How to Master ACT English Comma Questions, Pt. 1

Quiz Hacker Test Prep ACT English Cheat Sheets

Quiz Hacker Cheat Sheets

ACT English Comma Questions

Part 1: Non-essential Phrases

Before getting into the specifics of the ACT English section, we need to talk a little bit about how to approach the section as a whole. Strategically, English is probably the most straightforward section of the exam (the possible exception being math). There are really only 2 things you need to do to score high on ACT English:

1) Learn the question types.

2) Learn to consistently execute the rules and tactics for each type.

Sound too simple? It’s true that things can get a bit more complicated. Some questions are hybrids, meaning they appear to combine different question types (the question “type” just indicates the rule being tested). In those cases, it can be tricky to figure out what rule the question is actually testing. However, it is doable, and yes I’ll be showing you how in a later post. There’s also the occasional oddball question that just doesn’t seem to fit into any category. However, these are rare. If the only thing holding your score back is the stray oddball question or 2, you are well on your way to an elite English score. For the vast majority of us, then, significant score gains truly are all about items 1 and 2 above: learning the question types and how to consistently execute their rules and tactics.

Warning to Grammar Quibblers

Quiz Hacker Test Prep - No Grammar Quibblers

Unfortunately, I probably need to make one last point before getting into the meat of comma questions. To those who consider themselves grammar experts and want to quibble about its finer points – do it elsewhere.

Rest assured, your gracious host knows a thing or two about the dark inner workings of the Queen’s English. And, just like you, I have fingers with which to google in those rare instances I waver in the grammatical articles of faith.

But my purpose here is not to dazzle with my awe-inspiring prowess for syntactic exactitude. My purpose is to help students score points. I’ve seen too many test prep books let the former get in the way of the latter. Ego is a helluva drug. But I aint about that life. So, a word of warning to wannabe know-it-alls…You will be assimilated. Your quibbles are futile.

Take THAT, you grammar-quibbling h8terz!

; )

Now, let’s get this party started…

Comma Questions

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 with ACT English 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 that, on comma questions, you should never choose an answer because you feel it places commas at “natural pauses” in the sentence, or because “it just sounds better if you put a comma there.” Those are subjective opinions, not objective rules, and the test is adept at making things “sound” correct when in fact they break a rule, and vice versa. The more you treat ACT comma questions like math, the more points you will score.

Quiz Hacker Test Prep - Key to ACT Comma Questions

KEY #2: On ACT English, commas in answer choices are “guilty until proven innocent.” That is, you should assume all commas in answer choices are wrong unless a “positive” comma rule says they are required OR a “neutral” comma rule says they are optional. If there is no positive or neutral comma rule to justify a comma in an answer choice, that answer choice is eliminated!

There are only 5 positive comma rules and 2 neutral comma rules. If you can learn these 7 rules, you can master ACT comma questions. That’s a good thing – there are lots of comma questions, so knowing how to handle them is potentially worth a lot of points. Better still, the first two positive rules come up most often, probably more than all of the other rules combined. Mastering just those two rules is likely to increase your score.

Today, I’m going to discuss the first positive comma rule (remember, “positive” means the comma is required). I place it first because it shows up on the test more frequently than the others.

ACT English Positive 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.

For the purposes of the ACT English section, let’s simply define a non-essential phrase as part of a sentence that can be taken out, and the sentence still stands as a grammatically complete sentence. (By the way, 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, if the phrase “a guy named John” were taken out, the sentence would still make sense and could stand on its own as a grammatically complete sentence:

My student is prepping for the ACT.”

Thus, the phrase “a guy named John” is non-essential, so it must be surrounded by commas.

Easy, right? Yes. But. (Of course there’s always a “but.” Don’t even pretend you didn’t know a “but” was coming.) The non-essential phrase comma rule has a few exceptions – situations where the rule doesn’t apply or must be modified.

Quiz Hacker Test Prep - ACT Comma Rules

EXCEPTION #1: Adjectives don’t count as non-essential phrases.

