Quiz Hacker’s ACT-SAT English “Cheat Sheet”
How to identify a comma question:
If all or most of the answer choices are identically or similarly worded, but with commas in different places, it’s probably a comma question.
KEY #1: If you want to succeed on ACT English and SAT Writing & Language comma questions, it is absolutely critical that you wrap your head around the fact that the correct and incorrect answers are all based on objective rules. This means you should never choose an answer because you feel that it places a comma at a “natural pause” in the sentence, or because “it just sounds better if you put a comma there.” Those are subjective opinions, not objective rules. The more you treat ACT and SAT comma questions like math, the higher you will score. There are A LOT of comma questions on both exams, so it’s important to get this right!
KEY #2: On the ACT and SAT, commas in answer choices are “guilty until proven innocent.” Assume that every comma in an answer choice is wrong unless it is supported by one of the comma rules below. If there is no comma rule to justify a comma in an answer choice, that answer choice is eliminated!
There are only 7 ACT comma rules. If you can learn these 7 rules, you can master ACT/SAT comma questions. There are lots of comma questions, so knowing how to handle them is potentially worth a lot of points. Better still, the first two rules come up more often than all of the other rules combined. Even if you could only master these first two rules, you’d still be adding points to your score!
Here are the 7 ACT / SAT comma rules:
COMMA RULE 1: NON-ESSENTIAL PHRASES
THE RULE: when a non-essential phrase comes in the middle of a sentence, it must be surrounded by commas. (This is BY FAR the most frequently tested comma rule on both ACT English and SAT Writing & Language.)
On the ACT & SAT, think of a non-essential phrase as simply part of a sentence that can be taken out. (A “phrase” just means a group of related words). For example, consider this sentence:
“My student, a guy named John, is prepping for the ACT.”
In that sentence, the phrase “a guy named John” can be taken out, and the sentence still makes sense:
“My student is prepping for the ACT.”
Thus, the phrase “a guy named John” is non-essential, so it must be surrounded by commas.
COMMA RULE 2: DEPENDENT + INDEPENDENT CLAUSES
THE RULE: When a dependent clause precedes an independent clause, you must put a comma between them. Another way of saying this is that you must use commas between a dependent clause and an independent clause, when the dependent clause comes first.
A dependent clause cannot stand alone as a sentence. For example: “Whenever I go to town”
An independent clause can stand alone as a sentence. For example: “I visit Alex.”
f you put the two example clauses above in a sentence, and you put the dependent clause first, you must put a comma between them:
“Whenever I go to town, I visit Alex.”
COMMA RULE 3: ITEMS IN A LIST
THE RULE: You must use commas between items in a list of 3 or more.
For example: “I like apples, pears, kiwi, and bananas.”
COMMA RULE 4: INTERCHANGEABLE ADJECTIVES
THE RULE: You must put a comma between two adjectives that can switch places with each other.
For example, we can say “the beautiful, enchanting reef” or we can say “the enchanting, beautiful reef.” The adjectives can switch places with each other, so you must put a comma between them.
On the other hand, we can say “the beautiful coral reef” but we cannot say “the coral beautiful reef.” In this case, the adjectives “beautiful” and “coral” can’t switch places with each other, so you don’t put a comma between them.
COMMA RULE 5: USING FANBOYS TO JOIN INDEPENDENT CLAUSES
THE RULE: You must put a comma before one of the FANBOYS when you’re using it to join two independent clauses in one sentence. The FANBOYS are “for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.”
For example, “I am hungry” is an independent clause, since it can stand alone as a sentence. Also, “I’m going to eat” is an independent clause. You can join two independent clauses in one sentence with a comma plus one of the FANBOYS:
“I am hungry, and I’m going to eat.” or “I am hungry, so I’m going to eat.”
(If you don’t include the comma, it’s a run-on sentence. That’s bad!
COMMA RULE 6: INDEPENDENT + DEPENDENT CLAUSES
THE RULE: It’s optional (not required) to put a comma between an independent and dependent clause when the independent clause comes first.
For example, “Tonight I’m going to watch Breaker Morant, which is one of the greatest films of all time
COMMA RULE 7: OXFORD COMMA
THE RULE: It’s optional (not required) to use the Oxford comma. The Oxford comma is the comma before the word “and” in a list of 3 or more. For example, “I like apples, pears, kiwi, and bananas.”
WAIT … WHY ARE THE LAST TWO SO-CALLED RULES “OPTIONAL”?
Good question. Remember what I said above, in KEY #2?
On ACT English and SAT Writing & Language, commas in answer choices are “guilty until proven innocent.” Assume that every comma in an answer choice is wrong unless it is supported by one of the 7 comma rules. If there is no comma rule to justify a comma in an answer choice, that answer choice must be eliminated
Reasoning Behind “Optional Rule” for Oxford Commas:
ACT English and SAT Writing & Language do not test you directly on Oxford commas. In other words, you will not be presented with identically worded answer choices, one with an Oxford comma and one without, and be asked to choose which is correct.
However, ACT English passages and SAT Writing & Language passages always USE the Oxford comma. So, sometimes an Oxford comma will happen to appear in an answer choice. They’re not actually testing you on the Oxford comma. They’re testing you on some other issue. If, based on that other issue, you think the answer with the Oxford comma is correct, you still need a “comma rule” to support that comma! This is because, ANY TIME you choose an answer with a comma in it, you MUST have a rule to justify that comma placement. (The reason it’s so important to always rely on rules with commas is to prevent you from instead relying on your intuition. Using your “ear” on comma questions will get you into trouble!)
