Master Sentence Punctuation for SAT Writing and Language Success

STANDARD ENGLISH Conventions is one of two major question categories on the SAT Writing and Language section. When sitting for the exam, test-takers must demonstrate mastery of several concepts within this section, one of which is punctuation. You may encounter six types of punctuation questions that you reviewed during college test prep:

  • End-of-sentence punctuation.
  • Within-sentence punctuation.
  • Possessive nouns and pronouns.
  • Items in a series.
  • Nonrestrictive and parenthetical elements.
  • Unnecessary punctuation.

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End-of-sentence punctuation. Exclamation points, periods and question marks are the types of punctuation that students associate with the end of a sentence. These are also the types of punctuation that the SAT Writing and Language section uses when assessing your end-of-sentence skills.

As you likely already know, an exclamation point is used at the end of exclamatory sentences while a period is used at the end of declarative sentences. A question mark, meanwhile, is used at the end of interrogative sentences.[ 

READ: How to Handle SAT Writing and Language Focus Questions with Ease. ]

Within-sentence punctuation. On the SAT, this type of punctuation refers to colons, dashes and semicolons.

One usage of colons and semicolons is to join two independent clauses that are closely related. A colon is used, however, when it elaborates on or clarifies what comes before it. That is exactly what takes place in question 29 on page 25 of this official practice test, which references this sentence in a passage about a chemical used to preserve fruit:

Take Bartlett pears, for instance, unless they are treated with exactly the right amount of 1-MCP …

The four answer options are:
(A) no change
(B) pears, for instance:
(C) pears for instance,
(D) pears. For instance,

The information after the colon explains the example of Bartlett pears, making B the right choice.

Colons have another important function: to introduce the items of a list. In such cases, the colon acts as a substitute for the phrase “the following.”[ 

READ: Know This About SAT Writing and Language Organization Questions. ]

Possessive nouns and pronouns. In addition to mastering end-of-sentence and within-sentence punctuation, you must also be able to choose the correct possessive form for the given context.

When it is not clear whether to choose the singular “its” or the plural “their,” locate the sentence’s referent. Read the sentence again to see if the possessive in question can be traced back to one or many owners (or referents).

Consider question 29 on page 27 of this practice test, which references this sentence in a passage about sea otters that help protect kelp forests:

Like their terrestrial plant cousins, kelp removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere…

The four answer options are:
(A) no change
(B) they’re
(C) its
(D) it’s

To answer this item, you must first find the subject, which comes after the comma: “kelp.” Since kelp is singular and nonhuman, the correct possessive is choice C: “its.” Take particularly special care to avoid confusing its and it’s. The former is possessive while the latter is a contraction of the words “it is.”Play Video

Items in a series. Both commas and semicolons can separate items in a list. The difference is that commas separate straightforward items, whereas semicolons separate complex items that may include commas themselves.

Question 4 on page 19 of this test, which references the following sentence in a passage about Greek yogurt, involves a series of three straightforward items:

Yogurt manufacturers, food scientists; and government officials are also working together to develop additional solutions for reusing whey.

The four answer options are:
(a) no change
(B) scientists: and
(C) scientists, and
(D) scientists, and,

Commas are the most appropriate punctuation. Note, however, that the comma after the connector “and” is unnecessary, leaving you with choice C.

Nonrestrictive and parenthetical elements. Commas, dashes and parentheses are sometimes used to enclose extra information (i.e., a nonrestrictive element) that interrupts the main clause of a sentence. Essential information, or restrictive elements the sentence cannot do without, require no punctuation.[ 

READ: Learn How to Master SAT Reading, Writing Graphics. ]

To know whether a phrase is restrictive or nonrestrictive, read the text twice – once with the phrase and once without it – to see if either the meaning or the grammar of the sentence is affected. If either is, you can conclude that the phrase is restrictive.

Consider question 13 on page 22 of this exam, which references the following sentence in a passage about a visit to the Art Institute of Chicago:

On one hand, I couldn’t wait to view painter, George Seurat’s, 10-foot-wide A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte in its full size.

The four answer options are:
(A) no change
(B) painter, Georges Seurat’s
(C) painter Georges Seurat’s,
(D) painter Georges Seurat’s

“Georges Seurat’s” acts as a restrictive element. Therefore, no additional punctuation is needed. The correct answer is D.

Unnecessary punctuation. To succeed on the SAT Writing and Language portion, you must know the basic rules of usage for each punctuation mark. Only with this knowledge can you then identify when punctuation is unnecessary.

Apostrophes fulfill two main functions: They show possession and they combine two words into a single word called a contraction. Question 3 on page 19 of this test, which references the following sentence in the Greek yogurt passage, requires knowledge of apostrophes:

If it is improperly introduced into the environment, acid-whey runoff can pollute waterways, depleting the oxygen content of streams and rivers as it decomposes.

The four answer options are:
(A) no change
(B) can pollute waterway’s,
(C) could have polluted waterways,
(D) has polluted waterway’s,

When you have neither possession nor a contraction before you, the apostrophe probably does not belong. The letter “s” in “waterways” shows that it is plural rather than possessive, so no apostrophe is needed. Thus, the answer is choice A.

To excel on the Writing and Language portion of the SAT, it’s important to familiarize yourself with how to correctly use the most common punctuation marks.

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