Punctuation shows you how to read and understand sentences.
For instance, the period at the end of the last sentence indicated
that the sentence had come to an end and that the next sentence
would begin a new thought. We could go on and on like this, but
you get the point.
The ACT English Test requires that you know the rules
for the following types of punctuation:
Question Marks, and Exclamation Points
Not all of these punctuation types are tested on every
English Test. However, you can definitely expect to find questions
dealing with the first four items of the list on the English Test
Misplaced, misused, and missing commas are the most frequent
punctuation offenders on the English Test. Commas can serve several
functions within sentences:
Commas Separate Independent Clauses Joined by a
An independent clause contains a subject and a verb (an
independent clause can be as short as “I am” or “he read”), and
it can function as a sentence on its own. When you see a conjunction
(and, but, for, or, nor, yet)
joining independent clauses, a comma should precede the conjunction.
An independent clause contains a subject
and a verb, and it can function as a sentence on
Lesley wanted to sit outside, but it
Henry could tie the shoe himself, or he
could ask Amanda to tie his shoe.
In each example, the clauses on both sides of the comma
could stand as sentences on their own. With the addition of the
comma and conjunction, the two independent clauses become one sentence.
Commas Delineate a Series of Items
A series contains three or more items separated by commas.
The items in a series can be either nouns (such as “dog”) or verb
phrases (such as “get in the car”). Commas are essentially the structural
backbone of a series. For example,
The hungry girl devoured a
chicken, two pounds of pasta, and a chocolate cake.
When he learned his girlfriend was coming over, Nathaniel took
a shower, brushed his teeth, and cleaned his room.
The comma follows all but the last item in the series.
When using a conjunction, such as “and” or “or,” at the end of the
series, remember to precede it with a comma (“. . . brushed his
teeth, and cleaned his room”).
Commas Separate Multiple Nonessential Adjectives
Modifying a Noun
When two or more nonessential adjectives modify a noun,
they should be separated by a comma. Of course, the key to figuring
out whether there should be a comma separating two adjectives is
being able to determine whether the adjectives are essential or
nonessential. Luckily, there’s a simple rule that can help you:
the order of nonessential adjectives is interchangeable. For example,
Rebecca’s new dog has long, silky hair.
The loud, angry protesters
mobbed the building.
These two sentences would make equal sense if you switched
the order of the adjectives: “Rebecca’s new dog has silky, long hair”
and “The angry, loud protesters
mobbed the building.”
The case is different if you have an essential adjective
modifying the noun. Essential adjectives specify the nouns they
modify; they are bound to the noun, so that the noun loses meaning
if separated from its adjective. A noun modified by an essential
adjective should be treated as a single noun. If you come across
two adjectives modifying a noun, and one is essential, you should not use
a comma between them. For example,
My mother hates noisy electronic
“Electronic music” functions as an indivisible noun; “electronic”
specifies the type of music the mother hates. “Noisy” is a nonessential
adjective modifying the noun “electronic music.” Changing the order
of “noisy” and “electronic” (“My mother hates electronic noisy music”)
would not make sense. If you can’t change the order of two adjectives
preceding a noun, you know the adjective nearest the noun is essential,
so you should not use a comma.
Commas Set Off Dependent Phrases and Clauses from
the Main Clause of a Sentence
Unlike independent clauses, dependent phrases and clauses
are not sentences in themselves; rather, they serve to explain or
embellish the main clause of a sentence. When they appear at the
beginning of a sentence, they should be set off from the main clause
by a comma. For example,
Scared of monsters, Tina
always checked under her bed before going to sleep.
After preparing an elaborate meal for herself, Anne
was too tired to eat.
The first example shows a dependent clause (“Scared of
monsters”) acting as an adjective modifying “Tina.” The second example
shows a dependent clause acting as an adverb. Since the adverbial
clause is at the beginning of the sentence, it needs to be set off
from the main clause by a comma. Adverbial clauses should also be
set off by commas if they appear in the middle of a sentence. However,
if an adverbial clause appears at the end of a sentence, you do
not need to use a comma. For example,
Anne was too tired to eat after preparing
an elaborate meal for herself.
Commas Set Off Nonessential Phrases and Clauses
Nonessential phrases are like nonessential adjectives
in that they embellish nouns without specifying them. Nonessential
phrases should be set off from the rest of the sentence by commas.
Everyone voted Carrie, who
is the most popular girl in our class, prom queen.
The decrepit street sign, which had stood in our
town since 1799, finally fell down.
When you use nonessential phrases like the two above,
you assume that “Carrie” and “the decrepit street sign” do not need
any further identification. If you remove the nonessential phrases,
you should still be able to understand the sentences.
Restrictive phrases, on the other hand, are not set off
by commas because they are necessary to understand the modified
noun and the sentence as a whole. For example,
The girl who is sick missed
three days of school.
The dog that ate the rotten steak fell
down and died.
If you removed the restrictive phrases (“who is sick”
and “that ate the rotten steak”) from these sentences, you would
be left wondering “which girl?” and “which dog?” These restrictive
phrases are used to identify exactly which girl missed school and
exactly which dog died. Setting off “who is sick” in commas would
assume that the girl’s identity is never in doubt; there is only
one girl who possibly could have missed school. In this case, we know
the identity of the girl only because the restrictive phrase specifies
“the girl who is sick.”
