If you’ve been reading our articles, you already know that there are only so many techniques and tricks that the SAT can use to make questions difficult. On the writing multiple-choice section, there about only a dozen grammar and style rules that you need to know in order to get a perfect Writing score. On the SAT, it is particularly important to pay attention to one specific punctuation mark: the comma.
The comma can play many roles and functions on an SAT Writing question and is therefore a bit of a chameleon. Think of the classic Culture Club song “Karma Chameleon”, but the hook is “comma comma comma chameleon…” That’s what comes to mind when thinking about how commas are used on the SAT. When you come across a comma on the SAT, you should pay particular attention to how it’s used and what role it’s playing. Often times, a comma can help you find where an error in a sentence might be.
One of the “roles” that a comma can play is to separate modifiers from what they are modifying. A modifier in this context, is a word or phrase that describes a noun. On the SAT, these are usually extra fluff added to the sentence to make it longer and tougher to decode. Modifiers must also be followed immediately by the noun they are describing in order to logically relate to the noun. Consider the following SAT Writing sentence:
Walking through the newly opened park, the rose bushes that we saw were well-groomed and beautiful.
We see a comma in this sentence so we should try to identify what the comma is doing and whether it can reveal something more about the rest of the sentence and help us find an error. On the left side of the sentence, we have the incomplete thought or fragment “Walking through the newly opened park…” Then, after the comma, we have the noun “rose bushes.” It should be clear from this construction that the first part of the sentence before the comma is describing something after it. So, in this case, the comma is acting as a separation between the modifier and its noun. When we see this, we have to make sure that the modifier logically relates to the noun. However, this is not the case in this sentence—the noun following the modifier is rose bushes, and rose bushes cannot walk in a park! This is a classic modifier error and is a common occurrence on the SAT. Let’s look at the answer choices:
A) the rose bushes that we saw were well-groomed and beautiful.
B) the rose bushes that we were seeing were well-groomed and beautiful.
C) we saw rose bushes that were well-groomed and beautiful.
D) we saw rose bushes being well-groomed and beautiful.
E) the rose bushes, which we saw, were well-groomed and beautiful.
We can eliminate A, B and E right away since they all lead improperly with “rose bushes.” Then, we can eliminate answer choice D for the awkward construction “being well-groomed”, which is also wrong because the tense disagrees with the rest of the sentence in past tense. Answer choice C is correct because it correctly leads with the pronoun “we”, which makes a logical connection between who was walking and creates no other errors.
In this problem, looking at the comma gave us a clue as to where to look for the error. Practice looking for commas in more writing questions and you’ll start to see that they are huge helpers for spotting errors in SAT Writing questions!
Jason Sun is the Director of College Prep for Veritas Prep. When he’s not in the office, he can be found competing in swing dance competitions or defending his title as a table tennis champion.