An adjective is just a word that describes a noun. For example, consider the following sentence:

The tall woman admired the room’s impressive oak paneling.”

In that sentence, the word tall describes the noun woman, and the words impressive and oak describe the noun paneling. Thus, tall, impressive, and oak are adjectives.

We could remove the adjectives from the example sentence, and it would still make sense:

“The woman admired the room’s paneling.”

However, on ACT English, don’t treat adjectives as non-essential phrases (in other words, don’t surround adjectives with commas). That might seem obvious in the above sentence, since the sentence would look bizarre if all three of those adjectives were surrounded by commas. However, it’s not always so obvious on the actual test. For example, you might be faced with a situation similar to this:

The tall woman admired the room’s impressive, oak, paneling.”

A) No change

B) , oak

C) oak,

D) oak

In answer choice A, you’re being asked whether the word oak should be surrounded by commas. Since you know that adjectives are not considered non-essential phrases, you know that the non-essential phrase rule doesn’t apply, so the answer is not A. (In case you’re wondering, the correct answer here would be D – no positive or neutral comma rule applies, so no commas.)

NOTE – It’s perfectly fine for non-essential phrases to be only one word. The problem above is not that the “phrase” in question is only one word; the problem is that the word is an adjective.

Want an example of a one-word non-essential phrase? Sure – here you go:

Surrounding non-essential phrases with commas is required. It’s not correct, however, to count adjectives as non-essential phrases.

In the second sentence, the word however can be taken out, so it is a non-essential phrase and must be surrounded by commas.

EXCEPTION #2: Emphatic pronouns don’t count as non-essential phrases. I know what you’re thinking – what the %&@! is an emphatic pronoun? First of all, please watch your language: this is a classroom, not a pirate ship.

Quiz Hacker Test Prep - Little Pirate Dog

Don’t Be That Guy!

Secondly, so glad you asked…

myself, yourself, herself, himself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves

Let’s suppose you were chugging through the ACT English section, and suddenly found yourself face to face with something like this:

They, themselves, were the only ones who knew the answer.

… or this:

The queen, herself, gave the order.

I wouldn’t laugh hysterically in your face if you thought the emphatic pronouns in those sentences should be surrounded by commas, since they can be taken out of the sentence (remember – it’s no problem for non-essential phrases to be one word).

But, I would tell you that you were wrong – at least for the purposes of the ACT English section. Why doesn’t the ACT treat emphatic pronouns as non-essential phrases? Sometimes it’s best not to trouble our little heads with such lofty questions. Just remember that, on the ACT, emphatic pronouns don’t count as non-essential phrases, so they should not be surrounded by commas.

EXCEPTION #3: Sometimes, non-essential phrases are surrounded by dashes or parentheses, instead of commas.

Consider again our original example of a non-essential phrase:

My student, a guy named John, is prepping for the ACT.”

Instead of surrounding a guy named John with commas, the correct answer might surround it with dashes:

“My student – a guy named John – is prepping for the ACT.”

Note – the correct answer will use either 2 commas or 2 dashes, not a combination.

Note also that the test won’t ask you to choose between dashes or commas in this type of situation, since both are correct. In other words, you wouldn’t be asked to choose between the following 2 answer choices:

“My student, a guy named John, is prepping for the ACT.”


“My student – a guy named John – is prepping for the ACT.”

In such a case, there would be two correct answers, but there are never two correct answers on the ACT!

Finally, you need to know that, once in a while, the correct answer will put the non-essential phrase inside parentheses. It’s rare, but it does happen. Again, the test won’t ask you to choose between commas and parentheses, or between dashes and parentheses.

Quiz Hacker Test Prep - ACT Comma Questions

To sum up the rules we’ve learned so far:

*A non-essential phrase is a word or words that, if it were taken out of a sentence, what remained would still make sense and could stand as a grammatically complete sentence.

*Don’t apply the non-essential phrase comma rule to adjectives or emphatic pronouns.

Next, let’s discuss the tactics we should use when we think we’ve spotted a non-essential phrase in an answer choice.