Commas Set Off Appositives
Appositives are similar to nonessential phrases. An appositive
is a phrase that renames or restates the modified noun, usually
enhancing it with additional information. For example,
Everyone voted Carrie, the
most popular girl in school, prom queen.
The dog, a Yorkshire Terrier, barked
at all the neighbors.
In these two examples, “the most popular girl in school”
and “a Yorkshire Terrier” are appositives used to explain the nouns
they modify. You should be able to draw an imaginary equal sign
between the noun and the appositive modifying it: Carrie = the most
popular girl in school, the dog = a Yorkshire Terrier. Because they
are equal, you should be able to swap them and retain the meaning
of the sentence: “Everyone voted the most popular girl in school,
Carrie, prom queen.”
Apostrophes are the second most commonly tested punctuation
mark on the English Test. Apostrophes primarily indicate possession,
but they also take the place of omitted letters in contractions
(for example, “was not” becomes “wasn’t” and “it is” becomes “it’s”).
You will be tested chiefly on your knowledge of the apostrophe’s
The Possessive and Singular Nouns
A singular noun (for example: Simon, the dog, the bottle)
can be made possessive by adding an apostrophe followed by an “s”.
Simon’s teacher was
in the room.
My mom forgot the dog’s food.
We removed the bottle’s label.
The apostrophe follows directly after the noun. If you
move the apostrophe after the “s” (for example, if you write “dogs’”
rather than “dog’s”), you will change the meaning of the sentence
(see “The Possessive and Plural Nouns” below). If you forget the
apostrophe altogether, you will render the sentence meaningless.
The Possessive and Plural Nouns
Most plural nouns (for example: the boys, the dogs, the
bottles) can be made possessive by adding only an apostrophe. For
The boys’ teacher
was in the room.
My mom forgot the dogs’ food.
We removed the bottles’ labels.
The apostrophe directly follows plural nouns that end
in “s” to make them possessive.
But for plural nouns that do not end in “s” (for example,
“women”), you should treat the plural form as a singular noun (i.e.,
add an apostrophe followed by an “s”). For example,
The women’s locker
room needs to be cleaned.
The Possessive and Multiple Nouns
Sometimes you’ll want to indicate the possessive of more
than one noun (Nick and Nora, Dan and Johann). The placement of
the apostrophe depends on whether the possessors share the possession.
Nick and Nora’s dog
Dan’s and Johann’s socks are dirty.
In the example of Nick and Nora, the dog belongs to both
of them, so you treat “Nick and Nora” as a single unit, followed
by a single apostrophe and “s.” In the second example, both
Dan and Johann have dirty socks, but they don’t share the same dirty
socks, so you treat Dan and Johann as separate units, giving each
an apostrophe and “s.”
The Possessive and Pronouns
Unlike nouns and proper nouns, the possessive case of
pronouns does not use an apostrophe. The following chart gives you
nominative pronouns (the ones you use as subjects) and the corresponding
The dog chewed on its tail.
You should give him your wallet.
Don’t confuse the “its” and the “your” above with “it’s”
and “you’re.” This mistake is frequently tested on the English Test
The ACT will test you on your ability to distinguish between
“its” and “it’s.” “Its” is the possessive form of “it.” “It’s” is
the contraction of “it is.” This can be tricky to remember, since
you are normally trained to associate apostrophes with possession.
But when you’re dealing with “its” versus “it’s,” the apostrophe
signals a contraction. The same is true for “their/they’re/there,”
“your/you’re,” and “whose/who’s.” Make sure you are aware of these
exceptions to the apostrophe rule of possession.
Try the following practice problem:
||9. ||A. ||NO CHANGE|
|B. ||You’re face|
|C. ||Your nose|
|D. ||OMIT the underlined portion.|
You can eliminate choices C and D immediately: C changes
the meaning of the sentence for no particular reason, and D leaves
you without a complete sentence. The decision comes down to “Your”
and “You’re.” If you don’t know the correct answer, try replacing “You’re”
with “You are.” The resulting sentence is “You are face is red”—an
odd remark. The correct answer is A, “NO CHANGE.” You
can employ this replacement technique whenever you don’t know the
answer to a possessive-or-contraction question. Once you replace
the contraction with the full phrase, your ear will tell you which
choice is right.
You’ll usually find several questions dealing with semicolons
on the English Test. The main functions of a semicolon that you
should know for the English Test are its ability to join related
independent clauses and its use in a series.
The Semicolon and Two Independent Clauses
Semicolons are commonly used to separate two related but
independent clauses. For example,
Julie ate five brownies; Eileen
Josh needed to buy peas; he ran to the
In these cases, the semicolon functions as a
“weak period.” It suggests a short pause before moving on to a related
thought, whereas a period suggests a full stop before moving on
to a less-related thought. Generally, a period between these independent
clauses would work just as well as a semicolon, so the ACT won’t
offer you a choice between period or semicolon on the English Test.
