatory phrase. Keep in mind that commas often separate independent clauses from dependent clauses or descriptive phrases.
Colons on the SAT
Colons can connect two independent clauses, but they're usually used to introduce lists and explanations. Colons must come after a complete sentence. You should be able to put a period in place of the colon and have a sentence that makes sense.
Incorrect: Jasmine brought everything she needed for the exam, including: pencils, a backpack, and a calculator.
Correct: Jasmine brought everything she needed for the exam: pencils, a backpack, and a calculator.
The first sentence is incorrect because the part that comes before the colon isn’t a complete thought.
Also, a colon should be used instead of a comma to separate a noun from items on a list:
Incorrect: Lewis was excited to meet his relatives, his aunt, uncle, and cousins from the Bahamas.
Correct: Lewis was excited to meet his relatives: his aunt, uncle, and cousins from the Bahamas.
The first sentence makes it seem like “his relatives” is part of the list. However, all of the people he is meeting are his relatives, and the portion after the colon lists the relatives whom he will be meeting.
Additionally, colons can be used to provide explanation. Here’s an example:
Sandy repeatedly complained about her least favorite restaurants: places where you can often hear loud conversations and crying babies.
In the above sentence, the colon is placed after a complete thought, and the portion of the sentence after the colon describes the type of restaurants that Sandy dislikes. You could substitute the colon with a comma, but you need punctuation to separate the complete thought from the explanatory phrase.
The portion of the sentence after “army” describes the other type of army. We need punctuation to separate the complete thought up until “army” from the phrase elaborating on this group of people. Answer choice C is incorrect because the phrase following “army” isn’t a complete thought, and answer choice B is wrong because the dash before “by” is unnecessary (I’ll explain dashes next). The correct answer is D.
Dashes on the SAT
Dashes aren’t very common on the SAT, but they do come up. They can be used to mark off a non-essential clause or phrase (like a comma) or introduce a list or explanation (like a colon).
If dashes are used with non-essential clauses or phrases, you can’t mix them with commas. You have to go with either two dashes or two commas. Here’s an example:
Incorrect: Ryan, an energetic teenager—can’t sit still during class.
Correct: Ryan—an energetic teenager—can’t sit still during class.
Correct: Ryan, an energetic teenager, can’t sit still during class.
This is an example using a dash like a colon to set up an explanation:
Correct: Ryan can’t sit still during class—he’s an energetic teenager.
Lastly, a dash can be used for stylistic reasons to interrupt a statement or create a dramatic pause. Check out this example:
Byron spent hours painting a beautiful picture—and then his little brother destroyed it.
You don’t have to worry too much about using dashes for this type of sentence. If a dash is the correct answer in a similar sentence, then you’ll be able to eliminate the other answer choices because they’ll be obviously incorrect.
The phrase from “popularized” to “Coolidge” is a non-essential phrase. You can get rid of the phrase without altering the meaning of the sentence. The error is that the phrase is first marked off with a dash and then a comma. Remember that you can’t mix dashes and commas when marking off non-essential phrases and clauses. Therefore, to maintain consistency, the correct answer is B.
Punctuation cookies! (David Erickson/Flickr)
The Most Important Rules and Strategies for SAT Punctuation
Because we’ve gone over a number of punctuation rules and ways to correct punctuation errors, I’m going to sum up the most important points to help you correctly answer SAT Writing punctuation questions.
- Surround appositives and non-essential phrases with commas.
- Use commas to separate items in a list.
- Don’t use commas in between two independent clauses.
- Semicolons connect two independent clauses.
- Colons come after a complete sentence and set up a list or explanation.
- Dashes can be used to mark off non-essential clauses or introduce lists and explanations.
- Leave out punctuation unless you identify a situation that requires it.
- You’ll never be asked to choose between interchangeable punctuation marks: if two answer choices serve the same function, then both will be wrong.
- Use process of elimination to determine the right answer on punctuation questions. Many of the wrong answers will have errors that you’ll be quickly able to detect. Eliminating the wrong answers can sometimes be easier than choosing the right one.
Try these practice questions using the knowledge you've acquired.
- Studies show that children; who are physically active may perform better in the classroom.
- Last week, Theodore—who is an extremely conscientious student, won a $10,000 scholarship; his parents are incredibly proud.
- Julie was thoroughly confused: she couldn’t figure out where she put her car keys.
- Paul was overcome with joy when he saw actor, Keanu Reeves, in the parking lot of a McDonald’s restaurant.
- I hurried home from school to find Max, my dog that I’ve had for five years chewing on my favorite pair of shoes.
Answers: 1. C, 2. B, 3. A, 4. D, 5. C
If you thought punctuation wasn't tested on the SAT because you're only familiar with the old SAT, read this article to find out how the SAT Writing section has changed.
Also, make sure you know and understand the most important grammar rules for SAT Writing (coming soon).
Finally, as you're preparing for the SAT, learn the pros and cons of different prep methods.
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Justin has extensive experience teaching SAT prep and guiding high school students through the college admissions and selection process. He is firmly committed to improving equity in education and helping students to reach their educational goals. Justin received an athletic scholarship for gymnastics at Stanford University and graduated with a BA in American Studies.