How to Approach Punctuation Questions on the SAT Writing Section

The SAT Writing section loves to test students on punctuation. These questions assess how well students use basic punctuation marks, such as periods, commas, and semicolons. Often, students feel overconfident when answering these questions because they assume they already know everything there is to know about punctuation marks. After all, they read and write with them every day! However, the truth is that many students are taught punctuation rules incorrectly or are never taught them at all. As a result, there are a lot of myths surrounding punctuation marks and their appropriate usage. Here are just a few examples:

Myth:  A semicolon is the same thing as a comma.
Truth: A semicolon performs the same function as a period, not the same function as a comma. Students should only use semicolons between two independent clauses.

Incorrect: The party was yesterday; and it was a blast!

Correct: The party was yesterday; it was a blast!

Myth: You can use a colon before a list.
Truth: Only use a colon if the clause before it is an independent clause.

Incorrect: I need to buy: milk, eggs, and bread.

Correct: I need to buy the following items: milk, eggs, and bread.

Myth: Use commas to make sentences more varied and interesting.
Truth: Use commas sparingly and only when necessary.

Incorrect: He thought about retaliating, but then stopped.

Correct: He thought about retaliating but then stopped.

The examples above are only a handful of many misconceptions surrounding punctuation usage. Because punctuation marks are not always correctly taught in school but are frequently tested on the SAT, all SAT students should take some time to study their punctuation rules. For some quick and helpful resources on the parts of sentences and how to best connect them with appropriate punctuation marks, we recommend the following blogs.*

How to Identify Independent and Dependent Clauses 

How to Properly Connect Clauses 

How to Use Dashes Correctly 

How to Use Colons Correctly 

* Although these blogs link to our ACT Student Weaknesses blog series, they cover general grammar rules that apply to both ACT and SAT.

Once you’re comfortable with the rules of punctuation, it’s time to try some SAT punctuation questions. We recommend the following approach:

Preview the Answer Choices

Start by looking at the answer choices to determine which type of punctuation mark is being tested. If you’re not sure, focus on which punctuation marks are changing in each answer choice. For example, if you notice that some answer choices feature commas and others don’t, the question is probably testing you on your knowledge of appropriate comma usage.

In the example above, each answer choice features various punctuation marks in different locations. However, if you look carefully, you’ll notice that they all contain either a comma or a semicolon between the words “research” and “the.” This is a classic “semicolon vs. comma” question. We should therefore begin by deciding which punctuation mark is appropriate—a semicolon or a comma.

Use Your Rules

As soon as you determine what the question is testing you on, think about your grammar rules. A lot of students skip this step and start using their ears to test each answer choice. Do not fall for this trap! The SAT loves to trick you with answer choices that sound correct but are grammatically wrong. Instead, use your concrete grammar knowledge to eliminate as many errors as possible.

Less is More

If at this point more than one answer choice remains, it’s time to use the old adage “less is more”. On standardized tests, punctuation marks should only be used when necessary. Otherwise, they’re extraneous and should be eliminated. Take the sample above. Two answer choices remain: answer B and answer D. Answer D contains a dash, but there’s really no need to pause at that point. The correct answer is B.

If you struggle with SAT punctuation questions, rest assured that you are not alone! Many students have trouble with these question types either because they do not remember their grammar rules or because they do not correctly apply those rules on the SAT. Fortunately, mastering SAT punctuation questions can be one of the fastest and most effective ways to raise your SAT Writing score. Because punctuation questions test the same rules again and again, they are a highly predictable and gameable component of the SAT. We strongly recommend working independently or with a tutor to learn your punctuation rules and carve out a reliable strategy for test day.

About Jodie Westerman

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