But you may see the semicolon employed as a weak period in an answer
choice; in that case, you should know that it is being used correctly.
Frequently, you will see two independent clauses joined
by a semicolon and a transitional adverb (such as consequently, however, furthermore, indeed, moreover, nevertheless, therefore,
and thus). For example,
Julie ate five brownies; however, Eileen
Josh needed to buy peas; thus he ran
to the market.
These sentences function similarly to those joined by
a comma and a conjunction. Here, the semicolon replaces the comma,
and the transitional adverb replaces the conjunction. Most transitional
adverbs should be followed by a comma, but for short adverbs such
as “thus,” the comma should be omitted.
The Semicolon and the Series: When the Comma’s Already
The semicolon replaces the comma as the structural backbone
of a series if the items already contain commas. For example,
The tennis tournament featured the
surprise comeback player, Koch, who dropped out last year due to injuries; the
up-and-coming star Popp, who dominated the junior tour; and
the current favorite, Farrington, who won five of the last six tournaments.
If you used commas rather than semicolons in
the above sentence, anyone reading the sentence would feel pretty
confused. The semicolons in this example function exactly as commas
do in a series, but they allow you to avoid overpopulating the sentence
You’ll probably be tested on your knowledge of colons
a couple of times on the English Test. The ACT writers want to be
sure that you know how colons introduce lists, explanations, and
The Colon and Expectation
Colons are used after complete sentences to introduce
related information that usually comes in the form of a list, an
explanation, or a quotation. When you see a colon, you should know
to expect elaborating information. For example,
The wedding had all the elements to
make it a classic: the elegant bride, the weeping mother,
and the fainting bridesmaids.
In this example, the colon is used to introduce a list
of classic wedding elements. Without the list following the colon,
the sentence can stand alone (“The wedding had all the elements
to make it a classic”). By naming the classic elements of a wedding,
the list serves mainly to explain and expand upon the independent
sentence that precedes it.
Check out this example of another way to use colons:
The wedding had all the elements to
make it a classic: the elegant bride beamed as her mother
wept and as the bridesmaids fainted.
Here, the clause following the colon also has an explanatory
function. In this case, the colon joins two independent clauses,
but the clause following the colon is used to explain and expand
Colons can also be used to introduce quotations. For example,
The mother’s exclamation best summed
up the wedding: “If only the bridesmaids hadn’t fainted!”
Here, the colon is used to introduce the mother’s exclamation.
Make sure the quotation following the colon is related to the sentence.
You should learn the following rules in order to avoid
erroneous colon use on the English Test:
A Colon Should Always Be Preceded by an Independent
WRONG: The ingredients
I need to make a cake: flour, butter, sugar, and icing.
RIGHT: I need several ingredients to
make a cake: flour, butter, sugar, and icing.
In the “WRONG” example, a sentence fragment precedes the
list of items. The sentence should be reworked to create an independent
clause before the colon.
There Should Never Be More Than One Colon in a Sentence.
WRONG: He brought
many items on the camping trip: a tent, a sleeping bag, a full
cooking set, warm clothes, and several pairs of shoes: sneakers,
RIGHT: He brought many items on the
camping trip: a tent, a sleeping bag, a full
cooking set, warm clothes, sneakers, boots, and sandals.
If you see a sentence that contains more than one colon,
the sentence needs to be rephrased. Lists within lists or explanations
within explanations do not work in standard written English.
Other ACT Punctuation
The English Test rarely tests punctuation marks other
than the ones listed above. But in the odd case that the test writers
do throw in some other punctuation errors, you should know what
to expect. The ACT officially states that it covers, in addition
to the punctuation mentioned above, the following punctuation marks:
Parentheses and Dashes
Parentheses usually surround words or phrases that break
a sentence’s train of thought but provide explanatory information
for it. For example,
Their road trip (which they
made in a convertible) lasted three weeks and spanned fourteen
Similarly, parenthetical sentences can be inserted between
other sentences, adding additional information to them without diverting
their flow. For example,
Their road trip lasted three weeks
and spanned fourteen states. (The one they took two years
ago lasted two weeks and covered ten states.) When they
got home, they were exhausted.
In this example, the parenthetical information
about the previous road trip is interesting but not completely relevant
to the other sentences. Note that when an entire sentence is enclosed
within parentheses, the period should be inside them as well.
Dashes function similarly to parentheses. Dashes indicate
either an abrupt break in thought or an insertion of additional,
He walked so slowly—with his
lame leg he couldn’t go much faster—that even his neighbor’s
toddler eventually overtook him.
I don’t have the heart to refuse a friend’s request for
Periods, Question Marks, and Exclamation Points
These are the least common forms of punctuation tested
by the ACT. The ACT writers probably realized that these sentence
enders are easier to grasp than other forms of punctuation because
they basically each have only one function:
The sentence ends here.
Does the sentence end here?
Hooray, the sentence ends here!
The period in the first example indicates that the sentence
has ended. In the second example, the question mark indicates that
a question is being asked. The third example is an exclamatory statement
marked by an exclamation point. Exclamation points should be used sparingly
to indicate statements made with great emotion (for example, anger,
excitement, or agitation).