The New SAT: How to Avoid Punctuation Problems

Posted by James Z. on 8/10/16 6:30 PM


The questions on the new SAT Writing and Language section can be sorted into roughly one of two categories: 1) grammar and punctuation, and 2) composition and style. In a series of three blog posts, we will work through each of these categories and get a sense for what kind of knowledge they test.

In this post, we will take a closer look at the first category, grammar and punctuation. More specifically, we’ll look at some types of punctuation questions that might show up on the test. (In the next post, we’ll come back to grammar.)

There’s a lot more than we can cover in one post, but here is a start.

Punctuation Problems

Getting the punctuation problems correct on Writing and Language section means understanding the basic functions and rules of the most common punctuation marks.


Commas have many basic and important functions. They are basically linking punctuation marks, joining together ideas or stitching descriptions and modifiers into the patchwork of the sentence. Here are a few basic uses of commas: 

  • You will use commas to separate items in a list, putting a common before every item but the last one. Lists cannot use semi-colons or colons to link items (but either of those punctuation marks may precede a list).

Right: “I like playing baseball, soccer, and football.”

Wrong: “I like playing baseball, soccer and, football.”

Wrong: “I like playing baseball; soccer; and football.”

  • Although they are linking punctuation marks, commas cannot join two complete sentences by themselves. They need the help of a coordinating conjunction (“and,” “but,” etc.). 

Right: “Jim went to the store to buy milk, but he couldn’t find any.”

Wrong: “Jim went to the store to buy milk, he couldn’t find any.”

The sort of error in which you join two complete sentences with only a comma is called a “comma splice.” If you encounter one, search the answer choices either for a different kind of punctuation (period, colon, semi-colon) or for a coordinating or subordinating conjunction that has the right meaning in context. 

  • Use commas at the end of introductory modifiers or clauses. You will often find a clause at the beginning of the sentence that describes the subject or provides background information for the sentence. These clauses might be attached tightly with a subordinating conjunction (“Although I didn’t have enough money…”) or an adverb of time or place (“When I came home…”), or more loosely with a participle, that is, a verbal adjective ending in -ing (“Running home from school…”). In any case, you will need to use a common to link the modifier with the rest of the sentence. 

Right: “After he spent a few days at home, he decided to go back to work.”
Wrong: “After he spent a few days at home he decided to go back to work.”

  • Commas also need to be used around two types of modifying statements within the sentence: non-restrictive clauses and appositives. An appositive restates and provides additional information about the subject. In the following sentence, “my dog” is in apposition to Fido: “Fido, my dog, went to the park.” Appositives always need to be marked off by commas.

Non-restrictive clauses must also be marked off by commas. These are clauses that describe or add additional information but are not strictly necessary for the meaning: “The ice cream, which was cold and delicious, fell off of my cone.” The non-restrictive clause “which was cold and delicious” could be removed from the sentence without interrupting the rest of the grammar. Therefore, it needs to be set off with commas to indicate that it is not essential to the basic structure of the sentence.

  • Commas often connect dependent clauses to independent clauses. Dependent clauses are those that do not have enough grammatical information to stand on their own or those, or which are preceded by a subordinating conjunction (“although,” “if,” “while,” etc.).


The apostrophe (it looks like this: ’ ) has a few functions. Most importantly for the SAT, it marks possession or contraction.

The SAT will try to confuse you with the simple plural (no apostrophe) and the possessive singular (apostrophe) of nouns. The way you mark the difference between these two things in writing is the apostrophe. “Dogs” is plural (as in “the dogs were barking”), “dog’s” is singular and possessive (as in “the dog’s bone”). Ask yourself what the function of the word is and remove or add an apostrophe as necessary.

An apostrophe can also be used in forming contractions. This is the case with “its” vs. “it’s.” “It’s” is a contraction for “it is,” as in, “It’s really cold outside today.” “Its” is a possessive pronoun, as in “That dog looks really happy. I bet its owner gives it lots of treats.”

Quotation marks

Quotation marks are used only with direct speech, that is, when you are reporting what somebody has said directly.

John yelled: “I don’t want to go!”

Do not use quotation marks when the speech is indirect (usually signaled with “that”):

“John said that he didn’t want to go.”

Colons and Semi-Colons

A semi-colon links two complete sentences that stand in a close relationship. It can never be used to link an independent and a dependent sentence. You should, therefore, always be able to replace the semi-colon with a period—a good test, in fact, to determine whether you really need a semi-colon, or something weaker like a comma (or even no punctuation).

Right: “They went to the park even though it was raining.”

Wrong: “They went to the park; even though it was raining. 

A colon links a complete sentence that precedes with a clause that follows. It can begin a list, set up a reason or consequence for what precedes, and so forth. But what is most important to remember is that whatever goes before the colon must always be a complete sentence. There are fewer restrictions about what comes afterwards (the clause can be dependent, independent, or just a list), as long as that part of the sentence follows the rules for any other punctuation that it employs (for example, commas).

Right: “Pancakes with butter are warm and sweet: my favorite food!”

Wrong: “Pancakes with butter are: warm and sweet.”

Reading for Sound

Abstract rules are good, but it is lots of practice that will help you spot punctuation marks gone awry. In the meantime, you can help develop your sense for spotting incorrect usage by practicing reading punctuation marks for “sound.”

Roughly, reading for sound means that when you read the passage “aloud” to yourself in the head, you should pause over and emphasize each punctuation mark you come across. A small pause for the comma, slightly longer for a semi-colon or colon, and still longer after a period. Punctuation that is used correctly will break a sentence up so that it flows naturally when read aloud; punctuation that is used incorrectly will add awkward pauses or, what is sometimes more difficult to spot, leave you running headlong from one idea into another where there should really be a pause for breath.

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Feeling like you're in need of more expert tips? Check out some additional SAT blog posts below!

3 Essential Steps to Breaking Down the New SAT Essay

The New SAT Reading in Focus: “Evidence Questions”

The SAT Essay Dissected: A Step by Step Guide

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