Punctuation Rules Your Student Needs to Know for the SAT/ACT

By Huntington Learning Center

The SAT and the ACT both test students’ ability to write effectively, organize their ideas, use a wide range of vocabulary words and much more, but how about punctuation? Both exams ask questions that have students recognize and correct errors in sentence structure, usage and punctuation. Here are a few rules that your student should have down by the time they sit for either college entrance exam:  

Comma Rules: 

  • Appositives require commas around them. An appositive is a noun with or without modifiers that describes another noun or pronoun. Appositives must be surrounded by commas, so an easy way to remember this is to determine whether that part of the sentence can be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence. Example: James, a talented dancer, pulled his hamstring. The appositive here is a talented dancer. The sentence still makes sense when written as: James pulled his hamstring.  
  • If a clause is non-restrictive, it should be surrounded by commas. A restrictive clause is essential to the meaning of a sentence (e.g., the clause, who play basketball, in the sentence, Boys who play basketball are often tall). If the clause is non-restrictive and does not change the meaning of the sentence, it should be surrounded by commas. Take the sentence: Melissa, who is from a ski town, loves snowy weather. The clause (who is from a ski town) can be removed and the sentence will still make sense.  
  • Introductory phrases or dependent clauses at the start of a sentence must be followed by commas. A simple way for students to remember this rule is to read the sentence aloud, and if they pause after the phrase or clause, a comma belongs there. An example: Although I hope to attend the party, I might be busy that night. The comma that separates this introductory phrase is essential to the sentence.  
  • Items in a list must be separated by commas. The final two items in a list are usually separated by “or” or “and,” and should be preceded by a comma (called an oxford comma). An example of this: Maya plays basketball, softball, and volleyball.  

Semicolon Rule:  

  • Independent clauses/separate thoughts should be separated by semicolons, not commas. A clause is a group of words that has a subject and a predicate. Two clauses that can stand on their own as sentences (and are therefore independent) should be separated by a semicolon, not a comma. Here’s a correct example: I stayed out past my curfew; Mother was angry. These two clauses make sense as sentences on their own, so the semicolon use is correct.  

Colon Rule:  

  • Colons must come after a complete sentence that introduces an explanation or a list.  

Colons are also appropriate if they are joining two independent clauses. If your student replaced the colon with a period, the sentence preceding the colon should still make sense. Here’s a correct example of colon usage: I’m looking forward to doing many things on vacation: swimming, snorkeling, and reading a good book. Here’s another: Getting enough sleep is critical for adolescents: scientists have proven that teens who do not sleep enough have a variety of health problems.  

Dashes Rule:  

  • Dashes can emphasize something or define something. They might surround an appositive (like commas would) or be used like a colon. On the SAT or ACT, the most likely way a student will be tested on dashes is correcting a sentence that uses a comma before an appositive and a dash after (or vice versa). See below:  
  • Wrong: Mrs. Johnson—an excellent cook, made the best apple pie. 
  • Right: Mrs. Johnson—an excellent cook—made the best apple pie. 
  • Right: Mrs. Johnson, an excellent cook, made the best apple pie. 

If punctuation rules are confusing for your student and they could use help nailing them down before taking the SAT or ACT, contact Huntington. We’ll help your student learn everything they need to know about punctuation and prepare effectively for all other exam sections too. Call us at 1-800 CAN LEARN today!