- Mark up the test: Writing and Language Test edition
- How to approach sentence and paragraph sequence questions
- How to approach sentence addition/deletion questions
- SAT Writing and Language Test Tips Share Space
- Quick Punctuation Rules
- Solving Expression of Ideas questions
- Solving Standard English Conventions questions
Here are a few quick rules that can help when you’re working on questions about punctuation on the SAT Writing and Language Test.
The Semicolon ( ; )
On the SAT, the most common use of the semicolon ( ; ) is to connect two closely-related independent clauses.
The rarer use of the semicolon on the SAT is to separate items in a series. This only happens if the list is complex and the items in it have their own punctuation (such as commas).
What is an independent clause?
An independent clause is a string of words that expresses a complete thought and could stand alone as a well-formed sentence. It must have a subject and a verb.
- Teddy loves stuffed bears.
- His collection includes fifty-four specimens.
- Alex cooks his brownies with lard.
- They taste great.
Using semicolons to separate independent clauses
In the above examples, a semicolon may be placed between the two related independent clauses in each pair:
- Teddy loves stuffed bears; his collection includes fifty-four specimens.
- Alex cooks his brownies with lard; they taste great!
Note in these examples how the second clause adds directly to what’s discussed in the first clause:
- In the first example, the second clause adds a factual detail that helps demonstrate Teddy’s love for stuffed bears.
- In the second example, the second clause shares the writer’s impression of the results of Alex’s cooking.
The “Before and After Test” for semicolons
On the SAT, a semicolon may be used to join two closely-related independent clauses. If both the first and the second parts of a sentence could stand alone as their own sentences—and the second part adds to the first part—then a semicolon can be acceptable.
1) Check the part before the semicolon – could it be a solo sentence?
2) Check the part after the semicolon – could it be a solo sentence?
3) If the answers to 1 and 2 are YES, and the two parts are closely related, then the semicolon is good to go.
Top tip: A semicolon can’t be used to join an independent and a dependent clause. (A dependent clause is one that contains a subject and a verb but that doesn’t express a complete thought and couldn’t stand alone as a well-formed sentence (e.g., because Teddy loves stuffed bears).
Beware the COMMA SPLICE
WARNING: When you try to connect two independent clauses using just a comma, you create an error known as a comma splice.
WRONG: Teddy loves stuffed bears, his collection includes fifty-four specimens.
WRONG: Alex cooks his brownies with lard, they taste great!
How to fix a COMMA SPLICE ERROR
Option 1: Change the comma into a period ( . ) Two independent clauses can always stand alone as separate sentences (even if this isn’t always the best choice rhetorically). Remember to adjust capitalization as needed!
Option 2: Add a conjunction. A coordinating or subordinating conjunction can often be used to correct a comma splice: When a conjunction is present – such as, and, or, because, while or but – one of the two clauses is converted to a “dependent” or “subordinate” clause. (Don’t worry, you don’t need to know these terms on the SAT, but you do need to know your options for correcting a comma splice).
RIGHT: Teddy loves stuffed bears, and his collection includes fifty-four specimens.
RIGHT: Because Alex cooks his brownies with lard, they taste great.
Option 3: Use a semicolon in place of the comma. If the independent clauses are closely related, they can sometimes be joined with a semicolon.
RIGHT: Teddy loves stuffed bears; his collection includes fifty-four specimens.
RIGHT: Alex cooks his brownies with lard; they taste great.
The Colon ( : )
A colon ( : ) is sometimes used after a statement that introduces a list, a self-contained quotation, an explanation or an example.
RIGHT: The English language abounds with irregular verbs: drink, drank, drunk; break, broke, broken; swim, swam, swum; shrink, shrank, shrunken; fall, fell, fallen; blow, blew, blown.
RIGHT: The conscious brain controls only some of the body’s functions: while we can exert some control over our breathing rate, we have less control over our heart rate, and, except via lifestyle choices such as diet and exercise, we cannot consciously influence the processes of our digestive or immune systems at all.
RIGHT: Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address began with the following preamble: “Four score and seven years ago.”
However, a colon shouldn’t be used when the quotation is embedded in the sentence:
WRONG: Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address begins with: “Four score and seven years ago.”
TOP TIP: What comes before the colon must be (or contain) an independent clause: it must represent a complete thought and be able to function as a well-formed, standalone sentence.
WRONG: Snape advised them to: stay up all night, practice spells, and eat bonbons. (“Snape advised them to” is not a full sentence)
RIGHT: Snape advised them to stay up all night, practice spells, and eat bonbons.
RIGHT: Snape gave them the best advice he could muster: stay up all night, practice spells, and eat bonbons.
The Dash ( – )
One dash ( – ) = Colon ( : )
Just like the rule for colons, what comes before the single dash ( – ) must be an independent clause: it must be able to read as a complete sentence all on its own. (See what we did there? We could have used a long dash instead of that colon)
NOTE: The dash ( – ) is not to be confused with the hyphen ( - ), which has its own rules that are not tested on the SAT.
- You were right—he did eat the whole thing.
- Learning to ride a unicycle is easy—if you don’t mind a few bumps and bruises.
Two dashes ( – – ) = open/close parentheses ( )
Like a pair of commas or parentheses, a pair of dashes can be used to set off a phrase, clause, or series of phrases and clauses. In order for two dashes to be correct, the sentence that surrounds the clause that is being set off—be it a descriptive flourish or a prepositional aside—must be grammatically complete.
TOP TIP: When in doubt, take it out! Think of the two dashes, two commas or two parentheses as chopping tools that can slice out nonessential elements. Remove the element in question, and read the sentence again—if the sentence reads through without the element, then the double punctuation was OK!
- Sitting at dinner that night, Finn— usually a talkative chap—refused to answer a single question about his day.
- Learning to ride a unicycle– a time-consuming endeavor –is easy if you don’t mind a few bumps and bruises.
TOP TIP: Pair them up Look out for pairs of mismatched punctuation, whether they be comma-dash, parenthesis-comma, or some other combination of comma, dash, and parenthesis. The punctuation should match.
WRONG: Learning to ride a unicycle, a time-consuming endeavor—is easy if you don’t mind a few bumps and bruises.
WRONG: Learning to ride a unicycle—a time-consuming endeavor, is easy if you don’t mind a few bumps and bruises.
TOP TIP: Less is often more! If the SAT gives you a choice between commas on both sides of a clause and commas on neither side of a clause, the chances are very good that the NO COMMA choice is correct.
TOP COMMA TIP: Exaggerate the pause If you’re wondering if a comma is correct, read the sentence through and emphasize the pause the comma creates – if it sounds really weird to your ear, it’s probably wrong.