Non-essential Phrase Tactics:

Whenever you spot a phrase surrounded by commas in an answer choice, you should ask yourself whether it is a non-essential phrase. Sometimes, the test will put commas around phrases that cannot, in fact, be removed from the sentence. The test wants to know if you can spot the mistake.

There is a simple, but crucial, tactic for doing so: strike out the phrase (actually draw a line through it with your pencil) and read the entire sentence, skipping over the part you’ve stricken. Allow me to repeat that, because it is critical, yet students often don’t do it (either because they think they’re smart, so they don’t need to, or because they’re just too dang lazy).

Strike out the phrase, and read the entire sentence, skipping over the part you’ve stricken.

Notice I say you must read the entire sentence. What I mean by this is that you must read the entire sentence. As in, start from the beginning of the sentence and continue reading all the way to the end of the sentence (skipping over the alleged non-essential phrase, of course).

The test is very good at making everything appear fine, when in fact it’s not, if you only focus on the parts of the sentence immediately adjacent to the underlined words. Not coincidentally, the test is also adept at making things appear wrong, when in fact they’re right, if you only focus on the parts of the sentence immediately adjacent to the underlined words.

Hear me now! As a grizzled, veteran test-prep tutor who will be tutoring your competition right after washing my hands of you, I guarantee this: if you’re too proud or lazy to strike stuff out and analyze whole sentences, there are plenty of more humble, hard-working students who will be happy to take your spot at Harvard, or UCLA, or Barnard, or Tulane (PARTAY!!), or…I think you get the picture.

(NOTE – This tactic is critical for non-essential phrases in particular, but the general principle is applicable to the section as a whole. If you want to increase your score, get in the habit of reading the whole sentence with your answer choice inserted.)

Still not convinced about the striking and reading thing? (I get it – it’s a big decision. It really is.) Need a second opinion? Fine – ask Erica Meltzer:


Well, I’ve just told you all you need to know to significantly increase your performance on ACT comma questions involving non-essential phrases. While there are a couple other issues that come up here and there, the information I’ve shared thus far covers all of the major bases, and is certainly enough to get you started on chalking up additional points (assuming you’re not already a comma question ninja).

But perhaps you feel a tad overwhelmed at this point. After all, there are 7 rules, and we’ve only covered 1 of them…and that is just for comma questions! What about all the other question types!?

I feel you – but don’t fret. Comma questions are much more complicated than most of the other question types on the ACT English section. And remember, even if you only get a handle on the first two positive comma rules, it should be plenty to bump your score.

Quiz Hacker Test Prep - Practice is Key

But! But!!

Here’s the thing – as I mentioned before, and as I’ll mention many, many, many times in the future, none of this info is going to do you any good if you don’t learn to apply it habitually. When we’re under pressure, we fall back on our habits. Acquiring information is not enough. You must hammer it in through consistent practice if you want it to impact your score.

So, below is a list of questions from practice test 1 in the ACT Red Book. I suggest doing these questions in the order I’ve listed them, as I’ve placed them in (rough) order of difficulty.

Once you’ve answered all of the questions on the list, I suggest you go through all 5 English passages of practice test 2 (in the Red Book) and mark all of the comma questions. This is a good exercise because being able to quickly identify question types is the first step. Once you’ve done so, identify and analyze all answer choices involving non-essential phrases (determine whether they can be eliminated). If you get stumped, post a question in the comments – I will answer.

In the near future, I’ll post about the 2nd positive comma rule. (Good News, all of the details on the other comma rules is at the top of Quiz Hacker’s ACT English & SAT Writing & Language Cheat Sheet. Until then!

~ David

A List of Helpful Questions for ACT Positive Comma Rule 1: Non-essential Phrases

(taken from practice test 1 in the Red Book)

Q28, pg. 46

Q67, pg. 52

Q31, pg. 46

Q35, pg. 47

Q53, pg. 50

Q49, pg. 49

Q61, pg. 51

Q3, pg. 42

Q18, pg. 44

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