Know These Comma Rules

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Written by Keith Brown

Most students think that the SAT Writing and Language section is all about grammar. In fact, approximately 50% of the questions on this section concern grammar rules, while the other half test students’ knowledge of writing strategy and expression of ideas. Tackling these grammar rules off the bat can be a surefire way of gaining quick points on Test Day, as grammar questions tend to take less time and require minimal context to answer correctly.

Of the grammar rules Writing and Language tests, punctuation is most heavily tested, and the test makers love to test comma rules. If you can’t recall the last time you talked about commas in English class, don’t worry — the good news is that the SAT is only concerned with four comma rules. Here they are!

Use a comma to separate:

  1. Three or more items in a series or list.
  2. Two independent clauses connected by a FANBOYS conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so)
  3. An introductory phrase or transition word from the rest of the sentence.
  4. Nonessential information from the rest of the sentence.

Let’s examine these one at a time. 

Comma Rule #1: Use a comma to separate three or more items in a series or list

Most students think of using commas with a list of nouns (tomatoes, onions, and peppers), but you can also use commas to separate phrases, as in this example: We have plans to swim in the pond, run to the park, and play in the sand. You can use commas to separate any parts of speech, including adjectives: The orange, striped, and flat ball is in the corner. In this example, we use three adjectives to describe the ball, which is fine as long as the comma appears between two or more adjectives of equal rank that describe the same noun. Adjectives of equal rank can exchange locations in the sentence with one another such that the sentence will still make sense.

Comma Rule #2: Use a comma to separate two independent clauses connected by a FANBOYS conjunction

Separate independent clauses (complete sentences) with a comma and a coordinate FANBOYS conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). The key with this rule is to check for independent clauses on either side of the comma and conjunction! Just like complete sentences, independent clauses have all the components of a sentence (a noun, a verb, and expression of a complete thought). The bottom line? If you can substitute a period for the comma and FANBOYS conjunction, it is appropriate to use them.

Comma Rule #3: Use a comma to separate an introductory phrase or transition word from the rest of the sentence

An introductory clause can be any dependent phrase with gerunds or subordinate conjunctions. For example: Before going to the pool, Jim bought a new swimsuit. However, you do not need to use a comma if the introductory clause follows the independent clause: Jim bought a new swimsuit before going to the pool.

Comma Rule #4: Use a comma to separate nonessential information from the rest of the sentence

Nonessential words and phrases are elements of a sentence that are not needed to make the sentence complete. You can cross off nonessential information from a sentence and still have a complete idea! Because it is not necessary, a nonessential phrase must be set off from the rest of the sentence with punctuation — commas in this case. For example: Joe Biden, the 46th president of the United States, signed the executive order. 

There you have it — the four ways the SAT test makers love to test commas on the SAT! Keep these rules in mind as you prepare for this section.

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