Reasoning Behind “Optional Rule” for Independent + Dependent Clauses:
Sometimes, ACT English passages and SAT Writing & Language passages put commas between independent and dependent clauses (when the independent comes first), but sometimes they don’t. And sometimes, when the passages DO use commas in this way, the comma will happen to appear in an answer choice. They’re not actually testing you on the comma. They’re testing you on some other issue. If, based on that other issue, you think the answer with the comma is correct, that is fine. Just as I explained above for Oxford commas, you have a “comma rule” to justify choosing the answer with this comma placement.
Again, these exams do not test you directly on this issue. In other words, the test will *never present you with identically-worded answer choices, the structure of one being INDEPENDENT CLAUSE + COMMA + DEPENDENT CLAUSE, and the structure of the other answer choice being INDEPENDENT CLAUSE + [NO COMMA] + DEPENDENT CLAUSE.
*Actually, not "never", but very close. In my 10+ years of teaching these exams, I've seen this happen ONCE (with IND + DEP clauses, not Oxfords) on ONE ACT question.
How to identify redundancy questions:
Answer choices will unnecessarily repeat things. For example, they’ll say stuff like “We have an annual picnic every year.”
“Annual” means every year, so it’s not redundant to say you have an annual picnic “every year.”
Just pick the answer choice that doesn’t repeat the same idea (usually the shortest one).
(Note: the redundant word or phrase isn’t always in the answer choice. You also need to check the context around the underlined part of the passage.)
How to identify relevance questions:
These questions say that the writer is considering adding a certain phrase or sentence, or that the writer is considering deleting a certain phrase or sentence.
KEY: On a relevance question, you must decide if the writer should add/delete the phrase/sentence.
This is important to remember because other question types will say that the writer is considering adding or deleting something. However, the other question types will not ask you to decide whether the writer should do so. That is how you tell the difference.
How to handle a relevance question:
Read the sentence the writer is thinking about adding/deleting and ask if it is directly related to the main idea in the paragraph.
Note – the ACT and SAT have a very strict, narrow concept of “relevance” – it is usually not good enough for a phrase/sentence to be related to the passage as a whole. To add or not delete, it must be closely related to the main idea (or a main idea) in the paragraph.
Say, for example, you’re reading a paragraph whose main idea is that dogs are useful for protection. The paragraph contains the following sentence, and the question asks if it should be deleted: “My friend’s dog, Jana, is also furry and friendly. Like her, lots of dogs are great for cuddling.”
Should the writer delete the sentence? Well, is it directly related to the main idea of the paragraph?
Hmm … it is about dogs, and it is about what dogs are good for. But, no, that’s not narrow enough. If the sentence is going to be kept, it must be directly related to the paragraph’s main idea: dogs are good for protection. (If they asked whether the sentence should be added, you’d say no, it should not be added.)
If the sentence shouldn’t be added or if it should be deleted (ie, it’s not relevant) choose the answer that says it shouldn’t be added or it should be deleted “because it distracts from the primary focus” or “blurs the paragraph’s focus” or “is only tangentially related” or similar language.
These questions are specific to the passage (thus the name “spec”). For example, if a passage is about The Life and Times of Joe Smith, a spec question will simply ask something specific about that topic, such as:
“At this point, the writer would like to provide information about Joe Smith’s daily activities. Given that all the choices are true, which one best accomplishes this purpose?
There are three things to keep in mind when solving a spec question:
1) If two or more choices answer the question, the more specific answer (ie, the one with more details and/or examples) will be correct. For example, consider the following two answers to the question above:
A) Joe studies and cooks every day.
B) Joe researches the flight patterns of unladen European swallows and bakes pudding pie every day.
Both answers tell us about Joe’s daily activities. Which is correct? Well, which one is more specific? That is to say, which provides more details/examples? B does, so it is the correct answer.
2) Because the more specific answer is correct on spec questions, the Shorter is Better principle does not apply on this question type. We’ll talk more about this principle later.
3) The most common reason people miss spec questions is that they overlook key words in the question. Of course, reading questions carefully is always advisable. But it’s especially critical on spec questions. These questions give you the exact criteria you need to find the correct answer. But, for reasons that remain largely a mystery, people tend to overlook these words and phrases, despite the fact that they are literally staring them in the face.
For example, there is an ACT spec question that asks you to choose the answer which describes the shape of something called a “blue hole.” There is an answer choice that says blue holes “dot the waters” of the Bahamas and an answer choice that says blue holes “darken parts of” the Bahamas.
Which is correct? Well, which one describes a shape? The first one: “dot.” Yet many, many students choose the other answer. I’ve seen it happen hundreds of times. The passage does describe the holes as dark, but who cares? “Dark” is not a shape, and the question clearly asks for a shape!
The lesson here is to never underestimate your ability to miss what’s right in front of your eyes, especially on a spec question. On these questions, you should read the question twice, and underline the criteria that must be present in the correct answer. And don’t assume it will just be one thing, like “shape” in the above example. Spec questions often have two or more criteria. Even if students catch the first one, they will often miss the other/s. Don’t let that be you! Read twice and underline!