Even though comma usage is the most prominent punctuation rule tested on the SAT, other punctuations such as semicolons, colons, dashes, and apostrophes are frequently tested as well.
Semicolons have two primary uses in standard modern English. The first, and most common, is to join independent clauses. Both the clause before and after a semicolon must be independent, otherwise the sentence is ungrammatical.
A simple trick is to replace the semicolon with a period and check if the sentence is still grammatically correct. If it is, the semicolon is being used correctly.
Wrong: My favourite breakfast sandwich, beans on toast; I often make one and eat it before work.
Correct: My favourite breakfast sandwich is beans on toast; I often make one and eat it before work.
Semicolons should not be followed by any sort of conjunction, or the sentence will become ungrammatical.
Wrong: Grilled cheese is one of the best, in my opinion; and beans on toast is pretty good as well.
The second, and rarer, role semicolons play in standard modern English involves a scenario in which items in a list of three or more are themselves phrases that involve commas. One common example of this is when listing cities followed by the states or countries in which they are located.
Wrong: I visited Seattle, Washington, Los Angeles, California, and San Antonio, Texas on my vacation.
See how confusing it is to read that? It’s very difficult to keep track of which place names refer to cities and which refer to states. Imagine how difficult it would be to read if the cities named were smaller and less known? Use semicolons in the place of commas in this specific scenario to avoid confusion.
Correct: I visited Seattle, Washington; Los Angeles, California; and San Antonio, Texas on my vacation.
Note that if one item in a list includes a comma, it is appropriate to use semicolons for the entire list. For example:
Correct: I packed my sleeping bag; a pop-up tent, which I had borrowed from a friend and only used a few times; a cast-iron skillet; and some popcorn to bring on the camping trip.
Only “pop-up tent” uses a comma, but it’s still appropriate to set each item in the list off with a semicolon.
A colon (:) provides further explanation for what comes before it or to introduce a list. The most important rule of colons to remember they must be preceded by an independent clause. What comes after the colon does not have to be able to stand alone. Therefore, all of the following examples are incorrect:
Wrong: A classic eggs benedict breakfast should include the following: poached eggs, English muffins, and English tea.
Wrong: The dangerous animals you have to watch out for me are: lions, tigers, and pythons.
In each of the above examples, the phrases preceding the colon are not independent clauses.
The following are the two usages of colons:
Example: I went to the bakery and bought three things: donuts, pretzels, and a cake.
2. To introduce information in a way that emphasizes it. The first part of the sentence still needs to form an independent clause for this to be grammatically correct, and the latter part of the sentence can be either a phrase or an independent clause; its relationship to the first part of the sentence is what’s key.
The content of the two parts of a sentence in which a colon is used for emphasis should be very closely related.
Example: There was only one thing to do: fight the pirates head-on.
The second part of the sentence answers the question, “What was the only thing to be done?”
A dash adds an additional thought to an independent clause. A set of two dashes is used in much the same way as you use a set of commas - to include non essential information.
2 Dashes = 2 Commas
When used to set off a non-essential clause, two dashes are exactly equivalent to two commas. If one dash appears, so must the other. Another punctuation mark such as a comma cannot be used in place of it.
Wrong: London - which is a very old city, has many new buildings.
Correct: London - which is a very old city - has many new buildings.
As a rule of thumb, remember that if you can take a phrase or clause out of a sentence without making the sentence grammatically incorrect, that phrase or clause should be separated from the main clause of the sentence with commas, parentheses, or dashes.
The choice to use two dashes rather than two commas is purely a stylistic one, and the SAT will never require you to choose between the two. The only rule is that dashes must go with dashes and commas with commas. One of the SAT’s favourite errors is to mix and match commas and dashes.
IMPORTANT: Dashes can also be used to signal a list, restatement, or additional details. Therefore, one dash often acts as a colon.
The functionality of a dash and colon are often similar and confusing to students. Don’t worry, the SAT will never test you on whether a dash should be used instead of a colon, since the two are somewhat interchangeable.
The basic rules for forming possessives are quite simple:
1. Singular nouns - simply add an apostrophe followed by an “s” to indicate possession. This applies even to singular nouns that end with “s.”
Example: I really like Mike’s car.
Example: Mitosis’s properties are fascinating.
2. Plural nouns not ending in “s” - again simply add an “s” and an apostrophe.
Example: I’m always amazed by children’s capacity for wonder.
3. Plural nouns ending in an “s” - add an apostrophe without an “s.”
Example: The class’ size is getting unmanageable.
4. Compound nouns - the apostrophe should be placed at the end of the entire compound noun, not at the end of the single-word noun.
Example: My father-in-law’s taste in wine is very refined.
5. Two or more Singular subjects. Put the apostrophe after the last noun.
Example: Orange juice and grapefruit juice’s best property is their vitamin content.
6. Two or more Plural subjects. Make each plural noun possessive independently.
Example: The companies’ and lobbyists’ argument was that corporations should be treated as people.
7. One plural and one singular subject. Make them possessive independently.
Example: My cat’s and dogs’ shots are all taken care of.
With apostrophes, it’s not so much about knowing the rules as it is about determining whether you need an apostrophe at all and, if so, whether the noun is meant to be plural or singular.
Happily, there’s an easy trick to determine whether a noun should be possessive. “Gary’s ball” is just another way of saying “the ball of Gary.” So, if you want to figure out whether a noun is meant to be possessive, try swapping the order of the nouns and, putting an ‘of’ in the middle.
Example: When my computer crashed, I lost a months work on my plan to take over the world.
Should month be possessive? Try switching it around: When my computer crashed, I lost the work of a month on my plan to take over the world.
That makes sense: the point is that all the work done in a month was lost.
Correct version: When my computer crashed, I lost a month’s work on my plan to take over the world.
When you use a contraction, it’s very important that you know what words you are joining together! You should never use a contraction just because you think it might work – it’s important to be familiar with common contractions that show up on the SAT.
By the way, “its’” is NEVER correct. If any answer choice contains this word, the SAT is trying to trick you – don’t fall for it!
NOTE: There are no cases where we should use apostrophes with the possessives “hers” and “his,” even as contractions. By memorizing these common contractions, you’ll be prepared to recognize them and know how to use them correctly in all sorts of SAT questions!
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